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Roxana of Amu Darya – the Beloved Wife of Alexander

Thirty thousand books are said to be written about Alexander the Great. This figure could be even higher as new publications continue to appear. We know nearly in detail his great eastern campaign from Hellespont to Hind; and almost by episodes we picture to ourselves his battles. We are familiar with the conqueror's words and deeds which gained popularity owing to his victories. When Macedonian troops reached the Asian shore it was him who first threw the spear towards the land and said that Gods confided the defeated Asia to him.

Alexander mosaic (detail)

Alexander longed for the Orient; he wanted to reach the 'eastern edge of the earth' and to create the greatest kingdom in the world. At the age of twenty-two the young king headed up the decennial all-Hellenic campaign to the Orient. It took him three years to conquer Central Asia, Sogdiana and Bactria which were situated on the territory of present-day Uzbekistan. Today not only specialists but also many tourists take a keen interest in everything which is connected with Alexander's deeds in this land. The story of his marriage to a daughter of Sogdian leader, beautiful Roxana, - a romantic and tragic story of deep but short-lived love - by all means ranks high.

These three years were, probably, the hardest in Alexander's eastern campaign: in Sogdiana and Bactria he met the most stubborn resistance. By the spring of 327 B. C. the rebellions centered in the southern hard-to-reach mountainous regions. Here the troops of the conqueror were resisted by a part of Sogdian nobility who were rather hostile towards Alexander. With their relatives, armed forces, and provision ample to last many years, the Sogdian aristocrats settled down in their unassailable mountain fortresses strongly influencing the whole population of the area.

The first fortress that stood in the way of the Greek-Macedonian army was 'Sogdian Rock' or the 'Rock of Oxus' - a mountain fortress the fate of which could predestined the further course of the rebellion. Alexander with his troops reached the fortress when the mountains were still covered with heavy snow. They faced a steep stone rock; and high above them thousands of helmets of Sogdian warriors shone in the sun. Suddenly the Sogdians rained down a shower of arrows and darts, thus inflicting heavy casualty on the enemy. The rock was inapproachable and on the demand of Alexander to surrender the Sogdians responded with laugh saying that if the warriors of the king of Hellenes and Macedonians had wings they could have tried to reach them, otherwise it was better for them to leave because they could never reach the fortress.

Bust of Alexander the Great, State Art Museum of Uzbekistan

Alexander took three hundred best warriors skilled in mountaineering and offered them to climb the rock, promising a great reward. Equipped with iron spikes and linen ropes, three hundred brave men waited till the fall of darkness and then started their climbing. It was a difficult ascent: people sank in deep snow, fell down from the steep rocks. Thirty warriors died, but the rest reached the top of the rock at dawn. They found themselves above the rebellious fortress and Alexander ordered his heralds to declare that 'winged warriors' proved to be among the Macedonians. The defenders of the fortress were stunned by this news and surrendered.

Among the captives there was also a Bactrian noble man, Oxiart by name, with his family. When Alexander, at the head of his army, went up the narrow path and entered Oxiart's yard, he saw a door of the house open and a girl of medium height appear on the threshold. It was Roxana, a daughter of the nobleman. Her luxuriant hair was glittering with gold, her beautiful eyes were sparkling; it seemed that goddess of beauty Aphrodite herself was standing right in front of the young king. Their looks met and Alexander at first sight fell in love with beautiful Roxana. And though she was a captive, he decided to marry her, the action which Arrianes praised whereas Curcius reproached Alexander for.

One can imagine what a beautiful couple they were: strong warrior in his prime, king and commander, and a golden-haired girl in the full bloom of her youth. In the famous picture by Greek artist Rotari 'Wedding of Alexander and Roxana', which was made to decorate the interior of the palace of Catherine II in Orienbaum, the master, guided by the works of Plutarch, depicted an episode of Alexander and Roxana's encounter. The Princess, surrounded by crying maidservants, is standing decently before the astonished commander. However the artist depicted a Greek girl instead of the daughter of Bactrian noble man. In reality Roxana was 'a true Oriental rose', and today we can only imagine her incomparable beauty.

The ancient wedding ceremony was simple: a loaf of bread was split with a sword and given to the bride and bridegroom to taste it (until now the ceremony of 'splitting the flat bread' as a sign of engagement is used in some families in the Orient). But the wedding party was arranged with grandeur peculiar to kings especially since on that very day along with Alexander ten thousand warriors from his army also got married to the local girls. Until then mounted troops hired by Alexander from amongst the Parthians, Sogdians, Bactrians and other Central Asian nations acted as independent military units. Such mass weddings between the local and Hellenic people enabled these units to join the Graeco-Macedonian army on equal terms. Moreover, eminent Sogdian citizens, among them Roxana's brother and the sons of other satraps, formed the privileged units - agema.

