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date: 28 November 2022

Alexander Romancefree

Alexander Romancefree

  • Richard Stoneman


The Alexander Romance is a fictionalized life of Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great, 356–323 bce), originating in the 3rd century BC, though the earliest evidence for its circulation in textual form is from the 3rd century ce. Originally written in Greek (in which there are five recensions), it was translated into Latin in the 4th century ce, and from the 5th century, into every language of Europe and the Middle East. It narrates Alexander’s birth to Olympias, as son of the last Pharaoh, Nectanebo II, of Egypt; his upbringing; his campaigns (in a strange order); his encounter with Queen Candace of Meroe; and particularly his adventures in India and beyond, including his encounter with the naked philosophers of Taxila; his death, and his will. Later versions (recensions L, gamma) include a meeting with the Amazons and his invention of a diving bell and a flying machine.


  • Greek Literature


The Greek Alexander Romance, a fictionalized life of Alexander the Great, originated in the 3rd century bce, in Alexandria. Its origin can probably be linked to the efforts of Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II to anchor the authority of their regime firmly in the legacy of Alexander. However, the first definite evidence for the circulation of the Greek text in antiquity comes from the Latin translation made by Julius Valerius, who is generally identified with the consul of that name of 338 ce. This window of six hundred years is an unusually wide one for the dating of an ancient text. The attribution by the monk Nectarius in MS B (Parisinus gr. 1685) to Alexander’s court historian Callisthenes must be discounted, since the Romance includes an account of Alexander’s last days and death (June 323 bce) and burial in Memphis, whereas Callisthenes had died in 327 bce.

Many elements of the content of the Romance betray an origin in Egypt, probably Alexandria of the 3rd century bce. The story of Nectanebo, with which the Romance opens, is a version of the Egyptian Königsnovelle, and there may even have been a version in demotic, perhaps linked to the Dream of Nectanebo.1 The Egyptian god Sarapis and legendary Pharaoh Sesonchosis are both prominent in the action. The detailed description of the foundation and layout of Alexandria, in I. 31–33, indicates familiarity of the author with the new city, though some details have been recast at a later period, since distances are given in Roman miles. The interest in Meroe seems Ptolemaic. Parts of the narrative are in choliambic verses, a form of verse popular in Cynic circles in the 3rd century bce. Further arguments for a 3rd century bce date are provided in volume I of Richard Stoneman and Tristano Gargiulo’s commentary and in Stoneman’s 2009 book.2 But other scholars (Jouanno, Nawotka) prefer to regard the Romance as a late antique work, originating in the 3rd century ce on the basis of earlier disparate compositions. This view is supported by aspects of the language of the alpha-recension, which has similarities to the gospels and to hagiographic texts, and by other evidence of interest in Alexander in 3rd century Rome (Dio Cass. 77.9.1). It is also possible that there was a 3rd-century “re-edition” of the putative Hellenistic original.

There is no doubt that the Romance is in some sense a patchwork, as was indicated by Merkelbach in his analysis of the sources, which include, besides the elements mentioned above, an exchange of letters with Darius (independently preserved, in somewhat different form, on papyrus: PSI 1285); the debate in Athens; the letters about marvels, including the “Letter to Aristotle about India,” which survives in full only in Latin (two versions) though the fragmentary version in A shows that there was a Greek original; the narrative about Alexander’s encounter with the naked philosophers of India; the account of the Last Days and Will of Alexander, which again survives as a separate Latin text (Liber de Morte Alexandri Testamentique eius, preserved in a single MS in Metz and hence known as the Metz Epitome: this was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in World War II, but not before it had been copied and published).3 The process of welding these various elements together produces a text whose character varies widely from one episode to the next.


Whether the Romance is a Hellenistic work or a late antique one, it became a “best-seller” after the third century ce. It was copied many times, and with every version the copyist made additions to the text before him. Nonetheless, all the recensions follow a similar narrative structure (except for epsilon, which is a rewriting). The following summary is based on A.

