Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General
Indeed, this drastic decision made the conflicts in the Hellenic ; peninsula even more acute: throughout Greece there was no city or village that did not have both a pro-Macedonian and an anti-Macedonian faction.
Philip, for his part, felt ever closer to Zeus, father of all the gods, in terms of glory and of power. He felt this way even : though the continuous conflicts into which he threw himself ‘like an angry ram’, to use his own words, were beginning to take their toll. He drank heavily during the intervals between one campaign and the next and he let himself go in excesses of all kinds during binges that lasted from dusk to dawn.
Queen Olympias, however, was becoming increasingly withdrawn, dedicating herself to caring for her children and to religious worship. Philip came to her bed rarely now and when he did there was no satisfaction for either of them. She was cold and distant and he would leave humiliated by the meetings, realizing that his desperate and hurried passion left the Queen unmoved and numbed.
Olympias was a woman whose character was no weaker than her husband’s, and she guarded her own dignity jealously. In her brother, and in her son especially, she saw the young men who one day would be the true custodians of that dignity, restoring to her the prestige and the power that were hers by right and which Philip’s arrogance stripped from her, day by day throughout his reign.
Official religious functions constituted an obligation for the Queen, but they were clearly lacking in any real meaning for her. She was sure that the gods of Olympus, if they had ever existed, had no interest in human affairs at all. She was more intrigued by other cults, especially that of Dionysus, a mysterious god capable of taking hold of the human mind and transforming it, dragging it into a vortex of violent emotion and atavistic feeling.
Word was that she had been secretly initiated and that by night she took part in the god’s orgies which involved drinking wine mixed with potent drugs and dancing to the point of exhaustion and hallucination, all this to the rhythm of primitive musical instruments. In this state she felt as though she were running through the woods at night, her fine royal vestments left torn to rags on the branches as she chased wild beasts, caught them and ate their still-throbbing flesh. Then she would fall exhausted, succumbing to a leaden sleepiness, on what seemed to be a blanket of fragrant moss.
And in this state of semi-consciousness she saw the divinities and the creatures of the woods come timidly out of their dens: the nymphs with their skin as green as the leaves of the trees, the satyrs with their bristly coats, half-men and half-goats, approaching a simulacrum of the god’s gigantic phallus, crowning it with ivy and vine-leaves, soaking it with wine. And then the orgy exploded, all of them drinking undiluted wine and throwing themselves into feral couplings that would lead them into direct contact, in that frenetic ecstasy, with Dionysus himself, possessed by his spirit.
Others came closer furtively, their phalluses enormously erect, avidly ogling Olympias’ nudity, eager to satisfy their animalistic lust…
And so the Queen, in secluded places known only to the initiates, abandoned herself to the depths of her wildest and most barbaric nature, to the rites that liberated the most aggressive and violent elements in her soul and body. Apart from these more extreme manifestations her life in truth consisted of all the usual things expected of any woman and spouse, and she was able to return to that life as though closing a solid interior door that cut out all memory and all feeling.
In the quiet of her rooms she taught Alexander all that a young boy could possibly learn of those cults; she told him of the adventures and journeys of the god Dionysus who had travelled together
with his cortege of satyrs and sileni wearing crowns of vine-leaves as
far as the land of tigers and panthers, as far as India.
But if his mother’s influence was important in moulding Alexander’s spirit, even more so was the daunting education administered according to his father’s will and wishes.
Philip had ordered Leomdas, official director of the boy’s schooling, to organize his son’s learning without neglecting anything and so, as Alexander progressed, other teachers, trainers and instructors were summoned to court.
As soon as Alexander was able to appreciate poetry, Leonidas began to read him the works of Homer, particularly the Iliad, because it presented the codes of honour and bearing that were appropriate to a royal prince of the house of the Argeads. In this way the old teacher began to win not only the minds of Alexander and his young companions, but their hearts too. However, the rhyme that announced Leonidas’ arrival in class was still to be heard echoing through the corridors of the palace:
Ek kori kori korone! Ek kori kori korone!
‘Here he is, here’s the old crow!’
Together with Alexander, Hephaestion listened to the poetry of Homer, and the two boys, enrapt, pictured in their minds’ eye all those extraordinary adventures the
story of the titanic struggle in which the strongest men and the most beautiful women in the world had taken part, joined even by the gods themselves, all of them with parts to play and sides to take.
By now Alexander was perfectly aware of who he was, of the universe that rotated around him and the destiny for which he was being prepared.
The models presented to him were those of heroism, of resistance to pain, of honour and respect for one’s word, of sacrifice to the point of offering one’s life. And he followed these models day after day, not out of the diligence of the disciple, but out of his own natural inclination.
Gradually his nature revealed itself for what it was: at one and the same time it displayed the brutal aggressiveness of his father the
royal temper that could flash like lightning together with the mysterious charm of his mother, her curiosity for the unknown, her hunger for mystery.