Introducing such a policy Alexander reckoned for certain results. He realized that by the sword one could create a huge empire but 'sword' was not enough to keep it from disintegration. He wanted as far as possible to mix all tribes and nations subjected to him in order to create the common eastern nation.

Thus the love of Alexander and Roxana contributed to the alliance between Greece and the Orient, which had a beneficial impact on the development of science, culture and art of Central Asia and the world civilization as a whole.

As to Roxana's father Alexander rendered homage to him. Oxiart was a 'noble satrap' and controlled a vast territory that, according to Hellenic chronicles, corresponded to Paretaken which stretched from foothills and south-eastern slopes of the Gissar Range to the north-east from Iron Gates (Darband), to the upper reaches of the Surkhandarya river. Oxiart got back his family estate and in addition he got the power over Parapamisads. He became a satrap of a huge territory that comprised a part of Northern and Southern Bactria as far as the Hindukush. Oxiart's position became even stronger after Alexander's death, when Oxiart, the first among the Central Asian rulers, began to mint his own gold coins - the fact that testifies to the sovereignty of his reign.

Recently there has been published a book titled Alexander the Great in Bactria and Sogdiana. Historic and geographic sketches by Edward Rtveladze, member of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. For many years he studied the ancient paths, along which the army of Alexander the Great had pushed its way through steppes and mountain ravines towards Central Asian Transoxiana. E. Rtveladze came to the conclusion that 'Sogdian Rock', an asylum for Oxiart's family, was located on the boundary between Bactria and Sogdiana near the famous Iron Gates. The researcher believes that the most appropriate place for it could be Buzgala-Khana gorge and Shurob-Sai valley that borders the gorge on the south and is limited in its southern and northern parts by Sar-i Mask and Susiztag cuestas located westwards from Derbent village.

The mountain-dwellers of Boysun are most likely the descendants of the Greeks and Macedonians, whose colonies were spread along the Oxus (Amu Darya) and its tributaries. It is known that sixty years after the death of Alexander the Great on the banks of the Oxus there was formed Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, which existed for one hundred and twenty years.

It must be said that some researchers believe that Greek name of the river Oxus originates from Ok-su, meaning 'white, sacred water'.

The name Oxiart (Ox-Iart) is probably a derivative from the word 'Ox' and can mean 'owner of the river Ox'. Professor K. Trever in his book 'Alexander the Great in Sogd' claims the name Oxiart to be the Greek variant of local name Vakhshunvarta.

Then what does the strange name Roxana mean? The name involuntarily brings to mind some names from Walter Scott's works: Rovena… Roxana….

According to Robin Lane Fox, Roxana, whom warriors of Alexander the Great called the most beautiful woman in Central Asia, rightfully deserved this name: in Persian language (farsi) it means 'a little star', but still this statement seems rather farfetched.

Some researchers, associating this name with the modern Tajik language, are of opinion that Roxana is the Greek interpretation of the local name of Roushanak, which means 'shining', 'bright'.

We offer our own version that this name is also associated with the Oxus - Amu Darya. Indeed, ancient Bactria was situated along the upper and middle sections of the Great River and the name 'Roxana' being divided into separate parts will sound like 'R-ox-ana', where 'Ox' (Amu Darya) is the root of the word.

Taking into consideration the fact that 'Ox' (Oxus in Greek) is the Greek interpretation of the Bactrian word 'Vakhsh' (Bactrian OAXPO), the name of the Bactrian beauty most likely sounded like 'Vakhsh-ona'. Probably the name meant 'the beauty of the Oxus', or 'owner of the Oxus'.

Hence we are quite certain that the native land of Roxana, the wife of Alexander the Great, was the area located to the south of Maracanda (Samarkand) - Kashkadarya and Surkhandarya provinces of present-day Uzbekistan.

Alexander the Great lived with Roxana the last four years of his by no means quiet and dull life. His uncontrollable aspiration for subjugating the whole world was driving to despair even his commanders. The young king wanted to take the lead in everything - in campaigns, in battles, and in feasts. At that time military leaders preferred to be in the front line of the battlefield rather than to watch the course of action from a bunker.