Book I. Alexander is the son, not of Philip II of Macedon, but of the exiled Pharaoh Nectanebo, who arrives in Pella and contrives to have intercourse with Philip’s wife, Olympias, by appearing to her in disguise as the Egyptian god Ammon (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Nectanebo by magic predicts the fall of Egypt to the Persians. From the Armenian version.

Digital image courtesy of MS John Rylands Library, Manchester.

Nectanebo controls the moment of Alexander’s birth with complicated astrological calculations and manoeuvres. Alexander is educated by Aristotle and tames Bucephalus (sic in the Romance, though the correct form is Bucephalas). At the age of twelve, Alexander asks Nectanebo to give him an astronomy lesson; the magician takes him to a hill outside the city whereupon Alexander pushes him over a cliff. As he dies, Nectanebo reveals that he is the boy’s father. At fifteen, Alexander attends the Olympic Games and defeats his opponents in the chariot race. On his return, he finds Philip taking a new wife, Cleopatra, but Alexander succeeds in restoring relations between Philip and Olympias.

A neighbouring king, Pausanias, makes an attempt to carry off Olympias and then murders Philip. Alexander, on succeeding to the throne, assembles an army to continue Philip’s planned campaign against the Persian Empire. This is followed (thought not in A) by campaigns against Sparta, Athens, and Thebes; the action then moves to Egypt (via Rome in later recensions), where Alexander founds the city of Alexandria and establishes the cult of Sarapis. The siege of Tyre follows; the hero begins an exchange of boasting letters with Darius and then moves back to Asia Minor. A battle, which seems to be that at Issus, is followed by campaigns in Troy, northern Greece, and Thebes (again). A long set piece contains the appeal, in verse, by the local musician Ismenias for clemency for his city. This passage is much abridged in later versions.

Book II begins with a debate in Athens about how to react to Alexander’s incursions; this is absent from all versions subsequent to alpha. Next Alexander is found in Cilicia, where he is cured of illness by the doctor Philip. He exchanges more letters with Darius, and makes a visit in disguise to the Persian court, from which he escapes by crossing the frozen River Stranga, which melts as soon as he has crossed it. Second and third battles with Darius (both based on Gaugamela) are followed by the murder of Darius by two of his own commanders. The dying king bids Alexander marry his daughter, Roxane, which he does. Book II ends here in A, but the beta recension continues with a letter from Alexander to his mother describing his adventures and his travels into the land of darkness (II. 32–41; but there are no chapters 24–31 in this recension). Chapters 39–41 are extended in Lambda by Alexander’s construction of a diving bell and a flying machine, and his search for the Water of Life. Chapters 42–44 occur in Gamma only: chapters 42–43 repeat the events of chapters 24–41, with some additional episodes, and chapter 44 describes an encounter with pygmies.

Book III begins with the campaign against the Indian king Porus, whom Alexander defeats in single combat. He then encounters the Naked Philosophers of Taxila and interviews them about their customs. A inserts at this point the whole of Palladius’ monograph, “On the Life of the Brahmans” (III.7–16)4 and then the “Letter to Aristotle about India” (III. 17) in abridged and mangled form. In A, the lacunose text focuses on strange beasts and the “Night of Terrors” and culminates in a visit to the oracular trees of the sun and moon, which predict Alexander’s early death.

Book III continues with Alexander’s visit to Queen Candace of Meroe (Ethiopia), which seems to be conceived as an extension of India. He goes to her in disguise but is recognised because she has had his portrait painted. After some tense moments, they part as friends. Candace’s son takes Alexander to visit the Cave of the Gods, where he sees the dead Pharaoh Sesonchosis and the god Sarapis, who again warns him of his early death. The gamma recension here inserts the episode of the enclosure of the Unclean Nations (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Alexander encloses the unclean nations behind the “Breasts of the North.” From the MS D of the gamma recension.

