The remarkable afterlife of Alexander the Great
When Alexander the Great died at the age of 32, his transformation into multicultural icon was only just beginning. Edmund Richardson chronicles the Macedonian king’s remarkable afterlife as the original global A-lister
Listen to this article:
In 321 BC, a very strange procession set out from Babylon. Alexander the Great was on the move. He had died two years earlier, in 323 BC, at the age of 32.
Over the course of a few brief years, this astonishing soldier and statesman had transformed the ancient world. He marched his army from Macedon through Asia Minor to Egypt. He defeated the Great King of Persia, Darius III, in two enormous battles. The cities of the Persian empire – Babylon, Susa and Persepolis – fell before him. By his mid-20s, he had more wealth and power than any European in history. But it was not enough.
Alexander marched his army further and further east, across the heart of Asia and the mountains of Afghanistan, into battle with elephants and into lands where even the gods of Greece had never set foot.
He was never defeated in battle, but after many long years of campaigning, his soldiers laid down their arms on the banks of an Indian river, and would march no further. Alexander reluctantly led his army back to Babylon, where he died under mysterious circumstances (though some thought he had been poisoned).
So ended one of the most extraordinary lives in ancient history. But, in many respects, the story was only just beginning, for over the following centuries, Alexander’s global celebrity would surpass anything he had achieved in life.
Alexander’s death set off one of history’s most brutal power-struggles, exacerbated by the fact that there was no obvious successor. One of his generals, Perdiccas, was named regent of the empire, but every ambitious commander began to grab as much wealth and power as possible.
More like this
In the chaos, Alexander himself was forgotten. For a while, his body was kept in a vat of honey to preserve it. Two years passed. Then, at last, he began his final journey back to Macedon, to be buried with his ancestors.
He never made it home. In Syria, Alexander’s enormous, lumbering funeral carriage – a golden temple on wheels – was intercepted by one of his oldest friends, Ptolemy, the governor of Egypt. Ptolemy wanted Alexander’s body for himself. He intended to take the body back to Egypt and claim the power that came with Alexander’s legacy.
Ptolemy knew, though, that as soon as news of his body-snatching reached Perdiccas, he would become the most wanted man in the world. So, according to the Varia Historia (by the Roman author Aelian), Ptolemy “made an Alexander mannequin, dressed it like a king, and draped it in a gorgeous shroud. He laid it on one of the funeral carriages, and heaped it with gold, silver and ivory.”
- On the podcast | Edmund Richardson tells the astonishing story of a 19th-century quest to find a lost city of Alexander the Great
Alexander’s actual body, Aelian also claims, “was sent to Egypt discreetly, in the least ostentatious way, along hidden and unused roads. Once Perdiccas captured the mannequin, with its magnificent carriage, he ordered his troops to halt. He was sure that Alexander was now his. He only realised that he had been tricked when it was too late.”
Ptolemy’s trick worked. Alexander’s soldiers rallied round him. His power grew, and kept on growing. Born an ordinary Macedonian, Ptolemy died a pharaoh, halfway between a man and a god. He founded the last pharaonic dynasty, which endured 275 years, until Cleopatra VII.
Ptolemy was not the first, and he would not be the last, to claim Alexander for himself. While he appropriated Alexander’s body, countless others appropriated Alexander’s story. For more than 2,000 years, Greek and Roman historians, Egyptian storytellers, Persian poets, Ethiopian monks, Jewish scholars, Icelandic bards and many more have made Alexander their own as ruthlessly as Ptolemy did. Alexander has become a Persian king, an Islamic holy man and a Christian saint, and ultimately the world’s first multicultural hero.
The stories emerged soon after Alexander’s death. Like many of the ancient world’s best tales, they started in Egypt. “Many people think that Alexander was the son of King Philip of Macedon, but they are mistaken,” declared one chronicle of his life. “The wisest of the Egyptians know that Alexander was not the son of Philip, but of Nectanebo.”
Nectanebo II, pharaoh of Egypt, had fled before an invading Persian army – or so the story went. He sought refuge in Macedon, where he crept into the bed of Alexander’s mother, disguised as the Egyptian god Amun. Alexander was an Egyptian all along.
It was an outrageous idea. But, during his lifetime, Alexander had encouraged an even more outrageous one. After he visited the oracle of Amun, hidden in the middle of Egypt’s western desert, Alexander allowed rumours to spread that the god had recognised him as his son. Alexander’s cartouche, or hieroglyphic pharaonic symbol, proclaims him “Son of Amun” and “Son of Ra”. On coins minted soon after his death, he wears the ram’s horns of Amun.
As time passed, the stories about Alexander kept getting taller. The Egyptian legend gave birth to dozens of other tales, each one wilder and more magical than the last. They came to be known as the Alexander Romances. The Romances have travelled further than Alexander himself ever did. There is an Icelandic Alexanders Saga and an Armenian Romance. Alexander fights dragons, journeys to the stars in a cage carried by griffins, and travels to the depths of the sea. He goes to stranger places, and sees stranger things, than anyone ever has before. The Alexander Romances are some of the most wondrous stories in history: they hover between dream and reality, the everyday and the fantastical, as artfully as Alexander himself.
Over the past 2,000 years, Alexander has become a Persian king, an Islamic holy man and a Christian saint
One such tale, which circulated widely in the Middle Ages among Jewish writers of the diaspora, described Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem. It was said that he marched on the city, prepared for battle. But when the high priest and the people of Jerusalem left the city to greet him, something unexpected happened. Alexander prostrated himself before the high priest – whom, he told his army, he had seen in a dream in Macedonia. The priest had “told me not to delay, but to cross the sea, for he would lead my army, and would grant me victory over the Persians”. Alexander honoured the people of Jerusalem, and sacrificed to God in the temple.