Alexander sarcophagus (detail)

And at last there came the year of 323 B. C., the last year in the life of Alexander the Great. Behind was left the conquest of Central Asia, including Bactria and Sogdiana, where he had stayed for two years suppressing insurrections. In history passed the campaign to Hindustan, which had started successfully and ended unexpectedly. For the first time in his ten-year 'advance to the Orient' when the conqueror reached the Indus, his army showed disobedience and refused to go further to unknown lands. After a lapse of two days, Alexander had to order his troops to leave Hindustan.

Alexander the Great, the spoiled child of fortune, was destined to die young, before he reached the age of 33. The fatal illness started rather trivially: the king ordered to arrange celebrations to mark his impending western campaign. For several days Alexander was feasting with his friends. All researches connect the death of the great commander with these feasts which lasted days and nights. Having drunk a big bowl of Heracles at one of such feasts all at once Alexander screamed and groaned from a pang. His friends picked him up and put him in bed. The sickness progressed and none of the healers could help him. The pain he suffered from was so strong that sometimes Alexander begged his subjects to give him a sword to kill himself. It was his loving Roxana who kept him from committing suicide. On the tenth day after the beginning of the sickness Alexander the Great died on the hands of his young wife who was in her last month of pregnancy. Roxana closed his eyes and kissed him to 'catch his parting soul'.

Alexander neither named the successor to his throne nor did he leave directions as regards governance order in his empire and in Macedonia in particular. This vagueness of his will inevitably resulted in the strife between his commanders who began struggling for power shortly after Alexander's death. Roxana was induced to participate in these plots.

Nearchus nominated Heracles, Alexander's illegitimate child born from Barsine who was the widow of Memnon from Pergamum. Perdiccas, on the contrary, protected the interests of the yet unborn son of Alexander the Great; however Ptolemy Lagus ultimately denied Alexander's sons the right to succeed to the throne as their mothers were eastern women and Macedonian captives. Roxana's son was probably born several days after Alexander's death because in some ancient chronicles it is mentioned that the distribution of ranks and satrapies took place before the burial of the Macedonian commander.

In order to avoid aggravation of the difficult situation and possible bloodshed it was decided to crown two men: Alexander's imbecile brother Arrideus, who began to rule under the name of Philippe III, and Alexander IV, a new-born son of Roxana, with Perdiccas being the regent.

Indeed, the son of Roxana and Alexander the Great was half-Bactrian. All the Seleucid kings who ruled more than two hundred years in the Middle East had in their veins Sogdian blood.

In 317 B. C. the power in Macedonia was usurped by Olympiad, mother of Alexander III. By her order, Arrideus was killed and her grandson, Roxana's son, was proclaimed the king, with Olympiad herself ruling on his behalf, though. Her rule nevertheless was short; being a revengeful woman, one by one she executed all the prominent men in the state thus incurring people's hatred towards her. In 316, having learnt about the approach of Commander Cassandr, Olympiad, who could not trust the Macedonians, left with her grandson and Roxana for the city of Pydna. Cassandr immediately sieged the city. Suffering from hunger, tired out because of long siege, Olympiad gave herself up in exchange for life. However, Cassandr gave her fate into the hands of the Macedonians, preliminary having done his best to harden their hearts. Olympiad was sentenced to death and executed. After that Cassandr married Phessalonica, sister of Alexander III, and exiled Roxana and her son to the fortress where they were placed under guard. (Justin: 14; 5 - 6). One of the Cassandr's men, Glaucus, who was extremely loyal to Cassandr, was entrusted to keep an eye on the captives. Moreover, Cassandr ordered to deprive Roxana's son of his pages and to treat him as if he were not the king of Macedonia, but an ordinary boy (Diodorus: 19).

The finds from Tomb, which probably belonged to Alexander IV

In 311 B. C., Cassandr, who was beware of young Alexander, whom the Macedonians could give the power back just out of respect for his famous father, ordered to underhand poison him and his mother Roxana. Their bodies were committed to the earth without performing any funeral ceremony in order to avoid possible suspicions with regards to their violent death. (Justin: 75, 2). The death of Alexander IV put an end to the whole dynasty of Temeids who had been ruling in Macedonia since antiquity. The strongest came into power. By then there had arisen mighty empires: Egypt under the reign of Ptolemy dynasty; Syrian empire, that embraced the whole Persian kingdom and where Seleucids dynasty ruled; and, finally, Macedonia, which kept the hegemony over Greece, where Antigonus Gonatus founded a new dynasty. All of them - Ptolemy, Seleucid and Antigonus Gonatus - were the military commanders in the army of Alexander the Great.

Since then the historical age of Hellenism had started. It was the time of Greek dominion in the Middle East and interaction of Western and Eastern civilizations.

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