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Quintus Curtius: So completely does war invert even the laws of Nature

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

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

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Quintus Curtius
From History of Alexander
Translated by John C. Rolfe

Another nation had opposed 40,000 foot-soldiers on the bank of the rivers; Alexander crossed the Acesines, drove them within their walls, and took their town by assault. Those of military age were put to death, the rest were sold. Then, having attempted to storm a second city, but being repulsed by the great strength of its defenders, he lost many of the Macedonians. But when he had persisted in besieging it, the inhabitants, despairing of safety, set fire to their houses and burned to death in the flames themselves and their wives and their children. Since they themselves were spreading the fire, while the enemy were trying to put it out, a novel kind of battle took place; the inhabitants were trying to destroy their city, the enemy were defending it. So completely does war invert even the laws of Nature.


Being admitted to the tent and invited to be seated, they had fixed their eyes on the king’s face, because, I suppose, to those who estimated spirit by bodily stature his moderate size seemed by no means equal to his reputation. However, the comprehension of the Scythians is not so rude and untrained as that of the rest of the barbarians; in fact, some of them are even said to pick up something of philosophy, so far as a race that is always in arms is capable of such knowledge. Hence what they are reported to have said to the king is perhaps foreign to our customs and our orators, who have been allotted more cultivated times and intellects. But although their speech may be scorned, yet our fidelity ought not to be; and so we shall report, their words without change, just as they have been handed down to us.

Well then, we have learned that one of them, the eldest, said: “If the gods had willed that your bodily stature should be equal to your greed, the world would not contain you; with one hand you would touch the rising, with the other the setting sun, and having reached the latter, you would wish to know where the brilliance of so great a god hides itself. So also you desire what you cannot attain. From Europe you pass to Asia, from Asia you cross into Europe; then, when you have subdued the whole human race, you will wage war with the woods, the snows, with rivers and wild beasts. Why, do you not know that great trees are long in growing, but are uprooted in a single hour? He is a fool who looks at their fruits, but does not scan their height. Beware lest, while you strive to reach the top, you fall with the very branches which you have grasped. Even the lion has sometimes been the food of the smallest of birds, and rust consumes iron. Nothing is so strong that it may not be in danger even from the weak. What have we to do with you? We have never set foot in your lands. Are not those who live in the solitary woods allowed to be ignorant who you are, whence you come? We cannot obey any man, nor do we desire to rule any.

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