DETAILS Alexander the Great: the making of a myth Address: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB Open: until 19 February 2023 Website: www.bl.uk/events/alexander-the-great-the-making-of-a-myth
Alexander the Great is famous around the world as the Macedonian king who conquered a vast empire. However, the focus of the British Library’s newest exhibition is not the historical details of Alexander’s life – about which relatively little is known for certain. Instead, says Peter Toth, Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts, Alexander the Great: the making of a myth explores Alexander’s legacy, showcasing a wide variety of stories about his many appropriations, prompting visitors to reflect on the reasons for his universal appeal and to ‘create their own Alexander’, and thus take part in the ever-evolving storytelling about this ancient hero.
It is often difficult to identify fact versus fiction in the case of Alexander, but we do know that the future king was born in 356 BC, in Pella, the capital of Macedon, to Philip II of Macedon and his wife Olympias. However, even this event quickly became surrounded by mythology. The version of the tale related in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (c.AD 100) proposes that there were serpents involved in Alexander’s conception – the historian recounts that snakes were supposedly seen in Queen Olympias’s bed, which were taken as a sign of some divine presence there – a story that was popular in the art and literature of the Roman Empire. Another, more complicated version of the story features Nectanebo II, the king of Egypt, using his magical powers to trick his way into Olympias’s bed instead. This latter story is the one told in the Alexander Romance – a popular account of Alexander’s life, originally dating to the 3rd century AD but adopted and rewritten by many different cultures over time – and is therefore perhaps the best-known of the tales surrounding Alexander’s birth.
In 336 BC, Philip II of Macedon was assassinated, and a 20-year-old Alexander ascended the throne. In just a few years, he had solidified his power in Macedonia and Greece and went on to conquer other lands, creating an immense empire that eventually stretched from modern Bulgaria to Egypt, across Mesopotamia to the Indus and beyond. Many of the peoples Alexander conquered developed their own stories about him, the majority of which – perhaps surprisingly, given the violence that was doubtless involved in the formation of such an empire – paint him in a fairly positive light.
Among the most famous of Alexander’s conflicts was his war with Darius III, the ‘Great King’ of Persia. Alexander’s conquest of Persia took four years, culminating in his defeat of Darius at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, and the two kings were often portrayed in a state of confrontation. However, Persian oral tradition and later written sources, such as Firdawsi’s national epic poem the Shahnamah (Book of Kings), invented a new origin for Alexander in order to rationalise this victory. They offer yet another version of Alexander’s birth story, one that presents ‘Iskandar’ (as he was known in the Islamic world) as Darius’s half-brother, thus making him a legitimate heir to the Persian throne. A similar phenomenon occurred in Egypt, where Alexander was crowned pharaoh after a visit to the Temple of Ammon in the Siwa Oasis, also in 331 BC. There, the oracle declared him to be the son of the god Ammon, and therefore the rightful ruler of Egypt. Alexander’s mythological Egyptian ancestry is echoed in the legend in the Alexander Romance featuring Nectanebo as his true father. Many other cultures and religions likewise present their own version of Alexander’s story. In Jewish myth, he is described as travelling to offer sacrifice at the Temple of Jerusalem, revering the High Priest, and – in some later texts – even converting to Judaism himself; in Ethiopian Christianity, Alexander is a prophet, foretelling the birth of Jesus; whilst in the Qur’an, Alexander becomes a true Muslim and important spiritual leader.
Over the centuries, Alexander’s life gave rise to a whole wealth of mythology, with countless paintings, tapestries, and illuminated manuscripts featuring his legendary adventures: travelling to distant lands, encountering mythical animals and fantastical people, and accomplishing what were then impossible feats such as descending to bottom of the ocean in a diving bell or being flown through the sky in a box (carried by griffins).
Alexander’s military exploits also made him a source of admiration for later leaders. In his early thirties, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) is said to have berated himself for his failure to equal the ‘brilliant success’ achieved by Alexander at the same age. Centuries later, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769- 1821) appears to have been of a similar mind, for, when asked whether he regarded Alexander or Julius Caesar as the better military commander, he is reported to have placed Alexander in first place.
Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, aged just 32. His premature death inevitably led to rumours, the most pervasive of which was that he had been killed by poison. However, his untimely demise is generally believed to have been the result of something more mundane; likely one of the waterborne diseases found in the marshy Tigris area, perhaps hastened along by an immune system weakened by prolonged grief resulting from the death of his beloved companion, Hephaestion, the previous year. Alexander’s death threw his empire into chaos and ultimately led to its disintegration, but his conquests nevertheless had a long-lasting impact, breaking down traditional boundaries and bringing about a mixing of cultures that was instrumental in the development of later empires and even the world as we know it today.
However, Alexander’s most significant legacy was undoubtedly his influence on art and culture. Alexander the Great: the making of a myth features a broad range of objects, including the widest selection of copies and versions of the Alexander Romance ever brought together – offering unparalleled insight into the evolution of Alexander’s story through the past two millennia – as well as Classical sculptures, an 18th-century opera, and even a graphic novel by a contemporary Malaysian artist, Reimena Yee, which is still being prepared for publication. These pieces reflect the many ways in which Alexander’s adventures have inspired – and continue to inspire – cultural phenomena around the world.
TEXT: Amy Brunskill