The storie of Alexander is so commune / That every wight that hath discrecioun / Hath herd somewhat or al of his fortune

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Monk’s Tale, 641–43

There are over 200 different Alexander epics and poems in medieval European languages alone, surviving in literally thousands of manuscripts – for example, in Russian, Polish, Old French, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian. In Jewish tradition Alexander is nothing short of a folk hero who honours the One True God. There is a medieval German Alexander epic, an Icelandic Alexander saga, and an Ethiopian Alexander Romance. By the mid-14th century the tale had even reached Mongolia, where Alexander appears as an almost supernatural predecessor of Genghis Khan. You will find him depicted as one of the four kings on the standard French pack of playing cards, as well as on Sicilian carnival carts, Ethiopian bridal cloths, Greek Orthodox icons, and on paintings from India. His tomb is claimed in Egypt, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, countries of the Islamic world, where, strangely enough, he is regarded as a mythical folk hero, whether as Iskandar ‘the Two-horned One’, ‘the Great’ or ‘the Accursed’:

We saw his story retold by Greek and Turkish shadow players, and by tale-tellers in Isfahan and Tehran cafés. We saw the king come to live in an epic Hindi movie banned by the British occupiers in World War II. We saw one of the last of the travelling one-man shows in Iran, complete with painted backdrop showing the death of Darios in epic style, ‘cutting a passion to tatters’ like Hamlet’s player king. We heard stories of Alexander from professional bards in Turkey and Central Asia; we crouched in a Tajik cave by the mummified body of Alexander’s greatest foe, to hear his tale recounted by Muslim pilgrims; nearby at the blue mirror of Iskander Gol we heard of the dam of gold which he left behind which still gives up gold at each flood time; we heard about Greek medicine from doctors of Kandahar who claim descent from Alexander’s medical team; we sat in a felt yurt on the Turkoman steppe to hear the story of his devil’s horns and his two-week sex romp with an Amazon queen (as the tabloid newspapers would put it today...

Wood 1998: 13

What the peripatetic Michael Wood witnessed on his travels was a folk tradition that spans both cultures and centuries.

Even Persia, once overthrown by the Macedonian world conqueror, had spent upwards of a millennium heavily embroidering the story of Eskandar Du’l-Qarnayn, ‘The Two-Horned One’ (Dhu’l-qarnain of Qur’ān 18: 86–99). In pre-Islamic times Alexander is ‘the cursed one’, ‘the evil destroyer’. After the Islamic conquest, however, Alexander’s story, known as the Eskandar-nāma, is one in which he is usually portrayed positively as a world hero and sometimes as a sage. This romanticised version of Alexander helped the rulers of the caliphate legitimise their own claims to power. In the Islamic Persian miniature paintings that illustrate the tale, therefore, Alexander is elaborately Iranianised with reinforced mail armour, tall pointed helm, horseman’s composite bow, light lance, mace, and sabre, wearing the kingly moustache and beard obligatory where a smooth face marked the eunuch. Assimilated at last to Islam, the romance spread out to enormous lengths until it would take 85 stanzas to describe two opposing armies before battle began.

The text known as the Alexander Romance, originally a Greek work that may have been composed in Alexandria as early as the 3rd or 2nd century BC, went through repeated revisions in antiquity and was translated twice into Latin. In it, Alexander’s deeds were transformed into the magical adventures of a fairytale hero. He adventures to Dareios’ camp, disguised as his own herald, wins Roxana’s heart, and escapes across a frozen river, later avenging his foully murdered friend the Persian Great King. Later English versions were to follow, including the early 14th-century Kyng Alisaundre. And so we find our hero in India, whereupon he discovers the Speaking Tree that foretells his destiny to die young but win eternal glory much like his forebear Achilles (his mother Olympias claimed the greatest of Greek heroes as an ancestor):

The king saw a light like fire-brand
From the tree up to heaven stand.
At once on his knees he fell
Down there with his knights all,
And though if he should the world win forth,
East and west, south and north,
If should to Greece again wend
To see his other and his friend[s].
The tree him answered again
In language of Indien:
‘King Alisaundre, I tell thee cert,
Of all the world the third part
Thou shall win and be of [it] king.
And wondrous worthy thine ending.
Hear my language understand!
Ne comest thou never in Greece land;
Mother nor sister, nor thy kin
Ne shalt thou more in Greece seen.
Ere thou wast in thy begetting,
Of gods it was thy destining.
For all the world, I say to thee,
Otherwise it might not be’.

Kyng Alisaundre 6838–59 (B-text, trans. Richard Stoneman 1994: 82–83)

With regards to the non-military aspects of the medieval Alexander, the sage and seeker after wisdom, a number of shorter texts dealt exclusively with his adventures in India and beyond. These belong to a multifarious tradition about Alexander in India, which date back to the century after his death and is represented by the Berlin papyrus 13044 of around 100 BC, containing part of his interview with the Brahmans. He tests nine naked ascetics with a series of riddles, and warning that whoever answers worst will be put to death, the tenth judging the answers:

He asked the sixth what a man should do to make himself most loved by men. He replied: ‘By being all-powerful yet frightening nobody’.
He asked the seventh what a man should do in order to become a god. He replied: ‘By doing what is impossible for a man to do’.

