Alexander romance

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

The Romance of Alexander is any of several collections of legends concerning the mythical exploits of Alexander the Great. The earliest version is in the Greek language, dating to the 3rd century. 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.

The text was transformed into various versions between the 4th and the 16th centuries, in Medieval Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew and most medieval European vernaculars.

Versions of the romance

Armenian illuminated manuscript of XIVth century of Vth century translation

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."[1])

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, Romanian, and Hungarian.

The Syriac version generated Middle Eastern recensions, including Arabic, Persian (the Iskandarnamah), Ethiopic, Hebrew (in the first part of Sefer HaAggadah), Ottoman Turkish[2](14th century), and Middle Mongolian[3] (13th-14th century).

The story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Quran (Sura al-Kahf 18:83-98) matches the Gog and Magog episode of the Romance, which has caused some controversy among Islamic scholars (see Alexander the Great in the Quran). Alexander was identified in Persian and Arabic-language sources as "Dhû-'l Qarnayn", Arabic for the "Horned One", likely a reference to the ram horns the image of Alexander wears on coins minted during his rule to indicate his descent from the Egyptian god Amun. Islamic accounts of the Alexander legend, particularly in Persia, combined the Pseudo-Callisthenes material with indigenous Sasanian Middle Persian ideas about Alexander.

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. It should be noted that 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. However, unlike the indigenous legend of King Arthur and the related romances dealing with the Matter of Britain, the Alexander Romance neither confines itself to the history and culture of Western Europe, nor is it a story situated in the Middle Ages. 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 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.

Jewish versions

Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews mentions that Alexander visited Jerusalem and saluted the high priest, saying that he had seen him in his dreams back in Macedonia.[4]

The Talmud also has many legends relating to Alexander, For example, it mentions that the Samaritans conspired for the destruction of the temple, but Alexander prostrated at the feet of the high priest Simon the Just. It also mentions many other legends on Alexander, such as: The Ten Questions of Alexander to the Sages of the South, his Journey to the Regions of Darkness, the Amazons, the Gold Bread, Alexander at the Gate of Paradise, his ascent into the air, and Descent into the Sea.[5][6]

There is also the legend of the Egyptians suing the Jews before Alexander.[7]

Christian and Islamic versions

The Syriac, Persian, Arabic, Ethiopic and Bulgar versions of the Alexander romance are all closely related Christian and Muslim variants. Philologists, studying ancient Christian legends about Alexander the Great, have come to conclude that the Qur'an's stories about Dhul-Qarnayn closely parallel certain legends about Alexander the Great found in ancient Hellenistic and Christian writings. There is some numismatic evidence, in the form of ancient coins, to identify the Arabic epithet "Dhul-Qarnayn" with Alexander the Great. There is also a long history of monotheistic religions co-opting the historical Alexander. Finally, ancient Christian Syriac and Ethiopic manuscripts of the Alexander romance from the Middle East have been found which closely resemble the story in the Qur'an. This results in the theologically controversial conclusion that Qur'an refers to Alexander in the mention of Dhul-Qarnayn. Two later Persian varieties are the Iskandarnameh and the A’ina-yi Sikanderi of Amir Khusrow

Slavonic versions

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.” [8]




See also

External links

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