Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
She felt a great emptiness open up within herself as she watched Alexander disappear towards the horizon. When he had left her sight completely, she dried her eyes with a rapid movement of her hand, entered the temple and closed the door behind her.
Eumenes had dispatched two messengers under escort – one to Lampsacus and the other to Cyzicus, two powerful Greek cities along the Straits: the former stood on the coast while the latter was on an island. The dispatch was a renewal of Alexander’s offer of freedom and a treaty of alliance.
The King was enchanted by the landscape as it unfolded before him and at every bend along the coast he turned to Hephaestion to say, ‘Look at that village . . . see that tree? . . . look at that statue . . .’ Everything was new for him, everything was a source of wonder – the white villages on the hills, the sanctuaries of the Greek and the barbarian gods in the midst of the countryside, the fragrance of the apple blossom, the lucent green of the pomegranate trees.
With the exception of his exile in the snow-capped mountains of Illyria, this was his first journey out of Greece.
Behind him came Ptolemy and Perdiccas, while his other companions were all with their own soldiers. Lysimachus and Leonnatus were at the end of the long column, their role to lead two rearguard units, separated somewhat from the rest.
‘Why are we travelling northwards?’ asked Leonnatus.
‘Alexander wants control of the Asian shore. This way no one will be able to enter or leave Pontus without our permission, and Athens, which relies upon grain imports that come through here, will have every reason to remain our ally. What’s more, this way we isolate all the Persian provinces that overlook the Black Sea. It’s a clever move.’
They continued at a walk, the sun shining down as it climbed high in the sky. Then Leonnatus started up again. ‘But there is one thing I don’t understand.’
‘We can’t understand everything in life,’ joked Lysimachus.
‘You can say that again, but can you explain to me why everything’s so calm? We land in daylight with forty thousand men, Alexander visits the temple of Ilium, completes the rite around Achilles’s tomb, and there’s been no one waiting for us. I mean, no Persians. Don’t you think it’s a bit strange?’
‘Not in the least.’
Lysimachus turned to look over his shoulder. ‘See those two up there?’ he asked, pointing to the silhouette of two horsemen proceeding along the ridge of the Troad mountain range. ‘Those two have been following us since dawn and they were observing us all day yesterday – the countryside must be crawling with them.’
‘In that case we’d better inform Alexander . . .’
‘Don’t worry. Alexander’s perfectly aware of the situation and he knows that somewhere along the road the Persians are preparing a welcoming party for us.’
The march continued without any problems throughout the morning until the midday break. The only people to be seen were peasants in the fields, intent on their work, or groups of children running along the road, shouting, trying to attract attention.
Towards evening they set up camp not far from Abydos and Parmenion had them post guards all around, at a certain distance. He also sent light cavalry patrols out into the countryside so as to avoid surprise attacks.
As soon as Alexander’s tent was pitched, the trumpet sounded for a council meeting and all the generals gathered around a table while supper was served. Callisthenes was there too, but Eumenes was absent and had left instructions for them to begin without him.
‘Well, lads, this is much better than Thrace!’ exclaimed Hephaestion. ‘The weather’s excellent, the people seem friendly, I’ve seen a fair number of pretty girls and boys and the Persians are keeping to themselves. It reminds me of Mieza, when Aristotle used to take us all out together into the woods to collect bugs.’
‘Don’t delude yourself,’ replied Leonnatus. ‘Lysimachus and I spotted two horsemen who followed us throughout the day and they certainly won’t be far away now.’
Parmenion, with his old-general style, respectfully asked for permission to speak.
‘There is no need for you to ask for permission to speak, Parmenion,’ Alexander replied. ‘You are the most experienced of us all here and we have much to learn from you.’
‘Thank you,’ said the old general. ‘I only wanted to know what your intentions are for tomorrow and for the near future.’
‘To push towards the interior, towards all the territory controlled by the Persians. At that point they will have no choice – they will have to face us in the open field and we will beat them.’
Parmenion said nothing.
‘Don’t you agree?’
‘To a certain extent. I fought the Persians during the first campaign and I can assure you they are fearsome opponents. What’s more, they can count on an excellent commander – Memnon of Rhodes.’
‘A renegade Greek!’ exclaimed Hephaestion.
‘No. A professional soldier. A mercenary.’
‘And isn’t that the same thing?’
‘It’s not the same thing, Hephaestion. Some men fight many wars and ultimately find themselves emptied of all conviction and ideals, yet full of ability and experience. At that point in their lives they sell their sword for the best offer, but they remain men of honour and Memnon is one of those. He keeps to his word, whatever the cost. For these men their homeland becomes the word they give, and they maintain and respect it with absolute resolve. Memnon is a danger for us, so much the more so because he has his own troops with him – between ten and fifteen thousand mercenaries, all Greek, all well armed and formidable opponents on the open battlefield.’
‘But we defeated the Thebans’ Sacred Band,’ said Seleucus.
‘That doesn’t count,’ replied Parmenion. ‘These are professional soldiers – they do nothing else but fight, and when they are not fighting, they are training to fight.’
‘Parmenion is right,’ said Alexander. ‘Memnon is dangerous and his mercenary phalanx is equally so, especially if flanked by the Persian cavalry.’
At that moment Eumenes came in.
‘The armour suits you,’ Craterus laughed. ‘You look like a general. It’s a shame you’re knock-kneed and your legs are so spindly and . . .’
At that point everyone burst out laughing, but Eumenes started reciting:
‘I don’t like an army commander who’s tall, or goes at a trot
or one who has glamorous wavy hair, or trims his beard a lot.
