BMCR 2012.11.08

The Alexander Romance in Persia and the East. Ancient Narrative supplementum, 15

, , , The Alexander Romance in Persia and the East. Ancient Narrative supplementum, 15. Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing; Groningen University Library, 2012. xv, 416. ISBN 9789491431043 €90.00.

Table of Contents

If one excludes the foundational texts of the main monotheistic religions, it’s fair to say that no collection of tales has ever travelled more widely or been translated in and out of so many languages as the Alexander Romance. The ancestral text of the Greek Alexander Romance is pseudo-Callisthenes. While it at least follows the outline of Alexander’s itinerary, it also incorporates many dubious events and folk-tale motifs and crosses into sheer fantasy when the conqueror seeks immortality in the land at “the end of the world”. Ps.-Callisthenes, or something like it, was reworked and expanded over the centuries by chroniclers in Egyptian, Persian, Indian, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultural milieux. At their hands, the warrior-hero became a philosopher, a universal emperor, explorer, inventor (of diving bell and flying machine), monster-slayer, missionary and, eventually, even prophet. The only element almost entirely missing from his story, strangely enough, is sex.

Few scholars will be conversant with all the traditions, still less all the languages, but we now have the opportunity to compare a remarkably wide range of material within a single volume. This ambitious and challenging book results from a colloquium at the University of Exeter which brought together 22 scholars to consider the extremely varied and diverse sources – written in Greek shortly after Alexander’s death (probably first in a Greek-Egyptian milieu), then in Latin, Syriac, Persian, medieval Arabic, Turkish, talmudic Aramaic, and latterly reaching into Uzbekistan, China and Japan. As lead editor Richard Stoneman says, “[These] papers … explore the connections and the tensions created by this remarkable – I am tempted to say unique – diffusion of the fictional story of a single man and his conquests and explorations.” (ix) Such an enormous chronological and cultural span allows me only to mention a few highlights in this review.

The book is organized into five parts.

Part 1, “The Formation of a Tradition”.

In his own contribution, Stoneman notes that Greeks were travelling to Persia at least 200 years before Alexander’s arrival, so many tales will have already been common property. The motif of the Water of Life, for example, probably existed before Alexander and became attached to his name. The Alexander Romance, translated into Middle Persian by the 3 rd century CE, “started the flow of Greek story-patterns into Persia where before it had gone the other way”(17).

Daniel Selden’s paper traces the networks of the historical romances of Levantine-Mediterranean tributary states from the Achaemenid Empire through Rome to Ottoman times. He stresses their “peculiar dialectic between the persistence of local communities under government protection, and their concomitant negation by the apparatus of the state.” (49) The utopian vision of the Alexander Romance contrasts with claims of ethnic superiority made by other ancient novels.

Faustina Doufikar-Aerts reviews the vast diffusion of the oriental Alexander tradition via Syriac and Arabic (the Koran gives him the enduring epithet, ‘Two-horned’) and thence into the languages and cultures of Christian and Muslim Africa and Asia. “It is remarkable to notice that Alexander became integrated in these cultures … in the role of an ancestor or hero, and the exponent of their own illustrious past.”(63)

Graham Anderson, in a wide-ranging paper, examines the heroic-legend pattern, the demands of popular narrative, and the Alexander Romance’s background of legendary/mythical materials from Sumero-Babylonian through to Lycian Bellerophon. He notes its “capacity to adapt, but at a price: the loss of heroic consistence and dignity.”(83) Fictional extravagances already glimpsed in the main-line histories become exaggerated in the rhetorical traditions and take over entirely in later antiquity. The resulting “one-dimensional, or even un-dimensional Alexander” underlines the simplicity of writer and reader alike. (97)

Part 2, “Perspectives”.

Corinne Jouanno discusses two Late Byzantine versions of the Alexander Romance composed at a time when the Byzantine Empire was in deadly danger from the Turks. The anti-Persian bias of much earlier sources is greatly amplified: the victory over the Persians (that is, over the Turks) forms the heart of Alexander’s expedition.

