Three anecdotes of Alexanders life and conquests
The Battle with Porus
Before leaving Nikaia, Alexander had sent messengers to all the Indian princes residing in the lower valley of Cophen to invite them to recognize him as their suzerain and to come to pay him homage. A few of them had answered favourably, notably Taxiles, with whom Alexander already had friendly relations. But many others had refused. Because of this, Alexander was obliged to open a way by force to the Indus. Alexander drove his troops to the border of the Pauravas. Before crossing, he sent a messenger to Porus inviting him to submit himself to his tutelage.1 But Porus was not a man to bow without a fight. He proudly answered:
— I will indeed come to the limits of my land. But it will not be to bow to Alexander. It will be to receive him, as he deserves, arms in hand!
This answer equaled a declaration of war. Alexander penetrated the Pauravas territory and reached the Hydaspe after two days of marching.
It was the beginning of the rainy season. The river, immediately swollen by the growth of its innumerable tributaries, was four hundred metres wide. One could see the immense camp of Porus on the other side. Aligned facing west, his army was deployed in battle order. In front, three hundred war elephants were displayed. The Macedonians shuddered on seeing them, for they had never confronted such creatures. The monstrous aspect of these beasts, the cry of which resembled the sound
1 Tutelage: the state of being a tutor, of being the master.
of no other animal, confirmed their belief that they were approaching the ends of the world.
At first glance, Alexander realised that it was out of the question to cross the river at this spot. Not only did its width make it impossible, but also he would be pushed back into the waters by the army of Porus. He arrayed a thin curtain of troops in front of the enemy camp to lead Porus into fearing an' attack from that side. Then he went down the river with the largest part of his army, in search of a ford.1Having found one half a mile downstream, he ordered his troops to quickly cross it. When Porus' watchmen came to warn him that a mass of foreign soldiers was marching to meet him, coming up from the south, it was too late: under cover of night all the Macedonians had crossed to the left bank of the river.
Porus then understood whom he was dealing with. His last chance of salvation was to rush on Alexander, before his phalanges had time to regroup. He set off with his whole army, consisting of four thousand horsemen, three hundred war chariots, thirty thousand foot soldiers and three hundred elephants: the latter, standing with a gap of twenty metres between each, moved forward as a four-kilometer front. It resembled a moving rampart with each elephant as a tower. The surface occupied by the small Macedonian army was hardly one quarter of the enemy front. It should have been smashed. But once more, intelligence and mobility would gain the upper hand.
Soon the scramble was general. Porus directed the movements of his army from the top of his elephant, a superb animal even taller than the others. But his troops did not have the same mobility. Driven to one point, they were unable to regroup fast enough to face a new attack.
After a few hours, Porus realised that the battle might end in a disaster. By dusk twenty thousand Indians had been killed, among them the king's two sons. All the squadron leaders of both the infantry and the cavalry, all the chariot
1 Ford: a shallow area in a river that can be crossed by car, horseback, etc.
Drivers had perished. Three thousand horses and more than a hundred elephants lay lifeless on the battlefield.
Seeing his sons dead, his elephants massacred and his army in flight, king Porus understood that all resistance was useless. He suffered from a wound in his right shoulder, which had been pierced by an arrow. He gestured to his elephant keeper to have his elephant kneel. The beast obeyed. After which it delicately gathered the king with its trunk and put him on the ground. Mastering his pain, Porus stayed a moment immobile, and then he ordered one of his aides-de-camp to lead him to Alexander.
When the king of Macedon saw him approach, he stepped out to meet him. The beauty of this man, who was over seventy years old, and the nobility of his attitude filled Alexander with admiration. He had never seen a man show such greatness of being in adversity.1 After the usual greetings, Alexander asked him how he wanted to be dealt with.
—Royally, said Porus.
— That was my intention, answered Alexander. Please let me know what are your wishes.
— This single word contains them all, answered the old king laconically.2
Alexander heartily wished to make a friend of him. He showed him great generosity. Not only did he leave him his kingdom, but also he increased his powers by obliging several of the neighboring princes to accept his suzerainty.
Crossing the Gedrosia Desert
After a short stay in Pattala, Alexander decided to return to the centre of the Empire. Already Craterus had preceded him by going inland. Nearchus, casting off with the entire fleet,
1 Adversity: distress; affliction; hardship.
2 Laconically: (of a person's speech) using very few words.
Would explore the sea route from the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf. As for Alexander, he had decided to reach Pasargadae and Persepolis by passing through Ramballa, Poura and Hormuz, that is to say following the Southern road, the closest to the coastline.
