Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General
armourer in the known world had ever made -the dazzling akinake, a solid gold dagger sheathed in a scabbard which carried embossed patterns of rampant griffins with eyes of rubies. The scabbard was also made of the purest gold and hung from a swivel joint hooked onto the Immortals’ belts. This meant that the weapon swayed freely with each step they took and the glinting light of the precious metal lent yet more rhythm to the majesty of the warriors’ movement.
Philip, who had been expecting a display of grandeur of this type, had prepared an appropriate welcome each
side of the room was lined with two rows of thirty-six pezhetairoi, the well-built soldiers of his heavy front-line infantry. Encased in their bronze armour, they presented their shields, emblazoned with the silver star of the Argeads, and they gripped their sarissae, pikes twelve feet in length with shafts of cornel-wood. Their bronze heads were polished like mirrors and almost touched the ceiling.
Alexander, dressed in his first suit of armour a
suit which he himself had designed for the craftsman who made it was
surrounded by his personal guard and stood on a stool at his father’s feet. On the other side, at Queen Olympias’ feet, sat his sister, Cleopatra, only just adolescent and already stunningly beautiful. She wore an Attic peplum gown that left her arms and shoulders bare as it fell into elegant folds around her young breasts, and her feet were clad in sandals made of ribbons of silver.
On Teaching the throne, Arsames bowed to the royal couple before moving aside to allow the dignitaries to come forward with the gifts they bore: a belt of knitted gold with aquamarines and tiger-eyes for the Queen, and an inlaid Indian breastplate made out of a turtle shell for the King.
Philip had the master of ceremonies move forward with his gifts for the Emperor and the Empress: a Scythian helmet in gold and a Cypriot necklace of coral set in silver.
On completion of the formalities the guests were invited into the adjacent chamber where they sat on comfortable divans for discussion of the agreement that was on the day’s agenda. Alexander was allowed in as well, because Philip wanted him to begin to have an idea of the responsibilities of a man of government and how a relationship with a foreign power should be managed.
The negotiation regarded a quasi-protectorate Philip wanted to exercise over the Greek cities of Asia, with continued formal recognition of Persian sovereignty over the region. The Persians, on their part, were worried about Philip’s advance towards the Straits, pivotal point between two continents and confluence of three great territories: Asia Minor, Asia true and proper, and Europe.
Philip tried to present his case without creating too much alarm among the delegation: ‘I have no interest in disturbing the peace of the area around the Straits. My only objective is to consolidate Macedonian hegemony between the Adriatic Gulf and the western coast of the Black Sea, something which will certainly bring stability to the Bosphorus, a throughway for traffic and trade that is clearly vital for all of us.’
He gave the interpreter time to translate and watched the expressions on his guests’ faces as one by one his words passed from Greek to Persian.
Arsames displayed no emotive reaction. He turned to Philip and looked him in the eye as though they both spoke the same language and said: ‘The problem that the Great King would like to solve regards your relationship with the Greeks of Asia and with certain Greek dynasties on the eastern shores of the Aegean. We have always favoured the independence of these peoples and we have always wanted the Greek cities to be governed by the Greeks … they are our friends, you understand. It is our opinion that such independence is a wise solution on
the one hand it respects their traditions and their dignity, while on the other it protects both their interests and ours. Unfortunately,’ he began again after having waited for the interpreter to finish, ‘we are dealing with a border area that has always been a source of friction and bitter conflict or even full-blown war.’
The discussions were beginning to touch on more difficult points and Philip, in order to lighten the atmosphere somewhat, nodded to the master of ceremonies Some extremely good-looking young people were brought in male
and female, all of them scantily clad They proceeded to serve sweets and spiced wine cut with snow from Mount Bermion, snow which had been kept in jars in the royal cellar The silver cups were covered with a light frosting which gave the metal a sort of opaque patina and transmitted to the eye, before the hand, a pleasant sense of coolness The King let the foreigners help themselves before picking up where they had left off
‘I know exactly what you mean, my Illustrious Guest I realize that in the past there have been many bloody wars between the Greeks and the Persians without there ever having been any definitive solution But I would like to remind you that my country and my ancestors, our kings, have always worked as mediators, and I therefore beg you to tell the Great King that our friendship with the Greek states of Asia is simply the result of an awareness of our common origins, of our mutual religion and the ancient bonds of hospitality and family relations
Arsames listened with the same sphinx like expression, the make up around his eyes lending him a strange statuesque immobility, and Alexander, from his vantage point, watched the guest and his father trying to understand what it was exactly that the other was hiding behind the screen of perfunctory words
‘I do not deny,’ Philip began again after a short while, ‘that we are very much interested in trade with those cities, and we have even more interest in their considerable experience in all fields of knowledge We want to learn how to build, to navigate, to control the flows of the waters of our land
The Persian, strangely, spoke before the interpreter had finished, ‘And what can you offer in exchange?’