Only, he did not. Alexander never went to Jerusalem. The story was an invention. But, for Jewish audiences, it was a necessary invention. It began to circulate hundreds of years after Alexander’s expedition, in the wake of the sack of Jerusalem by Roman armies. Jewish communities – scattered, exiled and constantly persecuted – needed a story of how Alexander, the greatest conqueror of them all, had honoured their faith.
Medieval Christian authors had their own Alexander: a holy man who spoke to God, and whom God watched over. He travelled to the edges of the Earth, and built two enormous gates there, to protect the world. “Alexander shut 22 kings and nations behind the gates he called the Caspian,” the story ran, including two old enemies from the Old Testament: Gog and Magog. In an Ethiopian version of the Alexander Romance, Alexander arrives at the Citadel of Adamant, an abandoned city in the desert. There, he and his men battle traps, hidden pits and a dancing clockwork automaton. All seems to be lost, but then God speaks to Alexander, and helps him to understand the forgotten language of the city, and to solve its mysteries.
But, for a long time, there was one place where Alexander’s story was almost impossible to tell: Persia. Alexander’s conquest was, after all, a time of destruction and of profound national humiliation. Then, around 1000 AD, the great Persian poet Firdausi composed his Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. In it, he told the story of Alexander, or Sikandar. And, drawing on the Romances, he transformed it. In the Shahnameh, Alexander is not the son of Philip of Macedon, but the secret son of Darab, king of Persia (in Firdausi’s poem) before Darius. In other words, Alexander was Darius’s elder brother, and the rightful heir to the Persian throne. He was, it turns out, a Persian all along.
The fatherless barbarian
The medieval Alexander is very different to the blood-soaked conqueror of the ancient historians. Alexander does not want to rule the world, he wants to understand it. He is obsessed with learning everything that can be learned, and seeing everything that can be seen. He is not just a warrior: he is a sage, a philosopher and an instrument of God.
But he is far from infallible. In fact, Alexander is intensely human. He suffers, bleeds, makes mistakes and loses his way, far more than the historical Alexander ever did. In the Darab Nama, a 12th-century Persian tale, he falls in love with Buran Dokht, the daughter of the king of Persia. Buran Dokht can’t believe that Alexander has the nerve to propose to her. “I am descended from seven generations of kings,” she tells her suitor. ‘“Why should I marry a fatherless barbarian?” She meets Alexander in battle, wielding a huge club, and puts his armies to flight. Only after he has been humbled does she agree to make peace.
This Alexander stumbles and falls. He reaches the gates of the Garden of Eden, but is refused admittance. He goes in search of the Water of Life, but his cook finds it instead. He is abducted by fairies, chased by giant crabs, and is perpetually on the brink of losing everything.
Everyone has a story about Alexander. And everyone’s story is different
Alexander longs for immortality but can never achieve it. Only at the end of his story, on his death-bed, does he make peace with his own mortality. “If weapons and soldiers could fight off death, all the world’s armies are here,” he says, sadly. “If prayers and rosaries could fight off death, all the world’s wise and holy men are here. If wealth and treasure could buy off death, all the treasures of the world are here.” In spite of all his power, Alexander knows that he must die.
Alexander even makes a shadowy appearance in the Qur’an. It relates the legend of Dhu al-Qarnayn, or “the two-horned one”, who travels to the ends of the Earth to build a wall to protect the world. The enemies behind the wall are familiar from the Christian story of Alexander’s magical gates: Gog and Magog. The two horns of Dhu al-Qarnayn echo the ram’s horns of Amun. Alexander’s story weaves through the world, a common root-system uniting cultures and religions.
Everyone has a story about Alexander. And everyone’s story is different. That is as true today as it was during the medieval period, and indeed during Alexander’s own lifetime.
The first – and the best – teller of Alexander’s story was Alexander himself. And he never told just one story. To the Greeks, he was a Homeric hero: sacrificing at the tomb of Achilles at Troy. To the Egyptians, he was son of Ra, and son of Amun. To the Persians, he was King of Kings: dressed like a Persian king, and married to a Persian princess.
Some scholars have wondered, wistfully, if Alexander dreamed of uniting the world in a “brotherhood of man”. He did not. Alexander was a brutal conqueror. If a city resisted, he would often wipe it off the face of the Earth, killing all the men and enslaving the women and children. But he was also a pragmatic conqueror. Alexander knew that fear alone would not hold his empire together. So he wore many masks, and he told many stories. He turned himself into a multicultural hero.
Shrinking the world
After Alexander’s death, the destructiveness of his campaigns began to fade into history, but the stories he told remained. In Egypt, Ptolemy and his successors ruled from
their hybrid, Greek-Egyptian capital of Alexandria. In Persia, Greeks learned the elaborate rituals of the Persian court. Indian kings discussed Greek philosophy. The Greeks who settled in Afghanistan built theatres and temples, and produced dazzling works of art, which would shape the earliest depictions of the Buddha. Slowly, the world grew closer together.
But is this really so surprising? The idea that we can draw clear boundaries between cultures is arguably more a modern concept than an ancient one. Years before Alexander reached Egypt, Greeks were living and working there. Years before Alexander’s treasures made it back to Macedon, knowledge and ideas from across Asia were shaping Greek thought. The world has always been connected – through ideas, through heroes and through stories.
Edmund Richardson is professor of classics at Durham University. His latest book, Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City, is published by Bloomsbury
This article was first published in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine for £21.99 every 6 issues + receive a £10 M&S gift card (use online instore).
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99