Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
‘Please bear in mind,’ Memnon insisted, ‘that my own home and my own property are in this area and that I am prepared to sacrifice everything for victory.’
‘We do not doubt your honesty,’ replied Spithridates. ‘I am simply saying that your plan is not feasible. I repeat, we will fight and we will force the Macedonians to turn back.’ He now spoke to the other generals: ‘From this moment onwards all troops will be on permanent alert and you must call up every possible man capable of fighting under our flag. There is no more time left.’
Memnon shook his head, ‘This is a mistake, and you will come to realize it, but I am afraid it will be too late when you do.’
‘Do not be such a pessimist,’ said the Persian. ‘We will seek to face them from a position of advantage.’
‘That is to say?’
Spithridates leaned over the table, putting his weight on his left arm, and began to explore the map with the tip of his right index finger. He stopped at a blue snakelike feature, indicating a river that flowed north towards the Propontis inland sea.
‘I would say here.’
‘On the Granicus?’
Spithridates nodded. ‘Do you know the terrain, Commander?’
‘I know it because I have been there hunting several times. The river, just here, has steep, clayey banks. It is difficult, if not impossible terrain for cavalry, and heavy infantry would also find it extremely heavy going. We will crush them on the Granicus, and that very evening you will all be invited back here, for a banquet in my palace at Zeleia, to celebrate our victory.’
ARKNESS HAD FALLEN
when Memnon returned to his palace, a magnificent construction, eastern in style and located on the top of a hill. Its grounds were inhabited by wildlife of every imaginable type and contained an enormous estate with houses, livestock, wheatfields, vines, olives and fruit trees.
Memnon had lived for years among the Persians as a Persian, and he had married a Persian noblewoman, Barsine, daughter of the satrap Artabazos. She was a woman of incredible beauty – dark-skinned, with long black hair and a graceful, shapely figure, as lithe and beautiful as a highland gazelle.
Their two sons, one fifteen and one eleven years old, both spoke their father’s and their mother’s tongues fluently and had been brought up in both cultures. Like Persian boys they had been educated never to lie, for any reason whatsoever, and they practised archery and horsemanship; like Greek boys they observed the cult of courage and honour in battle, they knew the Homeric poems, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides and the theories of the Ionian philosophers. Like their mother they had olive complexions and their hair was black. But their muscular bodies and green eyes came from their father. The firstborn, Eteocles, bore a Greek name; the second, Phraates, a Persian one.
The villa stood at the centre of an Iranian garden, cultivated and looked after by Persian experts, with rare plants and animals including the wonderful Indian peacocks of Palimbothra, an almost legendary city on the Ganges. Within the garden there were Persian and Babylonian sculptures, ancient Hittite reliefs which Memnon had collected from an abandoned city on the highlands, splendid sets of Attic symposium pottery, bronzes from Corinth and far off Etruria, sculptures in Paros marble painted in bright colours.
On the walls were images created by the greatest painters of the day: Apelles, Zeuxis, Parrhasius, depicting not only hunting and battle scenes, but also mythological representations of the legendary adventures of the heroes.
Everything in that house was a mixture of different cultures, yet the impression received by visitors was of a singular, almost incomprehensible harmony.
Two servants came to meet their master, helped him take off his armour and led him to the bath chamber so that he might wash before supper. Barsine came to him with a cup of cool wine and sat down to keep him company.
‘What news is there of the invasion?’ she asked.
‘Alexander is marching on towards the interior, probably with the intention of provoking us into a head-on conflict.’
‘They chose not to listen to you, and now the enemy is almost upon us.’
‘No one believed the boy would ever dare take on so much. They thought the wars in Greece would keep him busy for many years, depleting his resources – a completely mistaken view.’
‘What type of man is he?’ asked Barsine.
‘It appears difficult to define his character: he is very young, very handsome, impulsive and passionate, but it seems that when danger rears its head he becomes as cool as ice, capable of judging the most delicate and intricate situations with incredible detachment.’
‘Does he have no weak points?’
‘He likes wine, he likes both boys and women, but it seems he has only one constant love – his friend Hephaestion, much more than a friend. They say they are lovers.’
‘Is he married?’
‘No. He has embarked on this invasion without leaving an heir to the throne of Macedon. It seems that before leaving he gave all his property away to his closest friends.’
Barsine gestured to the handmaids to leave them and she personally attended to her husband as he left the bath. She took a cloth of soft Ionian linen and wrapped it round his shoulders to dry his back. Memnon continued to tell her what he knew of his enemy.
‘They say that one of these close friends asked him, “What are you keeping for yourself ?” and he replied, “Hope.” It’s not easy to believe, but it is obvious that the young King has already become legendary. This is a problem – it’s not easy to fight against a legend.’
‘Does he really not have a woman?’ asked Barsine.
A handmaid brought a damp cloth and another one helped Memnon dress for supper – a long chiton, down to his feet, blue in colour and embroidered in silver around the edges.
‘Why are you so interested in him?’
‘Because women are always a man’s weak point.’
Memnon took his wife’s arm and led her to the dining chamber, where the low tables were arranged in the Greek manner before the dining beds.
He sat down and a maidservant poured him some more cool wine from a magnificent Corinthian crater, two hundred years old, which sat on the central table.
Memnon indicated a tableau by Apelles hanging on the wall before them, depicting a highly erotic love scene between Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite. ‘Do you remember when Apelles came here to paint this?’
‘Yes. I remember it well,’ replied Barsine, who always stretched out to eat with her back to the painting because she had never got used to the Greeks’ forwardness and the way they represented nudity.
