Monday, May 16, 2011

Anabasis Alexandri

That’s Persepolis up above. Tamurlane rode in triumph through there, and Alexander the Great burned it down. There are actually several versions of the burning Persepolis. In one version the courtesan Thais led the burning of the city. This version passed into English literature via Dryden’s poem Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music, and from there into music via Handel’s setting as Alexander’s Feast.

The book that we’re going to be dealing with is Arrian’s book on the campaigns of Alexander. It’s one of four, so far, volumes in the ongoing Landmark series of ancient histories. (The series consists of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Arrian at present. I have no idea if they are going to expand to Roman historians such as Livy, or stay with the Greeks exclusively.) It has the usual features of the Landmark series, extensive maps, a large section of appendices, a comprehensive index.

Arrian writes several centuries after the death of Alexander, but uses sources that he generally regards as reliable.

Arrian, in I, 5, reports that an Illyrian king sacrificed three boys, three girls, and three rams before meeting Alexander in battle. Oddly, Arrian doesn’t offer any editorial comment on this. It’s just reported as fact. I have to admit that I had thought human sacrifice had died out in the region that Alexander operated in, so I was surprised by that.

Arrian also reports high kill ratios. At Gaugamela he reports a kill ratio of 3,000 to 1. This seems highly unlikely. In present day battles a kill ratio of 50 to 1, as in the Blackhawk down incident is possible. (During the incident at Mogadishu there were 19 Americans killed for 1,000 attackers.)

One thing to which Arrian devotes a fair amount of space, and which seems relevant today, is proskynesis. This is a Persian custom in which a person prostrated themselves before the Persian ruler. Alexander tried to adopt this custom while in Persia, probably as a way of integrating his Persian subjects into his emerging empire. It was opposed by the Greeks because they reserved the practice for the gods alone. The Persians were seen as worshipping men as living gods. This horrified the Greeks.

Something analogous happened during Obama’s apology tour. Aside from the fact that he groveled before various disreputable kleptocrats and tyrants, he was seen to bow before them. Now it’s a matter of indifference if you or I bow to our Asian friends and acquaintances, I always bowed to the people I bought sushi from, but it’s a vastly different matter when the leader of a democracy is seen to make an excessively deep and prolonged bow. It may be a matter of nuance, but some people did run on the idea that their party was the party of nuance and deep intellectual understanding.

It’s also striking that the most persistent conflict has been an East-West conflict. The wars centered around what was the Persian empire cover centuries of time:

  1. The Persian wars of 490–480 BC.
  2. Alexander’s Campaigns ending in 323 BC.
  3. Various campaigns centered in and around Parthia.
  4. Post-Mohammed campaigns ending with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 AD.
  5. Campaigns in Europe with notable battles occurring in 732 (Poitiers), 778 (Roncevaux Pass), 1529 and 1683 (Vienna), and 1571 (Lepanto).
  6. WW I when Turkey sided with Germany and Austria.
  7. The period since 1948 when the Arab states attacked Israel.

  8. The notable thing is that while the ancient campaigns of the Greeks were characterized as being free Greeks against slave Persians, which is not totally true, a similar paradigm can be used today. Try taking a rosary or a Bible or the Tanakh into Saudi Arabia. Consider that blinding a guy, literally eye for eye, is considered acceptable. Consider the chop block in Riyadh. The burning churches in Egypt. The vanished Buddhas of Bamiyan. The region continues to be an example of kleptocracy, oppression, and malevolence.

    Perhaps the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya need to be recognized as a single war, and the overall effort rechristened as The Longest War.

    Next up, a John Ringo novel about interstellar war, The Hot Gates.