In the Armenian translation of the Alexander Romance, a popular history of Alexander the Great first written in Greek many centuries after his death, there is a lavish double-page illustration of the Macedonian king confronting his greatest opponent.
King Darius III of Persia faces Alexander as if he were a reflection. Both are wearing crowns, have halos above their heads, and are flanked by their respective armies as the body parts of dead soldiers are trampled by their horses.
The event depicted is Gaugamela, the battle of 1 October 331 BC in which Alexander and his men inflicted a crushing defeat on the Persian Empire. The defeated Darius later fled and was assassinated by his relative, Bessus, for his failure to defend his vast empire.
The illustration is on show as part of a new exhibition at the British Library on Alexander the Great, subtitled ‘the making of a myth’. The focus, so the exhibition claims, is on the ‘universal’ aspects of Alexander’s story. ‘The quest for power and immortality, coupled with his fantastical adventures.’
Those adventures began young, for it was in 336 BC that Alexander succeeded his father, King Philip II of Macedon, at the age of just 20. After consolidating his power in Macedonia and Greece, he set his sights on the neighbouring Persian Empire, defeating it three times: at River Granicus (May 334 BC), at Issus (November 333 BC), and finally at Gaugamela two years later.
By age 25, Alexander was the successor to Darius as the ‘Great King’ of Persia, as well as ruler of Asia Minor, and a pharaoh in Egypt. But, even then, he was not done. He led his armies further east in the following seven years, establishing an empire that stretched from Greece to beyond the River Indus in India.
Figures who die young often achieve a kind of immortality, and this was especially true of Alexander, who was reportedly killed by a fever at just 32. But the myth-making around him had begun while he was still very much alive and kicking. Bold and heroic, with exceptional drive and tactical brilliance – as Gaugamela had demonstrated – he was to inspire love, admiration, and hatred among the many peoples who became his subjects.
In Islam, Alexander acquired a prophetic status – but in Zoroastrianism, he was reviled as an agent of Ahriman, the Evil Spirit. And in the centuries since his death, he has inspired everyone from Julius Caesar to the movie-makers of modern Hollywood.
This 2,000-year history of storytelling about Alexander emerges as the subject of the exhibition. It looks at ‘how and why he became a figure of fascination for contemporaries and those who came after,’ says Professor Richard Stoneman, translator of the original Greek-language Alexander Romance from which the Armenian and many other copies were made.
On show are works from 25 countries in almost as many different languages, in the form of books, manuscripts, moving images, and other media – some of which can be seen on these pages.
The oldest item in the exhibition dates from Alexander’s own short lifetime. And as proof that the storytelling about him shows no sign of abating, the most recent is a graphic novel still in the process of being published.
Go further Alexander the Great: the making of a myth is at the British Library in London until 19 February 2023. Entry is £17. For more information, visit bl.uk/events/alexander-the-great-the-making-of-a-myth
Text: CALUM HENDERSON Images: British Library/Richard Stoneman/the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry KT/University of Manchester/National Library of Scotland/British Museum