BMCR 2008.09.19

Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend

, Alexander the Great : a life in legend. New Haven, CT/London: Yale University Press, 2008. xvii, 314 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780300112030. $35.00 (hb).

Table of Contents

Modern scholars of Alexander the Great are deeply indebted to Richard Stoneman for his work on the Alexander Romance and its influence on later works about the Macedonian king. In the current volume, he has combined that research in an attempt to address Alexander’s longevity in the imaginations of writers after the death of the world’s greatest conqueror (4). The work is organized in such a way as to follow the life and career of the king, but also addresses his reign through centuries of interpretation by various cultures. Every chapter opens with pertinent passages from various texts, which aid in highlighting the themes under discussion. Ultimately, the author argues that the presentation of Alexander changes to fit the demands of a particular culture, whether Egyptian, Persian, or Christian, or the genre itself (149).

The work begins with the birth of the future king of the world (Chapter 1) and focuses on Egyptian and Persian versions. Various myths about Alexander’s birth insinuate some sort of celestial interference, which has colored these accounts ( Alexander Romance I.4, 6, Plutarch, Alexander 2.3-6). The Egyptian version suggests that the lover of Olympias, a serpent, was Nectanebo a magician and last pharaoh of Egypt. It was also an incarnation of Ammon-Re and signified the birth of a hero (7). Stoneman argues that Egyptian culture required that Alexander be conceived by a god (20-21) in order to legitimize his rule of Egypt. That Alexander was designated Pharaoh of Egypt has been much debated. None of the historians of Alexander mentioned that he was Pharaoh or that there was a ceremony to designate him as such, though temple reliefs depict the king as sacrificing in the ways of the Pharaohs. The Alexander Romance refers specifically to a coronation ceremony, which, according to Stoneman, needed some sort of legitimization (1.34). The cultural demands of Egypt required that Alexander followed the traditional “procedure” for pharaohs.

The second chapter (“Golden Vines, Golden Bowls, and Temples of Fire: The Persian Versions”) focuses on the Persian campaigns and the death of Darius III in the Persian accounts of Alexander’s reign. The chapter emphasizes the 10th century Persian author Firdausi who wrote Shahnameh and the Iskandarnameh of Nizami (late 12th century). In both works, Alexander is shown as the model of a spiritual king who supplanted an evil Darius (38, 44). Like the Egyptian stories of Alexander’s birth, Persian versions required that Alexander somehow be a part of the royal family in order to justify his rule over them and keep Persia intact. The evil king Dara (Darius III) and his brother Sekandar (Alexander) were locked in battle for the kingdom. The conflict between the two brothers illustrates a civil war rather than the conquest by a foreign king. The fifteenth century Jami takes the stories a step further by showing Alexander as a prophet of God (which will filter into a Christian world). As Stoneman puts it, “Alexander has now been thoroughly Islamicised” (39).

Stoneman’s chapter on the Jewish and Arabic traditions (chapter 3 “Cities of Alexander: Jews and Arabs adopt the Hero”) discusses Alexander’s city foundations and supposed travels to Jerusalem. The Jewish tradition reveres Alexander for supplanting pagan religions and sees him as a Solomonic hero because of his fairness and wisdom (52). The work of Josephus refers to a visit to Jerusalem in which Alexander prostrated himself before Jehovah ( Antiquities of the Jews 11.331). Stoneman concludes that this trip was “almost certainly fiction” because no author corroborates such a journey and because there would have been no time to go because of the sieges of Tyre and Gaza (49). A great amount of time is spent on Alexandria, the one city Alexander established in which the most evidence survives. Yet, there is no evidence to support Alexander’s involvement in the building of the great lighthouse at Alexandria, the Pharos, or his reverence for Sarapis.

The volume spends two chapters on India (“The Marvels of India: 329-326 BC”) and events that are said to have occurred there, primarily the meeting between Alexander and the Brahmans (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?: Alexander’s Encounters with the Brahmans 326 BC”). Alexander’s knowledge of myth, which was well attested in historical sources, played a large role in the growth of his legend in the east. For the Greeks, India was a place of bizarre monsters and the great Indus River. It is at this point that we realize that these ancient writers were unaware of the geography of central Asia and the east. The discussion between Alexander and the Brahmans is “the moral heart of the Romance” (92) and plays a role in other traditions as well. Through discourse with philosophers, Alexander was given the chance of salvation and, thus, a way to find where he fits in the world. However, Alexander rejects the opportunity for redemption.