Henrik Boeschoten presents six stories preserved in a medieval Turkish manuscript that recount Alexander’s conquests of castles protected by ‘magical’ mechanical and magnetic contraptions, a preoccupation that may reflect the Arabian Nights.

By mid-19 th century, British regiments were fighting on the North-West Frontier and in Afghanistan where Alexander’s phalaxes had fought millennia before. Warwick Bell describes how classically-educated British officers saw themselves marching in Alexander’s footsteps, seeing signs of Alexander everywhere: blond, blue-eyed Kalesh tribesmen were believed to be living descendants of Alexander’s army, a fantasy that the Kalash accepted for themselves once it had been suggested by outsiders.

Part 3, “Texts”

An important paper by Haila Manteghi looks at the contradictory sources used by Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, in which Alexander is part of the Kiyanian dynasty (identified with the Achaemenids), and thus a true Persian king but also, in line with Pahlavi/Zoroastrian literature, the accursed greatest enemy of Iran. Ferdowsi transplants him from Macedonia to Rūm (Roman Byzantium) and his mother is named as Nahid, the New Persian form of the goddess Anāhitā.

An unpublished Persian geographical account is the starting point for Mario Casari, with maps and demographic information reputedly provided by Plato to help Alexander embark on the conquest of the world. Alexander is the ‘king explorer’ in many eastern texts, most famously travelling to the Land of Darkness in search of the Water of Life, a land now located near the North Pole (north completing his universal dominion). Cosmographic exploration includes his descent into the abyss of the sea in a diving bell or ‘flask, which earns him a supernatural rebuke: “You have seen the world up and down, are you not sated with this vain wandering?”(197)

David Zuwiyya examines an 8 th -century Arabic Alexander Romance that combines Greek core stories (often with a twist: e.g. Alexander leaves home not to fight Darius but in a quest for immortality) with glosses on the Koranic episodes, now stressing Alexander’s mission to spread Islam throughout the world. Journeying to the lands of the setting and rising sun, he builds a wall against the forces of Gog and Magog and illuminates the Darkness with the stone of prophecy he inherited from Adam.

El-Sayed Gad notes how the early tenth-century Persian al-Tabari’s History (written in Arabic) recounts four versions of Alexander’s conquest of Persia. In these, Darius and Alexander are brothers or at least relatives, which makes the conqueror a legitimate king and not ‘an invader’. Darius’ last wish is that Alexander marry his daughter, Roxane (sic), which also bestows the right to rule the deceased king’s empire. Tabari also gives glimpses of the ‘bad’ Alexander, destroying cities and temples, killing Persian priests and burning their books, pointing to a Zoroastrian source which continued to see Alexander as an invader and conquerer.

Emily Cottrell considers Ibn Fātik’s Choicest Maxims (Arabic, mid-11 th c) to be close to the lost Greek alpha version of the Alexander Romance because it lacks any Christian element. More surprisingly, the Syriac version, otherwise close to alpha, has few Christian references, an extremely rare feature for a Syriac text. Both Syriac and Choicest Maxims depict Alexander’s fictional conquest of China just after his victory over Poros and the encounter with the Brahmans.

Fragments of a Coptic-language version of the Alexander Romance are discussed by Leslie MacCoull, probably a 10 th -11 th -century copy of a much earlier, possibly 6 th -century, text. She suggests it was divided up into compositional episodes subsumed under biblically-derived headings for students and teachers in Coptic monasteries.

In China and Japan, Alexander was labelled in the Islamic mode as ‘the two horned one’ rather than by name. Yuriko Yamanaka translates possibly the oldest Chinese text (1226), whose author was an ‘Inspector of Foreign Trade’, further suggesting Muslim mariners as the source of the stories. He describes Alexandria and its lighthouse with a miraculous mirror on top, and recounts tales of the wondrous land of the setting sun – thus, the opposite end of the world.

