Around 334-333 BCE, after Alexander the Great took Halicarnassus and before he reached Gordium, the Macedonian king’s army reached the port city of Telmessus. The details about what happened once Alexander arrived at the city differed from account to account, and historian to historian. Yet, all accounts arrived at the same conclusion—the city surrendered without a battle.
Of all the accounts describing the fall of Telmessus, the version provided by the Macedonian writer, Polyaenus, is by far the most dramatic. If his version was true, the fall of Telmessus was a salacious event filled with beautiful women, lavish feasts and, finally, bloody massacre.
According to Polyaenus, the capture of Telmessus was not masterminded by Alexander, but was the idea of Nearchus, one of the Macedonian king’s companions. Apparently, Nearchus had a friend residing in the city, and this friend informed Nearchus that the Persian garrison in Telmessus was starving for some female companionship.
Sensing an opportunity, Nearchus rallied as many beautiful women as he could find that sympathized with the forces of Alexander. The women were arranged into a large dancing troupe and were supplied with baskets of alcohol, food and anything else they might need. Then, they were smuggled into Telmessus.
Once the women were inside the city, and they knew they were not suspected of treachery, the dancers announced that they would perform for the Persian soldiers. They either threw their own party for the city’s garrison, or they performed in a party already being held by the soldiers. Either way, the wine, food and women were in great abundance.
The beautiful dancing women and the festive atmosphere drove caution from the minds of the Persians. After a night of partying, they grew sleepy from the heaps of food and their minds grew hazy from overindulgence in drink. The incapacitated soldiers were so impaired that none of them noticed that the members of the new troupe of dancers were all pulling metallic objects from their baskets and bags.
The dancers, if you believe Polyaenus, massacred the whole Persian garrison that night and Alexander the Great was able to occupy the city without undertaking a siege or fighting a prolonged battle. Again, this was only one account of Telmessus’ fall—the only agreed upon assumption is that Telmessus was won without a battle—but the version given by Polyaenus is certainly the most stylish and dramatic.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
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- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
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- Plutarch’s Life of Alexander in The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. London: Penguin Classics, 1973, 2011.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.