“North” is not “Up”

Just a quick note here:

An annoyance when it comes to geographical discussion is the concept of “north” and the basic assumption that that direction will also be referred to as “up” or “upper”. The two best examples I know of both refute this assumption: Egypt had an “upper” and a “lower” kingdom. The Upper Kingdom was south and the Lower Kingdom was north since the Upper Kingdom was higher in elevation and up the Nile River; Macedonia had “upper” and “lower” regions as well, with the Upper Macedonian cantons being “up” in the mountains and upriver, but to the west, while lower was on the plain and centralized. North in the Macedonian kingdom was Palioura.

“Up” is a spacial term that is also used for rivers and the basic meaning, elevation.

“North” is a geographical concept of where the needle in the compass points.

Please do not confuse these again.

This is not one I had heard before

So Alexander died in 323 without a capable heir, and according to some sources he spoke one word to Perdikkas on his deathbed. In one account that word was “kratisto” (since I don’t know how to get scripts in here, all Greek words are latinized) which means “the strongest”, which implies that the people were going to slug it out. According to another account that word was krat’eroi (stronger), which has the same net effect as kratisto. What I find so interesting here (and this I got from the wikipedia article on Alexander) is that krat’eroi is an accent mark away from krater’oi, which is the dative form of Krateros, so the simplest meaning from it would be “to/for Krateros”.

Perdikkas understandably would have changed the word since he had no interest in Krateros succeeding, but it puts Alexander’s relationship with people and the position of officers into a whole new light. I find this fascinating, though I have not gone back to the sources to make sure that the wikipedia author is right on that account. The Greek is right though, and the statement is far from implausible.


The list of military figures throughout history who I am in awe of includes this somewhat obscure Mongol general, Ghengis Khan’s right hand man. I just finished reading Subotai the Valiant And while the book is not a serious academic exercise in any respect, it was an enjoyable read for someone dabbling in the time period.

What impresses me most about Subodei, the Mongols and their conquests was the apparent disregard for casualties; winning was all that mattered. In this particular warrior culture they continually went against opponents who vastly outnumbered them and always won, largely because of superior tactics, discipline and ferocity. For example, upon invading the Kwarzim Empire in central Asia the Mongols had two thrusts of their attack–the smaller force crossed over the Himalaya Mountains (not for the first time since they had also done so while circling around the Chin empire in China to attack from the south), while the larger thrust crossed a desert. The smaller force (think 20,000 troops) defeated an army of 50,000 upon getting back off the mountain, and the larger one massacred city after city.

Subodei ended up chasing the Shah west to the Caspian sea before being recalled whereupon he rode 1,200 miles in a bit over a week, campaigning some more, then returning to his force. Here he led his 30,000 troops on a reconnaissance mission that lasted three years, traveling 5,500 miles and winning numerous battles. On this scouting mission Subodei crushed the Georgian army (supposedly one of the greatest Christian armies in Europe) not once, but twice, entirely ending any hope they had of joining a crusade; then the Mongols entered Russia and smashed a joint army from the principalities. Even taking into account exaggeration, Subodei lost around 15,000 men in three years, a full half of his force, but killed upwards of 200,000 men in battle and countless other citizens. Survivors were a rarity from battles that the Mongols won simply because they gave chase and killed everyone.

Subodei had a brilliant tactical mind and an even better strategic one, making full use of his mobile forces and their ability to launch coordinated, continuous and ferocious attacks.

What Caused Alexander’s Death

Since I am basically out of ideas, I have decided to steal topics from Waldemar Heckel’s midterm essay topics.

The ancient sources suggest two possibly causes of death, both of which are likely wrong.

1) He drank himself to death. While drink may have impacted his later life, immediate cause of death was probably pneumonia and therefore not alcohol caused.

2) Someone had him poisoned. Like I said, pneumonia.

3) — this is what I think– Alexander campaigned continuously for fifteen years, marching with his men and receiving numerous wounds. The would that proved to be fatal was an arrow received jumping into an enemy fortress all alone. This arrow pierced his lung and took quite some time to heal. When pneumonia struck about a year and a half later his body simply could not cope.

Why I do what I do

I know I posted about the introduction to Livy back in January, but I want to bring it up again. Throughout the thesis process, one of the questions people keep throwing my direction is “Why are you writing this?” or “What relevance does your topic have?” (two variations on the same question).

