Armenian illuminated manuscript of the 14th century
Armenian illuminated manuscript of the 14th century

The Alexander Romance is an account of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great. Although constructed around a historical core, the romance is largely fictional. It was widely copied and translated, accruing legends and fantastical elements at different stages. The original version was composed in the Greek language before 338 AD, when a Latin translation was made. Several late manuscripts attribute the work to Alexander's court historian Callisthenes, but the historical person died before Alexander and could not have written a full account of his life. The unknown author is still sometimes known as Pseudo-Callisthenes.

Between the 4th and the 16th centuries the Alexander Romance was translated into Coptic, Ge'ez, Byzantine Greek, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew and most medieval European vernaculars. The romance was also put into verse, as in a Byzantine recension of 1388. Owing to the great variety of distinct works derived from the original Greek romance, the "Alexander romance" is sometimes treated as a literary genre and not a single work.[1]

Versions of the romance

Alexander was a legend during his own time. In a now-lost history of the king, the historical Callisthenes described the sea in Cilicia as drawing back from him in proskynesis. Writing after Alexander's death, another participant, Onesicritus, invented a tryst between Alexander and Thalestris, queen of the mythical Amazons. (According to Plutarch, when Onesicritus read this passage to his patron Lysimachus, one of Alexander's generals who later became a king himself, Lysimachus quipped "I wonder where I was at the time."[2])

Throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Romance experienced numerous expansions and revisions exhibiting a variability unknown for more formal literary forms. Latin, Armenian, Georgian and Syriac translations were made in Late Antiquity (4th to 6th centuries).

The Latin Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon was one of the most popular medieval romances. A 10th-century Latin version by one Leo the Archpriest is the basis of the later medieval vernacular translations in all the major languages of Europe, including Old French (12th century), Middle English, Early Scots (The Buik of Alexander) (13th century), Italian, Spanish (the Libro de Alexandre), Central German (Lamprecht's Alexanderlied and a 15th-century version by Johannes Hartlieb), Slavonic,[citation needed] Romanian,[citation needed] Hungarian and Irish.[3]

The Syriac version generated Middle Eastern recensions, including Arabic, Persian (Iskandarnamah), Ethiopic, Hebrew (in the first part of Sefer HaAggadah), Ottoman Turkish[4] (14th century), and Middle Mongolian[5] (13th-14th century). In addition to the Alexander Romance of Pseudo-Callisthenes, the Syriac version also includes a short appendix now known as the Syriac Alexander Legend.[6] This original Syriac text was written in north Mesopotamia around 629-630 AD, shortly after Heraclius defeated the Persians.[7] It contains additional motifs not found in the earliest Greek version of the Romance, including the episode where Alexander builds a wall against Gog and Magog.[6]

Greek versions

The oldest version of the Greek text, the Historia Alexandri Magni (Recensio α), can be dated to the 3rd century. It was subjected to various revisions during the Byzantine Empire, some of them recasting it into poetical form in Medieval Greek vernacular. Recensio α is the source of a Latin version by Julius Valerius Alexander Polemius (4th century), and an Armenian version (5th century). Most of the content of the Romance is fantastical, including many miraculous tales and encounters with mythical creatures such as Sirens or Centaurs.

French versions

There are several Old and Middle French and one Anglo-Norman Alexander romances:

  1. The Alexandre of Albéric de Briançon was composed around 1120.
  2. Fuerre de Gadres by a certain Eustache, later used by Alexandre de Bernay and Thomas de Kent
  3. Decasyllabic Alexander, anonymous from 1160–70.
  4. Mort Alixandre, an anonymous fragment of 159 lines.
  5. Li romans d'Alixandre (c.1170), attributed to clergyman Alexandre de Bernay (also known as Alexandre de Pâris), is based on the translations of various episodes of the conqueror's life as composed by previous poets (Lambert de Tort, Eustache and more importantly Albéric of Besançon). Unlike other authors of the era who undertook the Alexander saga, he did not base his work on the Pseudo-Callisthenes or on the various translations of Julius Valerius' work. As is common in medieval literature, the project results from the desire to improve on the work of others and to offer the complete life of the hero to the public, a theme that is also very present in the cycles of the chansons de geste at the time. Thomas de Kent also penned (probably) the very same decade a version of the saga, Le roman de toute chevalerie, which is independent of Alexandre de Bernay's poem: Alexander's influence on the medieval imagination is thus shown as being as great as, if not greater than, that of other pagan figures such as Hercules or Aeneas.
  6. Thomas de Kent (or Eustache), around 1175, wrote the Anglo-Norman Roman de toute chevalerie, which became the basis for the Middle English King Alysaunder.
  7. La Venjance Alixandre by Jehan le Nevelon.
  8. The Alixandre en Orient of Lambert de Tort was composed around 1170.
  9. Le Vengement Alixandre by Gui de Cambrai, before 1191.
  10. The Roman d'Alexandre en prose was the most popular Old French version. Anonymous.
  11. Prise de Defur, from Picardy c. 1250.
  12. The Voyage d'Alexandre au Paradis terrestre is a French adaptation (c. 1260) of the Latin Iter ad paradisum
  13. The Vow Cycle of Alexander romances includes the Voeux du paon by Jacques de Longuyon, Restor du Paon by Jean le Court, and Parfait du paon by Jean de Le Mote.
  14. The Faicts et les Conquestes d'Alexandre le Grand by Jean Wauquelin c. 1448.
  15. The Fais et concquestes du noble roy Alexandre is a late medieval prose version.
  16. The Faits du grand Alexandre by Vasque de Lucène is a prose translation (1468) of Quintus Curtius Rufus' Historiae Alexandri Magni.

