Mardians among Persians: Curtius Rufus on Alexander’s conquest of an uncivilized cave people (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mardians among Persians: Curtius Rufus on Alexander’s conquest of an uncivilized cave people (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 4, 2024,

Ancient author: Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), History of Alexander 5.6.17-20 and 6.5.11-23 (link).

Comments: While Curtius Rufus briefly mentions various peoples that Alexander supposedly encountered on his campaigns in Persian territory (including the Ouxians, for instance), the Mardians are among the groups to get special attention, in this case for being the most uncivilized people among Persians or Iranians. Further on in the narrative (also below), Alexander confronts this people who were among the few in the Caspian Sea area still holding out against the Macedonian armies. Further characterizations of this people come through in the process, including the claim that they are a bandit-people.  As is often the case with claims that a people are inherently bandits (especially in the likes of Strabo as well), the mountainous terrain is central (link coming soon).


[Initial characterization of the Mardians]

(5.6.17-20) Then, after devastating the fields of Persia and reducing many villages into his power, Alexander came to the descent group (gens) of the Mardians (Mardi), a war-like people that differs greatly from the rest of the Persians in their manner of life. They dig caves in the mountains, in which they hide themselves with their wives and children, they feed on the flesh of their flocks and of wild animals. Not even the women have gentler dispositions, as is usually Nature’s way. They have overhanging bushy hair, their garments do not reach their knees, and they bind their brows with a sling. This is both a protection for their heads and a weapon. But this descent group was also overcome by the momentum of Fortune. And so, on the thirtieth day after he had set out from Per­sepolis, Alexander the king returned to the same place. Then he gave presents to his friends and to the rest according to each man’s deserts. Almost everything which he had taken in that place was distributed among them. . . [omitted subsequent material].


[Macedonian forces attack and defeat the Mardians]

(6.5) The Mardians were a descent group bordering on Hyrkania, a people of rude habits of life and accustomed to banditry. They alone [among peoples in the Caspian Sea area] had neither sent envoys [to Alexander], nor seemed likely to be obedient to orders. So the king, irritated by the thought that one descent group might prevent him from having been “invincible,” went on accompanied by a strong force, having left the baggage with a guard. He had made the march by night, and at daybreak the enemy was in sight. It was chaos than battle. Dislodged from the hills of which they had taken possession, the barbarians fled, and the nearest villages, deserted by their inhabitants, were taken.

The interior parts of that region, however, could not be approached without greatly fatiguing the army. Ranges of mountains, lofty forests, and impassable rocks closed them in, and such parts as are level the barbarians had obstructed by a new kind of fort: Trees are purposely planted close together; while their branches are still tender, they bend them down with their hands, twist them together, and again insert them in the earth; then, as if from another root, more vigorous trunks spring. They do not allow these to grow in the direction which Nature carries them, but they join them together, as if interlacing them. When they are clad in abundant foliage, they hide the ground. As a result, the secret snares, so to speak, of the branches shut in the road by a continuous hedge. The only expedient was to cut an opening into the woods, but this too was a task of great difficulty. For the many knots had hardened the trunks, and the interlaced branches of the trees, like so many suspended festoons, by their tough interwoven shoots would bring to nothing the strokes of the axe. The natives [i.e. Mardians], however, being accustomed to crawl under the thickets like wild beasts, then also had entered the woods and from concealment were assailing their enemy with weapons.

Alexander, tracing them to their lairs as hunters do, killed many of them. He finally ordered the soldiers to encircle the forest and to rush in if they could find an opening anywhere. However, in the unknown country many of them strayed and lost their way, and some were captured, among them the king’s horse – they called him Boukephalasa – which Alexander valued more highly than all other animals. For he would not allow anyone else to sit upon that horse’s back. When the king wished to mount the horse, the horse kneeled down of its own accord to receive him and seemed to know that he was carrying Alexander. Therefore, aroused with greater anger than was seemly and at the same time with grief, the king gave orders that the horse should be traced, and that proclamation should be made through an interpreter, that unless it should be returned, not a single person would be left alive. Terrified by this threat, along with other gifts they brought the horse.

But not made milder by the return of the horse, the king ordered the woods to be cut down and earth to be brought from the mountains and heaped upon the plain which was made impassable by the branches. And this work had already risen to a considerable height, when the barbarians, despairing of being able to hold the region which they had occupied, surrendered their descent group. The king, after having received hostages, ordered them to submit to Phradates [or: Autophradates]. Then, four days later, the king returned to his permanent camp. . . [omitted following material].


Source of the translation:  John C. Rolfe, Quintus Curtius [Rufus]: History of Alexander, 2 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted by Harland.

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