Above is a painting by the Italian artist, Giuseppe Cades (c. 1750–1799); this particular feat of art is thought to have been completed in 1792. Known for drawing upon literature and history for his work, Giuseppe Cades used an event from the life of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) as inspiration for this piece of art. Historians, even in ancient times, debated where exactly the incident in question took place. The biographer, Plutarch, proposed it was early in Alexander’s campaign, while the conqueror was chasing the Persian king, Darius III (d. 330 BCE). Historians, Curtius and Arrian, disagreed—the former claimed the scene took place in Sogdiana, while the latter chose Alexander’s harrowing crossing of the unforgiving Gedrosian Desert as the setting of the story.
Wherever the tale in question might have occurred, it was a location where Alexander the Great and his troops were marching over long stretches of inhospitable terrain. Of all the problems they faced in the region, lack of drinkable water posed the greatest threat. During the army’s tortuous trek through the dry and scalding landscape, Alexander reportedly led by example and tried not to consume any more food or drink than what was available to the average warrior serving under his command in the midst of that trying time. Giuseppe Cades’ painting depicts one such instance when Alexander publicly shared in the hardships of his comrades, who, at the time, were deathly close to dying of thirst. Arrian narrated the story as follows:
“As they toiled on, a party of light infantry which had gone off looking for water found some—just a wretched little trickle collected in a shallow gully. They scooped up with difficulty what they could and hurried back, with their priceless treasure, to Alexander; then, just before they reached him, they tipped the water into a helmet and gave it to him. Alexander with a word of thanks for the gift, took the helmet and, in full view of his troops, poured the water on the ground. So extraordinary was the effect of this action that the water wasted by Alexander was as good as a drink for every man in the army” (Anabasis/The Campaigns of Alexander, 6.26).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.