ALEXANDER THE GREAT’S RETURN JOURNEY
The journey back towards Greece proved to be the most arduous part of the journey — more costly than any battle. Instead of returning home the way they came — over the Hindu Kush. Alexander decided to travel south by river with 1,800 ships through what is now Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, a journey that ended up taking months. First they had to fight their way down the Indus River and resistance was met with slaughter on a genocidal scale. In one attack spearheaded by Alexander himself, the great conqueror took an arrow is his lung and had to be carried away in a stretcher, but soon after mounted his horse to show his men he wasn't finished yet.
Alexander's army of 87,000 infantry, 18,000 cavalry, 52,000 followers arrived at the Arabian Sea, in a part of the world they were unfamiliar with. Because there were to many men to be carried in boats on the Arabian Sea, Alexander's divided his army, with a small contingent being carried boats and larger contingent journeying overland. A plan was concocted for the army to march overland across the brutal deserts of what is now southern Pakistan and Iran and be supplied by a fleet sailing on Arabian Sea that would meet up with army at various points along the way. That year the monsoon blew the opposite direction and the ships got stuck in Pakistan and were unable to bring supplies to the tens of thousands traveling overland.
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Alexander Plans Trip Back to Persia and Receives News From Home
Plutarch wrote: ““Here his admiral, Nearchus, came to him, and delighted him so with the narrative of his voyage, that he resolved himself to sail out of the mouth of Euphrates with a great fleet, with which he designed to go round by Arabia and Africa, and so by Hercules’s Pillars into the Mediterranean; in order for which, he directed all sorts of vessels to be built at Thapsacus, and made great provision everywhere of seamen and pilots. But the tidings of the difficulties he had gone through in his Indian expedition, the danger of his person among the Mallians, the reported loss of a considerable part of his forces, and a general doubt as to his own safety, had begun to give occasion for revolt among many of the conquered nations, and for acts of great injustice, avarice, and insolence on the part of the satraps and commanders in the provinces, so that there seemed to be an universal fluctuation and disposition to change. Even at home, Olympias and Cleopatra had raised a faction against Antipater, and divided his government between them, Olympias seizing upon Epirus, and Cleopatra upon Macedonia. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ]
“When Alexander was told of it, he said his mother had made the best choice, for the Macedonians would never endure to be ruled by a woman. Upon this he despatched Nearchus again to his fleet, to carry the war into the maritime provinces, and as he marched that way himself, he punished those commanders who had behaved ill, particularly Oxyartes,* one of the sons of Abuletes, whom he killed with his own hand, thrusting him through the body with his spear. And when Abuletes, instead of the necessary provisions which he ought to have furnished, brought him three thousand talents in coined money, he ordered it to be thrown to his horses, and when they would not touch it, “What good,” he said, “will this provision do us?” and sent him away to prison.”
Arrian wrote: “Again he took half of the shield-bearing guards and Agrianians, the guard of cavalry and the horse-bowmen, and marched forward to the confines of the Gadrosians and Oritians, where he was informed that the passage was narrow, and the Oritians were drawn up with the Gadrosians and were encamping in front of the pass, with the purpose of barring Alexander’s passage. They had indeed marshalled themselves there; but when it was reported that he was already approaching, most of them fled from the pass, deserting their guard. The chiefs of the Oritians, however, came to him, offering to surrender both themselves and their nation. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, gutenberg.org]
“He instructed these to collect the multitude of their people together and send them to their own abodes, since they were not about to suffer any harm. Over these people he placed Apollophanes as viceroy, and with him he left Leonnatus the confidential body-guard in Ora, at the head of all the Agrianians, some of the bowmen and cavalry, and the rest of the Grecian mercenary infantry and cavalry. He instructed him to wait until the fleet had sailed round the land, to colonize the city, and to regulate the affairs of the Oritians so that they might pay the greater respect to the viceroy.
Alexander's Arduous Journey Across the Baluchistan Desert
Alexander led the largest contingent on a march 1,750 kilometers across the Baluchistan desert, a wasteland more forbidding than the Sahara, and southern Iran. They traveled almost exclusively at night because it was simply too hot during the day. Even at night it travel was difficult as temperatures rarely dropped below 35 degrees C (95 degrees F). Because the supply ships never showed the marchers were forced to subsist on the limited food they brought with them.
The temperatures were blistering and what little water there was largely undrinkable. The trip was so arduous pack animals were butchered and eaten, booty was left behind and more than once the royal stores were broken into. Even then many men died of starvation, thirst and heat.
Alexander suffered along with everyone else. Once he was offered a helmet full of water but he poured it into the sand as a sign that he was willing to share the misery of his troops. Even when there water that could spell trouble too. A large number of his retinue drowned when a flash flood caught them in a canyon.