Digital image courtesy of Venice Hellenic Institute.

Alexander exchanges letters with the Amazons, who offer him their submission. A letter to his mother repeats some adventures and narrates his visits to the City of the Sun, the Harbour of Lyssos, and the Palace of Cyrus. On arrival at Babylon, a monstrous birth is interpreted by the Chaldaeans as an omen foretelling his death. He is taken ill at dinner (Figure 3) after swallowing poison sent by Antipater, the regent of Macedon.

Figure 3. Alexander is taken ill at dinner. From the MS D of the gamma recension.

Digital image courtesy of Venice Hellenic Institute.

He tries to drown himself but is prevented by Roxane. He writes his will, outlining the disposition of his empire after his death. He dies, and his body is taken to Memphis, and then to Alexandria, for burial: so “the city he founded becomes his tomb,” as Sarapis had foretold in Book I.

The Recensions

The alpha recension, which was the basis of the Latin translation by Julius Valerius, survives in a single MS, A (Parisinus gr. 1711), dating from 1013–1124. The scribe was working from a poor exemplar from which he copied at times meaningless strings of letters. All subsequent copyists of the Greek Romance, as well as Julius Valerius in Latin, seem to have been working from this text, or something like it: many of their alterations can only be seen as attempts to restore sense to something that made no sense in A.

The alpha version of the Romance (something close to A, but lacking the long astrological section in Book I) was translated into Latin by Julius Valerius (cos. 338 ce): the MSS give it the title “Deeds of Alexander translated from Aesop the Greek.” It belongs to a time when Alexander was becoming a symbol of the late antique “pagan revival.” It is possible that Julius Valerius was also the author of the Itinerarium Alexandri, a broadly historical work addressed to Constantius on the eve of his departure for an eastern campaign, and thus datable to about 340–345 ce.5

Alpha was succeeded by four other Greek recensions:

The beta-recension (c. 300–550 ce) wrestles with the text of A, and the composer frequently rewrites or rephrases his model, as well as adding new material. The end of Book I and the first six chapters of Book II (the debate in Athens) are missing from Beta, but Beta has the end of Book II, which is not in A.

The lambda recension is a variant of Beta preserved in five MSS, with considerable additions to the adventures in Book III. The MS L (Leiden Vulcanius 93, 15th century Sicily) is a unique variant of Beta. It is the only version that includes the stories of the diving bell and the flying machine, which became extremely popular in the Middle Ages and influenced the development of the Persian versions of the Alexander legend.

The epsilon recension is an abridged rewriting of the story, probably made in the 8th century, since it incorporates the episode of Alexander’s enclosure of the Unclean Nations. This episode has its origin in the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, first written in Syriac in about 692 ce and quickly translated into Greek. Epsilon adds a campaign to conquer Rome (ch. 13) and a visit to Jerusalem (ch. 20), where Alexander is converted to Judaism and subsequently preaches it in Alexandria.

The gamma recension is the longest of the Greek recensions, and the three MSS vary considerably from one another. It follows the basic structure of A and Beta but incorporates the new material from Epsilon; as a result, the sequence of the narrative becomes quite confusing, and some episodes that are told in the first person in the earlier recensions are in the 3rd person in Gamma. Elements of Jewish and Christian origin (taken from Epsilon) are prominent, though the pagan gods remain central to the plot. There is some absurd over-writing, for example when Bucephalus identifies Alexander’s murderer, and tears him to pieces: “bits of him flew all over everyone like snow falling off a roof in the wind.” MS D (Venice Hellenic Institute gr. 5) is a beautifully illustrated version whose pictorial tradition probably goes back to late antiquity. It also has a number of annotations in Ottoman Turkish.

