A 16th-century Persian illustration showing Alexander worshipping at Mecca© British Library

The alluring legacy of Alexander the Great

An imperial overlord, divine conqueror and legend in his own lifetime—there are few men about whom more myths have been told
November 3, 2022

Apart from Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad, only one figure in world history can claim to have permeated the cultural memory of both east and west. Alexander the Great was king of Macedon from 336 to 323BC, in addition to being crowned pharaoh of Egypt and shah in Persia. The dashing, beardless youth spent his short life conquering city after city, reaching as far as the Punjab on the Indian subcontinent. He died at the age of 32 after a heavy drinking bout and was eventually buried in Alexandria in Egypt, one of the many cities that he founded.

The British Library’s excellent new exhibition, “Alexander the Great”, which runs until 19th February, isn’t much concerned with the “real” Alexander. Instead, it compares the mythical tales that sprung up round this extraordinary figure—from the Greek Alexander Romance to the Persian Shahnameh via Handel’s opera Alessandro, contemporary comic books and the 2004 Oliver Stone movie, which saw Colin Farrell raising hell across Asia.

Alexander was, literally, a legend in his own lifetime. Like all great ancient kings he needed a divine provenance and, being a multicultural monarch, he acquired several origin stories. Plutarch says he was fathered by Zeus or perhaps Ammon, the Egyptian god whose ram horns Alexander adopted as his symbol. In one 15th-century French manuscript of the Alexander Romance the pharaoh Nectanebo II is seen disguised as a dragon, slipping into the chamber of his mother Olympias. Being worshipped suited Alexander, but it equally suited those he conquered: in an act of reverse cultural appropriation, they could claim him as one of their own.

Remarkably, Alexander was even Islamified. Surah 18 of the Quran calls him “the two-horned one”—a reference to Ammon’s symbol—who God allowed to conquer the world. This religious legitimisation of a pagan figure meant that the legends of Alexander were fair game for Muslims to reshape as they pleased.

The Arabs were taken by the idea that Aristotle—hugely influential in Islamic philosophy—had tutored Alexander, producing fictitious works of princely advice like The Secret of Secrets. On show here is a gorgeously illuminated page from a 12th-century Latin translation of the Arabic book, designed to be presented to King Edward III. There is even a 16th-century Persian illustration showing Alexander worshipping at Mecca—an image that tickled British colonial administrator Warren Hastings, who purchased it when he was in India.

This exhibition might surprise visitors expecting more classical statues or renaissance paintings. About half the items on show are taken from different illustrated manuscripts of the 11th-century Persian regal epic Shahnameh, by the poet Ferdowsi. This is partly a reflection of the British Library’s rich Asian collection, but it is also a conscious attempt to recast Alexander.

If in the west Alexander is known as an imperial overlord—the hero of Napoleon—for the Persians the story was more complex. Historically speaking, it took Alexander four years to overwhelm the enormous Persian empire; he burnt down Persepolis, sacked the Zoroastrian fire temples and defeated the shah Darius. But he also adopted Persian customs, including the extravagant obeisance to the emperor—or proskynesis—that so disturbed his fellow Macedons. Renamed Iskander or Sikander—still a common South Asian name—Ferdowsi accommodated him into his poem as a legitimate Iranian king.

Of course, this required some massaging. A divine Alexander was a no-no for a Muslim like Ferdowsi, while Persian pride forbade him from depicting a foreign ruler. An elaborate story was concocted involving Alexander’s mother being sent to marry Darius’s father, getting pregnant and then being sent home for her terrible breath. (The Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned an illustration showing her meeting her husband with a flower over her mouth.) Alexander and Darius were therefore made half-brothers, their battles made a dynastic quarrel. Eventually, Darius lies dying in Alexander’s lap, “covered in gore and his face as pale as fenugreek”, a chivalrous scene illustrated many times during the Safavid and Qajar dynasties.

In the west, he remained an embodiment of manly virility: Prince Henry, the son of King James VI and I, was gifted armour decorated with scenes of his victories. But our age is less impressed by conquest, and the hero-worship Alexander once inspired now rings hollow. His tomb’s appearance in the 2017 videogame Assassin’s Creed Origins—atmospherically recreated in the final room of the exhibition—is a fitting emblem for a figure whose ghostly presence has required reanimation over the centuries. For as much as Alexander conquered the world, the world conquered him.