Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.08.06

Richard Stoneman, Legends of Alexander the Great. London and Rutland, Vermont: J. M. Dent and Charles E. Tuttle, 1994. Pp. 112. $8.50. ISBN 0-460-87514-0.

Reviewed by Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College (

Some readers of this review will know Richard Stoneman as the energetic classics and philosophy editor for Routledge & Kegan Paul; others will recognize him through Daphne into Laurel: English Translations of Classical Poetry From Chaucer to the Present (London: Duckworth, 1982), his first book, or through his 1991 Penguin, The Greek Alexander Romance; some, too, will have noted his recent articles on Alexander and the East1; and finally, a few, better acquainted, will have heard him mention, or have even met, his son, Alexander. Neatly within parameters suggested by the above -- an interest in books; in the relationship between classical and English literature; in the Alexander Romance, particularly its portrayal of the inhabitants of the East; and in Alexander[s] -- falls Legends of Alexander the Great.

A paperback, handsomely produced and carefully edited in the tradition of the Everyman Library of which it is a part, Legends of Alexander contains a selection of fourteen texts illustrative of the medieval view of Alexander in general and, in particular, of Medieval England's reception and adaptation of the Alexander tradition. Of these fourteen, Stoneman emphasizes six: (i) Alexander's Letter to Aristotle about India; (ii) On the Wonders of the East; (iii) a translation of I.19 of the 9th-century Greek Chronicle of George the Monk; (iv) On the Life of the Brahmans, attributed to a certain Palladius; (v) The Correspondence of Alexander and Dindimus; and (vi) Alexander the Great's Journey to Paradise. Two appendices treat the remainder: Appendix I) a translation of the Greek Berlin Papyrus 13044, which describes Alexander's interrogation of the Gymnosophists; Appendix II i and ii) Stoneman's "modernised" excerpts from the so-called Thornton "Life of Alexander" and from King Alisaundre; and II iii-vii) selections from The Book of Sir John Mandeville; from the so-called Alliterative "Alexander B"; from the Confessio Amantis of Chaucer's friend John Gower; from a chapbook of 1683 entitled The Upright Lives of the Heathens Briefly Noted; and from Gilbert Hay's The Buik of Alexander, this last in "modernised" form.

In an admirably clear Introduction (pp. ix-xlii), Stoneman justifies these selections and their organization on the basis of the role each played in the formation of the medieval portrayal of Alexander. This picture, as is well known, derives from four principal sources: Curtius Rufus' account of Alexander; the Alexander Romance read in the now-lost Latin translation of the 10th-century Archpriest of Naples, Leo, the Nativitas et Victoria Alexandri Magni; a nexus of Latin, Spanish, and Hebrew works connected to the Arabic texts of Hunayn ibn Ishaq (9th c.) and Yahya ibn Batrik (10th c.), both of whom expanded on Syriac texts which may reflect Greek originals; and various brief accounts of Alexander's more singular exploits. Five of Stoneman's six primary texts belong to this last group, and all offer "accounts of [Alexander's] adventures in India and beyond, which contributed to the non-military aspect of the medieval Alexander, the sage and seeker after wisdom" (Stoneman, p. xi). Stoneman justifies the remaining primary selection -- that of George the Monk -- because it appears to reflect a later Greek development of the common tradition represented by his other five texts.

Each major text is interesting in its own right. Stoneman's translation of Alexander's Letter to Aristotle about India is based on a 10th-century Italian-Latin version of a 7th-century Latin manuscript of the same work. The 10th century also saw an Old English translation of the Letter, which, Stoneman observes (p. xix), makes it "the first Alexander text to be translated into a medieval language." At the other end of the temporal scale, by the early 4th century a Greek version of the Letter to Aristotle was in circulation, as demonstrated by its interpolation into recension A of the Alexander Romance.2 The content of the Letter to Aristotle depends heavily, but hardly totally, on the now-lost Indica of Ctesias (5th c. B.C., FgrH no. 688, frs. 45-52) and exerted a determinant influence on subsequent treatments of the East.

This is especially evident in On the Wonders of the East, the second of Stoneman's primary texts, which, by the 11th century, had worked its way into the medieval Latin Alexander Romance and, like the Letter to Aristotle, had been translated into Old English. Indeed, both Old English versions, together with The Passion of St. Christopher and a 350-line fragment of the poem Judith, stand in MS. Cotton Vitellius A xv, most famous as the codex unicus of Beowulf.3 Wonders survives in several Latin manuscripts independent of the Romance, one of these -- that known as D -- the basis of the Old English and (presumably) of Stoneman's translation.4 Its content derives from a variety of sources aside from the Letter to Aristotle: Solinus, Isidore of Seville, and Augustine, inter alia. Set in the form of an epistle from Pharasmanes, King of Iberia (i.e., Georgia) to the Emperor Hadrian, Wonders, like the Letter to Aristotle, saw multiple incarnations in the medieval Romance tradition.

