Friday, January 7

The Death of Clitus

In the spring of 329 BC, the Macedonian army of Alexander, crossing the Hindu Kush, as well as the Vakhsu (Oxus or Amu Darya) between Balkh and Termez, moved towards Maracanda; and, after a fierce fight, seized the town. Settling into the garrison, Alexander divided his commands, launching armies east and west, towards Ferghana Valley and the Hungry Steppe. The Sogdians put up strong guerilla resistance in the countryside, and small roving bands harassed the Greeks, fighting to the last man if cornered. The bitter hit-and-run struggle of the Sogdians went on for several years, led by the warlord Spitamen or Spitamaneh, none other than the betrayer of Bessus (in his turn betrayer of Darius) to Alexander (see post on Shakhrisabz below.)

As Alexander progressed through Central Asia, he seems to have slowly turned from being a charismatic general to a disliked bully (if not a downright despised tyrant.) It was during his campaign in Maracanda that Alexander created an indelible stain on his name. From the Historians' History of the World:


During this halt at Maracanda (Samarcand), 328-327 B.C., the memorable banquet occurred wherein Alexander murdered Clitus. Clitus had saved his life at the battle of the Granicus, by cutting off the sword arm of the Persian Spithridates, when already uplifted to strike him from behind. Since the death of Philotas, the important function of general of the companion cavalry had been divided between Hephaestion and Clitus. Moreover, the family of Clitus had been attached to Philip, by ties so ancient, that his sister, Lanice, had been selected as the nurse of Alexander himself when a child. Two of her sons had already perished in the Asiatic battles. If, therefore, there were any man who stood high in the service, or was privileged to speak his mind freely to Alexander, it was Clitus.

In this banquet at Maracanda, when wine, according to the Macedonian habit, had been abundantly drunk, and when Alexander, Clitus, and most of the other guests were already nearly intoxicated, enthusiasts or flatterers heaped immoderate eulogies upon the king's previous achievements. They exalted him above all the most venerated legendary heroes; they proclaimed that his superhuman deeds proved his divine paternity, and that he had earned an apotheosis like Hercules, which nothing but envy could withhold from him even during his life. Alexander himself joined in these boasts, and even took credit for the later victories of the reign of his father, whose abilities and glory he depreciated. To the old Macedonian officers, such an insult cast on the memory of Philip was deeply offensive. But among them all, none had been more indignant than Clitus, with the growing insolence of Alexander — his assumed filiation from Zeus Ammon, which put aside Philip as unworthy — his preference for Persian attendants, who granted or refused admittance to his person — his extending to Macedonian soldiers the contemptuous treatment habitually endured by Asiatics, and even allowing them to be scourged by Persian hands and Persian rods. The pride of a Macedonian general in the stupendous successes of the last five years, was effaced by his mortification, when he saw that they tended only to merge his countrymen amidst a crowd of servile Asiatics, and to inflame the prince with high-flown aspirations transmitted from Xerxes or Ochus. But whatever might be the internal thoughts of Macedonian officers, they held their peace before Alexander, whose formidable character and exorbitant self estimation would tolerate no criticism.

At the banquet of Maracanda, this long-suppressed repugnance found an issue, accidental, indeed, and unpremeditated, but for that very reason all the more violent and unmeasured. The wine, which made Alexander more boastful, and his flatterers fulsome to excess, overpowered altogether the reserve of Clitus. He rebuked the impiety of those who degraded the ancient heroes in order to make a pedestal for Alexander. He protested against the injustice of disparaging the exalted and legitimate fame of Philip, whose achievements he loudly extolled, pronouncing them to be equal, and even superior, to those of his son. For the exploits of Alexander, splendid as they were, had been accomplished, not by himself alone, but by that unconquerable Macedonian force which he had found ready made to his hands; whereas those of Philip had been his own — since he had found Macedonia prostrate and disorganised, and had to create for himself both soldiers and a military system. The great instruments of Alexander's victories had been Philip's old soldiers, whom he now despised, and among them Parmenion, whom he had put to death.

