Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General
apparently numbed by this experience, and the darkness of death had fallen over his eyes.
They exited on the other side of the mountain through a narrow passage, and there were the horses and their escort waiting for them.
Alexander stared at his father. ‘What have these people done to deserve this?’ he asked, his face waxen pale.
‘Nothing,’ replied the King. ‘Apart from being born.’
they remounted their horses and went down to the pass through the rain which had started falling once more. Alexander rode in silence alongside his father.
‘I wanted you to know that there is a price to be paid for everything. And I wanted you to know exactly what type of price as well. Our grandeur, our conquests, our palaces and our finery … all this must be paid for.’
‘But why them?’
‘There is no why or wherefore. The world is governed by fate. When they were born it was written that they would die in that way, just as our own destinies were established at our births, and the outcome will be kept hidden from us until the final moment.
‘Only man, among all living things, is capable both of rising up to touch the dwelling of the gods, and of sinking lower than a beast. You have already seen the home of the gods, you have lived in the home of a king, but I felt it was right that you should see what fate may have in store for a human being. Among those wretches there are men who perhaps one day were chiefs or nobles, and who have suddenly been plunged into this misery by fate.’
‘But if this is the destiny that may await all men, why not be merciful for as long as fortune smiles upon us?’
‘That is what I wanted to hear you say. You must be merciful whenever you can, but remember that nothing can be done to change the nature of things.’
At that moment Alexander saw a girl just slightly younger
than himself coming up the path; she was carrying two heavy baskets full of broad beans and chickpeas, probably for the overseers’ meal.
The Prince dismounted and stood in front of her: she was thin, barefoot, her hair dirty, her big dark eyes full of sadness.
‘What is your name?’ he asked her.
The girl did not reply.
‘She probably cannot speak,’ observed Philip.
Alexander turned to his father. ‘I can change her fate. I want to change it.’
Philip nodded. ‘You can, if you wish, but remember that your actions will not change the world.’
Alexander had the girl climb onto the horse, behind him, and he covered her with his cloak.
The sun was setting when they reached Amphipolis once more, and they spent the night in the house of a friend of the King. Alexander ordered that the girl should be washed and dressed and then he sat and watched her as she ate.
He tried to speak to her, but she replied in monosyllables and nothing of what she said was comprehensible.
‘It must be some barbarian tongue,’ Philip explained. ‘If you want to communicate with her, you’ll have to wait until she learns Macedonian.’
‘I will wait,’ replied Alexander.
The following day the weather improved and they continued on their return journey, once again crossing the bridge of boats over the Strymon, but on reaching Bromiskos, they turned to the south along the peninsula of Mount Athos. They rode throughout the day and at sunset reached a point where they could see before them an enormous trench which had been carved through the peninsula from one side to the other. Alexander pulled in the reins of his charger and sat immobile, speechless, looking at the gigantean work.
‘Do you see this canal?’ his father asked. ‘It was excavated almost one hundred and fifty years ago by Xerxes, the emperor of the Persians, to allow the passage of his fleet and to avoid the risk of its being shipwrecked on the cliffs of Mount Athos. Ten thousand men laboured on it, working shifts through day and night. And before this the emperor had had a bridge of boats built across the Bosphorus, uniting Asia with Europe.
‘In a few days’ time we will receive a delegation from the Great King of the Persians. I wanted you to have some inkling of the power of the empire with which we are negotiating.’
Alexander nodded and stared at the colossal feat for a long time without speaking; then, seeing his father set off once more, he dug his heels into the flanks of his horse and followed on behind.
‘There’s something I’d like to ask you,’ said Alexander as he rode alongside Philip.
‘I am listening.’
‘There is a boy in Pella who comes to Leonidas’ lessons, but he does not sit with us. On the few occasions I have met him he has avoided speaking to me and he is usually so very sad, melancholic even. Leonidas won’t explain who he is, but I am sure you must know.’
‘He is your cousin, Amyntas,’ replied Philip without turning. ‘Son of my brother who died in battle fighting an Illyrian tribe. Before you were born he was heir to the throne and I governed in his place as regent.’
‘You mean he should be king?’
‘The throne belongs to whoever is able to defend it,’ replied Philip. ‘Remember that. And in our country whoever has come to power has always eliminated all pretenders to the throne.’
‘But you let Amyntas live.’
‘He is my brother’s son, and he poses no threat to me.’
‘You have been… merciful.’
‘If you like.’