This road was by far the most difficult of the three. Why had Alexander chosen it? Would it not have been better to follow the same itinerary as Craterus, which would have permitted him to reach the Arachosia and the Drangiana more quickly? Did he not know that a desert, almost impassable to isolated travellers — and all the more to a multitude in arms — spread from the mouth of the Indus to the Hormuz Gulf? It did not seem so. If he had chosen this route instead of another it is because he wanted to see all the frontiers of his empire, and in particular this one, which stood between him and the unknown.
Alexander's plan was well studied: while Nearchus would clarify the problem of maritime relations at the head of a fleet of one hundred ships, Alexander would force his way through the coastal provinces, and secure the safety of scheduled stops by accumulating the necessary quantity of water and other provisions, in advance at certain agreed points.
The operation was logical. But its execution proved to be delicate. The slightest delay, leading to a lack of synchronization in the progression of either group, could compromise everything. If the army suffered a delay, the fleet was lost; if the fleet was kept waiting, the army was condemned. That Alexander embarked on such an adventure despite all the risks proves the confidence he had in his lucky star.
Nearchus weighed anchor on a beautiful morning in August 325.
Alexander followed him.
The Gedrosia Desert, which covers the whole of southern Beluchistan, is one of the most arid and disinherited regions of the world. It was inhabited, at that time, by some primitive population, to which the Greeks had given the name "Ichtyophages" because they ate only dry fish. But what else could they
Eat? This region produced nothing. It was a blinding furnace, where the ground burned even more than the sky.
Fresh water could be found only at the foot of the mountains, that is to say quite far inland. But Alexander was obliged not to wander far from the seashore if he wanted to fit out the necessary stations for supplying the fleet. The sparse vegetation did not offer any protection against the sun. "A few date palms", tell us the historians Arrian and Strabo, "raised their dried fronds in the torrid air. On the other hand, myrrh and Indian nard grew in abundance."
Already overwhelmed by the heat, the phalanxes were soon weakened by lack of food. Their supplies decreased rapidly. When some dry wheat was discovered in the back of an abandoned shack, Alexander gave the order to requisition it. He had it put in bags sealed with his stamp and carried to the coastline, to where Nearchus would be able to collect them.
The beasts of burden perished first. They were eaten on the spot. The soldiers were unable to carry the luggage abandoned to the desert. Overcome by sleep, stragglers fell by the side of the track, some to awaken only when the column had passed. A few managed to catch up by following the footprints that had been left behind. Others became lost in the sands and died of exhaustion.
It was not a march, it was an agony. With throats burning, lips wrinkled and cracked, feet gashed by sharp stones, the soldiers dawdled1 rather than moving forward. They longed for the freshness of the Indian forests.
One evening the army put up its tents in the bed of a dried up ravine. Suddenly, the expanse filled up. A mass of water rushed in with the violence of a downpour. Arms, beasts, tents, men, everything was carried away in a moment. The king escaped by miracle. When the soldiers regained enough presence of mind to try to take advantage of the flood to quench their thirst, the water had already disappeared, soaked up by
1 To dawdle: to be slow or lag behind.
The stones. Thus, horror piled upon horror. When, two days later a violent wind rose, stirring the dunes and covering the path with a layer of sand so thick that the natives themselves were unable to find their way, the bravest lost courage and the entire army felt abandoned.
Then Alexander gathered his last able-bodied horsemen — there were only a handful— and told them that they must go in search of the ocean, that it was the only means of finding a point of reference which would help them find their way. In a state of utter exhaustion, they left for the south, through dunes in which the horses sank up to the knees. After several miles the beasts lay down forever. The horsemen declared that they could go no further. Alexander selected five men and continued on foot. They wandered the whole night. Since the storm of the previous day, the sky had been overcast with a sort of mist, which obscured the moon and stars. At dawn, they at last saw the silvery line of the sea. They crawled to it, and dug holes in the sand with their sword hilts hoping to find some fresh water — which finally gushed forth to quench their thirst. As soon as Alexander regained some strength, he returned to the rest of his horsemen to lead them to the beach. Once there, the guides who had accompanied them, found their way. native
But for six more days, the Macedonian army had to clear a way through the dunes. On the seventh day, the track reoriented inland. One could distinguish traces of vegetation. The outline of a valley showed. The slopes became covered with gardens and orchards. The soldiers finally reached Poura, the capital of Gedrosia.
At the cost of inexpressible suffering, the army had finally reached the aim of its journey but in what a pitiful condition. The march through the desert had lasted sixty days. The soldiers, who had left India so proud of their victories and overloaded with booty, now possessed nothing at all. They were gaunt and emaciated, dressed in rags, almost without weapons.
It was under the appearance of an army of spectres that the conquerors of the world entered Poura.