He cherished his mother deeply. It was an almost morbid bond, while he held his father in limitless esteem. Over time, however, this admiration gradually evolved into a desire for competition, an ever stronger will to emulate him. Indeed, there came a day when the frequent news of Philip’s successes seemed to sadden rather than please Alexander. He began to think that if his father conquered everything, then there would be no space left for him to demonstrate his own worth and valour.
He was still too young to be able to understand just how big the world is.
Occasionally, on entering Leonidas’ classroom along with his companions for their lessons, he would bump into a sad-looking youngster, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years of age, who always rushed off without stopping to speak.
‘Who is that boy?’ he asked his teacher one day.
That’s no concern of yours,’ replied Leonidas, briskly changing the subject.
Ever since becoming king, Philip’s greatest ambition had been to bring Macedon into the Greek world, but he well knew that to achieve this goal would inevitably require the use of brute force. For this reason he had dedicated all his resources to making his country a modern power, pulling it up out of its condition as a tribal land of herdsmen and livestock farmers.
He had developed agriculture on the plains, bringing skilled experts from the Greek islands and cities of Asia Minor, and he had intensified mining activity on Mount Pangaeos, extracting up to a thousand talents per annum of gold and silver.
He had imposed his authority on the tribal leaders and made them dependent on him either through force or through matrimonial alliances. He had also created an army the likes of which had never been seen before, consisting of enormously powerful heavy infantry, extremely mobile light infantry and squadrons of cavalry that had no reason whatsoever to fear any force in the Aegean area.
But all this had not been enough for him to be accepted as Greek. And not only Demosthenes, but also many other orators and men of politics in Athens, Corinth, Megara and Sicyon continued to call him Philip the Barbarian.
For the Greeks the Macedonian accent, which was influenced by the speech of the uncivilized peoples pressing on Macedon’s northern borders, was something laughable. Macedonian excesses in drinking, eating and lovemaking during their feasts, which regularly deteriorated into orgies, were similarly scorned. A state still based on blood ties rather than rights of citizenship, ruled over by a king who governed absolutely and was above all laws, was considered barbaric.
Philip attained his objective when he finally defeated the Phocaeans in the sacred war and had them expelled from the council of the sanctuary, the noblest and most prestigious assembly of all Greece. The two votes held by their representatives were assigned to the King of Macedon, who was also granted the great honour of being appointed president of the Pythian Games, the most important after the Olympics.
This was the crowning glory of ten years of concerted effort and it coincided with the tenth birthday of his son, Alexander.
In that same period a great Athenian orator by the name of Isocrates delivered a speech in which he praised Philip as protector of the Greeks and as the only man who could ever hope to quash the barbarians of the Orient, the Persians who for over a century had threatened Hellenic civilization and freedom.
Alexander was kept fully informed of these events by his teachers and the news worried him greatly. He felt grown up enough now to take on his role in the country’s history, but he well knew that he was still too young to be able to act.
As the Prince grew, his father dedicated more and more time to him, almost as though he considered him a man, while still keeping him out of his most daring projects. Philip’s objective was not in fact domination of peninsular Greece: that was only a means. His ambitions lay much further, beyond the sea, towards the limitless territories of all Asia.
Sometimes, during his periods of rest in the palace at Pella, he would take Alexander up to the highest tower after dinner and would point towards the eastern horizon, where the moon was rising over the wave-furrowed sea.
‘Do you know what’s over there, Alexander?’
‘Asia, Father,’ came the reply. ‘The land where the sun rises.’
‘And do you know how big Asia is?’
‘My geography teacher, Cratippus, says it’s bigger than ten thousand stadia.’
‘He’s wrong, my son. Asia is a hundred times bigger than that. When I was fighting on the River Ister, I met a Scythian warrior who spoke Macedonian. He told me that beyond the river there extends a plain, vast as a sea, and then mountains so big they pierce the sky with their peaks. He explained that there are deserts so wide it takes months to cross them and that on the other side there are mountains rich in precious gemstones -lapis lazuli, rubies, cornelian.
‘He told me that on those plains run herds of thousands of fiery-tempered horses, indefatigable, capable of running for days over the infinite expanses. “There are regions,” he said, “gripped in the ice, locked in the dark bitterness of night for half the year, and then others burned up by the blazing sun throughout the seasons, places where not even a blade of grass grows, where the snakes are poisonous and the sting of a scorpion kills in an instant.” That is Asia, my son.”
Alexander looked at his father, saw his eyes smouldering with dreams and understood what was burning in his soul.
More than a year had passed since that night in the tower when one morning Philip suddenly entered Alexander’s room ‘Put on your Thracian trousers and get yourself a rough woollen cloak. No insignias and no ornament. We leave immediately.’
‘Where are we going?’
“I have already had them prepare the horses and the food; we’ll be away for some days. I want to show you something.’
Alexander asked no more questions. He dressed as he had been told to, looked in for a moment at the door of his mother’s apartments to say goodbye, and quickly went down into the courtyard where a small escort from the royal cavalry and two steeds were waiting.
