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The Gordian Knot

One of Two

When Alexander arrived in Gordium (west of modern Ankara, Turkey, March 333 BC) he found an interesting problem - the Gordian knot. The Gordian knot was tied by the legendary King Midas ('the Midas touch'). The huge and complicated knot held a chariot together and had no ends exposed.

Alexander did one of two things: he pulled out one beam, thus exposing an end, or more probably hacked it with his sword. It was said later that the person who freed the knot would rule all Asia. (Personally, I think that was made up afterwards.)

Thus started another of Alexander's legends.

Debate - What really happened?

The issue what exactly happened at Gordium has inspired lively Forum debates in March and April 2003. Here is a brief synopsis of the discussion.

Tre wrote: "[The Gordian knot is an] interesting story with two different endings. What Alexander did gives an interesting perspective into the psychology of the King."

In a response, Susan thought: "I see Alexander cutting the Gordian knot as described - Alexander was nothing if not quick-thinking and versatile - he knew he had to achieve the result and just went a different way to achieve it. So - Alexander did it. [Others] casted it in a positive light and found or made up a few prophecies that matched."

Janet disgarees: "I am on the side he would not cheat, and thus slipped the knot down so that he could find the ends; thus, proving his mastery over the problem. Pulling the ends, he unraveled the knot."

Marcus is very sceptical about this: "Actually, what I'd *really* like to know is: where else is the legend of the Gordian Knot documented? At one point I thought it was mentioned in Herodotus, but it doesn't appear to be. As for Alexander solving the riddle... I reckon he slashed through it with his sword. Alexander, demonstrating his no nonsense approach and impetuosity, thought [any more subtle solution] was too namby pamby... "

Maceik agrees: "We really don't know how he did it, but slashing the knot by his sword is really Alexander's way of doing things."

Debate - What do the sources say?

Karl takes the discussion to a higher level, bringing in the bias of our sources: "I prefer the namby pamby removal of the pin solution since this is the story Aristoboulos tells [us]. He was probably there and as an engineer would be interested in such a problem. The sword-slashing one seems more like propaganda, either from Ptolemy - Alexander held Asia by right of his sword, just as the Successors' kingdoms are called 'spear-won land' - or from an anti-Alexander tradition which represents him as a simple thug whose answer to any problem is the sword."

Marcus is not happy: "But we must also remember that Aristoboulos is known to have been an apologist for Alexander in his history. Therefore, he might have preferred to assign to Alexander a more 'intellectual' solution than what actually happened. Yes, Ptolemy might have been writing a propagandist version of events, but in a matter such as this it seems to be a bit too subtle for it to be a Ptolemaic construct... "

Tre thinks Marcus approach is too simple: "Alexander would not have cheated - [...] that would have invalidated the prediction. Things of that nature were considered quite grave [...]. Alexander certainly did not suffer from lack of grey matter, however, doubtless this little puzzle was probably rigged in such a way as to make sure the King won. I don't buy the theory that everything Aristoboulos said was 'apologist.' A careful reading of the pieces of his history embedded in Arrian shows quite the opposite [...]. Aristoboulos [...] does not have a personal reputation to protect, i.e. he was not involved in the major decisions, not being one of the principle friends [...]. It appears to me he was trying to defend Alexander from what he felt were the unjust accusations of others. Considering the times in which he wrote which were extremely hostile to Alexander, this is hardly a great leap of historical study [...]."

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