Philip turned; Alexander only called him ‘Sire’ when he was angry with him or when he wanted to ask a very serious question.
‘If you were to die in battle, who would be the heir to the throne Amyntas
‘The worthier of the two.’
The boy asked nothing else, but the reply made a deep impression on him and marked his soul for ever.
They reached Pella three days later and Alexander gave Artemisia the job of looking after the girl he had saved from the horrors of Mount Pangaeos.
‘From now onwards,’ he affirmed, with a certain childish haughtiness, ‘she will be in my service. And you will teach her everything she needs to know.’
‘But does she at least have a name?’ asked Artemisia.
‘I know not. I, however, will call her Leptine.’
‘That’s nice … suits a little girl.’
That day news came of the death of old Nicomachus. The King was most sorry because he had been an excellent physician and had brought his son into the world.
In any case Nicomachus’s surgery was not closed, even though his son, Aristotle, had taken quite a different direction in life and was then in Asia, in the city of Atarneus, where he had founded a new school of philosophy on the death of his teacher, Plato.
It was Nicomachus’s young assistant, Philip, who continued to work in the surgery and he practised the profession with great skill and ability.
The youngsters who lived at court with Alexander had grown by now in both body and spirit and the inclinations they had displayed as infants were now for the most part consolidated. Those companions who were close to Alexander’s age, such as Hephaestion, who was by now his inseparable friend, Perdiccas and Seleucus, had become close to him and they formed a compact group, both in play and in study. Lysimachus and Leonnatus, with the passing of time, had adapted to communal life and they found outlets for their energies in games of physical effort and skill.
Leonnatus, especially, was keen on wrestling and for this reason he was always untidily dressed and covered in scratches and bruises. Older companions such as Ptolemy and Craterus were young men by now and had already for some time been receiving tough military training in the cavalry.
In this period a Greek by the name of Eumenes came to join the group. He worked as an assistant in the King’s chancellery and was much appreciated by virtue of his intelligence and wisdom. Philip wanted him to have the same schooling as the other youngsters and so Leonidas found a place for him in the dormitory. Leonnatus, however, immediately challenged the newcomer to a wrestling match.
‘If you want to earn your place here, you have to fight for it,’ he said, taking off his chiton and strutting around bare-chested.
Eumenes did not even look at him. ‘Are you crazy? I wouldn’t even dream of it.’ And he set about sorting out his clothes in the chest at the foot of his bed.
Lysimachus started making fun of him. ‘I told you. This Greek is just a little fart.’ Even Alexander started laughing.
Leonnatus gave the new lad a push and sent him rolling across the floor. ‘Come on then, are you ready to fight or what?’
Eumenes got up angrily, straightened his clothes and said, ‘Just a moment, I’ll be right back.’ He walked to the door, leaving them all speechless. As soon as he was outside he approached a soldier on guard duty on the upper balcony of the palace, a Thracian built like a bear. Eumenes pulled out some coins and put them in the soldier’s hand. ‘Come with me, I have a job for you.’ He entered the dormitory and pointed to Leonnatus: ‘See that one there with the freckles and the red hair?’ The giant nodded. ‘Good. Pick him up and give him a good hiding.’
Leonnatus realized immediately that the odds were stacked against him and he shot through the Thracian’s legs much as Ulysses must have done in giving the Cyclops Polyphemus the slip before taking off down the stairs.
‘Does anyone else have anything to say?’ asked Eumenes, starting to sort out his personal effects once again.
‘Yes. I do,’ said Alexander.
Eumenes stopped and turned towards him: ‘I’ll listen to you,’ he said, with evident respect in his voice, ‘because you’re the master here, but none of these birdheads has any right to call me “little fart”.’
Alexander burst out laughing. ‘Welcome to the gang, Mister Secretary General.’
From that moment onwards Eumenes was truly part of the group and he became ring leader in all sorts of jokes and pranks carried out at the expense of people throughout the palace, but more often than not it was their teacher, old Leonidas, who took the brunt of it all: lizards in his bed and live frogs in his lentil soup for example. Such activities constituted revenge for the tutor’s liberal use of the cane when his pupils failed to apply themselves sufficiently to their studies.
One evening Leonidas, who still directed their schooling, announced proudly that the following day their King would receive the Persian envoys and that he, too, would take part in the diplomatic proceedings because of his knowledge of Asia and the customs of the peoples there. He told them that the oldest among them would serve in the King’s guard of honour, wearing dress armour, while the youngest would carry out similar duties alongside Prince Alexander.