Part 4: “Themes”

Daniel Ogden takes on Alexander as Dragon-slayer, first mentioned in a Syriac Alexander Romance and by Ferdowsi. In the former, he fills ox hides with poison and oil; in the latter with gypsum, pitch, lead and sulphur. The result is the same: the dragon devours its ‘prey’, auto-combusts, and dies. A Judaeo-Christian precedent may be the story of Bel and the Dragon in the OT Apocrypha.

Sabine Müller turns her attention to Alexander’s brides. In 327 BCE, he married Roxane to conciliate local nobility in revolt in Bactria/Sogdiana; her father submitted and the revolt soon ended. In 324, he finally wed two Persian princesses, daughters of Darius III and Artaxerxes III. Roxane, a dynastic nobody, upended the Achaemenid line by producing Alexander’s (posthumously born) son. In legend, she became Darius’s daughter, but nonetheless remained a shadowy, colourless figure, unlike Olympias and Candace of Meroe.

Aleksandra Szalc connects the Water of Life – a motif frequently connected with the journey to the end of the world – to Indian mythology, which abounds in stories of miraculous waters, including those of immortality and eternal youth. Related stories probably moved both ways: the Water of Life first appears in the Alexander Romance in the 5 th century while the Alexander Romance was known in India no later than the 7 th.

Aleksandra Klęczar recounts Jewish versions of Alexander’s fictional visits to Jerusalem. The earliest (1 Macc. 1-8) accepts him as rightful universal ruler although his ‘descendent’ Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the ultimate evil tyrant. In Josephus ( Ant. XI), Alexander first intends to destroy Jerusalem and murder its inhabitants, but becomes God’s chosen king who recognizes the High Priest, judges between Samaritans and the Jews, and is the rightful ruler of the Jews.

Ory Amitay discusses Alexander’s riddle contest with ten ‘Elders of the Negev’ in Bavli Tamid of the 6 th -7 th century Babylonian Talmud. The Elders outwit the king who makes his peace with them – a Jewish variant on Alexander’s confrontation with the Indian Gymnosophists. Both groups answer many similar questions (e.g. “whether light was created first, or darkness”) but the Elders put a different slant on others: e.g. asked why they oppose him, they say, “Satan has won”, perhaps prefiguring Alexander’s failure to breach the Gate of Heaven.

Part 5: “Images”

Olga Palagia identifies some threads of Greek art leading from Macedon to the Near East and onwards to Central Asia starting in Alexander’s lifetime. The Poros/elephant medallions, struck to celebrate Alexander’s defeat of the Indian king in 326, show the only certain lifetime images of Alexander: she compares the warriors on a golden clasp from Tillya Tepe of Central Asian manufacture, possibly from an image of Alexander created late in his lifetime.

Agnieszka Fulińska examines the Porus medallions from the obverse, showing a cavalryman attacking a group of riders on a war elephant: this associates the elephant scalp headdress – a feature on some early Ptolemaic coins – with the Indian expedition. Further oriental attributes, such as Alexander pictured with the horns of Ammon, beginning with coins of Lysimachus, were preserved by the successors down to the end of Hellenism. This iconography belongs to the idealizing Alexander Romance rather than to historical tradition.

Firuza Melville reproduces a Persian painting illustrating the flight of Kay Kavus, a king of the Kiyanian (Achaemenid) dynasty, in an edition of Firdousi’s Shahnama. The king is seated in a flying machine lifted by four hungry eagles striving to reach pieces of meat attached to poles above their heads. The ancient Mesopotamian theme of kingly flight is not attached to Alexander in Persian stories – unlike in the western Romance tradition. Both traditions, however, include the descent into the sea as part of his quest for the Source of Life.

This book will take almost everyone on an exhilarating learning curve. While it is very much a volume for specialists, there will also be many who will consult it for its expertise in any of the above subjects.1 There is still much to learn about the Alexander tradition.2 Was he the most charismatic king of all history, or just a peg on which to hang any and all of Eurasia’s favourite stories?


1. For a broader overview of the Alexander Romance, I suggest R. Stoneman, Alexander the Great: a life in legend, Yale 2008.

2. Even while I was writing this review, another book appeared: P. Jamzadeh, Alexander Histories and Iranian Reflections, Brill 2012.