Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General
‘Not one word of what I am about to tell you must go beyond these walls,’ was Philip’s opening. ‘Arses, King of the Persians, has been assassinated and a prince of a side branch of the family has been put on the throne; his name is Darius III and, as far as we know, he is not lacking in dignity but, for a considerable period of time, he will be very busy consolidating his own power.
‘This is therefore the right moment for us to act. Attalus and Parmenion will leave as soon as possible with an army of fifteen thousand men. They will move into Asia, occupy the eastern shore of our sea and announce my proclamation of freedom for the Greek cities currently under Persian rule. In the meantime I will complete the mobilization of the army before joining you and beginning the invasion.’
The rest of the meeting was dedicated to considering details of the logistical, political and military problems related to the initial campaign. But what struck those present more than anything was the King’s muted tone, the absence of the enthusiasm and the drive they had become accustomed to.
The King was so out of sorts that Parmenion, before leaving, approached him. ‘Is there something wrong, Sire? Perhaps your health is troubling you?’
Philip put a hand on his general’s shoulder as he accompanied him to the door. ‘No, my old friend, no, everything’s fine.’
Philip was lying. Alexander’s absence, something he hadn’t even considered initially, was a growing torment with every day that passed. As long as the boy had been in Epirus with his mother and his uncle, Philip had only worried about forcing him to return and submit publicly to his will. But Alexander’s refusal to do so and now his flight northwards had brought anger, apprehension and worry.
If anyone tried to intercede for Alexander, Philip became furious when he thought about the outrage he had suffered. But then if no one spoke about the affair he fretted over the lack of news. He had activated his spies everywhere, he had sent messengers to the kings and tribal chiefs of the north, his clients, asking them to keep him continually informed of the movements of Alexander and Hephaestion. Thus he discovered that the group had grown with the arrival of another six young warriors who had arrived from Thessaly, from Acarnania and Athamania it
wasn’t difficult to guess who they were.
Alexander’s troop was almost completely reunited and Philip was always warning Parmenion to take care that Philotas, his son, didn’t slip off to join that band of wretches wandering purposeless through the snows of Illyria. And he was also suspicious of Eumenes, almost as though he expected him to abandon his office and his papers from one moment to the next in favour of adventure.
Sometimes, completely alone, he travelled to the old palace at Aegae. He would sit for hours watching the white flakes of snow as they fell on the silent countryside, on the woods of blue firs, on the small valley from which his dynasty originated, and he thought of Alexander and his friends travelling through the frozen villages of the north.
It was as though he could actually see them struggling through blizzards, their horses sinking up to their bellies in the snow, the wind cracking through their torn clothes, encrusted with ice. He turned his eyes to the great stone fireplace, to the big oak logs that surrendered their hear to the ancient walls of the throne room as they burned, and he imagined his boys piling up sodden logs in make-do shelters, struggling for ages, exhausted, just to light a meagre fire. Or at night, sleepless, standing guard with their spears ready when the howling of the wolves came too close for comfort.
Then, with the approach of spring, the news really did start to become more worrying, but not in the way that everyone might have expected. Not only had Alexander and his troop managed to survive the hardships of the winter, but they had now offered themselves as allies of some of the tribal chiefs who lived on the Macedonian border and had taken sides in the
internecine struggles of these peoples, helping them secure pacts of friendship or even surrender on the battlefield. These developments, sooner or later, could even have posed a threat to Philip’s sovereignty.
There was something irresistible in the boy that charmed all those who came into contact with him men,
women, and even animals. Bucephalas was a case in point: how to explain his having been able to mount that black demon and tame him at the first attempt as if he were a lamb?
And how could one explain the fact that Peritas, a beast capable of shattering a thick pork bone with one snap of his jaws, lay there pining, eating virtually nothing, guarding the road along which his master had disappeared?
Then there was Leptine, the girl he had saved from the hell of Mount Pangaeos: every day she prepared Alexander’s bed and bath, as if he was due to return at any moment. And she never had anything to say to anyone.
Philip also began to worry about the stability of his relations with the realm of Epirus, seriously compromised by the presence of Olympias alongside the young King, her brother. The all-consuming hatred she held within could easily push her to carry out any madness simply to harm him, to upset his political and his familial plans. King Alexander was certainly a friend, but there was no doubt he also felt close to his nephew, a homeless exile drifting through barbarian territory. Alexander of Epirus had to be made to feel some further bond with Pella, while Queen Olympias, with her malevolent influence, had to be isolated. For Philip there was only one possible solution and there was no time to lose.
One day he sent for his daughter Cleopatra, the last member of his first family who remained at court in Pella.
The Princess was in the full ripeness of her eighteen years. Her eyes were large and green, her hair long with copper highlights and her body was worthy of an Olympic goddess. There was no Macedonian nobleman who didn’t dream of taking her as his bride.
‘It is time you married, my child,’ Philip said to her.
Cleopatra lowered her head. ‘I imagine you have already chosen my husband.’
‘Indeed,’ Philip confirmed. ‘King Alexander of Epirus, your mother’s brother.’
The girl stood motionless in silence, but it was clear that she was not too disappointed in her father’s decision. Her uncle was a handsome and valiant young man, much esteemed by his subjects and similar to Alexander in terms of character.
‘Have you nothing to say?’ the King asked her. ‘Perhaps you were expecting someone else?’
‘No, Father. I know that this choice is your prerogative and therefore I would never have thought of considering anyone in particular because I would never want to go against your wishes. There is just one thing I would like to ask you.’
‘Tell me, my child.’
‘Will my brother Alexander be invited to the wedding?’