Alexander's journey across the deserts of Baluchistan has been compared to Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The journey took 60 days. About 15,000 of Alexander's men, or nearly half the fighting force that accompanied him, perished — more than all the men killed in battle. By contrast, the fleets reached the Iranian coast, delayed but almost intact.
March through the Desert of Gadrosia
Arrian wrote: “Thence Alexander marched through the land of the Gadrosians, by a difficult route, which was also destitute of all the necessaries of life; and in many places there was no water for the army. Moreover they were compelled to march most of the way by night, and a great distance from the sea. However he was very desirous of coming to the part of the country along the sea, both to see what harbours were there, and to make what preparations he could on his march for the fleet, either by employing his men in digging wells, or by making arrangements somewhere for a market and anchorage. But the part of the country of the Gadrosians near the sea was entirely desert. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, gutenberg.org]
“He therefore sent Thoas, son of Mandrodorus, with a few horsemen down to the sea, to reconnoitre and see if there happened to be any haven anywhere near, or whether there was water or any other of the necessaries of life not far from the sea. This man returned and reported that he found some fishermen upon the shore living in stifling huts, which were made by putting together mussel-shells, and the back-bones of fishes were used to form the roofs. He also said that these fishermen used little water, obtaining it with difficulty by scraping away the gravel, and that what they got was not at all fresh.
“When Alexander reached a certain place in Gadrosia, where corn was more abundant, he seized it and placed it upon the beasts of burden; and marking it with his own seal, he ordered it to be conveyed down to the sea. But while he was marching to the halting stage nearest to the sea, the soldiers paying little regard to the seal, the guards made use of the corn themselves, and gave a share of it to those who were especially pinched with hunger. To such a degree were they overcome by their misery that after mature deliberation they resolved to take account of the visible and already impending destruction rather than the danger of incurring the king’s wrath, which was not before their eyes and still remote. When Alexander ascertained the necessity which constrained them so to act, he pardoned those who had done the deed. He himself hastened forward to collect from the land all he could for victualling the army which was sailing round with the fleet; and sent Cretheus the Callatian to convey the supplies to the coast. He also ordered the natives to grind as much corn as they could and convey it down from the interior of the country, together with dates and sheep for sale to the soldiers. Moreover he sent Telephus, one of the confidential Companions, down to another place on the coast with a small quantity of ground corn.”
March through Gadrosia
Arrian wrote: “He then advanced towards the capital of the Gadrosians, which was named Pura; and he arrived there in sixty days after starting from Ora. Most of the historians of Alexander’s reign assert that all the hardships which his army suffered in Asia were not worthy of comparison with the labours undergone here. Nearchus alone asserts that Alexander pursued this route, not from ignorance of the difficulty of the journey, but because he heard that no one had ever hitherto passed that way with an army and emerged in safety from the desert, except Semiramis, when she fled from India. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, gutenberg.org]
“The natives said that even she emerged with only twenty men of her army; and that Cyrus, son of Cambyses, escaped with only seven of his men. For they say that Cyrus also marched into this region for the purpose of invading India; but that he did not effect his retreat before losing the greater part of his army, from the desert and the other difficulties of this route. When Alexander received this information he was seized with a desire of excelling Cyrus and Semiramis. Nearchus says that he turned his march this way, both for this reason and at the same time for the purpose of conveying provisions near the fleet. The scorching heat and lack of water destroyed a great part of the army, and especially the beasts of burden; most of which perished from thirst and some of them even from the depth and heat of the sand, because it had been thoroughly scorched by the sun.
“For they met with lofty ridges of deep sand, not closely pressed and hardened, but such as received those who stepped upon it just as if they were stepping into mud, or rather into untrodden snow. At the same time too the horses and mules suffered still more, both in going up and coming down the hills, from the unevenness of the road as well as from its instability. The length of the marches between the stages also exceedingly distressed the army; for the lack of water often compelled them to make the marches of unusual length. When they travelled by night on a journey which it was necessary to complete, and at daybreak came to water, they suffered no hardship at all; but if, while still on the march, on account of the length of the way, they were caught by the heat, then they did indeed suffer hardships from the blazing sun, being at the same time oppressed by unassuageable thirst.”
Sufferings of Alexander’s Army
Arrian wrote: “The soldiers killed many of the beasts of burden of their own accord; for when provisions were lacking, they came together, and slaughtered most of the horses and mules. They ate the flesh of these, and said that they had died of thirst or had perished from the heat. There was no one who divulged the real truth of their conduct, both on account of the men’s distress and because all alike were implicated in the same offence. What was being done had not escaped Alexander’s notice; but he saw that the best cure for the present state of affairs would be to pretend to be ignorant of it, rather than to permit it as a thing known to himself. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, gutenberg.org]
“The consequence was, that it was no longer easy to convey the soldiers who were suffering from disease, or those who were left behind on the roads on account of the heat, partly from the want of beasts of burden and partly because the men themselves were knocking the waggons to pieces, not being able to draw them on account of the depth of the sand. They did this also because in the first stages they were compelled on this account to go, not by the shortest routes, but by those which were easiest for the carriages. Thus some were left behind along the roads on account of sickness, others from fatigue or the effects of the heat, or from not being able to bear up against the drought; and there was no one either to show them the way or to remain and tend them in their sickness. For the expedition was being made with great urgency; and the care of individual persons was necessarily neglected in the zeal displayed for the safety of the army as a whole.