Berlin papyrus 13044 (trans. Richard Stoneman 1994: 76)

Here is the tyrant, and his interview has a threatening tone. The tables are, however, turned on him by the wise men, who defeat the logic of his threats by a form of the classical Liar Paradox, viz. if the liar states they are lying, then they are telling the truth:

But the Indian did not want anyone to perish as a result of his answer, so he replied that each had answered worse than the other had.
‘Well then’, said Alexander, ‘you shall all die, and you first because it was your judgement’.
‘But Alexander’, replied the other, ‘it is not a kingly act to lie. You said, whoever I shall [appoint judge, if I consider he has judged well, he shall live… .] Your statement will [save] us. It is not for us to kill unjustly, but for you to preserve’.

Ibid. (trans. Richard Stoneman 1994: 77)

This story was taken up by Plutarch as part of his lengthy biography (Alexander 64), which aims, however, to display the complexity of the great man’s character.

Many of the scattered anecdotes from antiquity that show Alexander in a bad light can be traced back to a Cynic milieu or to their Stoic successors. The Stoic Panaitios, for instance, compared him unfavourably with his father as a bad ruler (Cicero De officiis 1.90, 2.53). Vanity, arrogance and luxury were leitmotifs of this particular philosophical approach, as well as the view of Alexander as a murderous tyrant – an insane king, in the words of the poet Lucan (Pharsalia 10.20–46), who filled the world with slaughter and was at last brought down by Fate the Avenger. Excess and luxury lead to overweening pride, the sin of hubris, which then attracts Fate, or worse still, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Alexander is regularly used as an exemplum of excessive ambition in the philosophical letters of Seneca (Epistulae 53.10, 59.12, 83.19), Lucan’s uncle. It is certainly relevant that both Lucan and Seneca were forced to take their own lives by another icon of cruel tyranny, Rome’s fifth emperor, Nero, who deeply resented their philosophical opposition to his rule.

With Plutarch, on the other hand, the image of Alexander switches from that of bloodthirsty tyrant to the more acceptable one of philosopher king. The meeting of the regal Alexander and the philosopher Diogenes is one of the most popular stories in philosophical history. Here the king is represented as an admirer of effective founder of the Cynic school (Moralia 331–32). In Plutarch’s view (ibid. 329a–b) Alexander had been instrumental in creating a world state of the kind envisaged by the early Stoic thinker Zeno, a theme that well suited the tastes and prejudices of Roman empire builders.

According to the biographer Suetonius, Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, had drawn some links between his military achievements and those of Alexander. Following in the footsteps of Iulius Caesar and Marcus Antonius, both wannabe Alexanders, Augustus visits the magnificent mausoleum of Alexander in Alexandria:

When Alexander’s sarcophagus was brought from its shrine, Augustus gazed at the body, then laid a crown of gold on its glass case and scattered some flowers to pay his respects. When they asked if he would like to see Ptolemy [Ptolemaios I, founder of Ptolemaic Egypt] too, ‘I wish to see a king,’ he replied, ‘I do not wish to see corpses’.

Suetonius, Divus Augustus 18.1

But, as after Augustus the idea of further extending the empire had been abandoned, Alexander became an inappropriate model. Traianus (or Trajan), however, saw himself (and indeed was) a warrior emperor, with successful, albeit short-lived, conquests of Dacia and Mesopotamia. It is no accident that the rehabilitation of Alexander as a king who represented philosophic values became of particular importance in Traianus’ reign. Aside from Plutarch, the Traianic context is even more obvious in the speeches devoted by a contemporary Stoic–Cynic writer, Dio of Prusa, to Alexander and his meeting with the controversial Diogenes the Cynic (Greek: ‘dog-like’) who happily declared himself a citizen of the world rather than claiming allegiance to one city. Alexander was reported to have said: ‘But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes’ (Plutarch Alexander 14.5).

In one treatment of the interview with Diogenes, Alexander is presented as a lover of glory but yet an admirer of the philosopher (Orationes 4.4, 7). He regrets the fate that compels him to arms, and only smiles at Diogenes’ insults (ibid. 4.9, 19–20). The remainder of the discourse is devoted to Alexander’s enquiry of Diogenes on how to be a good king, and Diogenes’ advice, namely achieving self-knowledge and avoiding wealth, pleasure, and ambition. Dio develops the idea of Alexander as a philosophic king in the course of a discussion between himself and his father Philip about the value of Homer, his character Achilles as a moral model and the characteristics of the humane king (ibid. 2.77). Alexander is represented as having learnt the craft of kingship from Aristotle (ibid. 2.79), a motif that points the way forwards to the medieval traditions of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander on kingship.

