Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great

Alexander Meddings - October 22, 2017

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Medieval illustration os Alexander meeting the cynic philosopher Diogenes. Eric Gerlach

Alexander and Diogenes

The meeting of the regal Alexander and the Cynic philosopher Diogenes is one of the most popular stories in philosophical history. Versions of the event span antiquity all the way through the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, told by writers from Plutarch to Shakespeare. The amount of attention given to the meeting is even more staggering when you consider that it historically never happened.

Diogenes was one of the ancient world’s most controversial figures. A strict adherent to the philosophical school of Cynicism (cynic, in Ancient Greek, means “dog-like”), he embraced a life of total self-sufficiency. This involved the rejection of societal values and aspirations—which the Cynics believed ran in opposition to nature—in favor of a life revolving around doing exactly what you want—which they believed ran in accordance with nature.

Diogenes took this to extremes. He flouted almost every social convention there was: masturbating in the forum, urinating on those who taunted him and living in a giant barrel just being a few. This earned him the nickname “Diogenes the dog“; a particularly appropriate given one famous legend.

At one stage the only thing Diogenes owned was a begging bowl, which he used to collect up water. One particularly hot day he was passing by a stream and saw a dog lapping up water with its tongue. Immediately realizing his one earthly possession was superfluous, Diogenes threw his vessel away and joined in with his canine companion.

As mentioned, many versions of the meeting between Alexander and Diogenes exist. However, they’re all more or less based on an original anecdote which goes like this. One day Alexander was passing through Diogenes’s city (which city differs according to different versions). He was struck by the fact that although the whole city had flocked to see him, its famous resident philosopher was not in the least bit bothered. So Alexander resolved to go to him. Arriving at Diogenes’s giant barrel, Alexander asked the philosopher if he would like anything from him. Diogenes’s response was that he’d like Alexander to stand aside a little as he was blocking his sun.

While Alexander’s companions fell about laughing, the king himself was in awe of this man who cared nothing for regal power and had no issues speaking out of line with a king. Alexander was reported to have said “But truly If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”, longing for the carefree existence of the Cynic philosopher.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
The “Diving Bell” story: popular in medieval French versions of the Alexander Romance. Pinterest

The Medieval Alexander

We’ve already seen how Alexander took on many different roles in the millennia or so following his death. From a Jewish convert to an Islamic prophet; a philosopher-king to a protector of men against enemies of the Apocalypse. The number of Alexander-legends in existence made it easy for different groups to incorporate him into their mythologies (or just invent myths around him), whatever their culture, beliefs, or agenda. So it should come as little surprise then that during the Middle Ages, the ancient Macedonian came to be reinvented as a chivalric knight, a pious holy man, and a brave Christian king.

While versions of the Alexander Romance existed all across Europe, translated into almost every language, there was no consistency. In Medieval France—the cradle of chivalry—Alexander might have enjoyed an unblemished reputation as a perfect knight, but among German literary circles, he had a much more sinister reputation. Many German theologians equated Alexander with the devil or the antichrist while in Italy, puritanical writers such as Petrarch rallied against him for his immoderacy and excessive drinking.

Part of the reason for Alexander’s negative characterizations was due to his ambivalent role in the Bible—mainly how appeared alongside the much-hated Antiochus Epiphanes in the Book of Maccabees (I). Another reason was that different countries had access to different literature; German writers had access to different texts to their French or Spanish counterparts, for example, with German authors relying on a fifth-century Christian called Orosius. Far from the knight in shining armour of the French tradition, in Orosius’s “History against the Pagans“, Alexander is described as a “bloodthirsty tyrant”.

From the late twelfth century onwards, interest in the fantastical stories of Alexander’s life started to wane in favour of more historical accounts. This was mostly due to renewed interest in classical literature across medieval Europe, with scholars and literates understandably placing more value in the historical/biographical accounts of Plutarch, Arrian, and Curtius Rufus, rather than in stories about Alexander meeting naked philosophers and talking trees.