“As they generally made the marches by night, some of the men were overcome by sleep on the road; afterwards rousing up again, those who still had strength followed upon the tracks of the army; but only a few out of many overtook the main body in safety. Most of them perished in the sand, like men shipwrecked on the sea. Another calamity also befell the army, which greatly distressed men, horses, and beasts of burden; for the country of the Gadrosians is supplied with rain by the periodical winds, just as that of the Indians is; not the plains of Gadrosia, but only the mountains where the clouds are carried by the wind and are dissolved into rain without passing beyond the summits of the mountains. On one occasion, when the army bivouacked, for the sake of its water, near a small brook which was a winter torrent, about the second watch of the night the brook which flowed there was suddenly swelled by the rains in the mountains which had fallen unperceived by the soldiers.
The torrent advanced with so great a flood as to destroy most of the wives and children of the men who followed the army, and to sweep away all the royal baggage as well as all the beasts of burden still remaining. The soldiers, after great exertions, were hardly able to save themselves together with their weapons, many of which they lost beyond recovery. When, after enduring the burning heat and thirst, they lighted upon abundance of water, many of them perished from drinking to excess, not being able to check their appetite for it. For this reason Alexander generally pitched his camp, not near the water itself, but at a distance of about twenty stades from it, to prevent the men and beasts from pressing in crowds into the river and thus perishing, and at the same time to prevent those who had no control over themselves from fouling the water for the rest of the army by stepping into the springs or streams.”
Alexander’s Magnanimous Conduct
Arrian wrote: “Here I have resolved not to pass over in silence the most noble deed perhaps ever performed by Alexander, which occurred either in this land or, according to the assertion of some other authors, still earlier, among the Parapamisadians. The army was continuing its march through the sand, though the heat of the sun was already scorching, because it was necessary to reach water before halting. They were far on the journey, and Alexander himself, though oppressed with thirst, was nevertheless with great pain and difficulty leading the army on foot, so that his soldiers, as is usual in such a case, might more patiently bear their hardships by the equalization of the distress. At this time some of the light-armed soldiers, starting away from the army in quest of water, found some collected in a shallow cleft, a small and mean spring. Collecting this water with difficulty, they came with all speed to Alexander, as if they were bringing him some great boon. As soon as they approached the king, they poured the water into a helmet and carried it to him. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, gutenberg.org]
“He took it, and commending the men who brought it, immediately poured it upon the ground in the sight of all. As a result of this action, the entire army was re-invigorated to so great a degree that any one would have imagined that the water poured away by Alexander had furnished a draught to every man. This deed beyond all others I commend as evidence of Alexander’s power of endurance and self-control, as well as of his skill in managing an army. The following adventure also occurred to the army in that country. At last the guides declared that they no longer remembered the way, because the tracks of it had been rendered invisible by the wind blowing the sand over them.
“Moreover, in the deep sand which had been everywhere reduced to one level, there was nothing by which they could conjecture the right way, not even the usual trees growing along it, nor any solid hillock rising up; and they had not practised themselves in making journeys by the stars at night or by the sun in the daytime, as sailors do by the constellations of the Bears—the Phoenicians by the Little Bear, and other men by the Greater Bear. Then at length Alexander perceived that it was necessary for him to lead the way by declining to the left; and taking a few horsemen with him he advanced in front of the army. But when the horses even of these were exhausted by the heat, he left most of these men behind, and rode away with only five men and found the sea. Having scraped away the shingle on the sea-beach, he found water fresh and pure, and then went and fetched the whole army. For seven days they marched along the sea-coast, supplying themselves with water from the shore. Thence he led his expedition into the interior, for now the guides knew the way.”
