فصل 12

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فصل 12

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12

THE GREATEST ADVENTURE OF ALL Greece’s age of splendour was short-lived. The Greeks could do everything but live in peace with one another. Above all, it was Athens and Sparta who could not put up with one another for long. By 430 BC the two states were locked in a long and bitter conflict. This was the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans marched on Athens, savagely laying waste to the countryside all around. They uprooted all the olive trees and this was a terrible misfortune because it takes years for a newly planted olive tree to bear fruit. The Athenians hit back, attacking the Spartan colonies to the south of Italy, at Syracuse in Sicily. There was a great deal of fighting and retaliation, a terrible plague in Athens in which Pericles died and, in the end, Athens lost the war and the city walls were torn down. As is usually the case with wars, not only Athens but the whole country was exhausted by the conflict, and the victors were no exception. To add to it all, a small tribe near Delphi, provoked by the priests of the Oracle, invaded and plundered the sanctuary of Apollo. Utter confusion followed. A foreign tribe ­ though not so very foreign ­ took advantage of this confusion to interfere. These were the Macedonians, a

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people who lived in the mountains to the north of Greece. The Macedonians were related to the Greeks, but they were barbarous and warlike. Their king, Philip, was a man of great cunning. He spoke excellent Greek and was familiar with Greek customs and culture, and his aim was to be king of all Greece. Since the invasion of the sanctuary at Delphi concerned all tribes loyal to the Greek religion, he had a good excuse to intervene. There was a politician in Athens, however, who was suspicious of Philip of Macedon. This was the famous orator Demosthenes, whose fulminating speeches at the Assembly, in which he repeatedly warned people against King Philip’s schemes, are known as ‘Philippics’. But Greece was too divided to put up any real defence. At Chaeronea, in 338 BC, the Greeks, who hardly a hundred years before had held their own against the gigantic Persian host, were defeated by King Philip and tiny Macedonia. So ended the freedom of the Greeks ­ not that it could be said that they had made good use of it lately. But it wasn’t Philip’s intention to enslave or plunder Greece. He had other ideas: he planned to create a great army made up of Greeks and Macedonians with which to invade and conquer Persia. At the time of the Persian wars such a task would have proved impossible, but things had changed. The great kings of Persia were no longer able and ambitious like Darius or mighty like Xerxes. They had long given up ruling the country themselves and contented themselves with the money their satraps sent back from the provinces. They used it to build themselves magnificent palaces and held court in great style. They ate off golden dishes and even their slaves ­ both male and female ­ were dressed in splendid robes. They loved good food, and good wines even more. So did their satraps. A kingdom like this, thought King Philip, should be easy to conquer. But before he had even completed the preparations for his campaign he was assassinated. His son, who now inherited the whole of Greece, along with his native Macedonia, was barely twenty years old at the time. His name was Alexander. The Greeks were convinced that freedom was in their grasp ­ he was only a boy and they’d make short work of

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him. But Alexander was no ordinary boy. From his youth he had been impatient to be king. When he was little, he was said to cry whenever his father, King Philip, conquered another Greek city, saying: ‘Father won’t leave anything for me to conquer when I’m king!’ Now his father had left him everything. A Greek city that tried to free itself was razed, and its inhabitants sold into slavery as a warning to all. Then Alexander summoned all the Greek leaders to a meeting in the town of Corinth, to discuss the Persian campaign. Now Alexander wasn’t just a brave and ambitious warrior ­ there was much more to him than that. He was exceptionally handsome, with long curly hair, and he knew just about everything there was to know at the time. His tutor was the most famous teacher living: the Greek philosopher Aristotle. And if I tell you that Aristotle wasn’t just Alexander’s tutor but ­ in a manner of speaking ­ the teacher of mankind for 2,000 years, you’ll have an idea of what I mean. In the 2,000 years that followed, whenever people failed to agree on one thing or another, they turned to his writings. He was their referee. What Aristotle said must be right. For what he had done was to gather together all the knowledge of his time. He wrote about the natural sciences ­ the stars, animals and plants; about history and people living together in a state ­ what we call politics; about the right way to reason ­ logic; and the right way to behave ­ ethics. He wrote about poetry and its beauty. And last of all he wrote down his own thoughts on a god who hovered impassive and unseen above the vault of heaven. All this Alexander studied too, and no doubt he was a good student. Best of all he loved the stories about heroes in Homer’s great lyric poems ­ they say he kept them under his pillow at night. But Alexander didn’t spend all his time with his nose in a book. He loved sport, and riding more than anything. No one rode better than he. His father once bought a beautiful stallion that no one could tame. His name was Bucephalus. Whenever anyone tried to mount him they were thrown off. But Alexander worked out why he did it: the horse was afraid of his own shadow. So Alexander turned the horse’s head towards the sun so that he couldn’t see his

