Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend

Review of Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend, by Richard Stoneman (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2008)

Richard Stoneman is the world's leading expert on the legends written about Alexander the Great.  In this splendid book he has traced those myths across cultures and through time.

Cover of Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend by Richard Stoneman
Cover of Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend by Richard Stoneman.

Stoneman's purpose is not to write another biography of the historical Alexander, but to explore the legends of Alexander written after his death. These legends all descend from the so-called Alexander Romance, a Greek text written some 20-30 years after Alexander's death (323 B.C.). They were written in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, German, French, and many other languages in antiquity, the middle ages, and the early modern and modern periods. In sum, the book argues that each legend presented Alexander in a way that met the needs and outlooks of the narrating culture (Egyptian, Persian, Arabic, Byzantine, etc.).

The book is organized biographically, beginning with a look at Alexander's birth and focusing on Egyptian and Persian traditions. In antiquity the birth of a hero usually involved portents, omens, and other celestial phenomena. All of these are present in the Alexander legends. The Egyptian tradition, for example, credited Nectanebo, the last historical pharaoh of Egypt (r. 360-343) and a magician (in the Romance only), with impregnating Alexander's mother, Olympias, while disguised as a serpent—an incarnation of the God Amun-Re, from whom all Pharaohs were descended. In Egypt, legitimacy required divine descent.  So, as Stoneman demonstrates, the Alexander story was re-shaped by the Egyptians to give him such an ancestry.

The Persian birth narrative takes a markedly different approach. It comes to us via Firdausi's Shahnameh (Book of Kings), Persia's national epic written in the tenth century. Here Alexander's parents are presented as the Persian Shah Darab (a fictitious figure) and the daughter of Filicus (Philip), King of Rum, while Darius III is the son of Darab and a Persian women. Thus, Alexander becomes part of the Persian royal family, and Darius III is his half-brother; their war could be considered a civil war, not a war of conquest. Firdausi and later Persian writers even present Alexander as a wise, spiritual king whose displacement of Darius was beneficial to Persia.

The Jewish and Arabic traditions relate Alexander's visit to Jerusalem and his founding of cities. In the Jewish tradition he is presented as a Solomonic king: wise, just and a problem-solver. The Jewish romances also present a conversion scene, during which Alexander rapidly becomes a Jew by swearing to obey Jehovah. Yet the story of Alexander's visit to Jerusalem is certainly fiction, and he did not at any time convert to Judaism. Nor did he have anything to do with building the Pharos or the Serapeum Alexandria, but this version of the tale gives him credit for it.

The most rewarding section of the book (chapters 4 and 5) details Alexander's travels to the East (Afghanistan and the Indus River valley), which were central to his fame. Few Greeks before Alexander (perhaps none) had travelled beyond the Persian Empire. But Alexander went for a number of reasons.  According to the Romance, once he arrived there he encountered strange monsters (which he naturally killed), mystery, gold, and enchantment. Later ancient and medieval romantic depictions of the East would be based on these travels and exploits.

Stoneman also tackles the messy geography provided by the sources in these tales. Using period maps, he explains how there was genuine confusion over the Caucasus region and its position in relation to India. Stoneman concludes this section with a discussion of Alexander's encounter with the Brahmans, which he regards as the "moral heart of the Romance" (92) because, in part, it deals with Alexander's quest for immortality.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the Alexander Romance is its surprising lack of sex or eroticism. This is highly unusual, as Stoneman notes, since eroticism is a central theme in all other surviving Greek romances. Yet in Alexander's encounters, women remain "remote and unconquered." And while he interacts with Amazons, Candace of Meroe, Ada of Caria, Queen Cleophis, and others, he fails to conquer any of them sexually. His marriage to Roxane receives very little attention.

One of the major themes in the Romance is Alexander's search for immortality. In this framework, his campaign becomes much more than a mere conquest — it was the search for universal rule and life. Stoneman devotes two chapters to this theme and discusses it at various other points in the book.

Central to Alexander's quest for immortality is his pothos, first mentioned by Arrian (2nd century AD) and described there as an "almost religious longing" that dictated the course of his life. In Sura 18 in the Koran (and many other texts), Alexander searches for the Water of Life, akin to the Fountain of Youth, but the water looked forward to life, not backward to youth. In the Arabic romances, he ascends the Holy Mountain Qaf, where he is castigated by the angel Israfil for longing for that which man ought not seek.

Likewise, Alexander seeks Paradise on Earth, and in some traditions finds it. But he is barred at the gate. Stoneman argues that the general theme of his quest for immorality is that it is not to be his, since he is merely a mortal man, doomed to die despite all his worldly power.

The book concludes with a discussion of Alexander's death in Babylon, by examining how Alexander functioned in the West during the Renaissance and in medieval and modern Greece. Oracles predicting Alexander's death are found in many of the traditions, most of which assign his death to poisoning (following the historical sources). Again, we are reminded that death is unavoidable even for a man as great as Alexander, especially in the Arabic and Syriac traditions, but also the Christian and Jewish.

Stoneman then explains how in the later Western middle ages and Renaissance, Alexander transformed into a more historically accurate figure as a result of the advent of the printing press. After this development the romanceswere replaced more and more by proper historical sources, like Arrian and Quintus Curtius Rufus, who were translated into Latin and Italian. Stoneman concludes, fittingly, with an overview of Alexander's place in medieval and modern Greek folklore, noting that even today Alexander lives as a national figure in Greek culture and politics.

Stoneman's book is, on the whole, a resounding success. One might quibble about the chosen method of organization. I would have preferred a book arranged around individual cultural traditions rather than the biographical approach Stoneman provides. But this is just a personal preference and Stoneman's biographical arrangement is good on its own terms. More importantly, he has compiled a lifetime of complex research into one monograph that allows scholars and history buffs alike to develop a firm grounding in the life of Alexander the Great, antiquity's most famous son, lived after he died.  Stoneman demonstrates, in a thoroughly enjoyable way, that Alexander did achieve his immortality after all.