Philip was already on his mount. Alexander jumped onto his own horse and they all galloped out of the palace through the open gate.
They rode for several days towards the east, first along the coast, then through the interior, then again on the coast. They! passed Thermal, Apollonia and Amphipolis, stopping at night in small country inns and eating traditional Macedonian food -roast goat’s meat, game, mature sheep’s milk cheese and bread baked in the embers of the fire.
After leaving Amphipolis they started weaving their way up a steep path until, quite suddenly, they saw a desolate landscape there before them. The mountain had been stripped of its wooded cover, and everywhere there were mutilated trunks and carbonized tree stumps. The land, laid bare by the destruction of its greenery, was pitted with excavations in several places and at the entrance to each cave-like hole there stood enormous piles of rubble, like giant anthills.
A relentless drizzle began to fall and the cavalry escort pulled their hoods over their heads as they urged the horses forward. The main bridleway soon forked into a labyrinth of pathways on which a multitude of ragged and emaciated men were walking, their skin darkened and wrinkly, all carrying heavy baskets full of rocks.
A little way beyond, a column of dense black smoke rose into the sky in lazy coils, spreading a thick soot over the entire area which made breathing difficult.
‘Cover your mouth with your cloak,’ Philip abruptly ordered his son.
A strange silence lay everywhere and there was not even any sound from the movement of all those feet, muffled as they were by the thick mud the rain had made of the dust.
Alexander looked around in amazement: this was how he had imagined Hades, the kingdom of the dead, and the sight brought some lines from Homer to mind:
There lie the realm and region of the Men of Winter hidden in mist and cloud. Never the flaming eye of Helios lights on those men at morning, when he climbs the sky of stars, nor in descending earthward out of heaven, ruinous night being rove over those wretches.*
* The Odyssey, Book XI (translated by Robert Fitzgerald).
Then, suddenly, the silence was broken by a dark, rhythmic noise, almost like the fist of a giant Cyclops beating monstrously on the tormented slopes of the mountain. Alexander spurred his horse on by digging in his heels; he wanted to see what was making the tremendous noise which now seemed so strong as to make the ground shake.
They came over a rocky crest, and Alexander saw ahead of him the point where all the pathways came to an end. There was a gigantic machine, a sort of tower of large wooden beams and uprights, and it supported a pulley at its highest point. A hemp rope held a colossal drop hammer, made of iron, while at the other end the rope was wrapped around a winch operated by hundreds of poor souls. They pushed the winch to make the rope turn around the drum, thus raising the hammer inside the wooden tower.
When the hammer reached the top, one of the overseers unhooked the brake, freeing the drum of the winch which then spun in the opposite direction because of the weight of the hammer. The hammer fell freely to earth, smashing the rocks that were tipped inside continuously from the baskets carried bodily across the mountain.
The men gathered the smashed mineral material, filled other baskets with it and then took it away along other paths to an open area. Here it was crushed more finely in mortars and then washed in the waters of a torrent, channelled through a series of weirs and ramps, separating the gold granules and dust from the smashed rock.
‘These are the mines of Mount Pangaeos,’ Philip explained. ‘With this gold I have armed and equipped our army, I have built our palaces, I have developed Macedon’s strength.’
‘Why have you brought me here?’ asked Alexander, his profound distress apparent in his voice. While he was asking the question one of the labourers collapsed to the ground and almost ended up beneath his horse’s hooves. An overseer made sure the man was dead, then nodded to another two poor wretches who put their baskets to one side, took the body by the feet and dragged it away.
‘Why have you brought me here?’ Alexander asked again. And Philip saw the leaden sky reflected in the dark expression on his son’s face.
‘You have not yet seen the worst of it,’ he replied. ‘Do you feel up to going underground?’
‘I am not afraid of anything,’ stated the boy.
‘Follow me then.’
The King dismounted and moved towards the entrance of one of the caves. The overseer who challenged him, holding up his whip, suddenly stopped in shock, recognizing the golden star of the Argeads on Philip’s chest.
Philip simply nodded and the overseer stood back, lit a lantern and prepared to guide them underground.
Alexander followed his father, but as soon as he entered the cave he felt himself suffocating in the unbearable stench of human urine, sweat and excrement. They had to crouch, sometimes with their backs almost bent double, in a narrow passageway full of the din of continuous hammering, of a general breathlessness, of coughing, of the guttural rattles of death.
The overseer stopped occasionally where a group of men were working with their picks to extract the mineral-bearing rock. Here and there they stopped at the edge of a pit and down at the bottom the feeble glow of a lantern illuminated a bony back, joined to skeletal arms.
Once or twice the miners, down in these pits, on hearing the approach of footsteps or voices, lifted their heads and so Alexander witnessed the masks of men disfigured by fatigue, by illness and by the horror of living such a life.
Further on, at the bottom of one pit, they saw a corpse.
‘Many of them commit suicide,’ the overseer explained. ‘They throw themselves on their picks or stab themselves with their chisels.’
Philip turned to look at Alexander. The Prince was silent and