No more worlds to conquer

This re-release of Richard Stoneman’s rich and picturesque survey of the Alexander legend, first published in 2010, reflects the enduring fascination with the world-conqueror’s fabled exploits and irrepress­ible nature.

Monument to Alexander the Great.
Monument to Alexander the Great. Credit: Stephen Coyne / Art Directors / Alamy Stock Photo

Alexander the Great: A History of his Legend by Richard Stoneman. Yale University Press, 2022.

The story was told that Alexander, king of Macedon, having reached Taxila in the Punjab in the course of his extensive military conquests, visited Dand­amis, the chief of the ‘naked philosophers’ – Brahman sages – to converse and learn something of his wisdom. Dandamis admonishes him:

You surround yourself with many possessions and take pride in them; but gold does not sustain the soul or feed the body. We Brahmans, by contrast, are observant about what nature provides. When we are hungry we feast on fresh plants and vegetables; when we are thirsty, we drink water from the river. Gold cannot quench thirst or allay hunger, heal wounds or cure disease. Not only does it not satiate human greed but it aggravates that desire, which itself is alien to nature.

When a man drinks water his thirst is satiated, and when he’s hungry and has eaten he is satisfied and no longer desires food. Every human desire ceases when it is satisfied because this is inherent in the natural order. The desire for wealth, however, knows no satisfaction, because it is contrary to nature.

The critique of human desire for unlimited wealth shifts to a warning against excessive desire in general, a perspective familiar from the Epicurean and Cynic philosophies that arose around the time of Alexander’s death. Dandamis observes to Alexander:

Desire is the mother of penury. It is miserable because it never finds what it seeks and is never content with what it has, but is tortured with lust for what it does not have.

The notion of desire – pothos in Greek – runs like a thread through Alexander’s exploits. Richard Stoneman, the author of this book, notes that pothos was ‘a central feature of Alexander’s personality. . . a quasi-religious longing that led him to push himself, and his army, to ever greater feats of exploration’. The re-release of Stoneman’s rich and picturesque survey of the Alexander legend, first published in 2010, reflects the enduring fascination with the world-conqueror’s fabled exploits and irrepress­ible nature.

Alexander’s aspiration for unlimited possession of territory and his unprecedented success in that pursuit were destined to create a poignant contrast with his human limitations and evident mortality. Even in the latter regard, it was widely supposed that he must have outlived his physical death and attained immortality in some form. Having set out aged twenty to finish the task that his father Philip had set himself before he was murdered – the conquest of the Persian Empire – Alex­ander had become, by the time of his death aged 33 in 323 BC, the master of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The scale of this achieve­ment was not enough for him. Plutarch tells the story of how, when he heard his friend the philosopher Anaxarchus expound the theory that there are an infinite number of worlds, Alexander was moved to tears, contemplating the fact that he would never live long enough to conquer them all. His near-miraculous success, however, rapidly made him the object of wonder and legend throughout the Greek world and beyond. Stoneman writes:

The news that percolated back to Greece took on the quality of legend. Alexander himself abetted this development by his overt emulation of the ancestral heroes of the Macedonian kingdom, Heracles and Dionysus, and by his mysterious visit to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwa in the Egyptian desert, where he may have been told that he was the son of the god (who was identified by the Greeks with Zeus).

Those who learned about Alexander’s apparently boundless deeds appear to have acquired reflexively something of the conqueror’s pothos. They could not get enough of him; and when they could not know more, many resorted to invention and fabulistic elaboration. The immediate result was the collection of stories and legends about Alexander’s exploits known as the Alexander Romance.

In this book Richard Stoneman gives a scholarly and wide-ranging account of the background and afterlife of the Romance. Produced in the Greek world within a generation of Alexander’s death, the Alexander Romance was to be modified and expanded throughout antiquity, when it was translated (in whole or part) into Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, and Persian. It went on to inspire literary traditions across the millennia, including the tenth-century Persian Shahnameh and the twelfth century French Roman d’Alexandre; and the inheritance of Alexander legends includes works in over a dozen languages and modern translations into many more. After the Greek original of the Alexander Romance was rediscovered in Constantinople in the tenth century by Leo, Archpriest of Naples, it was studied and copied by generations of scribes, and disseminated in numerous languages, inspiring yet new additions to the lore and legend in both sacred and vernacular traditions. The seventeenth century even saw the production of a hugely popular Greek folk-book, Phyllada tou Megalexandrou, which improbably refigures the great conqueror as a Byzantine Christian soldier who scorns the pagan gods of old Greece.

Stoneman drily notes that it took Alexander thirteen years to conquer the known world, whereas his own quest to compile and investigate the collection of legends and its derivatives took him more than two decades. His presentation of the dizzyingly varied sources and emulators of the Romance is structured chron­o­­logically, starting with the legends of Alexan­der’s birth (early accounts ascribed his origins to Egypt, a land of mystery, magic, and great antiquity in Greek eyes), continuing through to his physical death in Babylon, and ending with his quest for immortality and his afterlife in literary and religious retellings. The diverse material is skilfully organised and discussed, and a helpful tabulation of the main Greek sources of the Romance and their derivatives is appended.

Among the more colourful characteristics attributed to Alexander in the Romance is his penchant for clever mechanical inventions, most strikingly his use of a Diving Bell to explore the ocean’s depths, and his harnessing of birds to create a flying machine. These inventions typify ‘the Alexander who pushes the boundaries of human knowledge and capability by the application of his ingenuity’. The diving mechanism is created after Alexander’s soldiers come across a giant crab which is found to contain huge pearls, presumably formed in the ocean’s depths. Alexander explains how this leads him to construct a large iron cage:

and inside the cage I placed a large glass jar, two feet wide. I ordered a hole to be made in the base of the jar big enough for a man’s hand to go through. My aim was to descend and discover what was on the sea floor. . . I had a chain made of one thousand cubits long, and ordered the men not to pull me up until they felt the chain shake.

Alexander goes on to tell how, as he is lowered to the seabed, the vessel is seized by a huge fish and dragged for a mile, eventually depositing him gasping for life on the shore. He thereupon berates himself for attempting the impossible, as if recalling the moral lesson taught by Dandamis about the dangers of overreaching natural limits.

The story of Alexander’s flying machine was to become even more popular than that of the diving bell, with hundreds of representations surviving from medieval times in manuscripts, sculptures (many found, rather surprisingly, in church reliefs and decorations), and tapestries. The story in the Romance is again told in the first person, with Alexander explaining how, after capturing a number of large birds,

I had something like a yoke constructed from wood, and had this tied to their throats. Then I had an ox-skin made into a large bag, attached it to the yoke, and climbed in, holding two spears, each about ten feet long and with a horse’s liver attached to each point. The birds immediately soared upward to seize the livers, and I rose up into the air with them.

Once aloft, Alexander encounters a man in flight, evidently an angel, who admonishes him for his foolish boldness. The character of Alexander is again revealed as that of a man who, in reality and in fable, cannot resist testing the limits of human capability. His was indeed a life that, in all its monumentality, exoticism, and tragedy, was bound to become the object of endless romanticisation and legend.


Armand D'Angour