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
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.