A shortish sort of chap, who’s bandy-looking round the shins,
He’s my ideal, one full of guts, and steady on his pins.’
‘Well said!’ shouted Callisthenes. ‘Archilochos is one of my favourite poets.’
‘Let him speak,’ Alexander shut them all up. ‘Eumenes brings us news, and I hope it is good.’
‘Good and bad news, my friend. You decide where I should begin.’
Alexander barely concealed his disappointment. ‘Let’s begin with the bad news. Good news is always easier to digest. Give him a chair.’
Eumenes sat down, somewhat stiffly because of the breastplate which prevented him from bending the upper half of his body. ‘The inhabitants of Lampsacus have replied that they feel sufficiently free already and they have no desire to become involved with us in any way. In a word, they don’t want us meddling in their affairs.’
Alexander’s face had darkened and it was clear there was an explosion of temper on its way. Eumenes immediately started speaking again. ‘There is good news, however, from Cyzicus. The city agrees and will join us. This really is good news because the wages of the Persians’ mercenaries are paid in coin from Cyzicus. Silver staters, to be precise – like this one . . .’ and he threw a splendid-looking coin on to the table which began rotating on itself like a spinning top until the hairy hand of Cleitus the Black came down to stop it with a short, sharp blow.
‘And so?’ asked the general as he flipped the coin across his fingers.
‘If Cyzicus blocks the issue of coin for the Persian provinces,’ explained Eumenes, ‘the governments of these lands will soon find themselves in difficulty. They will have to tax themselves, or they will have to find other forms of payment, an expedient which the mercenaries will not appreciate. The same goes for their provisions, for the wages of their naval crews and all the rest.’
‘But how did you manage that?’ asked Craterus.
‘I certainly didn’t wait until we landed here in Asia before getting things moving,’ replied the secretary. ‘I’ve been negotiating with the city for some time now. Since . . .’ and he bowed his head, ‘. . . since before King Philip’s death.’
At those words a silence fell in the tent, as if the spirit of the great sovereign who had fallen to the dagger blows of an assassin at the height of his glory were suddenly with them.
‘Good,’ said Alexander. ‘In any case this does not change our plans. Tomorrow we head for the interior – our mission to coax the lion out of his den.’
Throughout the known world, no one had such accurate, well-made maps as Memnon of Rhodes. It was said that these maps were the product of thousands of years of experience of the sailors of his island and the skills of a cartographer whose identity was a jealously guarded secret.
The Greek mercenary opened the map on the table, held down its corners with lamp-stands, took a pawn from a games set and placed it on a point between Dardania and Phrygia. ‘Alexander, as I speak, is more or less here.’
The members of the Persian high command were standing around the table, all in battledress, with leggings and boots: Arsamenes, governor of Pamphylia, and Arsites of Phrygia, then Rheomithres, commander of the Bactrian cavalry, Rosakes and the supreme commander, the Satrap of Lydia and Ionia, Spithridates, a gigantic Iranian with olive-coloured skin and deep, dark eyes who was leading the meeting.
‘What do you suggest?’ he asked, in Greek.
Memnon looked up from the map. He was about forty, the hair above his temples slightly greying, his arms muscular, his beard tidy and neatly shaped with a razor, which made him look like one of those characters represented by Greek artists on relief work or on the decorations of their vases.
‘What news do we have from Susa?’ he asked.
‘None for now. But we cannot expect any substantial reinforcements for the next few months – the distances involved are huge and the time required extremely long.’
‘So we can only count on the forces we have now.’
‘In essence, yes,’ confirmed Spithridates.
‘But there are more of them.’
‘Not so many more.’
‘In this situation that fact means a lot. The Macedonians are organized formidably for fighting, they’re the best there is. In open battle they have defeated armies of all types and nationalities.’
‘Alexander is trying to provoke us, but I think it would be better to avoid any direct conflict. Here is my plan: we must deploy a great number of horseback reconnaissance troops who will keep us constantly informed of his movements, together with spies who will somehow discover his intentions. Then we will retreat before him, destroying everything in our wake, leaving not one grain of wheat or drop of drinkable water.
‘Groups of light cavalry will then undertake continuous incursions against the sorties he will inevitably send out to look for food for his men and his animals. When our enemies are on their last legs, exhausted in their hunger and in their fatigue, then we will strike with all our strength, while a naval force will land an army in Macedonian territory.’
Spithridates studied Memnon’s map in silence for a long time before rubbing his hand across his thick, curly beard. Then he turned and walked towards a balcony that overlooked the countryside.
The Vale of Zeleia was truly a natural wonder: from the garden surrounding the palace there came the slightly bitter fragrance of hawthorn flowers together with the sweeter, more delicate perfume of the jasmine and the lilies; the white canopies of the blossoming cherry and peach trees – plants worthy of gods which grew only in their
– shone brightly in the spring sunshine.
He looked over to the woods which covered the mountains and the palaces and the gardens of the other Persian nobles gathered in the meeting and he imagined all those delights being torched by Memnon, that emerald sea being reduced to an expanse of black carbon and smoking ash. He turned suddenly.
‘But, my lord . . .’ said Memnon in objection as he moved nearer. ‘Have you fully considered all the features of my plan? I feel that . . .’
‘It is out of the question, Commander,’ the satrap cut him short. ‘We cannot destroy our gardens, our fields and our palaces and turn tail. In the first place it is out of character, and then it would truly be a crime to inflict on ourselves greater damage than our enemy would ever inflict upon us. No. We will face him and we will chase him back to where he came from. This Alexander is nothing more than a pretentious little boy who must be taught a lesson.’