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shadow on the ground. Stroking him gently, he swung himself onto his back and rode round to the applause of the whole court. From that time on, Bucephalus would always be his favourite horse. Now when Alexander appeared before the Greek leaders in Corinth they greeted him warmly and paid him lavish compliments ­ all of them, that is, but one. A funny fellow, a philosopher named Diogenes. He had views not unlike those of the Buddha. According to him, possessions and all the things we think we need only serve to distract us and get in the way of our simple enjoyment of life. So he had given away everything he owned and now sat, almost naked, in a barrel in the market square in Corinth where he lived, as free and independent as a stray dog. Curious to meet this strange fellow, Alexander went to call on him. Dressed in shining armour, the plume on his helmet waving in the breeze, he walked up to the barrel and said to Diogenes: ‘I like you. Let me know your wish and I shall grant it.’ Diogenes, who had until then been comfortably sunning himself, replied: ‘Indeed, Sire, I have a wish.’ ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘Your shadow has fallen over me: stand a little less between me and the sun.’ Alexander is said to have been so struck by this that he said: ‘If I weren’t Alexander I should like to be Diogenes.’ A king like this was soon as popular with the Greek soldiers as he was with the Macedonians. They were more than willing to fight for him. So, with increasing confidence, Alexander marched on Persia. He gave everything he owned to his friends. They were horrified and said: ‘But what are you leaving for yourself?’ ‘Hope’, he is said to have replied. And that hope didn’t deceive him. His army reached Asia Minor first. There he came up against the first Persian army. Although larger than his own, it turned out to be no more than a milling host of soldiers with no effective leader. The Persians were quickly put to flight, for Alexander’s army fought bravely, and Alexander most bravely of all in the heat of the fray. It so happens that vanquished Asia Minor is the scene of the famous story of the Gordian Knot. It went like this. In the city of Gordium there was a temple, and in it an old chariot whose shaft

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was held fast by a strap that was tightly and intricately knotted. Now it had been foretold that he who could untie the enchanted knot would become master of the world. Alexander wasted little time fiddling with a knot that was clearly far worse than the sort you get in your shoelace when you are in a hurry. He did something my mother never let me do: he took his sword and simply chopped it through. The story’s meaning is twofold: Alexander would conquer the world in fulfilment of the ancient prophecy, and he would do it with the sword. As indeed he did. You will find it easier to follow the rest of this story of conquest if you take a look at the map (on pages 70 and 71). Alexander could have gone on to attack Persia directly, but rather than risk an attack from the rear by the Persian provinces of Phoenicia and Egypt, he chose to subdue them first. The Persians tried to block his way near a town called Issus, but Alexander crushed them. He plundered the magnificent royal tents and made off with the king’s treasure. He captured the king’s wife and sisters, too, and treated them with the utmost respect and courtesy. That was in 333 BC, an easy date to remember. Phoenicia was less easy to conquer. For seven long months Alexander laid siege to the city of Tyre. Its destruction, when it came, was all the more brutal. Egypt was easier. Glad to be rid of the Persians, the Egyptians soon surrended to Persia’s foe. But Alexander was determined to be a true ruler of Egypt, the sort they were used to. He marched across the desert to a temple of the sun god and had the priests proclaim him Son of the Sun, and therefore righteous Pharaoh. Before he left Egypt to continue his campaign, he founded a new city by the sea and named it after himself: Alexandria. It is still there today, and was for a long time one of the richest and most powerful cities in the world. Only now did he march on Persia. In the meantime the Persian king had assembled a huge army and was waiting for Alexander near ancient Nineveh at a place called Gaugamela. He sent messengers ahead to meet Alexander and offered him half his kingdom and his daughter in marriage, if only he would agree not to fight. ‘If I were Alexander, I’d take it,’ said Alexander’s friend, Parmenios.

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‘And so would I, if I were Parmenios,’ was Alexander’s reply. Half the world wasn’t enough for Alexander. With that, he defeated the last and greatest Persian army. The king of Persia fled into the mountains, where he was assassinated. Alexander punished the assassins. Now he was king of the whole of Persia. Greece, Egypt, Phoenicia, Palestine, Babylonia, Assyria, Asia Minor and Persia ­ all these were now part of his empire. He set about putting it in order. His commands could now be said to reach all the way from the Nile to Samarkand. This would probably have been enough for you or me, but Alexander was far from satisfied. He wanted to rule over new, undiscovered lands. He longed to see the mysterious, far-off peoples merchants talked about when they came to Persia with rare goods from the East. Like Dionysus in the Greek legend, he wanted to ride in triumph to the sun-burnished Indians of the East, and there receive their tribute. So he spent little time in the Persian capital, and in 327 BC led his army on the most perilous adventures over unknown and unexplored mountain passes and down along the valley of the Indus into India. But the Indians did not submit to him willingly. The hermits and penitents in the forests denounced the conquerors from the distant West in their sermons. And the soldiers of the warrior caste fought valiantly, so that every city had to be besieged and conquered in its turn. Alexander himself was no less valiant, as is shown by his encounter with an Indian king. King Porus had lain in wait for him on a branch of the Indus River, with a mighty army of war elephants and foot soldiers. When Alexander reached the river the king’s army was positioned on the far bank, and Alexander and his soldiers had no choice but to cross the river in the face of the enemy host. His success was one of his greatest feats. Yet even more remarkable was his victory over that army, in the stifling heat of India. Porus was brought before him in chains. ‘What do you want of me?’ asked Alexander. ‘Only that you treat me as befits a king.’ ‘And that is all?’ ‘That is all,’ came the reply, ‘there is no more to be said.’ Alexander was so impressed that he gave Porus back his kingdom.

