The Romance of Alexander the Great: Are the Legends Really True?
The real-life history of Alexander the Great is a fascinating story. The legends associated with his exploits have gripped people’s imagination for centuries. From Spain to India, from Scotland to Ethiopia, the Romance of Alexander has gained mythical status. Nobody knows who first crafted these extraordinary stories, although the legends themselves maintain they come from letters written by Alexander himself. Renditions vary depending on place and age, but certain elements remain consistent - perhaps because they really happened.
Alexander, the Military Genius
The man who would come to be known as ‘Great’ is Alexander III of Macedon. He is believed to have been born on July 20, 356 BC and to have died on June 10, 323 BC, one month shy of his 33rd birthday. A gifted young prince he became “cavalry commander at age eighteen, king at twenty, conqueror of the Persian Empire at twenty-six, [and] explorer of the Indian frontier at thirty” (History.com Staff, 2009).
Alexander is considered to be a military genius, unparalleled in antiquity. He made impressive modifications to the Macedonian army that were virtually unheard of in his day, such as employing a corps of engineers and weapons specialists. Moreover, his strategizing was brilliant; “his movements were marked by speed; his logistical, intelligence, and communications operations were flawless, and his ability to improvise was unrivaled” (History.com Staff, 2009).
"Alexander fighting king Darius III of Persia", Alexander Mosaic, Naples National Archaeological Museum. (public domain)
An Untimely Death
Alexander probably could have conquered even more of the known world had he not died an untimely death. Some accounts of Alex’s life say that he was poisoned as part of an elaborate conspiracy construed by his enemies. Others say that he died of natural causes, perhaps from malaria or typhoid fever. Both theories have strong arguments: on the one hand, a man of Alex’s power certainly had enemies; on the other hand, years of heavy drinking and suffering severe wounds in battle would have left him vulnerable to disease. For the most part, legends say he was assassinated.
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The ambiguity of his death is just one small piece of the reason Alexander seemed larger than life. “Simply put, the Alexander Romance is a fictional account of Alexander the Great’s Asian campaigns composed of a conglomeration of the rumors surrounding his rule” (Lorberfeld, 2012).
In the 4th century BC little was known about the wider world. The Persian Empire had stood for years as an impediment to contact between the empires of Southern Europe and North Africa and the empires of China and the Indian subcontinent. With its conquest, there was nothing to stop cultural exchange across the Eurasian continent and the glory of Alexander spread along with it.
The Death of Alexander. (public domain)
The Legendary Life of Alexander
Alexander’s heroism, ingenuity, and nobility (he is considered to be one of the Nine Worthies) have given him universal appeal down to the modern age. One can find “multiple Persian poems about him, entire Arabic and Ethiopic Romances, an appearance in the Qur’an, French, German, Spanish, and English works about him during the Middle Ages of Europe, and a vast array of Medieval manuscripts, sculptures and mosaics depicting his adventures, [Alexander] even appears in the Hebrew Talmud.” (Lorberfeld, 2012)
In addition to a loveable character, Alexander romances offer readers accounts of faraway places, fantastic adventures in fabled lands like the Near East and India. Below is an example from The Legendary Adventures of Alexander the Great, a compendium of Alexander stories by Richard Stoneman. It is taken from a letter allegedly written by Alexander to his mother, Olympias, shortly after he defeated Persia and began to make his way further east. One of the most widely known stories of Alexander, the passage tells of his flight into the heaven and has been viewed as both an indication of hubris and a tale of hope for dark times.
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In conquests from Greece and Egypt to Afghanistan, the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) founded cities-often named for himself-in key military and trading locations; Alexandria, in Egypt, is the only one still thriving today. Alexander was often involved in the planning; here, he gives instructions to the Greek architect Dinocrates. Behind them, massive walls are under construction. (public domain)
“Then I began to ask myself again if this place was really the end of the world, where the sky touched the earth. I wanted to discover the truth, and so I gave orders to capture two of the birds that lived there. They were very large white birds, very strong but tame; they did not fly away when they saw us. Some of the soldiers climbed on their backs, hung on tightly, and flew off. The birds fed on carrion, with the result that a great many of them came to our camp, attracted by the dead horses. I captured two of them and ordered them to be given no food for three days. On the third day I had something like a yoke constructed from wood, and had this tied to their throats. Then I had an ox-skin made into a large bag, fixed it to the yoke and climbed in, holding two spears, each about 10 feet long and with a horse’s liver fixed to the point. At once the birds soared up to seize the livers, and I rose up with them into the air, until I thought I must be close to the sky. I shivered all over because of the extreme coldness of the air, caused by the beating of the birds’ wings. Soon a flying creature in the form of a man approached me and said, “O, Alexander, you have not yet secured the whole earth, and are you now exploring the heavens? Return to earth as fast as possible, or you will become food for these birds.” He went on, “Look down on the earth, Alexander!” I looked down, somewhat afraid, and behold, I saw a great snake curled up, and in the middle of the snake a tiny circle like a threshing-floor. Then my companion said to me, “Point your spear at the threshing-floor, for that is the world. The snake is the sea that surrounds the world.” Thus admonished by Providence above, I returned to earth, landing about seven days’ journey from my army. I was now frozen and half-dead with exhaustion. Where I landed, I found one of the satraps who was under my command; borrowing 300 horsemen from him, I returned to my camp. Now I have decided to make no more attempts at the impossible. Farewell.” (Stoneman, 2006).
Top image: Relief carving of Alexander the Great. Source: BigStockPhoto
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Alexander Romance." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 July 1998. Web. 17 https://www.britannica.com/art/Alexander-romance.
History.com Staff. "Alexander the Great." History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/alexander-the-great.
Lorberfeld, Audrey. "Fantasy over Fact: An Inquiry into The Greek Alexander Romance and the Role of Memory." Sunoikisis Undergraduate Research Journal. Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University, 1 Dec. 2012. Web. http://wp.chs.harvard.edu/surs/2012/12/01/fantasy-over-fact/.
Pseudo-Callisthenes, and Richard Stoneman. The Legendary Adventures of Alexander the Great. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.