This isn’t to say the Romances died out completely. The early fifteenth century saw the appearance of a Scottish version, “the Buik of Alexander”, while in Eastern European countries new stories appeared in Slavonic and non-Slavonic languages for hundreds of years. In fact, a Bulgarian version of the Alexander Romance appeared as late as 1810, in which Alexander appears as a messenger sent by God to punish those who stray from the righteous path.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Alexander Dindimus. Oxford Bodleian Library

Alexander and the Naked Philosophers

The Brahmans are a group of naked ascetics who have closed themselves off from society to live lives of natural—and presumably rather cold—contemplation. Historically, the Greek historian Strabo situated them around the city of Taxila in modern-day Pakistan. Over time their exact geographical location came to matter less and less, however, as the land (or, according to some authors, island) of the Brahmans came to be transformed into a utopian ideal.

The story of Alexander’s encounter with them first appears around the third century BC and was continuously retold up until the fourteenth century, finally appearing in what must be the most bizarre piece of travel literature in history: “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville“. As with pretty much all legends that surround Alexander, each story has several versions. The general narrative goes like this:

Alexander arrives in the land of the Brahmans with his helmsman and historian Onesicratus. There they meet with the leader of the Brahmans, Dandamis, who Alexander proceeds to interrogate. He presents Dandamis with a “Halsrätsel”; a form of questioning familiar to anyone who’s seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail and that final scene on the bridge: If Dandamis gets the answer right, he will live. Should he get it wrong, Alexander will kill him.

Ultimately Alexander learns a great deal philosophically from the Brahmans. They drive home a message found elsewhere in Alexander’s legends: that no matter what his achievements or how much his power, he will ultimately die. How they couch their phrasing, however, is uniquely powerful. Upon seeing Alexander approach the Brahmans begin to stamp their feet. Asking what they mean by this, they tell the king that every man possesses only as much land as he is standing on. Alexander may spend his life traveling and conquering foreign lands, but he too is just a man. And when he is dead, he will need only as much earth as is required to bury him.

This message was in part influenced by the political aftermath of Alexander’s death: the fragmentation of his barely consolidated empire and centuries of civil war fought among his successors. However, it was also injected over the years with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ideas relating to humility and submission to the one, true God. No one man is all-powerful, no matter his achievements, and like all historical kings, Alexander would do well to learn that.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Macedonian Koinon showing a long-haired, diademed Alexander on the obverse and his taming of Bucephalus on the reverse. Wildwinds

Bucephalus’s Revenge

The close bond Alexander had with his horse Bucephalus is both mythically and historically well documented. Alexander came across him at the age of 12 or 13 while the horse was being presented to King Philip by the horse trader Philonicus. Alexander made a wager: if he couldn’t bring it under his control, he’d pay the money owed to the horse trader on his father’s behalf. If he could, he got to keep the horse. With some horse-whispering and amateur animal psychology (making sure Bucephalus could no longer see his own shadow, the source of his anxiety), Alexander managed to tame him.

Naturally, the fictional Alexander Romance took a slightly different view over Bucephalus’s origins. Rather than sold to the king by a horse trader, legend had it that Bucephalus was bred and reared on Philips royal estate. What’s more, the Greek Delphic Oracle had prophesied to Philip that whoever rode Bucephalus would go on to become the king the world was promised. But it wasn’t just Bucephalus’s origins that the Alexander Romance changed.

The historical horse accompanied Alexander across known world and beyond, serving as his charger in battles ranging from Persia to Pakistan. When Bucephalus eventually died from wounds sustained at the Battle of Hydaspes (326 BC) in modern-day Pakistan, Alexander was devastated. Such was his grief, in fact, that he immediately founded the city of Bucephela at the site of his death, named in his horse’s honor. The legendary horse, while also accompanying Alexander on all his many adventures, met a slightly different end.

Towards the end of the Alexander Romance, the great king is lying in his bed in Babylon, dying from a poison administered by one of his slaves. Everyone around him is howling with grief while Bucephalus is standing at the foot of Alexander’s bed looking longingly at his master. At this point, the slave enters the room and Bucephalus—somehow blessed with the knowledge of his guilt—charges towards him.

Grabbing him in his teeth, he drags the slave to Alexander. He then lets out loud whinny, throws the slave to the ground and tears his body apart, so that “bits of him flew all over everyone like snow falling off a roof in the wind.” Bucephalus then lets out one final neigh before collapsing at Alexander’s feet and breathing his last. Through the horrific carnage, Alexander gently smiles at his recently deceased steed before following suit, likewise falling into his eternal sleep.