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He himself wished to march on even further towards the east, to the even more mysterious and unknown peoples who lived in the valley of the River Ganges. But his soldiers had had enough. They didn’t want to march on to the end of the world. They wanted to go home. Alexander begged and pleaded and threatened to go on alone. He shut himself up in his tent and refused to come out for three whole days. But in the end the soldiers had their way, and he was forced to turn back. But they did agree to one thing: they wouldn’t go home by the same route. Of course it would have been far the simplest thing to do, since those regions had already been conquered. But Alexander wanted new sights and new conquests. So they followed the Indus down as far as the sea. There he put part of his army onto ships and sent them home that way. He himself chose to endure new and terrible hardships as he marched with the rest of the army over pitiless desert wastes. Alexander bore all the privations his army endured and took no more water and slept no more than the next man. He fought in the foremost ranks. On one occasion, he only escaped death by a miracle. That day they were besieging a fortress. Ladders had been set in place to scale the walls. Alexander was first up. He had reached the top when the ladder snapped under the weight of the soldiers behind, leaving him alone on top of the wall. His men shouted to him to jump back down. Instead he leapt straight into the city and, with his back to the ramparts, defended himself with his shield against overwhelming odds. By the time the others were able to scale the wall to rescue him, he had already been hit by an arrow. It must have been thrilling! In the end they returned to the Persian capital. But since Alexander had burnt it down when he conquered it, he chose to set up his court in Babylon. This was no idle choice: Son of the Sun to the Egyptians, King of Kings to the Persians, with troops in India and in Athens, he was determined to show the world that he was its rightful ruler. It may not have been pride that prompted him to do so. As a pupil of Aristotle he understood human nature and knew that

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power needs pomp and dignity if it wants to make the right impression. So he introduced all the age-old ceremonies of the Babylonian and Persian courts. Anyone who came into his presence had to fall on their knees before him and speak to him as if he were a god. And in the manner of Oriental kings he had several wives, among them the daughter of the Persian king, Darius, which made him that king’s rightful successor. For Alexander didn’t wish to be seen as a foreign conqueror. His aim was to combine the wisdom and splendour of the East with the clear thinking and vitality of the Greeks, and so create something entirely new and wonderful. But this idea didn’t please the Greeks and Macedonians at all. They were the conquerors, so they should be the masters. What was more, they were free men, and used to their freedom. They weren’t going to bow down to any man on earth ­ or, as they put it, lick any man’s boots. His Greek friends and the soldiers became increasingly rebellious, and he was forced to send them home. Alexander never realised his great ambition of mingling the two peoples, even though he handed out rich dowries to ten thousand Macedonian and Greek soldiers so that they could marry Persian women, and laid on a great wedding feast for all. He had great plans. He wanted to found many more cities like Alexandria. He wanted to build roads, and change the face of the world with his military campaigns, whether the Greeks liked it or not. Just imagine, in those days, to have a regular postal service running from India to Athens! But in the midst of all his plans he died, in Nebuchadnezzar’s summer palace, in 323 BC. He was thirty-two years old ­ an age when most people’s lives have barely begun. To the question of who should succeed him, he answered, in his fever: ‘He who is most worthy.’ But there was no one. The generals and princes in his entourage were greedy, dissolute and dishonest. They fought over the empire until it fell apart. Egypt was then governed by a family of generals ­ the Ptolemies. The Seleucids ruled Mesopotamia, and the Attalids Asia Minor. India was simply abandoned.

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Follow the arrows! They will take you in Alexander’s footsteps as he conquers half the world.

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But although the empire was in pieces, Alexander’s grand project slowly went on taking shape. Greek art and the spirit of Greece had penetrated Persia and passed on through India to China. Meanwhile the Greeks themselves had learnt that there was more to the world than Athens and Sparta, and more to do than waste their lives in endless squabbling between Dorians and Ionians. And, having lost the little political power they once had, the Greeks went on to be the bearers of the greatest intellectual force there has ever been, the force we know as Greek culture. This force was protected and preserved in some very special fortresses. Can you guess what those fortresses were? They were libraries. Alexandria, for instance, had a Greek library that held around seven hundred thousand scrolls. Those seven hundred thousand scrolls were the Greek soldiers who set off to conquer the world. And that empire is still standing today.

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