Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

11 February 2023

Time runs out for Alexander the Great

Have you visited our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth? Featuring astrological clay tablets, ancient papyri, medieval manuscripts, comics and videogames, we reveal how Alexander’s remarkable character and achievements have been adapted and appropriated by diverse cultures over 2,000 years. But hurry, because you only have until 19 February to see this remarkable show in person at the British Library.

Alexander became king of Macedon (in today’s northern Balkans) in 336 BC at the age of 20. In less than ten years, he had conquered the entire ancient world, from Greece to Egypt and from the Middle East to India and Punjab. His large, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural empire did not survive Alexander's death in 323BC, but his legacy was ultimately more pervasive than his conquests: legends about Alexander's life and adventures have maintained his memory for more than two millennia, giving inspiration to some of the greatest literary and artistic treasures. Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth explores this incredible legacy, highlighting some surprising stories and amazing adventures of this ancient hero.

Wooden puppets on sticks. Alexander (left) wearing armour, a helmet, a shield ans a spear. Dragon, right, green upper body, yellow belly

Wooden puppets of Alexander and the Cursed Snake (Athens, c.2000): Private collection

The legendary life of Alexander, known as the Alexander Romance, is one of the most popular ancient literary texts. Written originally in Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, it collected Alexander's deeds as retold by historians, scientists and travellers, with additions from many other sources. Soon after its composition in the 2nd century AD, the Romance was translated into numerous languages, such as Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic, Persian, Arabic and Latin. From the Latin, vernacular European versions emerged, including French, English, German and Russian.

In the course of transmission, these tales were constantly rewritten and supplemented by new stories, so that Alexander’s exploits became ever more implausible. His mythical adventures included:

  •  conquering dragons, giants and other monsters, including the feared cannibalistic people of Gog and Magog
  • encountering strange peoples and incredible monsters in the unknown realms of the world
  • descending to the depths of the ocean in a submarine he had himself invented
  • constructing an incredible flying machine, pulled aloft by griffins, to explore the secrets of Heaven
  • meeting some of the most beautiful and powerful women of his time

Men building a wall while Alexander watches from horseback

Gog and Magog, in Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi, Qisas al-anbiyaʾ(Tales of the Prophets) (Iran, late 16th century): Add MS 18576, f. 118r

Alexander, crowned, on horseback approaching a large group of nude men, one of whom also wears a crown

Alexander meets the gymnosophists, in Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Harley MS 4979, f. 56v

open book image. Printed book. The right hand page shows Alexander in a diving bell surrounded by enormous fish and other sea creatures
Alexander’s fairytale descent, in Robert Steele and Fred Mason, The Story of Alexander (1894)

Alexander the great, crowned and in red robes, seated in a wooden house shaped cage which is being carried through the air by four griffins

Alexander is lifted into the sky by four griffins in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 76v

Alexander, enthroned, greeting the Queen of the Amazons and her people

Alexander and the Amazon women: Add MS 15268, f. 203r

With the oldest exhibit dating from Alexander’s lifetime, and the most recent an unpublished graphic novel, the exhibition considers how the tales of Alexander’s deeds proliferated and spread throughout Europe, Asia and beyond. 

Titlepage of The Rival Queens

Nathaniel Lee, The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great (London: James Magnes and Richard Bentley, 1677):  11774.g.29

Alexander the Great was the subject of legends during his lifetime, which developed into a complex mythology in the centuries following his death. Instead of trying to understand who Alexander was, our exhibition explores who he has since become and how these stories continue to evolve. The exhibition culminates with a replica of Alexander’s supposed sarcophagus from Egypt, set within a digital reconstruction created by Ubisoft as part of the Assassin’s Creed Origins video game. We also collaborated with Escape Studios’ School of Interactive and Real Time to create an interactive version of the largest surviving medieval world map until it was destroyed during World War II. Based on the original map, produced by the sisters of the convent of Ebstorf around 1300, the new digital map enables us to explore the adventures Alexander purportedly took in his own lifetime. 

Still of the interactive map experience, view of a one of the clickable points featuring Gog and Magog.

Screenshot of the digital Ebstorf Map game

Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition:

  • one of the most elaborate secular manuscripts from the Byzantine empire, a 14th-century copy of the Greek Alexander Romance containing 250 coloured illustrations, loaned from the Museum of the Hellenic Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies and on display in the UK for the first time
  • the armour of Prince Henry Frederick, son of King James I, decorated with scenes of Alexander’s battles
  • a pamphlet presented to Henry VIII by his teacher Bernard André in the 16th century, which refers to the new king of England as the future Alexander the Great and himself as Aristotle the philosopher
  • a 2,300 year-old silver coin commemorating Alexander’s victory against the regional ruler Porus, on loan from the British Museum
  • a description of the meeting between Queen Candace of Ethiopia and Alexander in a 19th-century Ethiopian manuscript 
  • a luxurious illuminated manuscript of the French Alexander Romance
  • part of a child’s homework on papyrus containing an imaginary speech by Alexander

manuscript page

Bernard André, Aristotelis ad Magnum Alexandrum de Vite Institutione Oratio: Royal MS 12 B XIV, f. 10r

Porus coin. Coin showing a man on horseback charging at an elephant and its rider

The Porus coin (?Babylon c. 323BC): British Museum, 1887,0609.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Three figures in front of a city. One man holds out an apple

Alexander at the gates of Paradise, in Roman d’Alexandre: The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodley MS 264 f. 186r

Papyrus fragment with shaky handwriting on it

Papyrus from Oxyrynchus, Egypt: Papyrus 756   

Book your tickets to Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. British Library Members go free. Closes Sunday, 19 February 2023.

The British Library is indebted to the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund, as well as the American Trust for the British Library, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, The Hellenic Foundation, London, and Professor James H. Marrow and Dr Emily Rose for their support towards the development of this exhibition.

 

Peter Toth

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