27 October 2022
A medieval best-seller: the Alexander Romance
The British Library’s major exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth takes visitors on a remarkable journey through the legends and stories connected with one of the ancient world’s most renowned figures: Alexander the Great. The main source and inspiration for the stories highlighted in the show was the legendary Life of Alexander, known as the Alexander Romance, one of the most popular texts of ancient literature.
Alexander ascends to heaven with griffins, in the Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 37r (detail)
Legends about Alexander's life, conquests and adventures had started in his own lifetime. Some stories were instigated by Alexander himself to legitimise his rule, others were spread by his soldiers and generals. The first stories were recorded in writing by Alexander’s companions, who collected their memoirs of the king’s conquests. Apart from some fragments quoted in other texts, these works are all now lost. But the stories themselves were often preserved in later histories of Alexander, such as Plutarch’s biography of him from the 1st century AD and Appian’s chronicle of his conquests from the 2nd century AD.
Plutarch's Life of Alexander, in the Latin translation by Guarino of Verona (Florence, 1470): Harley MS 3485, f. 367r (detail)
During his conquests, Alexander was accompanied by eminent scientists of his time. They jotted down wonders of the lands they visited, although once again only fragments of these works survive. This 2,200-year-old papyrus preserves a similar text. It talks about a legendary nation that beheaded its enemies, cut out their tongues and minced them with flour to serve as a special treat for dinner. The identification of these people is problematic but similarly gruesome stories are mentioned in Alexander’s adventures.
An account of barbaric customs (Gurob, Egypt, 3rd century BC): Papyrus 489
The fantastical stories of Alexander, retold by historians, scientists and travellers, inspired others to fill in the gaps of the king’s life, wondering what he may have said or written in particular situations. Imagining such scenes was so popular that it was used in ancient education to teach students creative writing. This 2,000-year-old papyrus preserves such a school-text. It contains the homework of a child who was tasked to make up what Alexander would have said after he defeated Darius, the emperor of the Persians. The pupil's shaky hand devises a short speech for Alexander, in which he generously praises his dead opponent and demands a royal burial for him.
A model speech in the name of Alexander the Great (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, AD 150–225): Papyrus 756
The most successful of these fictitious texts had a life of their own. One popular composition by an unknown author was a letter supposedly written by Alexander to his former teacher, Aristotle, about the marvels of the Eastern realms of the earth. Written originally in Greek and later translated into many languages, this letter depicts fantastic episodes faced by the Macedonian army on its long journey beyond India, featuring men with six hands, giant crabs, deadly sirens, a tooth-tyrant, and a monstrous three-horned beast that killed 26 men at once.
Beginning of Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle about the Sights and Miracles of India, preserved in a 15metre-long chronicle roll (England, possibly Battle Abbey, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Cotton Roll XIV 12, membrane 4
Around the 3rd century AD, in Alexandria, this rich array of stories, travelogues, speeches and letters was collected into one large narrative of Alexander’s life resulting in one of the most beloved books created in Antiquity — the Alexander Romance.
Alexander’s entry to Rome with the senators bowing, from the earliest illuminated Greek manuscript of the Alexander Romance (Eastern Mediterranean, 13th century): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Barocci 17, f. 28v
Originally written in Greek, the Romance contains the life of Alexander coloured with extraordinary legends. It records his mythical origins from a dragon-shaped pharaoh, retelling his wise words and letters he exchanged with philosophers, politicians and kings, and the extraordinary battles he fought on land and water. It regales us with the most incredible adventures credited to Alexander, including his descent into the sea, his flight into the heavens and his encounters with monsters of the East taken from his fictitious epistle to Aristotle.
Alexander facing the headless giants (Blemmydae), in the Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris, 1420): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 80r (detail)
Soon after its composition, the text underwent incredible transformations. New stories were added to the original narrative from a variety of sources, creating an entangled network of Greek versions of the text. These variants were then translated into many of the languages of the medieval Mediterranean, from Coptic, Armenian and Syriac, through Latin, Arabic, Persian and Ethiopian, and onwards to a plethora of medieval vernaculars including French, English, German and Russian.
'The Strange Men Found by King Alexander of Macedon', a hand-coloured engraving (Russia, c. 1820): British Museum 1934,0402.24
The British Library's Alexander the Great exhibition provides a stunning insight into the evolution of this medieval bestseller, showing how stories and legends were transmitted and adapted across two millennia. In different eyes, Alexander could be viewed as a powerful monarch, a mighty conqueror, a formidable tyrant, a wise philosopher, an inspired prophet or an all-knowing magician.
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We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for supporting the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.