Philip hid his surprise ably, waited for the translation of the question and, still imperturbable, replied ‘Friendship, gifts, and products that Macedon alone can provide the
wood of our forests, magnificent horses and strong slaves from the plains along the River Ister I simply want all the Greeks who live around our sea to look up to the King of Macedon as their natural friend No more than this ‘
The Persians seemed to be happy with what Philip was telling them and in any case they realized that even if he was lying, the simple truth was that right now he could not afford to start any aggressive projects and that fact was enough, for the moment
As they left the chamber to go into the banqueting hall, Alexander moved closer to his father and whispered ‘How much truth is there in what you told them?’
‘Almost none,’ replied Philip, coming out into the corridor
‘Which means that they too
‘They have not told me anything of any real substance ‘
‘Of what use are these meetings then?’
‘For sniffing each other out’
‘For sniffing each other out?’ asked Alexander
‘Exactly A real politician has no need of words, he places more trust in his nose For example, do you think he prefers girls or boys”
‘Our guest, obviously’
‘Well I really wouldn’t know ‘
‘He likes boys He gave the impression he was watching the girls, but out of the corner of his eye he was watching that blond boy serving the iced wine I’ll tell the master of ceremonies to make sure the Satrap finds him in his bed The boy comes from Bythnia and speaks Persian Perhaps in this way we’ll find out more about our guest’s true thoughts After the banquet you can act as guide and show them the palace and the grounds ‘
Alexander nodded and when the time came he willingly earned out his task He had read a lot about the Persian empire, he knew the Education of Cyrus by the Athenian Xenophon almost by heart He had also read Ctesias’ Persika, a historical work which was full of imaginative exaggeration, but nevertheless
interesting because of its notes on customs and landscape. This, however, was the first ever occasion on which Alexander had had the opportunity to talk to real flesh-and-blood Persians.
He was accompanied by an interpreter and showed the guests the palace and the apartments of the young nobles, where he made a mental note to make sure he tore a strip off Lysimachus because his bed had not been made properly. He explained that the offspring of the Macedonian aristocracy were educated at court together with himself.
Arsames commented that the same practice existed in their capital, Susa. In this way the King not only ensured the loyalty of the tribal chiefs, but he simultaneously reared an entire generation of noblemen who were closely bonded with the throne.
Alexander showed them the stables of the chargers of the Hetairoi, the aristocrats who served in the cavalry and who indeed bore the tide, ‘Companions of the King’. Together they watched the training of some superb Thessalian horses. ‘Magnificent animals,’ commented one of the dignitaries. ‘Do you have such beautiful horses?’ asked Alexander, somewhat ingenuously.
The dignitary smiled. ‘Have you never heard, Prince, of the Nysaean steeds?’
Alexander, embarrassed, shook his head. ‘They are animals of incredible beauty and power which are allowed to graze only on the highlands of Media; the grass that grows there is extremely rich in nutritional properties and is called medica. The flowers, purple in colour, are the richest part of the plant and the Emperor’s horse is fed exclusively on medica flowers, gathered one by one by his stable lads, served fresh in spring and summer and dried during autumn and winter.’
Alexander, charmed by this story, tried to imagine what a horse fed on flowers alone must be like.
They then went to visit the gardens where Queen Olympias had planted all the known varieties of Pierian rose, which at that time of year gave off a most delicate and intense perfume.
‘Our gardeners make infusions and essences for the ladies of the court with them,’ said Alexander. ‘But I have read of your gardens, which we Greeks call “paradises”. Are they really so beautiful?’
