This week: Alexander in the East

Bust of Alexander the Great. IMAGE: WikiMedia Commons/© Andrew Dunn

He is one of the most famous figures in human history, the subject of countless legends, and a commander regularly claimed as the greatest of all time. But who was Alexander the Great really?

We know that he was born in 356 BC, in Pella, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. We know that he inherited the throne from his father, Philip II of Macedon, at the age of 20. And we know that he went on to create the greatest empire the world had ever seen, stretching from the Balkans to northern India, before dying in mysterious circumstances at the age of just 32.

The problem is that most of the contemporary sources about Alexander’s life and career have been lost, and a great deal of our information is therefore derived from the many later historians and storytellers whose accounts – often highly embellished and even fanciful – have been handed down the centuries.

As we discover this week on The Past, this rich history of mythmaking has allowed each of the many cultures touched by his influence to create their own version of Alexander, with different traditions over the past 2,000 years casting him variously as everything from a superhero to a despot, an adventurer to a prophet, and an accursed figure to a philosopher king.

In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, Ursula Sims-Williams, the co-curator of the British Library’s new exhibition, Alexander the Great: the making of a myth, investigates how stories about him spread through Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, reaching as far as South-east Asia and even China, and appearing in sumptuous manuscripts that reveal an extraordinary range of attitudes towards the ancient conqueror.

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archives for more about Alexander’s life and times: we reviewed the British Library’s exhibition about the many stories connected to his legacy; and we examined some of the objects in the show in more detail. Separately, in a two-part special, we charted his military career; and we analysed the Battle of Gaugamela, his greatest victory and all-time tactical masterpiece.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around Alexander the Great. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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