In the literature of medieval Europe this reinvented Alexander became a popular allegorical figure, the philosopher king and the ‘perfect knight’ – a sort of proto-Christian Galahad, in the chivalric manner. And so the legend of his ascent to heaven, carved on cathedral stalls and roof bosses from Somerset to Sicily, became an anticipation of glory in the hereafter. Chaucer was certainly acquainted with this popular motif, since in The House of Fame (2.915–18) he refers to the story of Alexander’s ascent into the heavens in a flying vehicle harnessed to a group of griffins.

A great hero of antiquity he may be to the West, but to the people of Asia he is the harbinger of death, a ‘long-haired demon of the race of wrath’:

Tell me, which is better – to harm men and have a bad reputation, or to protect them and be known as a benefactor? What is more fitting to the sons of God – to fight and tear down what has been created by Providence, or to live in peace and to reconstruct what has been damaged and thrown down, as a servant of Providence? This power of yours, Alexander, will not help you, nor your abundance of gold, your herds of elephants, your variety of beautiful clothing that you wear, your army that now follows in your footsteps, your horses and pikemen and all the other things you have plundered from others in war and battle. But you will derive great benefit if you take my advice and listen to my teaching.

Palladius, On the Life of the Brahmans 2.26 (c. AD 500)

Myths are powerful things. For one thing, they can create heroes and villains, martyrs and tyrants.

There is the mosaic depicting the battle of Gaugamela (though art historians believe the battle to be Issos) from the Casa del Fauno at Pompeii, a Roman copy of a Greek painting done within living memory. This dazzling composition surely stands as the most powerful of all depictions of Alexander. With youthful acuity, Alexander strains forwards, spurring his horse, eyes bulging and hair streaming, driven by his inner demon (when was he not), his quasi-religious yearning, what the Greeks called póthos. To the passive viewer, the young king looks disarmingly berserker like, a condition in which fear, the instinct for self-preservation, self-control and empathy all drop away and the man becomes a killing machine. It comes as little surprise, therefore, to see fear and pain written all over the faces of his shattered Persian adversaries, including that of the Great King himself, Dareios III. As for Alexander’s póthos, well Arrianus hits this particular nail square on its head:

For my part, I cannot ascertain with any accuracy what plans Alexander was pondering, nor is it my concern to guess, though I do not hesitate to assert that he would have planned nothing trivial or insignificant, nor would he have ceased striving no matter what he had already acquired, even if he had added the Europe to Asia or the Britannic Isles to Europe. Instead, he would have sought beyond the known for something unknown, vying with himself in the absence of any other rival.

Arrianus Anabasis 7.1.4

Immediately following this observation Arrianus expressly commends the Indian Gymnosophists for their view that ‘each man can have only so much land as this on which we are standing’ (ibid. 1.6), and Alexander, despite his praise for such a sentiment, acts in a way completely opposed to it. Arrianus refers to Alexander’s póthos many times (ibid. 3.1.5, 5.25.2, 26.1, 7.1.1, 2.2), and it is clear for him his conquests are merely an expression of the conqueror’s insatiable appetite for fame. Though plainly an avid admirer of the Macedonian conqueror, Arrianus identifies him as that individual hero who treads his own path of glory.

Two protagonists, the cosmic king and the alien aggressor, dominate the composition of the mosaic. On the left Alexander, with his head uncovered, remorselessly rushes forward on Boukephálas, ‘Ox-head’, so called ‘from the width of his head’ (Strabo 15.1.29), the unruly horse that he famously tamed in front of his father when he was a 12-year-old crown prince. Like a vengeful fury, the king wields a xystón with which he has just skewered a Persian soldier who had courageously rushed to the defence of Dareios. Hard on the heels of Alexander and snapped into combat-ready mode, are his helmeted companions. On the right of the composition, Dareios, in the yellow Persian tiara, stretches out his noble hand to his self-sacrificing saviour, while his charioteer whips the team to flee towards the right and out of the battle. Around him are his kinsmen – including his brother Oxyáthrēs – who mill in confusion around the royal four-horsed chariot, their faces filled with a mixture of dismay and determination. The lack of helmet coupled with the way he glowers directly at Dareios, makes this a dynamic portrait of Alexander. We are in no doubt who is the alpha male.

Let us leave the last word on Alexander to Shakespeare:

HAMLET: No, faith, not a jot. But to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: Alexander died, Alexander was buried; Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might not they stop a beer-barrel?

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, V.1.169–73

Hamlet emphasises on the truth that no matter how great one may have been in their lifetime or what they may have accomplished, death is the great equaliser.

If you enjoyed today's blog post, check out Nic's book The Hydaspes 326 BC: The Limit of Alexander the Great’s Conquests