The “Alexander Romance”
Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC. His cause of death was (and still is) unknown, with theories ranging from poison, liver sclerosis, or tropical disease such as typhoid or malaria. What is known is that his body had barely began to go cold before legends started springing up around his incredible career. This was to be expected; he had achieved the unimaginable in bringing down the once great Persian Empire, traversing the limits of the known world, and spreading Hellenic (Greek) culture as far as the Hindu Kush in northern Pakistan—all before the age of 33.
Just as Alexander’s historical achievements captured the imagination of his successors, so too did his legendary and mythical ones. These were collected in a work known as the “Alexander Romance” around the third or second century BC. Countless versions of the Romance were copied and recopied throughout the coming centuries, making it the most widely-read work of antiquity after the Bible. It was translated into scores of languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Armenian and Syriac, not to mention the European vernaculars of the Middle Ages (French, German, English, Spanish etc).
In the Alexander Romance, the Macedonian ascends to the heavens in a basket borne by eagles and descends to the depths of the ocean in a glass bell. He converses with talking trees, fights two-headed beasts, and debates with naked philosophers. In later, religiously-influenced translations, he even takes on the role of a sacred hero, converting to Judaism or Christianity and carrying out God’s will as a “defender of men” (appropriate, given that the name Alexander or Ἀλέξανδρος in Greek means precisely that).
Alexander’s appearance in the Romance is also the stuff of fantasy. Far from the image of the handsome, wavy-haired king that’s come down to us from historical images (coins, statues etc.), the legendary Alexander looks something like a feline vampire. We are told he had the hair of a lion, one blue eye and one heavy-lidded black eye, and teeth as sharp as fangs.
We don’t know who the author of the Alexander Romance was. But we have some clues. Instead of Philip II, it identifies the great Macedonian’s father as the last Egyptian pharaoh of the Thirteenth Dynasty Nectanebo II, who tricks Alexander’s mother, Olympias, into sleeping with him by magically assuming the form of the god Amun. This patently false paternity story suggests the Romance may have been of Egyptian (Alexandrian) origin, intended to legitimize Alexander’s conquest of the region as the legitimate pharaoh rather than a foreign conqueror.