Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-Fated Journey Across Asia

Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-Fated Journey Across Asia

by John Prevas


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Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-Fated Journey Across Asia by John Prevas

By the time Alexander the Great was twenty-six, he had conquered the world's mightiest empire, Persia. He was the envy of every man. But Alexander had a higher aspiration-to be the envy of the gods. And so, Alexander embarked on a long campaign of conquest across Asia. He marched his army through the mountains of Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent. But as he pushed forward in his wild pursuit of glory and immortality, he grew increasingly unpredictable, sporadically violent, and megalomaniacal. In the end, only seven years after he had conquered Persia, Alexander the Great was defeated not by any external enemy but by himself, unable to control his passions.Writer and intrepid explorer John Prevas informs his "absorbing" (Raleigh News & Observer) narrative through a personal retracing of much of Alexander's route through what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The author's research and travels bring brilliantly to life this riveting story of Alexander's decline and fall-in the land where he sought his greatest glory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780306814426
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication date: 11/09/2005
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.92(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

John Prevas, writer and adventurer, holds degrees in history, political science, psychology, and forensics and has taught the classics for the last fifteen years. He is the author of Hannibal Crosses the Alps and Xenophon's March. He lives in Florida.

Read an Excerpt

Envy of the Gods

Alexander the Greats III-Fated Journey Across Asia

By John Prevas Da Capo Press

Copyright © 2004 John Prevas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780306812682

Chapter One


PERSEPOLIS WAS A RELATIVELY YOUNG CITY AND AT THE pinnacle of its beauty when its garrison surrendered to the Macedonian conqueror in January of 330 B.C. The city had been built as the new capital of the Persian Empire by the two kings most reviled by the Greeks: Darius I and his son, Xerxes. The original name of the city as found in very early fragments of manuscripts was Parsa. The name most familiar to modern readers, Persepolis, was probably a merging of the Greek word for Persians with the word for city. Construction of the city had been started around 518 B.C. by Darius, the third Persian king since the founding of the empire in 553 B.C. The city was completed in 464 B.C. just before or shortly after the death of his son and successor Xerxes I. These two kings were the father and son whose armies had invaded Greece in the fifth century, and Xerxes had even succeeded in reaching and burning Athens. For the Greeks, especially those who were with Alexander when the city surrendered on that January day twenty-three hundred years ago, these two men were the most hated of all the Persian kings, hated more so than Darius III, the current king they were pursuing.

The city was isolated in the remote southwestern part of Iran at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. Because of this location, it was removed from the mainstream of the commercial and governmental activity of the empire, which was carried out in the larger cities farther north-Susa, Ecbatana, and Babylon. Because of its isolation, Persepolis evolved into a sacred place for the subjects of the Persian Empire, similar in many respects to what Mecca and Jerusalem have become today for Muslims and Jews. The city became the symbolic residence for generations of Achaemenid kings and, for most of them, their final resting place. When the kings of Persia died, traditional practice was to expose their bodies on a high rocky ledge where they were picked clean by vultures. Then the remains were covered in wax and placed in rock tombs carved into the sides of the surrounding cliffs. Two of those tombs are located just behind the palaces at Persepolis, while several others are found in the cliffs of Naqsh-e-Rostam and Naqsh-e-Rajab a few kilometers from the city.

Persepolis was also important because it was the location for the most important annual event in the empire, a celebration of the New Year that was held each spring at the vernal equinox. The equinox was the traditional time of the year when thousands of ambassadors, envoys, and visitors from the subject nations of the Persian Empire converged on the city bearing vast amounts of tribute for the king. As a result, the city prospered and became the repository for the accumulated wealth of generations of Persian kings. The tradition of celebrating the New Year during the spring equinox is still maintained throughout Iran today.

The garrison at Persepolis surrendered the city to Alexander without resistance-and could not have done otherwise given its location. Persepolis lies nestled at the foot of low rocky hills overlooking the large and fertile Marvdasht plains of Iran. When Darius planned the city, the Persian Empire was at the height of its power; that any foreign enemy could penetrate far enough into its interior to threaten the capital was inconceivable to him and his successors. The site was chosen more for its natural beauty than from considerations of defense. The walls that surrounded the terrace were far from impregnable, and any invading army could easily have occupied the heights above the city. Persepolis could never have resisted a siege by Alexander and his army for any length of time.