‘Our people’s origins lie in the steppes and the arid highlands of the north and so gardens have always been dreams for us. In our language we call them pairidaeza; they are enclosed within huge walls and are criss-crossed by complex systems of irrigation channels which keep the grassy swards green throughout the year. Our noble families grow all types of local and exotic plants and they stock them with ornamental animals from all parts of the empire: pheasants, peacocks, parrots, but even tigers, white leopards, black panthers. We strive to recreate the perfection of the world as it was when it came fresh from the hands of our god, Ahura Mazda, may his name be praised eternally.’
Alexander then took them in a closed carriage to see the capital and its monuments, the temples, the porticoes, the squares.
‘But we also have another capital,’ he explained. ‘Aegae, near the foothills of Mount Bermion; that is where our family comes from and our Kings rest there. Is it true that you have more than one capital as well?’
‘Oh yes, young Prince,’ replied Arsames. ‘We have four capitals. Pasargadae is the equivalent of your Aegae, seat of the first Kings. There, on the windblown plateau, stands the tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the dynasty. Then there is the summer capital, Ecbatana, in Elam, on the Zagros mountains, white with snow for most of the year. The walls of the fortress there are covered in tiles made of enamelled sheets of gold and when the sun sets the whole building shines like a jewel against the background of pure snow. It is truly a most moving spectacle, Prince Alexander. The third capital is Susa, where the Great King resides during winter, and the fourth, capital of the year’s end, is the sublime Persepolis, built on high and perfumed with cedar and incense, resting on a forest of purple-and
gold-coloured columns. The royal treasure is kept there, and there are no words to describe its wonder. I hope you will visit it one day.’
Alexander listened enrapt; in his imagination he could almost see those fabled cities, those gardens of dreams, the treasure of centuries, those limitless landscapes. When they returned to the palace, he had the guests sit on stone benches and called for cups of hydromel to be served. As they drank he asked, ‘Tell me, how big is the Great King’s empire?’
The Satrap’s eyes lit up and his voice resounded with feeling, like that of a poet who sings the beauty of the land of his birth: ‘The Great King’s empire extends to the north to the point where man cannot live because of the cold and to the south to where man cannot live because of the heat. He reigns over one hundred nations from
the frizzy-haired blacks who dress in leopard skins, to the straight-haired blacks who wear tiger skins.
‘Within the limits of the empire there are deserts that no one has dared cross, there are mountains that no human foot has ever dared to climb, so high their summits reach almost to the moon. Earth’s four largest rivers, sacred to the gods and to men, run through the empire: the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Indus, and a thousand others like the majestic Choaspes or the wild Araxes, which rushes into the Caspian Sea, a mysterious sea whose limits remain unknown, so big that it reflects one fifth of the sky … And there is a road that from the city of Sardis crosses half of the empire’s provinces as far as the capital Susa: a road all paved in stone, with gates of gold.’
Suddenly Arsames went quiet and looked straight into Alexander’s eyes. In the Prince’s gaze he saw a powerful longing for adventure and the light of an invincible vital force. He understood that in this young man there burned a soul more powerful than any he had ever come across in his life. And then he remembered the tale of an event that had taken place many years previously, an occurrence that had been much talked of in Persia: one day, inside the Temple of Fire on the Mountain of Light, a sudden breath had come from nowhere and had quenched the sacred flame.
And he was afraid.
The hunt began at first light and, in accordance with the King’s wishes, even the younger members of court were there to take part: Alexander with his friends Philotas, Seleucus, Hephaestion, Perdiccas, Lysimachus and Leonnatus, as well as Ptolemy, Craterus and others.
Eumenes had also been invited, but he asked to be excused on account of a stomach upset and he showed a note from Philip the physician, prescribing absolute rest for a few days together with an astringent cure based on hard-boiled eggs.
King Alexander of Epirus had sent for a pack of hounds from his kennels. These were special hunting dogs with an excellent sense of smell which were set loose now by the beaters who had taken up position the night before on the edge of a wood up on the mountain. The ancestors of these hounds had been brought from the East more than a hundred years before and had settled extremely well in Epirus. The best kennels were in the land of the Molossian people, and so the hounds, too, became known as Molossians. Their strength, their large build and their ability to withstand pain made them the best possible breed of dog for hunting big animals.
The herdsmen had reported the presence of a lion in the area, a male which had already carried out several massacres among the sheep and the cattle. Philip had waited deliberately for this special occasion to give chase to the beast to
initiate his boy into the only pastime befitting an aristocrat and to offer his Persian guests a diversion worthy of their rank.
They had set out from Pella three hours before dawn and as