Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend

 Michael Whitby looks at a book on the Alexander legend

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Reviewed by: Michael Whitby
Author: Richard Stoneman
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £12.99

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Alexander of Macedon achieved greatness during his lifetime through actions, always ensuring that these were perceived most advantageously by different audiences. His life’s achievements, however, are nothing when compared to the stories which rapidly adhered to his name.

Alexander was the Starship Enterprise of the ancient world, boldly going where no man had gone before with such popularity that his initial pursuit of the wonders of Greek imagination was enriched with stories from Jewish, Persian, Arabic, Latin and Indian traditions. Surveying the evolution of these Alexander legends from the early Greek Romance to its diverse medieval and modern manifestations is a massive undertaking, which requires knowledge of literatures from Malaysia to Iceland. Fortunately, in Richard Stoneman we have an expert who has worked on this complex material for the past two decades, and so is the ideal guide to unravelling the developments which transformed Alexander into Jewish prophet, Christian missionary, Islamic jihadist and Indian sage.

Stoneman leads us through Alexander’s life to analyse the stories which attached to each stage. These took him to the ocean depths in a diving bell, the height of the heavens on a griffon-powered throne, and the gates of paradise in search of eternal life. Alexander as superman was always more than an amusing diversion, as his contribution to current Balkan arguments about national ownership of the Macedonian heritage demonstrate. Perhaps his multicultural and multi-religious appeal might offer the modern world a powerful emblem for community and reconciliation.

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Michael Whitby is pro-vice chancellor of Warwick University