English versions

In medieval England the Alexander Romance experienced a remarkable popularity. It is even referred to in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where the monk apologizes to the pilgrimage group for treating a material so well known. There are five major romances in Middle English which have been passed down to us and most remain only in fragments. There are also two versions from Scotland, one which has sometimes been ascribed to the Early Scots poet John Barbour which exists only in a sixteenth-century printing, and a Middle Scots version from 1499:

  1. King Alisaunder from c. 1275. In medieval orthography, "king" could be "kyng" and "Alisaunder" could be "Alysaunder".
  2. The Romance of Alisaunder (or Alexander of Macedon), sometimes referred to as Alexander A, is a fragment of 1247 lines and written in alliterative verse. It was probably written between 1340 and 1370, soon before the beginning of the Alliterative Revival, of which it is believed to be one of the oldest remaining poems. It has been preserved in a school notebook dating from 1600. Alexander A deals with the begetting of Alexander by Nectanebus, his birth and early years and ends with the midst of the account of Philip's siege of Byzantium. It is likely that the source for this fragment has been the I²-recension of the Historia de Preliis. Beside that it has been expanded with additional material taken from Paulus Orosius' Historiae adversum paganos, the adverse remarks, which are typical of Orosius, however have been omitted by the poet, whose main concern is Alexander's heroic conduct.
  3. Alexander and Dindimus, sometimes referred to as Alexander B, is also written in alliterative verse. This fragment is found in the MS Bodley 264 [it] and consists of five letters which are passed between Alexander and Dindimus, who is the king of the Brahmins, a people of philosophers who shun all worldly lusts, ambitions and entertainments. In this respect their way of life resembles the ideal of an aescetic life, which was also preached by medieval monastic orders, such as the Franciscans. The source of Alexander B again is the I²-recension of the Historia de Preliis.
  4. The Wars of Alexander, sometimes referred to as Alexander C, is the longest of the alliterative versions of the Middle English Alexander Romances. It goes back to the I³-recension of the Historia de Preliis and can be found in the MS Ashmole 44 and in the Dublin Trinity College MS 213. Although both manuscripts are incomplete they supplement each other fairly well. In this version much space is given to letters and prophecies, which often bear a moralizing and philosophical tenor. The letters are an integral part of the Pseudo-Callisthenes tradition. The dominant theme is pride, which inevitably results in the downfall of kings. In The Wars of Alexander the hero is endowed with superhuman qualities, which shows in the romance insofar as his enemies fall to him by the dozens and he is always at the center of action.
  5. The Prose Life of Alexander copied by Robert Thornton, c. 1440.
  6. The Buik of Alexander, anonymous, attributed to John Barbour, dates to 1438 according to its first printed edition from 1580.
  7. The Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour by Gilbert Hay, 1499. This work is in Middle Scots.

Hebrew versions

For earlier Jewish legends not derived from Pseudo-Callisthenes, see Alexander the Great in legend § Jewish legends.

There are three or four medieval Hebrew versions of the Alexander Romance:

  1. A literal and slightly abridged translation from the original Greek is found in the manuscript Parma, Bibliotheca I. B. de Rossi, MS Heb. 1087. This version was also partially interpolated into the Sefer Yosippon in the 10th century.[8]
  2. In the 12th or 13th century, an anonymous translator or translators translated a lost Arabic translation of the Latin Historia de Preliis into Hebrew. This is found in the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Héb. 671.5 and London, Jews' College Library, MS 145. These may represent a single translation in different versions or else two translations, with the Paris version having been used to complete the London. The translator (or one of them) may have been Samuel ibn Tibbon, who made other translations from Arabic.[8]
  3. In the 14th century, Immanuel Bonfils translated the Historia de Preliis directly from Latin into Hebrew. This is found today only in the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Héb. 750.3, but an illuminated copy once resided in the Royal Library of Turin (c. 1880) before being destroyed in a fire.[8]

Syriac versions

Alexander sharing his throne with Queen Nushabah, taken from the Sharaf-Nama written by Nizami Ganjavi and manuscript owned by the Sultan of Bengal Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah. (British Library)
Alexander sharing his throne with Queen Nushabah, taken from the Sharaf-Nama written by Nizami Ganjavi and manuscript owned by the Sultan of Bengal Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah. (British Library)