Stoneman translates his primary texts iii and iv, George's Chronicle and Palladius' On the Life of the Brahmans, from Greek. Byzantinists especially will know the Chronicle of the late 9th-century monk George from de Boor's edition, on which Stoneman apparently (there is no explicit reference to de Boor) relies.5 This selection, too, contains often fantastic material on India, but is distinctive in its emphasis on Alexander's alleged visit to Jerusalem as a prelude to his eastward march.6 For Palladius, perhaps the 5th-century bishop of Helenopolis in Bythinia of the same name, Stoneman employs modern editions of the more detailed of the two extant Greek manuscripts.7 This is a particularly interesting piece, which uses Alexander's conversation with the Brahman Dandamis [sic] as recounted in a work by Arrian [!], the student of Epectitus and Alexander historian, presented to Palladius by an unnamed scholar of Egyptian Thebes, whose adventure in the Orient Palladius recounts. Here Dandamis' exchange with Alexander, Stoneman notes, is a protreptic to Christian monasticism, adapted, as is demonstrated by Papyrus Geneva inv. 271 (mid-2nd century A.D.), from earlier Cynic diatribes contra Alexander. Palladius' work saw several Latin translations and had a broad influence in both Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Text v, The Correspondence of Alexander and Dindimus, elaborates and modifies the debate between the Macedonian and Brahman as presented by Palladius. The hypothetical Greek original is lost, but several Latin versions survive. Direct or indirect links between these Latin versions -- from which Stoneman chooses the Bamberg MS for translation -- and three of the eight texts of Stoneman's appendices (on which, see below) reflect its major role in the incorporation of Alexander into Medieval English literature.

Alexander the Great's Journey to Paradise is the last and also the latest of Stoneman's six primary texts. Its entertaining parable of the eye as recounted to Alexander by Papas, an aged Jewish wise man -- a tale at least as old as the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 A.D.), in which it appears -- is a regular feature in the Hebrew Alexander Romance tradition: the precise circumstances of its entry into Latin literature are unknown. However, linguistic features suggest a date of about 1100, and the interpolation of the Journey to Paradise in 1175 into the so-called Strassburg MS (destroyed during the German bombardment of that city in 1870, but published earlier) of the slightly earlier Alexanderleid of the priest of Trier, Pfaffe Lamprecht, affords a terminus ante quem.8 The popularity of the Journey to Paradise depended partly on the mutual reinforcemnt of its contents and medieval notions of an earthly paradise somewhere in East, partly on the congruence on its portrayal of Alexander with medieval images of the knight errant and the quest. "But it is the parable of the eye," Stoneman justly observes (p. xxxvi), "that sets the seal on the Christianisation of Alexander. ... In the story of the eye, the Jewish sage who explains the riddle of the stone clearly presents Alexander with a truth that must be acknowledged. After this, Alexander's death comes as neither surprise nor shame: it represents the reconciliation of the hero with the dictates of the Almighty, which the pagan hero could never achieve. Alexander has become Everyman."

The eight texts of Stoneman's appendices are well chosen. The Berlin Papyrus is the oldest account (ca. 100 B.C.) of Alexander's famous questioning of Indian wise men. Appendix II iii -- taken from the 15th-century English version of The Book of Sir John Mandeville, which served as a sort of clearinghouse for this view of the mysterious and fantastic East9 -- illustrates in its description of the island of the Brahmans an indirect elaboration of the Palladius tradition. Appendix II iv, v, and vi -- the Dindiamus/Alexander section of the mid-14th-century Alliterative "Alexander B"; Gower's Confessio Amanits V 1453-1496; and a selection from The Upright Lives of the Heathens Briefly Noted -- serve to demonstrate the influence on English literature of debate between Alexander and the Brahmans, respective champions of the active and contemplative life, as presented in the Correspondence between Alexander and Dindimus. Appendix II i-ii -- from the Thornton "Life of Alexander" (an early-15th-century abridged English translation, extant in but a single manuscript, of the French Historia de Preliis10) and from the early 14th-century poem King Alisaundre -- represent portions of the principle examples of the English versions of the Alexander Romance, once more the precise selections determined by Stoneman's theme of Alexander and the East. Appendix II vii, the Scots Buik [Book] of Alexander by Gilbert Hay (fl. 1450) combines with this theme the motif of Alexander's journey to paradise, both likely derived from French sources.

