Why Was Gordium Important to Alexander the Great’s Conquests?

Modern Interpretation of Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743-1811)

In 334 BC, Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander “the Great,” began his epic conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. It would take Alexander and his army more than four years to conquer the Persians, and almost from the start of the campaign the fighting was tough. When Alexander led his army from Europe across the Hellespont, he was immediately faced with the difficult prospect of having to conquer Anatolia/Asia Minor, which was home to the ancient Lydians, Phrygians, and a number of other peoples who had grown accustomed to Achaemenid rule. Alexander knew that once he conquered the ancient city of Gordium, it was an open road south to the Levant and then into Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Although Gordium was no longer the great city it once was when the legendary King Midas ruled it in the eighth century BC, it still was important strategically and symbolically. Gordium was still a thriving trade and cultural center in the fourth century BC, was home to a sizable Persian garrison, and was located on the Persian Royal Highway. Therefore, Alexander knew that taking Gordium gave him control of Asia Minor and provided an easy march deeper into Achaemenid territory. But possibly more important than the strategic benefits control of Gordium gave Alexander, the city was home to a respected oracle. The oracle claimed that the first person who could untie a seemingly impossible knot of ropes would go on to conquer Asia. According to legends, after taking Gordium Alexander immediately made his way to the acropolis to undo the knot, thereby securing a propaganda victory that made invincible in the eyes of his men.

The Phrygians and Gordium

Excavated Gateway of Gordium

The city of Gordium, sometimes referred to as “Gordion,” was built by a people known as the Phrygians as the capital of their kingdom, Phrygia. The origins and backgrounds of the Phrygians are a bit enigmatic, although it is believed they either arrived in Anatolia or coalesced from other groups in the region after the Sea Peoples invasions of circa 1,200 BC. Many, if not most scholars believe that the Phrygian language was related to the earlier Hittite language and was therefore most likely Indo-European, [1] although not all historians are convinced of that assignment. [2] The culture and kingdom of Phrygia that formed after 1,000 BC, though, was distinct from the earlier Hittite culture and had more in common with the Greek world.

By the eighth century BC, Phrygia was the dominant kingdom in Anatolia, serving as an economic and cultural bridge between Europe and the Near East. The height of Phrygian power came during the rule of the legendary, yet real, King Midas (ruled c. 738-696 BC). Assyrian, biblical, and later Greek written sources all seem to validate Midas’s claims of wealth, with one particular Old Testament relating that the wealth came from trade in copper: “they traded the persons of men and vessels of brass in thy market.” [3] The Phrygians used their wealth to build a capital city that was the envy of the world and that also proved to be a prime strategic location.

Gordium was not only the seat of Phrygian power, it was the economic and strategic heart of the kingdom. Mid-twentieth century excavations at the archaeological site of Gordium have proved its importance, as its fortifications show that the Phrygians dedicated plenty of their resources to building one of the most fortified cities in the region during that period. In addition to its walls, the important temples and palace were situated high atop a citadel, which reflected a “society prepared for war and siege.” [4] The Phrygians constantly had to defend against other powerful kingdoms in the region at the time, and since Gordium was landlocked its defense posed some unique challenges.

The Phrygians’ most serious threat in the eighth and seventh centuries came from the Assyrians to the south. The two kingdoms fought over mineral rich Cappadocia, which was also the location of many lucrative trade routes. [5] Although the Assyrians proved to be militarily superior to the Phrygians, they were a sedentary people with whom could be reasoned. The Assyrians would accept tribute payments, but the nomadic Cimmerians, on the other hand, were only interested in raiding Phrygia and Gordium. The repeated raids by the Cimmerians eventually weakened Phrygia enough to allow another Anatolian people, the Lydians, to come to power. The Lydian King Croesus (reigned c. 560-546 BC), who much like Midas is known for possessing a legendary amount of wealth, conquered Phrygia and Gordium sometime during his rule. The fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote:

“In the course of time Croesus subdued all the peoples west of the river Halys, except the Cilicians and Lycians. The rest he kept in subjection – Lydians, Phrygians, Mysians, Mariandynians, Chalybians, Paphlagonians, Thracians (both Thynian and Bithynian), Carians, Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians, and Pamphylians.” [6]

The Lydians’ rule over Phrygia and Gordium’s rule was short-lived, though, as the Achaemenid Persian juggernaut under King Cyrus “the Great” (ruled 549-530 BC) conquered Anatolia in 546 BC, thereby making the entire region a Persian satrapy or province. Although Phrygian culture gradually faded into the more dominant Lydian, Greek, and Persian cultures of the region, the city of Gordium continued to be important. When the Persians built their famed royal road from Sardis to Susa, it passed through Gordium. The city of Gordium continued to have economic and cultural importance, so in the fourth century the Persians separated Greater Phrygia from Lydia as a separate satrapy. [7]

