Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
(356–323 B.C.E.)
   The historical Alexander the Great, Macedonian king and world conqueror, was clearly not a medieval figure. However, the character of Alexander became the central figure of a number of medieval ROMANCES, comparable to though less numerous than the cycles of legends surrounding the figures of CHARLEMAGNE and KING ARTHUR.
   Historically, Alexander was the son of Philip II, king ofMacedon, and in his youth was educated by the great philosopher Aristotle.He became king of Macedonia at the age of 20 upon his father’s assassination. In 334 B.C.E., he crossed the Hellespont with 35,000 men to invade the Persian Empire. He conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria. He captured the family of the Persian emperor Darius, then crushed the Persians at the Battle of Arbela in 331. He captured the city of Babylon and the Persian capital of Persepolis, which he burned to the ground in retaliation for the Persian burning of Athens in 480 B.C.E. He married Roxana, daughter of the Bactrian prince Oxytares, and took a second wife, Barsine, the daughter of Darius. Alexander then advanced into India, where he defeated the northern Indian prince Porus in 326 B.C.E. That same year, he contracted a fever and died at the age of 32, having conquered virtually the entire world as he knew it. The medieval versions of the Alexander legend derive ultimately from a third-century Greek account purported to be by a certain Callisthenes. Latin versions of Callisthenes’ story were circulating by the early Middle Ages, and these ultimately were the source of the great 12th-century French Roman d’Alexandre. This poem, attributed to Lambert le Tort and Alexandre de Bernay, is a text of some 20,000 12-syllable lines of verse. As the first known poem to use the 12-syllable line, the Roman has given its name to that verse form—12-syllable lines are now known as alexandrines. The poem is a fanciful blend of myth and history. Alexander is presented as a king with a retinue of knights and vassals, as if he were Charlemagne, and he visits fantastic lands and enchanted castles, like an Arthurian knight.
   Other 12th-century Alexander poems include a Provençal version by Alberic de Pisonçon and the famous German ALEXANDERLIED. An Anglo-Norman Roman de toute chevalrie was apparently the source of the best-known English version of the legend, the early 14th-century King Alisaunder. King Alisaunder is an anonymous romance of 8,032 verses in octosyllabic (eight-syllable) couplets. Written in MIDDLE ENGLISH in the dialect of London and apparently intended for oral delivery, the poem narrates Alisaunder’s mythologized history from his magical conception to his death. In this version, Alexander is not the son of Philip but rather of the Egyptian king Nectanabus, who through magic is able to deceive Philip’s wife into sleeping with him. (The scene recalls the legendary events surrounding the conception of King Arthur in the liaison between Uther Pendragon and Igraine, brought about through Merlin’s magic.) The first half of the poem relates Alisaunder’s youth, succession to the throne, conquest of Carthage, and his Persian war and defeat of Darius. The second half of the poem, focused on Alisaunder in the eastern lands, contains a number of fanciful geographical descriptions and relations of the wonders of those far-off lands. It also tells of Alisaunder’s visit with and seduction by Candace, queen of Meroe (historically Ethiopia), and ultimately of Alisaunder’s death by poison.
   Texts and fragments of other treatments of the Alexander legend survive in Middle English in both verse and prose from the 14th century on. One of these, called the Alexander Buik, is a Scottish version once thought to be the work of John BARBOUR. The popularity of Alexander as a romance hero was widespread throughout Europe in the later Middle Ages, and it is not surprising that he, like Arthur and Charlemagne, is consistently represented in late medieval art and literature as among the NINEWORTHIES of the world.
   ■ Aertsen,Henk, and Alasdair A.MacDonald. Companion to Middle English Romance. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1990.
   ■ Barbour, John. The Buik of Alexander, or, The Buik of the most noble and valiant conquerour Alexander the Grit. Edited with introductions, and notes by R. L. Graeme Ritchie. Scottish Text Society New Series 17, 12, 21, 25. 4 vols. Edinburgh: Printed for the Scottish Text Society by W. Blackwood and Sons, 1921–1929.
   ■ Kyng Alisaunder. Edited by G. V. Smithers. Early English Text Society 227, 237. 2 vols. London: Published for the Early English Text Society by Oxford University Press, 1952–1957.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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