Within the center of Persepolis, the early kings had commissioned the building of a massive foundation nearly half of a kilometer square. This foundation was constructed of a filling of sand contained by thick blocks of stone and towered nearly twenty meters above the level of the streets below. A terrace of carefully interlaced bricks had been laid on the top of this foundation, protected by high walls and a series of square watchtowers. Twin ceremonial staircases led up and along the northwestern face of the foundation to the terrace. Each of these monumental stairways faced the other at the base. As they rose along the foundation, they moved away from each other until they reached a height of some nine meters, where they turned and rose the remaining distance to converge at the entrance to the terrace. Even today these staircases are an impressive reminder of the elegance and architectural sophistication of that ancient city.

The city and its inhabitants were calm that day as they awaited with apprehension their fate under the new conqueror. When Alexander entered Persepolis, he was awed by what he found there, just as visitors continue to be even today. The young king mounted one of the two symmetrical staircases leading up to the terrace, and he could not have failed to note that the stairs had been designed so that each tread was very wide with a shallow rise. Every fourth, fifth, and sometimes sixth step had been skillfully carved out of a single boulder, each placed perfectly into position. For many years the accepted thinking among scholars was that the staircases at Persepolis had been constructed in this manner so that horses and other large animals could be easily led up and onto the terrace for ceremonies and sacrifices. The most recent thinking, however, is that the shallow rise of the steps was designed more out of considerations of protocol. The shallow design of the staircases allowed groups of nobles, government officials, and envoys from the subject nations, dressed in their finest attire for their audience with the king, to ascend to the terrace with a minimum of effort and thus maintain the dignified bearing befitting a royal ceremony. A similar consideration in the design and construction is evident in all of the staircases on the terrace at Persepolis, especially those leading to the palaces and audience halls. This accommodation allowed the king to ascend and descend from the various buildings on the terrace while retaining the ethereal airs that were important to his image as a divinity.

When the young Macedonian conqueror reached the terrace, he passed through an entry portal, fourteen meters high, known as the Gate of All Nations. On either side of this massive entryway two ominous and massive stone bulls, each seven meters high, stood guard. The portal is sometimes referred to as the Gate of Xerxes because of the great carved letters inscribed over the entryway. Over the portal is written successively in three languages (Elamite, archaic Persian, and Babylonian) "I am Xerxes the great, king of kings, king of this great earth far and wide."

Through the Gate of All Nations Alexander passed into a hedonistic world of self-indulgence and fantasy that would come to stress the weaker aspects of his character. The young king from rustic Macedonia must have been taken by the scale and splendor of everything he saw. Buildings of monumental proportions and elegance abounded on this vast terrace. Persepolis was the ceremonial center of the Persian Empire, and the terrace was a symbolic representation of the power of the Achaemenid kings. It was a structure that had been designed and built to impress, and impress it does even today in its ruined state. Alexander had seen Babylon, but Persepolis was unique and he would not see anything to rival it until he entered the kingdoms of India.

To the right of the great gate leading onto the terrace was an ornate open-air audience hall known as the apadana. This was the largest and most impressive of all the buildings at Persepolis, and the idea for this great hall had been copied by Darius I from the palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon. In the apadana, generations of Persian kings had received representatives from the subject nations of the empire, often with several thousand people in attendance. The apadana consisted of a central hall, square in shape, covered by an elaborate roof supported by thirty-six columns that rose to a height of nearly twenty meters above the floor. At the top of each column was a capital upon which perched an ominous-looking double-headed gargoyle that leered down on the ceremonies below as it shouldered the burden of the massive cedar roof beams above. Attached to the apadana on the north, east, and west faces are smaller terraces with staircases. On the southern wing are indications of the remains of a number of rooms, probably built to house the servants and guards who attended the king during the audiences. The interior as well as exterior surfaces of the sun-dried brick walls were decorated with elaborate color-glazed tiles.

As Alexander climbed the north staircase to the apadana, he must have lingered for a moment or two to examine the elaborate details in the architecture of the walls. Today the walls of the main staircases on the northern and eastern facades contain the remains of elaborate bas-reliefs that depict Iranian nobles, soldiers from the king's royal bodyguard, and gift-bearing ambassadors from the subject nations of the empire. The eastern bas-reliefs are better preserved than those on the northern facade, which have been badly weathered over the centuries. To a length of nearly one hundred meters along the north and east faces of the apadana, these detailed bas-reliefs reflect the remnants of ancient Persian art at its best. There are two smaller and less elaborate staircases located at the far corners of the apadana terrace.

Adjacent to the apadana on the southeast corner is a small structure known as the council hall. It was here that the Achaemenid kings consulted with their military commanders, ministers, and other high government officials on a more intimate basis. A double stairway decorated with bas-reliefs depicting Persian and Medean nobles connects the eastern entry to this council chamber with the apadana. Scholars have speculated that this hall could have played an important role for the Persians in the determination of their celestial order, and perhaps it served as the basis for fixing their calendar. It is interesting to note that this council hall is the only structure in Persepolis where the capitals of the pillars supporting the roof were cast in the form of human heads on animal bodies.

