Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, Literary Review, March 2008

Ancient Greeks regarded Macedonians as a collection of oiks. But Macedonian Alexander the Great was a passionate Graecophile. Indeed, his father Philip 2nd had (apparently) made Aristotle his tutor.

So when Philip, having conquered the Greek mainland, was assassinated in 336 BC, Alexander decided to prove what a good Greek he was. In 490-479 BC the Persians had attacked Greece, but been repelled. So Alexander announced his intention of taking revenge against them. In 334 BC, with Philip’s superbly trained army at his back, he set out on an epic trail which was to bring him revenge, glory, riches, empire - and immortality. For though he never made it back to Greece (he died in Babylon in 323 BC), he left such an indelible mark that word of him and his exploits spread far and wide.

In India, Arabia, Russia, Malaya, Spain, Armenia, Syria, Ethiopia, Israel, the Balkans, even in Iceland and Ireland, tales of Alexander were told and retold down the millennia. In some of these he met and discussed philosophy with naked Indian Brahmans. In Wells cathedral there are scenes of Alexander’s flight to heaven. When Marco Polo (1254-1324) visited Afghanistan, his hosts still spoke of the marriage of Alexander to Roxane; further on, he was shown horses descended from Alexander’s horse Bucephalus. Hebrew legend made him a preacher and prophet, Christian Greek legend an obedient servant of god; in the European middle ages he became a chivalrous knight; for Persians, alternatively, he was an arch-devil, Satan himself, because he destroyed the fire altars of the Zoroastrian religion.

Because of his adventures in the east, ancient Greeks practised as Buddhists; Homer was translated into Indian languages and read in Sri Lanka; the myth of Cupid and Psyche were carved on ivory and left with the elephant goads belonging to a local Indian mahout. Amazing stories sprang up about him: he came across men without heads, three-eyed lions and killer crabs with claws six feet long; he became a miracle-working hero, a superman, his name linked with submarines and flying machines; one of the wise men who attended the birth of Jesus was said to have brought gold from Alexander’s treasury. There are still Afghan chieftains who claim descent from his blood.

For the past twenty years Richard Stoneman has been working on this extraordinary phenomenon. Its root is The Alexander Romance, a wonderfully lunatic collection of history, myth and legend about Alexander that survives in three major versions, each containing material radically different from the other two (Stoneman translated it for Penguin in 1991). Its date is controversial, but Stoneman thinks it may have been put together as early as 200 BC, largely as a result of the image generated by Alexander’s official historians who, ramping up his achievements, portrayed him as a visionary and superman, thus encouraging others to elaborate even more imaginatively. The result was a world-wide mushrooming of stories about Alexander, the weirder and more wonderful the better, from antiquity to the middle ages. It is this vast, almost uncontrollable mountain of disparate stuff that is the subject of Stoneman’s masterful work, which will not be superseded for a very long time.

Stoneman organises it all biographically, beginning with stories that accrete round Alexander’s birth and continuing with an analysis of the major themes that emerge in the material, e.g. his Persian adventures, the foundation of Alexandria, the Indian stories, his life as inventor and wise man, relationships with women, the search for immortality and so on, up to his death. He concludes with a survey of how the western middle ages and medieval and modern Greeks responded to him.

For example, the last pharaoh of Egypt was Nectanebo (360-343 BC), who, defeated by the Persians, fled to Nubia and was never heard of again. Except in the Romance. Here, we are told, he escaped to Macedon and was received into the court of Philip. But he fell in love with Philip’s wife Olympias, and told her she must sleep with the god Ammon, when she would bear a child who would right all the wrongs Philip had done her. He then used magic to ensure she had a dream encouraging her to do this, at which point, donning his Ammon disguise, he leapt into her bed.

This, Stoneman points out, is all of a piece with the historical Nectanebo, who had a reputation as a magician - but why the seduction (a story picked up by John Gower via a tenth century Latin translation that spread the Romance all over Europe)? The answer surely is that, when Alexander drove out the Persians a few years later and became master of Egypt, it was essential to demonstrate to the Egyptians that he had a rightful claim to their throne. This story demonstrated his credentials for the job: he was indeed a son of the last Pharaoh and of the god Ammon. Further, Nectanebo was also present at the birth, the Romance tells us, and delayed it so that Alexander would be born at the most auspicious time possible and become ruler of the world.

But there is more to come, in the shape of a Persian account, in which the Shah marries a daughter of Philip and engenders Alexander, but then sends the pregnant girl back to Philip. The Shah’s next wife bears him Darius, whom Alexander conquers in his Persian campaigns – but the two men are half-brothers, and thus ‘the Persian myth that the Empire had never been conquered by an invader is preserved intact’!

Alexander’s spin doctors certainly earned their corn. As Stoneman concludes, Alexander became a universal brand, an Everyman: he captured the imagination not just of peoples with whom he came into contact but also of those who heard of and wondered at his story, enlarging on it over thousands of years. Eat your heart out, Alastair Campbell.

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