March through Carmania and Punishment of Viceroys
Arrian wrote: “When he arrived at the capital of Gadrosia, he there gave his army a rest. He deposed Apollophanes from the viceroyalty, because he discovered that he had paid no heed to his instructions. Thoas was appointed viceroy over the people of this district; but as he fell ill and died, Sibyrtius succeeded to the office. The same man had also lately been appointed by Alexander viceroy of Carmania; but now the rule over the Arachotians and Gadrosians was given to him, and Tlepolemus, son of Pythophanes, received Carmania. The king was already advancing into Carmania, when news was brought to him that Philip, the viceroy of the country of the Indians, had been plotted against by the mercenaries and treacherously killed; but that Philip’s Macedonian body-guards had caught some of the murderers in the very act and others afterwards, and had put them to death. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, gutenberg.org]
“When be had ascertained this, he sent a letter into India to Eudemus and Taxiles, ordering them to administer the affairs of the land which had previously been subordinated to Philip until he could send a viceroy for it. When he arrived in Carmania, Craterus effected a junction with him, bringing with him the rest of the army and the elephants. He also brought Ordanes, whom he had arrested for revolting and trying to effect a revolution. Thither also came Stasanor, the viceroy of the Areians and Zarangians, accompanied by Pharismanes, son of Phrataphernes, the viceroy of the Parthians and Hyrcanians. There came also the generals who had been left with Parmenio over the army in Media, Cleander, Sitalces, and Heracon, bringing with them the greater part of their army. Both the natives and the soldiers themselves brought many accusations against Cleander and Sitalces, as for example, that the temples had been pillaged by them, old tombs rifled, and other acts of injustice, recklessness, and tyranny perpetrated against their subjects. As these charges were proved, he put them to death, in order to inspire others who might be left as viceroys, governors, or prefects of provinces with the fear of suffering equal penalties with them if they swerved from the path of duty.
“This was one of the chief means by which Alexander kept in subordination the nations which he had conquered in war or which had voluntarily submitted to him, though they were so many in number and so far distant from each other; because under his regal sway it was not allowed that those who were ruled should be unjustly treated by those who ruled. At that time Heracon was acquitted of the charge, but soon after, being convicted by the men of Susa of having pillaged the temple in that city, he also suffered punishment. Stasanor and Phrataphernes came to Alexander bringing a multitude of beasts of burden and many camels, when they learnt that he was marching by the route to Gadrosia, conjecturing that his army would suffer the very hardships which it did suffer. Therefore these men arrived just at the very time they were required, as also did their camels and beasts of burden. For Alexander distributed all these animals to the officers man by man, to all the various squadrons and centuries of the cavalry, and to the various companies of the infantry, as their number allowed him.”
Alexander in Carmania
Arrian wrote: “Certain authors have said (though to me the statement seems incredible) that Alexander led his forces through Carmania lying extended with his Companions upon two covered waggons joined together, the flute being played to him; and that the soldiers followed him wearing garlands and sporting. Food was provided for them, as well as all kinds of dainties which had been brought together along the roads by the Carmanians. They say that he did this in imitation of the Bacchic revelry of Dionysus, because a story was told about that deity, that after subduing the Indians he traversed the greater part of Asia in this manner and received the appellation of Thriambus. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, gutenberg.org]
“For the same reason the processions in honour of victories after war were called thriambi. This has been recorded neither by Ptolemy, son of Lagus, nor by Aristobulus, son of Aristobulus, nor by any other writer whose testimony on such points any one would feel to be worthy of credit. It is sufficient therefore for me to record it as unworthy of belief. But as to what I am now going to describe I follow the account of Aristobulus. In Carmania Alexander offered sacrifices to the gods as thank-offerings for his victory over the Indians, and because his army had been brought in safety out of Gadrosia. He also celebrated a musical and gymnastic contest. He then appointed Peucestas one of his confidential body-guards, having already resolved to make him viceroy of Persis. He wished him, before being appointed to the viceroyalty, to experience this honour and evidence of confidence, as a reward for his exploit among the Mallians. Up to this time the number of his confidential body-guards had been seven:—Leonnatus, son of Anteas, Hephaestion, son of Amyntor, Lysimachus, son of Agathocles, Aristonoüs, son of Pisaeus, these four being Pellaeans; Perdiccas, son of Orontes, from Orestis, Ptolemy, son of Lagus, and Peithon, son of Crateas, the Heordaeans. Peucestas, who had held the shield over Alexander, was now added to them as an eighth.
“At this time Nearchus, having sailed round the coast of Ora and Gadrosia and that of the Ichthyophagi, put into port in the inhabited part of the coastland of Carmania, and going up thence into the interior with a few men he reported to Alexander the particulars of the voyage which he had made along the coasts of the external sea. Nearchus was then sent down to the sea again to sail round as far as the country of Susiana, and the outlets of the river Tigres. How he sailed from the river Indus to the Persian Sea and the mouth of the Tigres, I shall describe in a separate book, following the account of Nearchus himself. For he also wrote a history of Alexander in Greek. Perhaps I shall be able to compose this narrative in the future, if inclination and the divine influence urge me to it. Alexander now ordered Hephaestion to march into Persis from Carmania along the seashore with the larger division of the army and the beasts of burden, taking with him also the elephants; because, as he was making the expedition in the season of winter, the part of Persis near the sea was warm and possessed abundant supplies of provisions.”
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Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018