Stoneman's translations are all of a very high quality, his annotations are succinct and usually illuminating, and his short bibliography well suited to the purpose of the Everyman Library. A map of Pakistan shows sites important to Alexander's campaigns as represented by modern cartography, while two reproductions -- one of the whole, the other an enlarged detail of the upper right section -- of the late-13th-century Hereford Mappa Mundi, with brief notations linking sections of the map to Alexander's exploits, demonstrate in fascinating fashion the impact of Alexander literature on the medieval conception of the form and content of the regions of the Orient.

The few errors in Legends are of minor importance: "there" for "these" (p. xi); contradictory dates of 1st century B.C. (p. xxiii) and the correct mid-2nd century B.C. (p. xi) for Geneva papyrus 271; and 75 instead of 115 for the number of a forthcoming JHS volume (p. 112). Latin titles of translated works, together with full, systematic bibliographic information, might have been included in the table of contents or preceding each selection.

Students of the historical Alexander, most of whom seldom go beyond Pseudo-Callisthenes, will find in Legends of Alexander a pleasant sample of the very important effects of Alexander on the imagination of subsequent generations, and -- through the Hereford Mappa Mundi, for instance -- a suggestion of the practical consequences of those effects. This audience will probably read Legends of Alexander with an eye to its relationship to other texts, and with George Cary's fundamental Medieval Alexander at hand -- an approach mirrored in this review. Some of the non-specialist readers for whom the volumes of the Everyman Library are intended may do likewise, but most, no doubt, will react to what they read in Legends on the basis of the texts themselves. Scholars, either before or after matters wissenschaftlich, would be well advised to relax and do the same. To either audience or approach, Stoneman's Legends of Alexander the Great is to be highly recommended.


  • [1] "Romantic Ethnography: Central Asia and India in the Alexander Romance," Ancient World 25 (1994), pp. 93-107, and "Who are the Brahmans? Indian Lore and Cynic Doctrine in Palladius; De Bragmantibus and Its Models," CQ 44 (1994), pp. 500-510. Another, "Naked Philosophers," is forthcoming in JHS 115 (1995).
  • [2] Pseudo-Callisthenes III.7-16, ed. Mueller. Cf. Stoneman, The Greek Alexander Romance (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 181-185, for translation.
  • [3] On the manuscript, see Kenneth Sisam, Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), pp. 61-96.
  • [4] This is a rare instance of a point about which Stoneman, p. xix, could have been clearer.
  • [5] Chronicon, edd. C. de Boor and P. Wirth (corrected reprint of 1904 ed.; Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1978).
  • [6] On Alexander and Jerusalem, see, e.g., Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (New York: Atheneum, 1975), pp. 41-49.
  • [7] For full references, see Stoneman, p. xxix, n. 43.
  • [8] Again we are left to wonder about the precise edition employed for translation. Cary, p. 20, n. 1, lists possibilities. Since Stoneman's "Romantic Ethnography," (supra), p. 105, n. 64, cites the edition of A. Hilka, it seems a reasonable inference that he used this, too, for Legends of Alexander. However, the sole notice of Hilka in Legends (p. xl, n. 59) is in connection with La Prise de Defur, a 13th-century component of the French Alexander Romance tradition. More precise references to the sources of particular selections would have been welcome, too, for Appendix II, item i, page numbers; for II iii, relevant chapter or page numbers; for II iv, page and line numbers; for II v, edition, book, and line numbers; for II vi, page number or numbers; and, for II vii, book and line numbers.
  • [9] Josephine Waters Bennett, The Rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville (New York: Modern Language Association, 1954), p. 1: "The Travels was written in French in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, and by the end of that century it had been translated into every major language of Europe. Over 250 manuscripts survive even today, and many have been lost. It has an important place in the history of early printing, since at least thirty-five editions were produced in the incunabular period. Indeed, the record of popular editions shows that the Travels retained a large audience well into the twentieth century. Even in our time it has been called one of the most readable books ever written."
  • [10] George Cary, The Medieval Alexander, ed. by D. J. A. Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), p. 38, n. 1: "Historia de Preliis is the title of the incunable editions of the third interpolated recension ... of the Nativitas et Victoria [of Leo of Naples]. It is now conveniently used to describe all the derivatives of Leo's work."