Just a few meters east of the apadana are the remains of the hall of a hundred columns. It is the second largest building in the Persepolis complex and has a central audience hall larger than the one in the apadana. The roof of this hall was supported by one hundred tricolor wooden columns set on massive stone bases and placed in rows of ten. The columns rose to a height of fourteen meters. Twelve wide and elaborate stone doorways led into the hall from each side. On the walls of the eastern and western entryways are the remains of intricate carvings that depict the Persian kings contending against the worst demons hell could conjure from its depths. Figures of animals and demons such as these played a large part in the decorative motif of the art at Persepolis and lead to tantalizing speculations about the psychology of the Persians. The hall of a hundred columns must have functioned as another audience hall for the king but the redundancy of these two halls has never been satisfactorily explained by scholars.

At the height of the Achaemenids' rule, those who entered these audience halls were required to prostrate themselves in adoration, for by Persian custom the king was regarded as a divinity. This act of prostrating oneself before the king was called "proskynesis" by the Greeks. It was considered a particularly debasing practice characteristic of Orientals. In addition to proskynesis, during the royal audience those in attendance were required to keep their hands hidden in their sleeves. While the exact reason for this practice is uncertain, it was perhaps used as a safeguard against the risk of assassination. After the audience, when the king had retired, his subjects were allowed to come forward. They were permitted to marvel at the ornate throne, though it was an offense punishable by death for anyone but the king to sit on it.

To the south and west of the throne hall was the area of the terrace where the residences of the Achaemenid kings had been built. In this quarter Alexander discovered the palace of Xerxes I, the most elaborate of all on the terrace. The palace quickly captured the attention of the young conqueror. It had been constructed on the highest point and consisted of a central hall with thirty-six columns, a pillared terrace on the north face, and a number of rooms in the east and west wings. A veranda on the south side led discreetly down two small stairways to the harem.

A second smaller palace is located just next to the main one. This smaller palace is also believed to have been commissioned by Xerxes and contains carved bas-reliefs on the stairways and door frames that depict the king fighting lions and demons. These images appealed to Alexander's sense of fantasy and played into his preoccupation with legends of heroic deeds. Other more mundane reliefs on the walls of this palace showed the activities of daily life in the royal household, such as servants carrying food for the king's table and attendants shielding the king from the sun with umbrellas while he sat on the throne.

Alexander moved through one of the main doorways and strolled into a nearly deserted courtyard of the palace. The afternoon sun, warm even in January in the southernmost area of Iran, caused him to remove his helmet and undo his breastplate. Standing bareheaded, he gazed down with wonder and then admiration at the face of a stone statue that had been toppled onto the courtyard floor and now lay broken on its back. Persians had pulled over the statue earlier that day hoping no doubt to curry favor with their new master. Some of them cowered in the shadows and doorways of the adjacent buildings as they waited to gauge the new king's reaction to what they had done. Only if he reacted favorably would they dare to approach him to pay homage and ask for his favor.

For the moment, though, Alexander was alone with his thoughts in the courtyard as he contemplated the fallen and broken statue of a once great king. It had been a skillfully sculpted piece, done perhaps by a Greek artisan nearly a century and a half before. The statue mirrored not only the features of the man who had commissioned it, but by its size and majesty it proclaimed to all who entered the palace that here was the king who had held sway over the greatest empire in the ancient world.

This was Xerxes, the king who had brought the proud Hellenes to their knees in 480 B.C. This was Xerxes, the king who had bridged the Hellespont and led an army to invade Greece. This was Xerxes, the king who had slaughtered the Spartan defenders at Thermopylae and then marched triumphantly into Athens, that most beautiful of Greek cities, and burned her sacred temples. This was the king who had committed sacrilege when he ordered his soldiers to sack the Greek temples and carry off their treasures to adorn the Persian palaces. It was the hatred of the memory of this man, now dead for more than a hundred years, and of his father before him, that had helped Philip of Macedonia and then Alexander to unite the otherwise factious and independent Greeks. Alexander exploited and manipulated this hatred for the Persian to keep his Macedonian and Greek soldiers motivated as he led them over the Hellespont to Asia Minor and then Egypt, and then across the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Finally, after nearly seven thousand kilometers and four years of fighting, they had reached Persepolis and the completion of their crusade of vengeance.


Excerpted from Envy of the Gods by John Prevas Copyright © 2004 by John Prevas. Excerpted by permission.
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