On May 8th and 9th the French Institute of Afghanistan has invited Mr. Jean-Pierre PERRIN, French writer and journalist to give a conference upon:
ALEXANDER THE GREAT IN BACTRIAN
Following is a short summary that we invite you to read and share with your friends
In Afghanistan, we are facing continuously Isksander Kabir, alias Alexander of Macedonia or Alexander the Great, name that has been given to him later by Roman historians. Even if we do not know exactly which itinerary he followed, Afghans themselves do not doubt that the way he followed passed from here and there. Hearing them, we believe that the conqueror footprints are still fresh and that he was fighting in the Hindu Kush nook only few years ago. And when we hesitate between two itineraries, it is highly recommended to choose the one that he is supposed to have used.
Alexander is the head of a coalition of Macedonian and Greek forces to invade Persia whose army had submit the Greek cities of Asia and destroyed Acropolis hundred and fifty years before. But it’s not only a reprisal war that he wants to run against this secular rival. His aim is to annihilate and replace him, even make him be the last of the Achaemenid.
The Alexander army is made of 50 000 men: 32 000 infantrymen and 5 500 cavalrymen, add to this the equivalent of our military civil engineers and quartermasters.
Lettered persons and savants, musicians, bards and actors, accompany Alexander. He doesn’t neglect the history neither the geography; steps counters are part of the expedition.
He doesn’t travel also without his papyrus rollers library. He reads a lot Homer: “each nights, before going to sleep, he was reading some versus from the Iliad, then put the book under his bedside… , he could have became a simple amateur of literature…”, notes the Greek historian of the Antiquity, Plutarch.
The Macedonian knows that war is not sum up by doing it. Therefor he brings with him a culture, in particular to help him to understand the Other, even if this Other has to be the enemy. While his Egypt campaign, Bonaparte took his inspiration from Alexander, for whom he had an unbounded admiration.
An enigma: Afghanistan is a headache for the armies logistic. So, how the Alexander’s army succeeded to find every day a minimum of 250 tons of food and forage for the animals and 600 000 litres of water in a mostly arid or semi arid country?
But if Alexander arrives in Bactrian, the actual Afghanistan, it is because he sets off in pursuit of a man by the name of Bessus the Satrap of Bactrian; a “war lord” in now days language, who reign on this neighbouring province of the Persian Empire, today in the North of Afghanistan. In 334 BC this empire stretches over a territory hundred times larger than the original land.
It starts from Nil for ending at the Hindu Kush massif. This Empire is divided in Satrapies, hereditary vice royalties, the Great king being the general overlord. If the combat technics are not obviously the same, war behaviours are not different from now day’s war ones. Defection appears in the middle of war, changing sides, shameless disloyalty, stabbing in the back.
The young hero is motivated by a strong force: the hubris, a will without flaw to equal the gods, to modify the cosmic order and to unify the world under his own command. “He believed that he was sent by god with the mission to organise everything, to modify everything in the entire universe.”
Plutarch tells us: He wanted to subject the entire universe to a single government. His excessiveness, his hubris, will have to be the divine wish instrument to bring together all populations of the universe and make them live together. The thing that is not questionable is that his conquest of the oriental Satrapies in Achaemenid Empire will be the point of the most far-off movement for expansion that has known Hellenism.
The Greek colonization will last three centuries; 42 Greco-Indian or Hellenist-Bactrian kings will reign. Some will be great kings like Menander or Eucratid.
Alexander defeats Darius III at Granicus, on 334 before J.C, then at Issos; this enable him to conquer Anatolia, Syria and Egypt during next years.
On the 1st October 331 before J.C, the last great battle between the Macedonian king and the king of the kings takes place on Persian territory, actual Iraqi Kurdistan, at Gaugamela. The defeat of Darius III seals the fate of the Achaemenid Empire.
Darius III flees with the Satrap Bessus, head of his cavalry. He decides to withdraw in Bactria, most safety place to retreat, where he hopes to find new fighters. On the way, Bessus, supported by some allies, decides to overturn his king. He will kill Darius III, king of the Persian kings, shortly after. Without wasting time, Bessus proclaims himself Emperor under the name of Artaxerxés V, puts on the dress ripped from the assassinated king, his diadem; very soon his cavalry enthrone him.
On March 329 XXX, with the will to seize Bessus who still holds the Bactrian, Alexander has the choice between three possible paths. He will take the hardest itinerary, the longest, the most exposed to blizzards, the one that ascend all the valley of Panjshir up to Khawak pass, at 3848 meters high. But he has been too much impetuous and did not consider that the Afghan winter is still terrible in Hindu Kush.
The extreme cold, the heavy snow, the hunger, tiredness, frozen peaks, ravines’ traps in which animals and humans are hurtling down, will decimate about 30 000 of his warriors. Thousands of them perish, some of them petrified by the cold that made them stand flat to the cliffs.
Gradually as the top of the peak and the northern slope approach, trees disappear; no more wood to get warm and nor to cook the food. When the food is lacking, this army stretched over 25 km, close to death and hopelessness, is forced to eat roots and eat up the raw flesh of the packs horses and mules.
Never a search for a single rebel who is more a spectrum than a threat, was ever paid by such a high human price. In this senseless expedition the Macedonian will lose the most of the fighters.
However, Alexander and his army survive. It will take them about 15 days to find again the plain and the promised food. When they arrive in Bactrian, the Satrapy submits it-self and they do not need to fight. Terrified, the Persian leader flees. The chase goes on.
The regicide thinks of taking refuge in Sogdiane, current Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, on the other side of the Oxus, the current river Amu Darya. Temporarily in shelter, he tries to organise a new army by recruiting volunteer fighters from nomad tribes in the big steppes of central Asia. But in Bessus camp, the defection will soon affect the officers of his impressive cavalry who, looking their country given to the enemy, prefer to abandon him and scatter.
Finding out that Alexander has crossed the Oxus, it is up to the closest lieutenants and friends of Bessus to betray him and seize him. They give him quickly to Oxathrès, the brother of dead Darius III, who impose to the fallen king of the kings all insults and possible bad treatments. Some tales affirm that he ordered his crucifixion, others that he tied the members of the captive to the top of two trees bowed down to the earth by cords, which were sliced afterwards causing a slow quartering to the victim.
Plutarch tells about the terrible torture: they bent toward the same point two straight trees, and they attached one part of Bessus’ body to each of them, and, when these trees were released, each one standing back straight with strength carried off the parts attached to him. Diodore of Sicilia has written that Oxathrès and Darius’ kingship sliced Bessus’ body in small pieces that they threw away with catapults. With the death of the usurper, the Achaemenid Empire came to the end.
If the chase of Bessus is totally ended, the war is not finished at all for the one who is from now the absolute master of the Persian Empire. Sogdiana enters rebellion and it will take him more than two years to crush it. To appease the Sogdians, but surely also for love, Alexander will marry the beautiful Roxane, the daughter of another Satrap, in 327 B.C in Bactria.
Jean-Pierre PERRIN @ IFA 2016
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