Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Alexander’s psychological warfare in Pelium, Illyria

The name Selca e Poshtme in Albania did not ring any bell and I was quite surprised to learn that this was an Illyrian necropolis and a royal one on top of that. I had no idea what an Illyrian tomb would or could look like as I had never seen one before. But as soon as I stood in front of these tombs cut out of the face of the rocky wall I felt at home right away for they looked so familiar. I would have sworn they were Macedonian! 

In  my earlier travel story through Albania (see: Looking for Illyrian remains in Albania), I mentioned this site but it deserves far more attention since it is quite unique, more so since Selca e Poshtme is thought to be ancient Pelium.

For a start, there actually are five tombs all belonging to the third and fourth century BC.  

The oldest of these tombs is rather plain with a rectangular burial chamber behind the usual antechamber and is clearly related to the monumental Macedonian graves from the second half of the fourth century BC.

The next tomb was built around 270 BC and proudly shows a monumental façade of 6.4 meters wide and 3 meters high with an Ionic portico. This type of grave, otherwise unknown, has an open chamber in its center that was only used as a cenotaph (no body inside) but underneath the mosaic floor in front of the façade was the true burial chamber where bones and urns were found together with some grave goods. The narrow alcove contained two sarcophagi decorated with reliefs in the shape of a mortuary bed. Unfortunately, this tomb was looted towards the end of the third century BC making it impossible to connect the tomb to any specific person that must have been, however, of high importance. On either side of the half-circular top entrance a relief has been added between the two Ionic columns; on the left we see a helmet, typically referring to Hellenistic rulers and on the right there is an Illyrian shield (looking very Macedonian!). This shield seems to connect the tomb with a local king. The helmet, on the other hand, is nearly identical to the one found during WW1 near Lake Ohrid (now at the Antike Sammlung Museum in Berlin) that carries the inscription Basileos Monouniou, i.e. “of King Monounios”. Sadly there is no way to make sure that both elements belong together but it certainly is an indication that Monounios’ rule reached as far as the Lyncestian lakes.

There are two other rather simple tombs, one of which is characterized by a vaulted chamber in Macedonian style from the late third century BC and the other from the second half of the fourth century BC showing a fine decorated “death bed”.

Another spectacular tomb is the last one in the row that is shaped like a miniature theater and belongs to the third century BC. The actual tomb is dug under the center-stage so to speak, making believe that relatives could gather around the deceased seated on the surrounding tiers. At present, the tomb is filled with groundwater that mirrors the theater effect in an eerie way.

Yet, why are these tombs here and where does this King Monounios fit in? The site of the necropolis is that of an old quarry that was used by the citizens to build their city and walls. This is supposedly the ancient city of Pelium, perched high on an acropolis that overlooks the River Shkumbin. In the middle of the 4th century BC, the Illyrian city was protected by a wall and must have been buzzing with life. The fact that these tombs are so close to the city is an indication by itself that they must be royal ones.

Pelium is indeed mentioned by Arrian as a border fortress when Alexander the Great crossed the area on his way back from the Danube campaign in 335 BC and faced the Illyrians' revolt. Cleitus the formidable king of the Dardani (from around Kosovo) had persuaded the Autariatae (from around Bosnia) to join forces in order to attack Alexander on his march, and even the Taulantians (from around Tirana) were willing to join Cleitus. Alexander had to act fast would he not be enclosed on all sides and quickly reached Paeonia (Skopje), crossed the plains of Florina to the heart of Illyria at Pelium where Cleitus was holding this fortress. The Macedonian king arrived before Glaucias, king of the Taulantians could join forces with Cleitus. According to Arrian, the town was surrounded by thickly wooded heights of which nothing much remains. Cleitus’ troops were posted in these woods from where they hoped to attack the Macedonians, but as soon as Alexander charged the enemy abandoned their protected position and fled inside the walls of Pelium, where Alexander kept them under close watch. As he was getting ready to attack the city, Glaucias and his sizable force of Taulantians appeared on the nearby wooded hilltops putting Alexander between two fires. He was in a precarious position for his only way out was a steep narrow path above the river. So Alexander played one of his masterly psychological cards. He drew the main body of his infantry in a massive formation 120 men deep, with on either wing 200 cavalrymen with the orders to obey his orders smartly. The heavy infantry then was commanded in a succession of maneuvers pointing their spears forward and upward, making right turns and left turns. The whole phalanx then moved forward, wheeled around at each command and executed a series of intricate movements. The enemy was shaken by this display of discipline and left their position on the lower slopes. At this stage, Alexander called his men to raise the battle-cry and to clash their spears against their shields. It must have been a most frightening sight and sound for the Taulantians hastily sought shelter under the city walls.

A reduced party, however, was still holding a hilltop that was in Alexander’s way. He sent out a small detachment of Companions and personal guards in their direction but upon their approach, the enemy withdrew. Alexander then occupied the hill and ordered about 2,000 men to cross the river and form a solid front on the other bank facing the enemy. Meanwhile, Alexander stayed put on his hilltop keeping a watchful eye on the wooded area where Glaucias and his troops had retreated to. Surely enough, as soon as the natives saw the Macedonians crossing the river, they seized the moment to attack Alexander and his party before they would follow. Alexander reacted immediately with a counter-attack while the infantry raised their battle-cry from the river below. The enemy’s ranks broke and Alexander quickly instructed his party to advance at the double to the river. He was first to cross in order to set up his artillery on the river-bank. He instructed to fire with every possible missile as far as they could to stop the enemy while at the same time he had his archers, who by now were mid-stream, shooting their volleys in the same direction. Glaucias was no fool and held his army out of range. The Macedonians reached safety, without any casualty.

Three days later, Alexander upon learning that Cleitus and Glaucias had not posted sentries around their nearby camp that was not even protected by a palisade or a trench, immediately decided to attack them by night. Caught by surprise, the enemy had no time to organize a defense and many were killed on the spot while others fled in panic. Alexander pressed his enemies far into the Taulantian Mountains. Cleitus moved to Pelium and set it afire before seeking refuge with Glaucias. For now, Alexander had, at least, one enemy less to face.

At this time, a more pressing matter demanded his attention: Thebes had revolted and called the other Greeks to put an end to Macedonian rule. To motivate their cause, the Thebans went even so far as to spread the rumor that Alexander had died in Illyria! This required a drastic change of plans and luckily for Alexander, the Illyrians did not raise arms against him again. Within two weeks, Alexander appeared before the walls of Thebes, but that is another story.

The early years of Alexander’s kingship are widely ignored and Arrian seems to be about the only source to mention the young king’s northern campaigns – no wonder that the name of Pelium (even less Selca e Poshtme) didn't ring a bell with me right away. But isn’t it exciting when names and places can be tied together in such an unexpected way? Archeology in Albania is still in infancy it seems and excavations are merely carried out by French or Italians. It looks like there is still a lot of work to be done here in Pelium. So far, our knowledge is based on Arrian and on coins found in cities like Apollonia (Albania) and Epidamnos/Dyrrhachion(modern Dürres, Albania) but I feel rather confident that one day the history of Hellenistic or even Classical Greece in this country will be revealed. That will be my day, of course!

Standing here in this desolate and isolated landscape, it is hard to believe that a grand capital like Pelium once crowned this very hill above the Illyrian necropolis or that it was linked by important roads to other cities of the ancient world. In Roman times, it became one of the many stops along the famous Via Egnatia whose trail is still easy to follow.

[photos 1 and 2 are courtesy of Wim]
[More pictures can be found by clicking on this link]

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