Philip abruptly turned his back to her, as if he had suddenly been on the receiving end of a whiplash: ‘As far as I am concerned, your brother no longer exists,’ he said in a cold voice.
Cleopatra burst into tears. ‘But why, Father? Why?’
‘You know why. You were there. You saw how he humiliated me in front of the representatives of all the Greek cities, in front of my generals and all the notables of Macedon.’
‘But, Father, he …’
‘Don’t you dare defend him!’ shouted the King. ‘I summoned Aristotle here to educate him, I commissioned Lysippus to sculpt his image, I minted coins bearing his portrait. Do you understand what all that means? No, my child, the insult and the injury have been too great, too much …’
‘Father…’ the girl insisted again.
‘I told you not to speak up for him!’
‘But I have every intention of doing so. Yes … I was there that day and I saw my mother as pale as a corpse as she watched you, drunk, cup the breasts of your little bride in your hands
and proudly caress her belly. And Alexander saw Mother too and he truly loves her. Is there some reason why he shouldn’t? Should he wipe her from his life in the same way you have?’
Philip went wild with anger. ‘It’s her. It’s Olympias who has turned you against me! Isn’t that it?’ he shouted, red with anger. ‘You’re all against me now!’
Cleopatra threw herself at his feet and hugged his knees. ‘It’s not true, it’s not true, Father, all we want is for you to come back to your senses. Alexander has certainly made mistakes …’ and with these words Philip seemed to quieten down for a moment. ‘But don’t you understand? Can’t you just make one attempt to understand your son? What would you have done in his place? If someone in public had treated you as if you were illegitimate … a bastard? Wouldn’t you have defended your own and your mother’s honour? Isn’t that what you had always taught your son to do? And now that he resembles you, now that he behaves in the way you had always expected him to, you reject him. You wanted Achilles!’ continued Cleopatra, turning her face, moist with tears, towards her father. ‘You wanted Achilles and you’ve got him. Alexander’s wrath is Achilles’ wrath, Father!’
‘Fine! If Alexander’s is Achilles’ wrath, then mine is the wrath of Zeus himself!’
‘But he loves you, he loves you and he is suffering because of all this, I know …” and she sobbed as she fell to the floor.
Philip looked at her in silence for a moment, tightening his lips. Then he turned to leave.
‘Get ready,’ he said when he reached the door. ‘The wedding will take place in six months’ time,’ and he left.
Eumenes saw Philip return to his study with his troubles written all over his face, but he acted as though nothing were wrong and continued down the corridor, his arms full of rolls of papyrus.
Then, as soon as he heard the door shut, he turned back and put his ear to it. The King was crying.
‘Perhaps you’re right. My army will set out in a few days.’
‘All the more reason.’
‘Who would you choose?’
‘Well … I was thinking of…’
‘Arrhidaeaus. That’s who we’ll give them. My son Arrhidaeaus is a halfwit, he isn’t capable of creating trouble. And if he can’t manage the bed chamber stuff, I’ll take care of the bride personally. What’s she like?’
Eumenes took a small portrait on a tablet from the bag, certainly the work of a Greek painter, and showed it to him.
‘She looks very pretty, but you can never trust these things; then when you see them in real life you get the fright of your life…’
‘What shall I do?’
‘Write and tell them that I am moved and honoured by the proposal and that for the girl I have chosen the valiant Prince Arrhidaeaus young,
courageous in battle, of high sensibility and all the rest of that waffle you’re so good at writing. Then bring me the letter to sign.’
‘It is a wise decision, Sire. I will take care of it immediately,’ said Eumenes as he made for the door. But then he stopped, as though he had suddenly remembered something very important. ‘May I ask you a question, Sire?’
Philip looked at him with suspicion written all over his face. ‘About what?’
‘Who will command the army you are sending to Asia?’
‘Attalus and Parmenion.’
‘Excellent. Parmenion is a great soldier and Attalus …”
Philip stared at him pointedly.
‘I wanted to say that sending Attains away might favour…’
‘One word more and I’ll have your tongue cut out.’
Eumenes continued undeterred: ‘It’s time you called your son back here, Sire. There are many good reasons.’
‘Silence!’ shouted Philip.
‘Firstly, and above all else, it makes sense politically: how can you possibly convince the Greeks that they should live peacefully in a common alliance when you can’t even keep the peace in your own family?’
‘Silence!’ the King roared, banging his fist loudly on the table.
Eumenes felt his heart shrink and was certain his time had come, but he thought that in such a desperate situation it made sense to continue and die like a man and so, ‘Secondly, from a purely personal point of view, we all miss the boy terribly, your own self more than anyone, Sire.’
‘One more word and I’ll have the guards lock you up.’
‘And Alexander himself is suffering terribly because of all this.’
‘Guards!’ shouted Philip. ‘Guards!’
‘I assure you, it’s true. And Princess Cleopatra is permanently in tears as well.’
The guards entered with their weapons rattling.
‘I have a letter here from Alexander in which …’
The guards were just about to grab hold of him.
Alexander to Eumenes, Hail!
Philip made a gesture to stop his men.
I was glad to hear the things you wrote about my father -that he is well and that he is about to begin the great expedition against the barbarians in Asia.
The King made another gesture and the guards left the room. But having said this, the news also brings me great sadness.
Eumenes stopped and looked at the King: he was in some sort of shock, overcome by strong emotion, and his tired cyclops eye shone out from under his frowning forehead like a dying ember.
‘Continue,’ he said.
My dream has always been to follow my father in this grand enterprise and to ride by his side to show him how much I have tried, throughout my life, to live up to his valour and his greatness as King of Macedon.