The Bizarre Afterlife of Alexander the Great
Any way you cut it, Alexander the Great was an important historical figure with a fascinating historical story. He took power while still basically a child, proved to be a ruthless and relentless conqueror, and died at a shockingly young age. Alexander was an inspiration for future leaders like Augustus, who, after taking control of Rome, visited Alexander’s tomb and modeled his statues on those of Alexander. He changed the world immeasurably, spreading Greek culture far and wide.
Alexander is one of the most famous figures in world history. But his real history apparently wasn’t entertaining enough for the people of the ancient and medieval world. Either that, or Alexander’s exploits were so extraordinary that it was easy to imagine him doing, well, anything. So, centuries after Alexander’s death, storytellers began to compile a set of fantastical stories about Alexander called the Alexander Romance.
The Romance floated around ancient and medieval Europe and the Middle East for over a millennium. It seems to have begun with a set of stories, very loosely based on a couple of real episodes from Alexander’s life, written in Egypt about 400 years after Alexander died. As the story circulated, writers felt free to add all sorts of embellishments, and the tales drifted farther and farther from historical reality.
The Alexander Romance became a hit in a lot of medieval societies. Versions of it popped up in places as diverse as Armenia, Georgia, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Syria, Ethiopia, India, and Persia. It was one of the most popular and well-known stories of the medieval world.
In the end, the story wasn’t all that different from the superhero stories that we constantly chop up and remix. Alexander was a vehicle for fantastic tales that entertained people and mirrored their concerns.
We’re lucky that a number of versions of the Alexander Romance remain. And, even better, they’re often illustrated, so we can see how artists from different times and cultures visualized the events of the story.
The story usually starts with Alexander’s mother, Olympias, who (according to the tale) could not conceive a child with her husband, Philip. Alexander’s father, the Romance says, was Nectanebo, the last Egyptian pharaoh (after Alexander conquered Egypt, pharaohs were Greek)…