One of the most intriguing chapters of the volume, Chapter 6 “Alexander as Inventor and Sage,” refers to one of Alexander’s most recognizable features in the Romance : his intelligence. He was a brilliant strategist, he twisted symbols and portents to his advantage, and he was a master of disguise. His cleverness is illustrated in the stories of the diving bell and the flying machine, which have parallels in the anonymous Life of Aesop. The relationship between the Macedonian king and Aristotle was significant for the image of the intelligent king. It allowed Alexander to become a vehicle for eastern wisdom and revealed him as a wise man in Arabic and Persian literature (120-121).

Chapter 7, “Amazons, Mermaids, and Wilting Maidens,” discusses the startling lack of sex in the Romance and looks at the relationships Alexander had with motherly figures: Olympias, Ada of Caria, Cleophis, Thalestris, Candace of Meroe. Little mention is made in the Romance regarding Alexander’s marriage to Roxane, or his relationships with Barsine and Bagoas. These episodes, though lacking sexual tones, show Alexander’s peaceful conquest of women (138).

The next two chapters (Chapter 8 “The Search for Immortality” and 9 “The Unclean Nations and the End of Time”) emphasize Alexander’s attempts to gain immortality, which is closely tied to the pothos mentioned by Arrian. Episodes with the Brahmans as well as the excursion to Siwah reveal the king’s preoccupation with death and his constant attempts to avoid it altogether. One of the constant themes in the Arabic versions is a warning against excess. There is a certain amount of humanization of Alexander in this regard in that he too was doomed to die which Stoneman suggests is one of the “secrets of the universal appeal of Alexander” (168). The theme of cheating death was, in a way, expressed in his battles with not only human enemies but also monsters, and his subjugation of the Unclean Nations, which was the primary way in which he inserted into the Christian world.

The death of Alexander and his entombment has sparked the imaginations of many. Many oracles prophesying Alexander’s death are found in the Syriac, Ethiopic, Persian, and Arabic traditions and, again, show his preoccupation with his own mortality. The illness that actually takes the life of king is described in the Romance much like the historical accounts. However, the version related in the Romance parallels the rumors of conspiracy and poison found in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Other versions differ in regards to the letter Alexander supposedly wrote to his mother on his deathbed. Alexander’s body was first interred in Memphis in 321 BC and was probably moved to Alexandria later. Stoneman suggests that it could have been as early as 320 BC or as late as the reign of Ptolemy II in 275/4 (197). In any event, the fact remains that the tomb was at some point lost and its location had become an obsession for later generations. Tales of its locations emerged in the 1850s and most recently in the 1950s and 1960s.

The remaining two chapters discuss Alexander’s reception in the Christian world and the changes in interpretation that have occurred as a result of the translation of new materials. As the negative Roman view of Alexander faded, Alexander was appropriated by Christians as sign of good luck. The intellectual movement in the 12th century witnessed a revival of manuscripts about the life of Alexander the Great. His appropriation of contemporary values in literature made him suitable as a model of Christian virtue. For example, Albert de Besancon’s poem highlights the king’s role in Christian salvation. By the 15th century, as courtly virtue dissipated and the world saw the rise of a middle class, these stories of Alexander seemed old fashioned and fell out of favor. In their place were new discoveries of texts, like that of Quintus Curtius Rufus, which offered the reader a historical account of the conqueror’s life. Gone were the stories of diving bells, flying machines, monsters, and mermaids. Those stories were replaced by examples of Alexander’s pothos and humanity.

The work is clearly for an educated audience familiar with, at the very least, the Alexander Romance. However, the interspersion of text with analysis enables one to overcome such deficiencies. The only downfall of the work to be found is a lack of consistent dating. For instance, in the discussion of the Pharos, Caliph al-Walid I is mentioned but no dates are given to help the reader place him in the timeline (63). A similar situation occurs with references to Sir John Mandeville (4, 48, 71, 85-6, 103, etc.). Fortunately, the passages opening chapter 9 and Appendix II remedy the lack of dates for Mandeville. The inconsistency is not a glaring defect of the work. In fact, one can move along easily enough without them, but, after having dates (if known) for many of the other authors, it would have been nice to have them especially if the reader is not as familiar with specific events and people of later centuries. The inclusion of the appendices is especially useful as a guide for the various recensions. The bibliography is extensive and would be essential to anyone interested in studying the Alexander Romance. Overall, the volume is highly informative in its goal of tracing the evolution of thought about Alexander through the centuries.