BMCR 2020.09.48

Alexander the Great in the early Christian tradition: classical reception and patristic literature

, Alexander the Great in the early Christian tradition: classical reception and patristic literature. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. x, 232 p. ISBN 9781788311649 £91.80.

This book, which includes revised parts of Christian Djurslev’s dissertation, is the first monograph focusing on the image and role of Alexander III of Macedon in early Christian literature. The survey extends from the reign of Marcus Aurelius to Constantine, when the major components of Alexander’s Christian reception took shape. While numerous works on Alexander’s conquests and on his image in ancient historiography are published every year, a hermeneutic study on this particular subject has been a desideratum so far and is thus very welcome.[1]

The survey is based on a careful and detailed introduction that contains explanations regarding the definition of key themes, methodology, and the book’s chronological frame.  Chapter 1, explicitly intended for quick consultation, treats Christian authors from Tatian of Assyria to Jerome of Stridon who refer to Alexander. Djurslev points out that they had much in common with the rhetorically trained writers of Hellenistic times who mentioned Alexander. Chapter 2 explores three major themes that Christian authors developed and explores the influence of classical themes on them. The first theme, Alexander’s education, is developed by focusing on the Macedonian’s teachers, first of all Aristotle but also Leonidas of Epeiros.[2] The Christian writers reflected Alexander’s inability to exercise self-control as a failure of his pagan teachers. As for Alexander’s letters, the second theme discussed, Djurslev points out that the Christian authors focused on a particular pseudo-letter associated with Leon of Pella in which Alexander, writing to his mother Olympias, revealed that the Egyptian gods were men, thus exposing the superstition of Egyptian belief. The third theme, Alexander’s wish for deification, is something about which the Christian authors knew. Nevertheless, they failed to exploit the mythical traditions about Alexander’s birth. They also did not capitalize on his death as evidence against his deification. It would have been interesting to learn a little more about possible explanations for this phenomenon.

Chapter 3 investigates what Christian authors appropriated from the Jewish tradition and shows the Jewish influence on the following themes: Alexandria as Alexander’s city; the legend of the Septuagint tradition; Alexander and the Bible; Alexander and the Book of Daniel; Alexander’s alleged visit to Jerusalem, in particular as it was popularized by Josephus. Chapter 4, “History and Rhetoric,” examines the influence of exemplum literature on Christian references to Alexander. A conclusion is accompanied by an epilogue that compares Eusebius’ Life of Constantine to the Alexander tradition and contains a very useful list of similarities (pp. 199-202). Throughout the book, Djurslev stresses the parallels between the treatment of Alexander by Christian and non-Christian authors. He emphasizes that they shared many thoughts and stories about the Macedonian ruler and his legends.

The book is equipped with detailed indices and a bibliography that reflects the current international debate.[3] It would perhaps have been useful to have also an appendix containing the original texts and English translations of the central passages from the sources discussed.

In sum, the survey is clearly structured, thorough, and well argued. It contains a great deal of fascinating details (such as on Tatian’s criticism of Aristotle’s teaching: p. 44). The language is fresh and modern. The book is an important contribution to the studies of Alexander’s reception. It is useful to students, very informative for scholars, and recommended for anyone interested in the multiple artificial images of Alexander in his afterlife.


[1] On Alexander’s reception in the Christian tradition cf. R. Stoneman, Alexander the Great. A Life in Legend (London, 2008) 199-216; R. Klein, “Zur Beurteilung Alexanders des Großen in der patristischen Literatur,” in W. Will and J. Heinrichs (eds.), Zu Alexander d. Gr. Festschrift G. Wirth, Vol. II (Amsterdam, 1988) 925-990.

[2] Leonidas is mentioned in Plut. Alex. 5.4.

[3] Perhaps there could have been added E.D. Carney, Olympias. Mother of Alexander the Great (New York, 2006) and M. Brocker, Aristoteles als Alexanders Lehrer in der Legende (Bonn, 1966).