The news created much excitement among Leonidas’ pupils: none of them had ever seen a Persian before and what they knew of Asia came from their readings of Herodotus or Ctesias or the famous diary of Xenophon the Athenian the Anabasis, also known as the ‘march of the ten thousand’. They all set to polishing their weapons and preparing their ceremonial clothes.
‘My father once spoke to a man who was on the expedition of the ten thousand,’ Hephaestion recounted, ‘a man who saw the Persian armies line up against him at the battle of Kunaxa.’
‘Can you imagine, lads?’ Seleucus joined in. ‘A million men!’ and he put his hands in front of his face, opening them out like fans as though representing the huge advance of the warriors.
‘And the scythed chariots?’ Lysimachus exclaimed. ‘They fly like the wind across the plains, with scythes sticking out from underneath the carriage and from the hubs of the axles, and they mow down men like wheat. I wouldn’t like to find myself up against them on the battlefield.’
‘Tricks that create more fuss and panic than they cause real damage,’ Alexander said. Up until that moment he had been quiet, listening to his friends’ comments. ‘Xenophon says so in his diary. Anyway, we’ll all have a chance to see how the Persians really handle their weapons because my father the King has organized a lion hunt in Eordaea, in honour of our guests.’
‘Oh! And are the little ones to be allowed along as well?’ Ptolemy giggled.
Alexander took up position in front of his elder classmate: ‘I am thirteen years of age and I am afraid of nothing and of no one. Try saying that once more and I’ll send your teeth down your throat.’
Ptolemy bit his lip and the others stopped laughing. They had all learned not to provoke Alexander, even though he was not particularly well developed from a physical point of view. More than once he had demonstrated surprising energy and a lightning speed in his movements.
Eumenes piped up and suggested they should have a game of dice for their weekly allowance and that was the end of the argument. Much of the money ended up in Eumenes’ pockets because he was truly fond both of gambling and of gold.
Having cooled off a little, Alexander left his companions to their games and went to visit his mother before retiring. Although she still held considerable power at court as mother of the heir to the throne, Olympias now lived a very secluded life. Her meetings with Philip were limited almost exclusively to those occasions required by protocol.
In the meantime the King had married other women for
political reasons, but he still respected Olympias and, had she been less cantankerous and difficult, he would perhaps have shown that the passion he once held for her had not withered completely.
The Queen was sitting on a high-backed chair with armrests near a lamp with five flames, a papyrus scroll open on her knees. Her room, outside this circle of light, was completely dark.
Alexander entered briskly and quietly: ‘What are you reading, Mother?’
Olympias lifted her head: ‘Sappho,’ she replied. ‘Her poetry is wonderful and her feelings of solitude are so close to my own …’
She stood and walked to the window to look out at the starry sky and recited the lines she had just read, her voice vibrant and melancholic:
‘Night is midway through its course, The moon and the Pleiades have set And I lie in my bed … alone.’*
Alexander moved towards his mother, and in the hesitant light of the moon he saw a tear tremble for a moment on her eyelash before descending slowly, leaving a track down her pale cheek.
* Sappho, fragment 8
the master of ceremonies ordered the fanfare to be sounded and the Persian dignitaries made their impressive entrance into the throne room. The head of the delegation was the Satrap of Phrygia, Arsames, accompanied by the province’s military governor and other notables who followed some steps behind.
They were flanked by an escort of twelve Immortals, the soldiers of the imperial guard, all chosen for their daunting stature, their majestic bearing and the dignity of their lineage.
The Satrap wore a soft tiara, the most prestigious headdress after the rigid tiara, which only the Emperor himself was allowed to wear. His gown was of green byssus embroidered with silver dragons and he wore it over a pair of elaborate trousers and on his feet were antelope-skin slippers. The other dignitaries were also dressed in incredibly rich and refined vestments.
But what most attracted the attention of the onlookers were the Great King’s Immortals. Almost six feet tall and olive-skinned, they sported frizzy black beards and their hair had been sumptuously dressed and curled with a calamistrum. They wore ankle-length gowns of golden samite over tunics of blue byssus and trousers of the same colour embroidered with golden bees. Over their shoulders they carried their deadly double-curved bows and their quivers of cedar wood, inlaid with ivory and silver.
They moved forward in a slow rhythmic march, touching the floor with the shafts of their spears which terminated in golden pommels in the shape of pomegranates. Hanging at his hip each Immortal wore the most beautiful weapon that any