The Syriac version of the Alexander Romance is preserved in five manuscripts, the oldest was compiled in 1708-09.[7] It is largely based on the Greek Pseudo-Callisthenes, with slight modifications, like the addition of Alexander's journey to China.[7]

In Syriac literature in particular, there are other works originally written in Syriac that are often attached to the Alexander Romance manuscripts. These works include the Syriac Legend of Alexander, the composition of which is commonly attributed to north Mesopotamia around 629-630 AD, shortly after Heraclius defeated the Persians.[7] However, some have argued that the Syriac recension was originally produced in an earlier form in the early 6th century and was updated in the early 7th century in light of then-contemporary apocalyptic themes.[9] Another position taken up by some scholars is that the text was composed around the Byzantine-Sassanid events surrounding the year 614.[10] The Syriac Legend contains additional motifs not found in the earliest Greek Romance, including the episode where Alexander builds a wall against Gog and Magog.[6] There is also a poem wrongly attributed to Jacob of Serugh based on the Syriac Legend but written slightly later. Finally, there is a shorter version of the Legend and an original brief biography of Alexander.[7]

The Syriac Alexander Legend has been found to closely resemble the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn in the Qur'an (see Alexander the Great in the Quran).

Slavonic versions

17th-century manuscript of an Alexandrine novel (Russia): Alexander exploring the depths of sea.
17th-century manuscript of an Alexandrine novel (Russia): Alexander exploring the depths of sea.

In the Middle Ages and later, on the Balkans and in Eastern Europe, also appeared many translations of the novel in Old-Slavonic and Slavonic languages.

This is how a version in Bulgarian from 1810 begins:

Alexandriada – a story of the great Emperor Alexander of Macedonia, son of Philip. God decided to punish those kings who had equated themselves with Him... And chose the glorious Macedonia to make it happen.[11]

Arabic, Persian, Armenian and Ethiopic versions

There exist two later Persian varieties which are the Iskandarnameh and the A’ina-yi Sikanderi of Amir Khusrow.[12]

The Armenian edition can be found in "San Lazzaro MS 424 - Alexander romance" (see [1].

The Ethiopic version, dated between the 14th and 16th centuries, while ultimately based on the Syriac original, is said to be a translation from a presumed intermediary Arabic version from the 9th century.[13] The Ethiopic version also integrates motifs from the Syriac Alexander Legend within the Romance narrative.[13]

See also


  1. ^ See, e.g., Alexander romance at Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  2. ^ Plutarch, Life of Alexander, XLVI.
  3. ^ Kuno Meyer, Eine irische Version der Alexandersage, 1884.
  4. ^ "Ahmedi, Taceddin". Retrieved 19 December 2011.
  5. ^ Cleaves, Francis Woodman (Dec 1959). "An Early Mongolian Version of The Alexander Romance". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 22: 1–99. JSTOR 2718540.
  6. ^ a b c Donzel, Emeri J. van; Schmidt, Andrea Barbara (2010). Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam's Quest for Alexander's Wall. Brill. p. 17. ISBN 978-90-04-17416-0. The episode of Alexander's building a wall against Gog and Magog, however, is not found in the oldest Greek, Latin, Armenian and Syriac versions of the Romance. Though the Alexander Romance was decisive for the spreading of the new and supernatural image of Alexander the king in East and West, the barrier episode has not its origin in this text. The fusion of the motif of Alexander's barrier with the Biblical tradition of the apocalyptic peoples Gog and Magog appears in fact for the first time in the so called Syriac Alexander Legend. This text is a short appendix attached to the Syriac manuscripts of the Alexander Romance.
  7. ^ a b c d e Ciancaglini, Claudia A. (2001). "The Syriac Version of the Alexander Romance". Le Muséon. 114 (1–2): 121–140. doi:10.2143/MUS.114.1.302.
  8. ^ a b c W. J. van Bekkum (1986), "Alexander the Great in Medieval Hebrew Literature", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 49, pp. 218–226, at 223–225. doi:10.2307/751298
  9. ^ Stephen Shoemaker, The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, University of Pennsylvania Press 2018, 79-86.
  10. ^ Zishan Ghaffar, Der Koran in Seimen Religions, Brill, 2019, pp. 156-166.
  11. ^ Lyubomir Miletich - “Една българска Александрия от 1810 год.” (Български старини XIII), page 48, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1936
  12. ^ Evangelos Venetis, The Persian Alexander: The First Complete English Translation of the Iskandarnama, Bloomsbury 2017.
  13. ^ a b Doufikar-Aerts, Faustina C.W. (2003). "Alexander the Flexible Friend: Some Reflections on the Representation of Alexander the Great in the Arabic Alexander Romance". Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. 55 (3–4): 196, 204. doi:10.2143/JECS.55.3.504417. Moreover, the integration of the Gog and Magog episode based on the Christian Syriac Alexander Legend, the allusions to the principle of Trinity, and many other signs determine the text as a Christianized revision of the Romance.


Further reading