Home > Uncategorized > Arrian: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the fate of conquerors

Arrian: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the fate of conquerors


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace


From The Campaigns of Alexander
Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt

Alexander…in one day’s march reached Anchialus, a town supposed to have been built by Sardanapalus the Assyrian. It is clear from the extent of the surrounding walls and the solidity of their foundations that it was originally a large town and grew to great importance. Close to the walls was the tomb of Sardanapalus, supporting a statue of him in the attitude of a man clapping his hands, with an inscription in Assyrian characters. According to the Assyrians the inscription was in verse, but, whether verse or not, the general sense of it was this: ‘Sardanapalus, son of Anakyndaraxes, built in one day Tarsus and Anchialus. O stranger, eat, drink, and play, for everything else in the life of a man is not worth this’ – and by ‘this’ was to be understood the clap of the hands. They also said that ‘play’ was something of a euphemism for the original Assyrian word.


I have always liked the story of the Indian sages, some of whom Alexander chanced to come upon out of doors in a meadow where they used to meet to discuss philosophy. On the appearance of Alexander and his army, these venerable men stamped with their feet and gave no other sign of interest. Alexander asked them through interpreters what they meant by this odd behaviour, and they replied: ‘King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, travelling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others. You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you.’ [1]


…Alexander came to allow himself to emulate…the fashion of barbaric kings of treating their subjects as inferiors…I have no praise for such conduct; but in my opinion, at least, the splendid achievements of Alexander are the clearest possible proof that neither strength of body, nor noble blood, nor success in war even greater than Alexander’s own – not even the realization of his dream of circumnavigating Libya and Asia and adding them both to his empire, together with Europe too – that none of these things, I say, can make a man happy, unless he can win one more victory in addition to those the world thinks so great – the victory over himself.

[1] Alexander invaded the Indian subcontinent after conquering Ariana and Bactria, modern Afghanistan.

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