Plutarch on the Gordian Knot

Alexander the Great (*356; r. 336-323): the Macedonian king who defeated his Persian colleague Darius III Codomannus and conquered the Achaemenid Empire. During his campaigns, Alexander visited a.o. Egypt, Babylonia, Persis, Media, Bactria, the Punjab, and the valley of the Indus. In the second half of his reign, he had to find a way to rule his newly conquered countries. Therefore, he made Babylon his capital and introduced the oriental court ceremonial, which caused great tensions with his Macedonian and Greek officers.

The citadel of Gordium

In the first months of 333, Alexander united his armies, which had been operating separately, in Gordium. Here, he had to wait for quite some time, trying to find out what his Persian opponents were doing: would they be attacking with their navy and force Alexander to return to defend his lines of contact, or would the Persian army seize the initiative and cross the Taurus and attack Alexander's army first? During the wait, a strange incident took place. The Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea, describes it in section 18 of his Life of Alexander.

The translation was made by Mr. Evelyn and belongs to the Dryden series.

[18.1] Then he subdued the Pisidians who made head against him, and conquered the Phrygians, at whose chief city, Gordium,

[18.2] which is said to be the seat of the ancient king Midas, he saw the famous chariot fastened with cords made of the rind of the cornel-tree, which whosoever should untie, the inhabitants had a tradition, that for him was reserved the empire of the world.

[18.3] Most authors tell the story that Alexander finding himself unable to untie the knot, the ends of which were secretly twisted round and folded up within it, cut it asunder with his sword.

[18.4] But Aristobulus tells us it was easy for him to undo it, by only pulling the pin out of the pole, to which the yoke was tied, and afterwards drawing off the yoke itself from below.

[18.5] From hence he advanced into Paphlagonia and Cappadocia, both which countries he soon reduced to obedience, and then hearing of the death of Memnon, the best commander Darius had upon the sea-coasts, who, if he had lived, might, it was supposed, have put many impediments and difficulties in the way of the progress of his arms, he was the rather encouraged to carry the war into the upper provinces of Asia.