Remarks such as these, poured forth in the coarse language of a half intoxicated Macedonian veteran, provoked loud contradiction from many, and gave poignant offence to Alexander; who now for the first time heard the open outburst of disapprobation, before concealed and known to him only by surmise. But wrath and contradiction, both from him and from others, only made Clitus more reckless in the outpouring of his own feelings, now discharged with delight after having been so long pent up. He passed from the old Macedonian soldiers to himself individually. Stretching forth his right hand towards Alexander, he exclaimed, " Recollect that you owe your life to me; this hand preserved you at the Granicus. Listen to the outspoken language of truth, or else abstain from asking freemen to supper, and confine yourself to the society of barbaric slaves." All these reproaches stung Alexander to the quick. But nothing was so intolerable to him as the respectful sympathy for Parmenion, which brought to his memory one of the blackest deeds of his life — and the reminiscence of his preservation at the Granicus, which lowered him into the position of a debtor towards the very censor under whose reproof he was now smarting. At length wrath and intoxication together drove him into uncontrollable fury. He started from his couch, and felt for his dagger to spring at Clitus; but the dagger had been put out of reach by one of his attendants. In a loud voice and with the Macedonian word of command, he summoned the bodyguards and ordered the trumpeter to sound an alarm. But no one obeyed so grave an order, given in his condition of drunkenness. His principal officers, Ptolemy, Perdiccas, and others, clung round him, held his arms and body, and besought him to abstain from violence; others at the same time tried to silence Clitus and hurry him out of the hall, which had now become a scene of tumult and consternation. But Clitus was not in a humour to confess himself in the wrong by retiring; while Alexander, furious at the opposition now, for the first time, offered to his will, exclaimed that his officers held him in chains as Bessus had held Darius, and left him nothing but the name of a king. Though anxious to restrain his movements, they doubtless did not dare to employ much physical force; so that his great personal strength, and continued efforts, presently set him free. He then snatched a pike from one of the soldiers, rushed upon Clitus, and thrust him through on the spot, exclaiming, "Go now to Philip and Parmenion."


No sooner was the deed perpetrated than the feelings of Alexander underwent an entire revolution. The spectacle of Clitus, a bleeding corpse on the floor — the marks of stupefaction and horror evident in all the spectators, and the reaction from a furious impulse instantaneously satiated — plunged him at once into the opposite extreme of remorse and self-condemnation. Hastening out of the hall, and retiring to bed, he passed three days in an agony of distress, without food or drink. He burst into tears and multiplied exclamations on his own mad act; he dwelt upon the names of Clitus and Lanice with the debt of gratitude which he owed to each, and denounced himself as unworthy to live after having requited such services with a foul murder. His friends at length prevailed on him to take food, and return to activity. All joined in trying to restore his self-satisfaction. The Macedonian army passed a public vote that Clitus had been justly slain, and that his body should remain unburied; which afforded opportunity to Alexander to reverse the vote, and to direct that it should be buried by his own order. The prophets comforted him by the assurance that his murderous impulse had arisen, not from his own natural mind, but from a maddening perversion intentionally brought on by the god Dionysus, to avenge the omission of a sacrifice due to him on the day of the banquet, but withheld. Lastly, the Greek sophist or philosopher, Anaxarchus of Abdera, revived Alexander's spirits by well-timed flattery, treating his sensibility as nothing better than generous weakness; reminding him that in his exalted position of conqueror and Great King, he was entitled to prescribe what was right and just, instead of submitting himself to laws dictated from without. Callisthenes the philosopher was also summoned, along with Anaxarchus, to the king's presence, for the same purpose of offering consolatory reflections. But he is said to have adopted a tone of discourse altogether different, and to have given offence rather than satisfaction to Alexander."

Around 327 BC Alexander besieged the 14000 ft "Sogdian Crag" fortress of Ariamazes (now Hazrat-i-Sultan) on the southern slopes of the Hissar range. Asked to surrender, the Sogdians refused, taunting Alexander to send "men with wings" if he wanted them.

Alexander asked for volunteers; he found 300 Macedonian highlanders who had experience rock-climbing. Using tent pegs and flaxen lines, they climbed the cliff face at night, losing 30-odd of their number during the process. When they signaled their success to the troops below by waving, and Alexander sent a herald to tell the defenders that if they looked up, they would see that he had found his winged men. The psychological pressure worked, the defenders were so surprised and demoralized that they surrendered, even though they outnumbered the mountaineers by a hundred to one, and Alexander's main force still had no way to reach the summit. Captured on the rock was Little Starlight, Roshanak, or Roxana, daughter of the Sogdian noble Vaksuvidarbha (Oxyartes) and soon to be Alexander's wife.

Spitamen himself is supposed to have fought on till meeting his end at Gabai in the steppes west of Maracanda. Quintus Curtius Rufus says:

Spitamen loved his wife passionately, and took her everywhere with him, and she bitterly endured the escape and banishment. Weary of the stress, she tried to convince him to capitulate. But he responded that he preferred death to captivity. At a feast, having gained sight of her husband who was intoxicated and asleep, the wife took out her sword that she had hidden under her clothes and cut his head off, and, covered in his blood, she handed the head to her slave, the accomplice of the crime. Accompanied by him, without changing her bloody clothing, she appeared in the Macedonian camp... and handed Alexander Spitamen's head.

Michael Woods' retelling of Alexander's conquest of Sogdiana and Maracanda can be seen in the BBC special 'In The Footsteps Of Alexander.' The story is in three parts; the first one is below. The others are here and here. Pictured above is a museum bronze from Persepolis, speculated to be Roxana.


Post a Comment

<< Home