‘And do you remember the model who posed with him as Aphrodite?’
‘Of course. She was stupendous – one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, a worthy model for the goddess of love and beauty.’
‘She was Alexander’s Greek lover.’
‘It’s true. Her name is Pancaspe and when she disrobed in front of Alexander for the first time he was so taken by her that he called Apelles to paint her in the nude. But then he realized that the painter had fallen in love with her – such things happen between artists and their models. Do you know what he did? He gave Pancaspe to Apelles in return for the painting. Alexander never lets himself be shackled to anything, not even to love, I’m afraid. I tell you, he’s a dangerous man.’
Barsine looked him in the eyes, ‘And you? Have you let yourself be won over by love?’
Memnon returned her gaze. ‘Love is the only opponent I accept defeat from.’
Their sons arrived to say goodnight before retiring and they kissed both father and mother.
‘When can we come with you into battle, Father?’ the eldest asked.
‘There will be time,’ replied Memnon. ‘You must grow first.’ And then, when they had moved farther off, he added, lowering his head to his chest, ‘And you must decide which side you’re on.’
Barsine remained silent for some time.
‘What are you thinking of ?’ her husband asked.
‘Of the next battle, of the dangers that lie waiting for you, of the anguish of waiting and looking out from the tower for some sign of the messenger who will bring me news of whether you’re dead or alive.’
‘This is my life, Barsine. I am a professional soldier.’
‘I know, but knowing it doesn’t help. When will it take place?’
‘The clash with Alexander? Soon, even although I am against it in principle. Very soon.’
They finished supper with a sweet wine from Cyprus, then Memnon lifted his eyes to Apelles’s painting on the wall in front of him. The god Ares was depicted there without his weapons, which lay on the ground, on the grass, and the goddess Aphrodite was sitting alongside, naked, holding his head in her lap while his hands lay on her thighs.
He turned to Barsine and took her by the hand as he said, ‘Let’s go to bed.’
TOLEMY RETURNED FROM
his reconnaissance patrol along the perimeter wall of the camp and headed towards the main guardhouse in order to ensure that the night watches were properly organized.
He saw there was still a light burning in Alexander’s tent and walked towards it. Peritas dozed away in his kennel and did not even bother looking up. He walked past the guards and stuck his head in the tent as he asked, ‘Any chance of a cup of wine for a thirsty old soldier?’
‘I knew it was you as soon as your nose appeared,’ Alexander joked. ‘Come on, help yourself. I’ve already sent Leptine off to bed.’
Ptolemy poured himself a cup of wine from a jug and took a few sips. ‘What are you reading?’ he asked as he looked over the King’s shoulder.
The March of the Ten Thousand.’
Ah, Xenophon. He’s the one who manages to turn a retreat into something more glorious than the Trojan War.’
Alexander scribbled a note on a sheet, put his dagger on the scroll to keep his place, and lifted his head. ‘It’s actually an extraordinarily interesting book. Listen to this:
As soon as it came to be late in the afternoon, it was time for the enemy to withdraw. For in no instance did the barbarians encamp at a distance of less than sixty stadia from the Greek camp, out of fear that the Greeks might attack them during the night. For a Persian army at night is a sorry thing. Their horses are tethered, and usually hobbled also to prevent their running away if they get loose from the tether, and hence in case of any alarm a Persian has to put a bridle and other tack on his horse, and then has also to put on his own breastplate and mount his horse – and all these things are difficult at night and in the midst of confusion.’
Ptolemy nodded, ‘And do you think their army is really like that?’
‘Why not? Every army has its own customs and is very much used to them.’
‘So what have you been thinking about?’
‘Our scouts tell me the Persians have left Zeleia and are moving westwards. This means they’re coming towards us to block our way.’
‘Everything would seem to suggest that.’
‘Indeed. Listen to me now . . . if you were their commander, where exactly would you choose to block us off ?’
Ptolemy moved towards the board on which a map of Anatolia had been spread open. He took a lamp and passed it backwards and forwards from the coast towards the interior. Then he stopped. ‘There’s this river . . . what’s it called?’
‘It’s called the Granicus,’ replied Alexander. ‘They will probably lie in wait for us there.’
‘And you are planning to cross the river in the dark and attack them on the opposite bank before dawn. Am I right?’
Alexander continued poring over Xenophon, ‘I told you, this is a very interesting work. You ought to get yourself a copy.’
Ptolemy shook his head.
‘Oh no, the plan is excellent. It’s just that . . .’
‘Well . . . I don’t know. After your dance around Achilles’s tumulus and taking his weapons from the temple of Athena of Troy, I rather thought there might be a battle in the open field, in full daylight, ranks against ranks. What we might call a Homeric battle.’
‘Oh, it will be Homeric,’ replied Alexander. ‘Why do you think I’m having Callisthenes follow us around? But for now I have no intention of risking the life of even a single man, unless I have to. And you will have to adopt the same line.’
Ptolemy sat down to watch his King continue taking notes from the scroll there in front of him.
‘Memnon will be a hard nut to crack,’ he started again after a short while.
‘I know. Parmenion has told me all about him.’
‘And the Persian cavalry?’
‘Our spears are longer, the shafts stronger.’
‘Let’s hope that will be enough.’
‘The surprise factor and our will to win shall do the rest: at this stage we simply have no choice but to defeat them. Now, if you want my advice, go and get some rest. The trumpets will sound before dawn and we will march all day.’