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Alexander captures the Sogdian Rock


Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). In 328 or 327, Alexander captured one of the mountain forts in Sogdia, the Sogdian Rock or Rock of Ariamazes. The story of the siege is told by the Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia, whose Anabasis (section 4.18.4-19.6) was translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt.

News had come in that a large number of the natives had taken refuge on the Rock of Sogdia, and among them the wife and daughters of Oxyartes the Bactrian, who had himself refused to submit to Alexander and had chosen this refuge for his family in the belief that the Rock was impregnable. It was the last stronghold of Sogdia: should it fall, there would be nothing left for those who still hoped to offer resistance. To the Rock, therefore, Alexander advanced, at the beginning of Spring.

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He found, on a near approach, that it rose sheer on every side against attack. The natives had provisioned it for a long siege, and deep snow on its summit caused the double disadvantage of making the ascent more awkward for the Macedonians and of ensuring the defenders an unlimited supply of water. None the less, Alexander determined on assault.

In point of fact the reason for his determination was something the natives had said, an offensive bit of bragging which made him angry and put him on his mettle. He had called on them to discuss terms, and offered to allow them to return unmolested to their homes on condition of surrendering the stronghold; but their answer to the offer was a shout of laughter. Then in their barbaric lingo they told Alexander to ford soldiers with wings to capture the Rock for him, as no other sort of person could cause them the least anxiety. As a result of this, Alexander proclaimed that he would give a prize of twelve talents to the first man up, and of eleven to the second, and ten to the third, and so on to the twelfth, who would receive 300 gold darics. The men were keen enough already, but this proclamation was an added spur.

There were some 300 men who in previous sieges had had experience in rock-climbing. These now assembled. They had provided themselves with small iron tent-pegs, which they proposed to drive into the snow, where it was frozen hard, or into any bit of bare earth they might come across, and they had attached to the pegs strong flaxen lines. The party set off under cover of darkness to the steepest part of the rock-face, which they knew was least likely to be guarded; then, driving their pegs either into bare ground or into such patches of mow as seemed most likely to hold under the strain, they hauled themselves up, wherever each could find a way. About thirty lost their lives during the ascent -falling in various places in the snow, their bodies were never recovered for burial- but the rest reached the top as dawn was breaking, and the summit of the Rock was theirs.

Then, in accordance with Alexander's orders, they signaled their success to the troops below by waving bits of linen, and Alexander sent a crier to shout the news to the enemy's advanced posts that they might now surrender without further delay, as the men with wings had been found and were already in possession of the summit. And, as the crier gave them this information, Alexander pointed to his men, where they stood on top of the Rock.

The unexpectedness of the sight was a severe shock to the natives; indeed, they were so much alarmed by the handful of Macedonian troops they could actually see, that, imagining a larger force, and fully armed at that, must be in possession, they surrendered. Many women and children were among the prisoners, notably the wife and daughters of Oxyartes.

One of these daughters was named Roxane. She was a girl of marriageable age, and men who took part in the campaign used to say she was the loveliest woman they had seen in Asia, with the one exception of Darius' wife. Alexander fell in love with her at sight; but, captive though she was, he refused, for all his passion, to force her to his will, and condescended to marry her.

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