Detail; Byzantine Alexander Romance, Venice, 14th century.

Fact or Fiction? The Obscure Origins of the Greek Alexander Romance

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The Greek Alexander Romance , often referred to as a ‘pseudo-Callisthenes’ production, is in one form or another one of the most influential and widely read books of all time; it has birthed a whole literary genre on Alexander the Great and his campaigns across the Persian Empire. But where and when did it first appear and what did it originally look like? Which earlier accounts did it absorb and what is its relationship to the mainstream Alexander histories? Most importantly, does it contain unique factual details?

Where Fiction Met Fact

There are many episodes in the story of Alexander when it is hard to be sure just where the historical element ends and ‘romance’ begins, and by tradition, much legendary material had already infiltrated biographies of the Classical period. But for the Greeks the stories of the past were literally mythoi, and the segregation between myth, legend, and the factual past was a soft border blurred by Homeric epics and Hesiod’s Theogonia, which permitted a coeval interaction between men, heroes, and gods. So, the emergence, and development, of the Greek Alexander Romance , in the Hellenistic world, is perhaps not surprising.

Alexander Mosaic, Naples National Archaeological Museum

Alexander Mosaic, Naples National Archaeological Museum. ( Public Domain )

As far as the Romance, separating the fact from the fabulae has, indeed, proved no easy task, for material was added through a gradual process of accretion, a dilemma encapsulated in Peter Green’s biography of the Macedonian king:

“… the uncomfortable fact remains that the Alexander Romance provides us, on occasion, with apparently genuine materials found nowhere else, while our better-authenticated sources, per contra, are all too often riddled with bias, propaganda, rhetorical special pleading or patent falsification and suppression of evidence.”

This is a warning that not only does the Romance contain some valuable and unique elements of truth, but that the mainstream biographies we rely on when excavating Alexander from the frail manuscripts from the past, contain elements of clinical fabrication, principally from personal agenda.

Birthing a Legend

Attributing the Romance in its earliest form to a single author or date remains impossible, but evidence suggests that both the unhistorical and the quasi-historical elements were in circulation in the century following Alexander’s death. The oldest text we know of today, recension ‘A’, is preserved in the 11th century Greek manuscript known as Parisinus 1711 ; the text titled The Life of Alexander of Macedon most closely resembles a conventional historical work, though any factual narrative is just the early backbone to which other elements were attached.

17th-century manuscript of an Alexandrine novel (Russia): Alexander exploring the depths of sea.

17th-century manuscript of an Alexandrine novel (Russia): Alexander exploring the depths of sea. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Recension A, while poorly written, full of gaps, and clearly a syncretic account, is nevertheless the best staging point scholars have when attempting to recreate an original (usually referred to as ‘α’ – alpha) dating back some 700 or 800 years (or more) before the extant recension A. We cannot discount an archetype that may have been written even earlier still, in the Ptolemaic era. If Alexander’s official court historian, Callisthenes, was once credited with its authorship (thus ‘pseudo-Callisthenes’), the prevailing belief must have been that it emerged in, or soon after, Alexander’s Asian campaigns.

Herma of Alexander (Roman copy of a 330 BC statue by Lysippus).

Herma of Alexander (Roman copy of a 330 BC statue by Lysippus). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Through the centuries that followed, the Romance evolved and diversified into a mythopoeic family tree whose branches foliaged with the leaves of many languages, faiths, and cultures; more than eighty versions appeared in twenty-four languages.

The Alexander Romance stemmed from recension ‘α’, which may itself be an embellished descendent of an earlier archetype. Provided with the kind permission of Oxford University Press to ‘In Search of the Lost testament of Alexander the Great’ by David Grant and copied from PM Fraser ‘Cities of Alexander the Great’, Clarendon Press.

The Alexander Romance stemmed from recension ‘α’, which may itself be an embellished descendent of an earlier archetype. Provided with the kind permission of Oxford University Press to ‘In Search of the Lost testament of Alexander the Great’ by David Grant and copied from PM Fraser ‘Cities of Alexander the Great’, Clarendon Press.

The Hellenistic Pottage

The Hellenistic world in which the book was born, and which gravitated around the kingdom of Alexander’s generals and their dynasties, saw exotic tales arriving from the fabled lands of Kush to the south of Egypt and from the distant East, carried down the Silk Road with the help of the settlements Alexander founded (or simply renamed) along its route. According to Strabo, who studied in Egyptian Alexandria, the ‘city’ of Alexandria Eschate (‘the furthest’) in the Fergana Valley had brought the Greek settlers and the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom into contact with the silk traders of the Han dynasty of the Seres (the Chinese) as early as the third century BC.

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