Alexander Conquers Gordium and Unties the Knot

Map Detailing Alexander the Great’s Conquests

When Alexander led his Macedonian force into Asia Minor, he intended to face the Persian King Darius III (reigned 336-330 BC), but Darius had other ideas. Although Darius did indeed face Alexander on the battlefield, his wider strategy called for supplying garrisons with a combination of Persian and native forces. So, Phrygia was Alexander’s first stop, and it became immediately clear that there were problems with Darius’s strategy. After the Phrygian city of Celaenae fell without a fight, the Macedonians moved on to the more strategically important city of Gordium. It too fell without much of a fight. The second century AD Greek historian, Arrian, wrote that Alexander then used Gordium as a staging point for the next phase of his campaign.

“To Parmenio he sent orders to meet him at Gordium with the troops under his command – and the orders were duly carried out. The recently married Macedonians who had been sent home on leave also rejoined at Gordium with a force of freshly levied troops – 3,000 Macedonian infantry and about 300 horse, 200 Thessalian horse, and 150 men from Elis under their own commander Alcias.” [8]

Arrian then related how Alexander visited the acropolis to see the legendary wagon of Midas and the Gordian Knot. After stating that one legend detailed how the first king of Phrygia, which turned out to be Midas, would arrive in the city on a wagon, Arrian then wrote about the Gordian Knot.

“There was also another traditional belief about the wagon: according to this, the man who undid the knot which fixed its yoke was destined to be the lord of Asia. The cord was made from the bark of the cornel tree, and so cunningly was the knot tied that no one could see where it began or where it ended. For Alexander, then, how to undo it was indeed a puzzle, though he was none the less unwilling to leave it as it was, as his failure might possibly lead to public disturbances. Accounts of what followed differ: some say that Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword and exclaimed, ‘I have undone it!’, but Aristobulus thinks that he took out the pin – a sort of wooden peg which was driven right through the shaft of the wagon and held the knot together – and thus pulled the yoke away from the shaft. I do not myself presume to dogmatize on this subject. In any case, when he and his attendants left the place where the wagon stood, the general feeling was that the oracle about the untying of the knot had been fulfilled. Moreover, that very night there was lightning and thunder – a further sign from heaven; so Alexander, on the strength of all this, offered sacrifice the following day to the gods who had sent the from heaven and proclaimed the Loosing of the Knot." [9]

It is difficult to say how much of the story of the Gordian Knot is myth and how much is factual. It could very well be that most, or all, of the story is in fact apocryphal, having been told in later years when the romantic tales of Alexander began to circulate throughout the Near East and Europe. Even if the story of the Gordian Knot is completely fiction, it does not diminish the symbolic importance of Gordium – the Macedonians and others believed that whomever held Gordium held the keys to conquering Asia.

Conclusion

Alexander the Great is legendary for winning several impressive battles on his way to conquering the Near East. Perhaps one of the most important cities he conquered was the Phrygian capital of Gordium. Located on the Persian Royal Road, Gordium was a militarily strategic center that housed a large garrison and it was also an economic hub. Gordium also represented the gateway from Asia Minor into the Near East – if you could take and hold Gordium, your path to victory in the Near East was all that much easier. But as important as Gordium was strategically, it was probably more important symbolically. According to legend, the first person to untie the Gordian Knot would become the ruler of Asia. How Alexander the Great accomplished that feat is a source of debate, but the fact that Alexander became the ruler of the Near East cannot be denied.

References

  1. Masson, O. “Anatolian Languages.” In The Cambridge Ancient History. Edited by John Boardman, I.E.S. Edwards, N.GL. Hammond, E. Sollberger, and C.B.F. Walker. Second Edition. Volume 3 part 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pgs. 699-70
  2. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 566
  3. Ezekiel 27:13
  4. Mellink, M. “The Native Kingdom of Anatolia.” In The Cambridge Ancient History. Edited by John Boardman, I.E.S. Edwards, N.GL. Hammond, E. Sollberger, and C.B.F. Walker. Second Edition. Volume 3 part 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pgs. 626-629
  5. Kuhrt, p. 565
  6. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 2003), Book I, 28
  7. Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002), p. 94
  8. Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin Books, 1971), I, 29
  9. Arrian, Book II, 3