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06 February 2023

Alexander the Great, scientist?

The British Library’s current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, explores the entangled web of legends associated with the famous Macedonian ruler. One of the most surprising is Alexander's transformation into a physician and scientist, as we explore in this blogpost.

Image of eight men kneeling on cushions in a semi circle. Each figure is bearded and wearing a white turban. The central figure is dressed in green.

Alexander and the Seven Philosophers, in Nizami, Iqbalnamah (Book of Fortune), from his Khamsah (Five Poems) (Herat, Afghanistan, 1494–95): Or 6810, f. 214r (detail)

The sources for Alexander’s life, historical and legendary alike, agree that he was educated by Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher and scientist. It is now hard to reconstruct exactly what Aristotle may have taught the young Alexander, but legends fill this gap abundantly.

A man dressed in blue seated in a chair while children study from books

Aristotle instructing Alexander in the schoolroom, in The Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris 1420): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 10v (detail)

A surprisingly large number of texts, in various languages, purport to be written either by Aristotle to Alexander or vice versa. One of the earliest is a Greek rhetorical manual claiming to be by Aristotle, and known as his Rhetoric to Alexander.

manuscript page with decorative border

Beginning of the Rhetoric to Alexander (3rd quarter of the 15th century) Harley MS 6322, f. 267r (detail)

This treatise probably dates from Alexander’s lifetime and provides instructions for public speaking. It was only in 1548 that a Renaissance scholar, Pietro Vettori, discovered that other works refer to this text as a book written by another theorist of the 4th century BC, a certain Anaximenes of Lampsacus, whose work it is usually considered today.

two figures facing each other, both bearded, the younger man (on the left of the image) wheres a hat. Both hold one hand up to the faces

Aristotle on the right and his pupil, possibly Alexander, on the left, in Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (On the Characteristics of Animals) (Baghdad?, c. 1225): Or 2784, f. 96r

The intimate relationship between the philosopher and the young conqueror has fascinated Middle Eastern scholars. Many texts preserved in Arabic claim to have been used in Alexander’s early education. One of these is a treatise on falconry known as The Book of Hunting with Birds of Prey, Written by the Ancient Sages for the King Alexander the Greek. It is a wondrous book, fit for kings, since every king must go hunting with one of these birds of prey.

manuscript page written in black and gold. There is also writing down the left hand margin

Kitāb al-bayzarah (Book of Hunting with Birds of Prey) (1 April 1787): Or 8187, f. 3r

Another Arabic treatise on talismans and magic is called 'The Treasury of Alexander'. Its preface says it was originally written in Greek, dictated by the god Hermes to the philosopher Apollonius, who passed it on to Aristotle, who in turn dedicated and donated it to Alexander the Great. The preface explains its miraculous discovery 'in a copper box covered with Hematite which contained a box made of red gold, locked with a golden key hanging from a golden chain. On the box, there was writing in Greek script, and inside it was a 360-page golden book whose pages were also made of red gold. Every page had twelve lines, written sometimes in Greek and sometimes in Latin script and this was the treasury of Alexander.' (translated by Liana Salif, ‘A Preliminary Study of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Hermetica’, Al-ʿUsur al-Wusta: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists, 29 (2021), p. 34).

Soon after its discovery, the 9th-century Caliph al-Muʿtaṣim commissioned a translation into Arabic which became a popular magical encyclopaedia in Islamic culture, surviving in a number of  illuminated copies.

manuscript page

Detail of the history of the discovery of Alexander’s Treasure from the Dhakhīrat Iskandar (Alexander’s Treasure) (17th century): IO Islamic 673, f. 1r

Of the many different texts claiming to have its origins in Alexander’s education by Aristotle, the most popular and significant is probably the 9th-century Arabic collection known as the Secret of Secrets.

The centre of the page shoes a blue square withing which is a large gold circle filled with eight smaller gold circles

The Circle of Justice from the Secret of Secrets (Herat, 1425): Chester Beatty, Dublin, Ar 4183, f. 12r

This work comprises letters from Aristotle to the young Alexander, instructing him on everything a medieval ruler was expected to master, including laws, morals, magic, health and alchemy. Widely disseminated in the Middle East, the Secret of Secrets reached medieval Spain through the Arab conquest. In the 13th century, it was translated into Latin by Philip of Tripoli, becoming an integral part of princely education throughout medieval Europe.

Two figures seated against a gold background, one wears a crown. Each are gesturing towards eachother with their hands

Alexander and Aristotle discussing the heavenly spheres, from the Latin translation of the Secret of Secrets by Philip of Tripoli (England, 1326–1327): Add MS 47680, f. 51v (detail)

As the Secret of Secrets became ever more popular, different versions and translations of the text appeared. A famous excerpt in English and Welsh was Aristotle’s letter to Alexander about physiognomy, known as ‘Certeyne rewles of phisnomy, to knowe by onely thoght when men lokes on any man, of what condicions he es’.

part of a manuscript folio. Writing is in black and red ink. A large letter A is in blue

The Physiognomy of Aristotle to Alexander (England, c. 1400): Sloane MS 213, f. 118v (detail)

The spread of the Secret of Secrets and its Latin and vernacular versions in Europe prompted the creation of new works. A 14th-century Latin manuscript from England preserves a text by Aristotle to Alexander about the secret doctrine of the philosopher’s stone, by which anything can be turned into gold and one can achieve immortality.

exctract of a manuscript. Writing in black and red, a capital A is in blue

The Doctrine of Aristotle to Alexander (on the philosopher’s stone) (England, 1474): Add MS 15549, f. 97r (detail)

By the end of the 16th century, the tradition of Alexander’s involvement in science and alchemy was so strong that in one of the most important printed collections of Latin alchemical texts he is credited to have written treatises himself. This book contains letters allegedly written by Alexander about the philosopher's stone. The appearance of such texts shows the extraordinary range of Alexander’s transformation from a young disciple of Aristotle into a philosopher, scientist and magician.

extract of a printed book. Black ink on white

Alexander’s Letter on the Philosophers’ Stone, from the Artis auriferae, quam chemiam vocant (Basel: C Walkircher, 1610): Cup401b6, p. 245. (detail)

To discover more, visit the British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


Peter Toth

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