There is value in studying history, even history several thousand years old. In the case of Greece and Rome there is something to be said for learning the roots of Western Civilization, but when you get into particulars in those societies, this value becomes obscured simply because you are not looking at the broad spectrum of influence. Instead you have what to most people seem inanities of the subject that you obsess over without any tangible practical value. Further, it is all too possible to get worked up over a piece of minutiae that someone who doesn’t know the subject looks at without understanding in the least why you refuse to remove it, but insist that it is a crucial point.

Therefore when I am asked those two questions above, my first reaction is that there is no great value and you should only read it if you are genuinely interested, because otherwise it is just a waste of time for all parties. I do not claim that my writing is good enough, profound enough or relevant enough to life to cause an epiphany for the reader. If it draws them in and makes them want to know more, then I have done my job, but I will leave epiphanies to self help authors and priests, because that is just not what history is really about. More and more I want to explain myself by throwing the (slightly modified) words of Livy back at the interrogator:

“The task of writing history…fills me, I confess with some misgiving, and even were I confident in the value of my work, I should hesitate to say so. I am aware that for historians to make extravagant claims is, and always has been, all too common: every writer on history tends to look down his nose at his less cultivated predecessors, happily persuaded that he will better them in point of style, or bring new facts to light. But however that may be, I shall find satisfaction in contributing, not, I hope, ignobly…”

Livy wrote history as a distraction from his troubled times and because he wanted to. For these reasons I feel close to him. I, as he once did, want to discover the truth, figure out what happened and explain it.

Money, money, money

I don’t remember off hand whether the 5,000 talents Harpalos requisitioned before beating his way out of Babylon were of gold or silver, but in either situation it is a lot of money and weighed a lot. For those who don’t know the story, this guy really liked to spend money–more than any trophy wife I have ever heard of– and when Alexander was returning from India he was also punishing people who were corrupt. Harpalos, the treasurer for the entire empire, decided to run away rather than face his cousin and left Babylong with 5,000 talents, which weighed around 140 tons.

If these talents were of silver, then the rough modern estimate for value is around 32.5 million dollars US. That is a lot of money, but not that huge an amount. Yes, it is enough that Alexander probably had to go chase him down and try and get it back, but not a jaw dropping amount (outside of the weight).

If the talents were of gold, however, the lower end for modern estimated value is 1.5 billion dollars. Yes, billion. The upper end for the estimate is around 3.3 billion. This amount is absolutely ridiculous and with that amount of money Harpalos could quite effectively make friends to oppose Alexander. Now I would be pissed if someone stole 32.5 million bucks from me, but I would be hiring hitmen and hunting that bastard down myself not even pausing to eat, sleep, or anything if someone stole 1.5 billion, let alone 3.3.

Yeah, that is a lot of money.

I am also willing to state right out that I think Diodorus has his wires crossed when it came to the Egyptian treasury Ptolemy inherited. He says that there were 80,000 talents in Egypt. If it was all silver that is around 520 million dollars, if all gold the upper limit is around 52.8 billion in modern equivalence–that is the amount saved, not the amount of income. Hyperbole anyone?

Biography and History

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Biography — 1 : a usually written history of a person’s life
History —
1: tale, story 2 a: a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes

What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone says they are reading a biography? It seems the usual answer is that they are reading a book about someone’s life. In particular this book will recount where and when the subject was born, what happened during their life (e.g. career, marriage(s), relationships, acquaintances, accomplishments, major events), and then, of course, their death.

The definition above is quite apt. What we think of when we think biography is an encapsulated history of one specific person, the key word being “history”. As for history, the above definition also covers what the modern idea of “history” is: a record of what goes on.

In antiquity both of these words had different meanings. A biography was not the history of someone’s life, but rather a selection of events from that life. The selected items did not convey a narrative of the life, but were chosen for their moral value as lessons. Today we are forced to use them as fact simply because we lack other sources, but that was not their intent.

History, too, was different. Etymologically “history” is related to the latin word “story” or “narrative”, but goes back further to Greek where it is “to inquire” and related to the word for “arbiter”. Therefore, the root meaning of history is to inquire into events and make judgments about them–both in terms of their accuracy, and the intent of the participants, not simply to be an annalist.

This rant inspired by a friend discussing R.G. Collingwood.