Sogdians: Curtius Rufus on Alexander’s assessment of their noble and courageous character (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Sogdians: Curtius Rufus on Alexander’s assessment of their noble and courageous character (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 7.10.1 (link).

Comments: This tale by Curtius Rufus about Alexander of Macedon’s interaction with Sogdian prisoners seems to be aimed at portraying these particular barbarians (who were neighbours of Baktrians) – at least the elite among them – as noble and courageous.


[Geographical setting of the Sogdians]

(7.10.1) The region of Sogdiana is for the greater part deserted. Desert lands occupy 800 stadium-lengths wide. It extends straight on for a vast distance. A river which the natives call the Polytimetos flows through Sogdiana. This is at first a torrent, since its banks force it into a narrow channel, then a cavern receives it, and rushes under ground. Its hidden course is revealed only by the noise of the flowing waters, since the soil itself under which so great a river flows does not exude even a slight moisture.

[Noble and courageous Sogdians]

Among the prisoners of the Sogdians were thirty of the most elite, men with extraordinarily strong bodies. These prisoners had been brought in to the king. When they learned through an interpreter that they were being led to execution by order of the king, they began to sing a song as if rejoicing, and to show a kind of pleasure by dances and by playful movements of their bodies. The king, surprised at their facing death with such greatness of spirit, ordered them to be recalled, and inquired the reason for such expressions of joy when they had execution before their eyes. They replied that if they were to be killed by anyone else they would have died sorrowful. As it was, being restored to their ancestors by so great a king, conqueror of all peoples, they were celebrating by their usual songs and with rejoicing a glorious death, which brave men might even ask for.

Admiring such great courage, Alexander said: “I ask you whether you would want to live on condition of not being unfriendly to me to whose favour you will owe your lives.” They replied that they had never been unfriendly to him, but that when provoked to war they were enemies of their foe. If one had preferred to approach them with kindness rather than with injury, they would have put energy into competing in being courteous. And when asked by what pledge they would bind their loyalty, they said that the life which was granted them would be their pledge; that they would pay it when he demanded it. And they kept their promise. For those who were then sent to their homes have by their good faith held their fellow-citizens together. Four of them, who were retained as a part of his body-guard, were not outdone by any of the Macedonians in affection for the king.

Having left Peukolaos among the Sogdians with 3000 foot-soldiers – for he needed no larger force– Alexander came to Baktra [centre of the Baktrians, now Balkh, Afghanistan].


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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