Alexander the Great: the making of a myth

Alexander the Great: the making of a myth is at the British Library in London until 19 February 2023.

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.

‘Olympias Gives Birth to Alexander the Great’, detail from The Deeds of Alexander the Great (1490-1495). This medieval miniature of the birth of Alexander introduces an account of his life by the Portuguese scholar Vasco da Lucena. Alexander’s mother, Olympias, lies on a raised canopy bed while a midwife attends to the child.

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.

‘Alexander and Darius in Battle’. This illustration is from a 16th-century manuscript of the Armenian Alexander Romance, which was first completed at the end of the 5th century and had a deep and lasting influence on Armenian literature and art.

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.’

‘A Contemporary Account of the Battle of Gaugamela’ (331-330 BC). Written during Alexander’s lifetime, this astronomical diary tablet records celestial omens such as a lunar eclipse, linking it with Darius’ defeat. A later line records: ‘The troops of the king deserted him and [went] to their cities…’

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.

‘The Portentous Child’, detail from Prose Alexander Romance (1333-1340). This miniature depicts Alexander consulting a soothsayer about a stillborn child whose lower body consists of several beasts attacking one another. According to the soothsayer, the dead child represents Alexander’s own looming demise, and the quarrelling beasts the discord between his generals following his death.

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.

‘Julius Caesar and Alexander’, detail from Romeinsche Geschiedenissen (1830). In his Lives, the Roman historian Plutarch tells of a young Julius Caesar admiring a portrait of Alexander and bursting into tears at not having achieved as much at the same age. The illustration appears in Martinus Stuart’s landmark history of the ancient world in Dutch.

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.

Alexander and the Cursed Snake (2000). These colourful puppets are characters from the popular Greek shadow puppet theatre known as Karagiozis, which has Turkish origins. Alexander features in several plays but is perhaps best known for the story in which he defeats a fearful dragon in a cave – itself a retelling of the story of St George and other Greek folktales.

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.

Bucephalus Tamed (1834). The taming of the indomitable horse Bucephalus by the young Alexander is here cast in bronze by Sir John Robert Steell, the most famous Scottish sculptor of his time. The work gained immense popularity, and small-scale bronze versions were much in demand. A later, full-size bronze version stands in Edinburgh City Chambers.

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.

This Ethiopian amulet scroll dating from the 18th century demonstrates how the image of Alexander blended into different cultures. Portrayed as a magical Christian ruler warding off the devil (below), his crown and cape derive from medieval Europe but the image itself reflects an Ethiopian genre of religious art.

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.

’Alexander with Boars’ Tusks’, detail from Johann Hartlieb’s Here Followeth the Story of the Great Alexander (1834). In the mid 15th century, Alexander was sometimes depicted as having tusks. Here he also has a chinstrap beard, long flowing hair, and a hat reminiscent of those worn by Byzantine emperors in the final years of Constantinople.
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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
Images: British Library/Richard Stoneman/the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry KT/University of Manchester/National Library of Scotland/British Museum