The gamma recension was the first to be edited, by Carolus Müller in 1846, and this edition established the book and chapter numbering that subsequent editors have perforce followed. This results in some, at first sight, puzzling jumps from one chapter number to another in the editions of the other recensions. (Thus II.1–6 are missing in Beta, III.29 in all other recensions).

In addition, a lost recension delta* has been postulated to account for aspects of the 10th century Latin translation, by Leo the Archpriest of Naples, as well as of the Syriac translation made probably in the 7th century ce. In the latter, Alexander makes a visit to the Emperor of China, an episode that becomes a standard feature of the Persian versions. Other episodes found only in the Syriac include Aristotle’s advice about the building of Alexandria and the discussion between Nectanebo and Olympias about Philip’s disaffection from his wife (I. 14). The commissioning of a painting of Alexander by the ambassadors from Darius is properly motivated only in this version, where it is shown to Darius’ daughter. The metaphor of the golden eggs (I. 23) and the jokes about the mustard seeds (I. 36 and 39) appear first in this version. There is a large lacuna at II. 6-14, presumably the result of a defective Greek original.

Furthermore, the alpha recension was translated into Armenian in the 5th century ce, possibly by the great historian Movses of Khoren: this latter version is helpful for reconstructing lost portions of the Greek. It was translated back into Greek by Richard Raabe, and this version was used by Kroll in his edition of A, but it is now more convenient to use the reliable English translation by Albert Mugrdich Wolohojian.

The Latin version of Leo was the basis of the immensely popular medieval Latin version known as the Historia de Proeliis, of which there are in turn three recensions, from the 12th and 13th centuries; one or other of these was in turn translated into Hebrew and into every language of medieval Europe (Stoneman 2008, appendix I). The Syriac version was the basis of the Persian accounts of Alexander in Tarsusi, Ferdowsi, and Nizami, and of the Arabic tradition that begins with the Qur’an sura 18 (based mainly on a separate “Syriac legend”) and went through many ramifications up to the 13th century.6


The Alexander Romance is important not just as a vigorous piece of fictional writing from antiquity. Because of its successful penetration of every culture of medieval Europe and the Islamic world, it became the standard account of the career of the conqueror until the redeployment of the histories of Arrian and Curtiusin the 15th century. In such texts as “Alexander the Great’s Journey to Paradise” (12th century ce), and also in the later Byzantine versions of the story, in prose and verse, up to the 17th century ce Phyllada tou Megalexantrou, Alexander became an explicitly Christian hero. His search for the Water of Life becomes a longing for immortality, which is baulked: Alexander remains an Everyman who can never become Christ. The Romance also became a primary source for geography: the Hereford Mappa Mundi, for example, a symbolic representation of the world with Jerusalem at its centre, contains some sixty-nine topographical indications that are connected by their captions with Alexander. Nine of them are direct references.7 Alexander’s centrality as a Christian hero in this map and these texts, as well as in such works as the French Roman d’Alexandre, is matched by his emergence as a prophet of God in the Qur’an and in the Arabic romances concerning him. In the Persian tradition, he is not only a prophet of Islam but also a legitimate king of Persia, because the Persian versions have a different version of his birth that makes him a half-brother of Darius. Every nation with which Alexander came into contact has proudly adopted him as its own, and the Alexander of legend has had an afterlife far beyond the already great impact of his historical career.

Primary Texts

  • Bergson, Leif, e. Der griechische Alexanderroman Rezension Beta. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1965. The beta recension is represented by a number of MSS.
  • Callu, Jean-Pierre. Julius Valère: Roman d’Alexandre, Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. There is also an edition with French translation and notes.
  • Kroll, Wilhelm, ed. Historia Alexandri Magni. Berlin: Weidmann, 1926. MS A, the sole witness for the alpha recension, is Parisinus 1711.
  • van Thiel, Helmut, ed. Die Rezension Lambda des Pseudo-Kallisthenes. Bonn: Rudolf Habelt, 1959. A variant of beta is the lambda recension (five MSS).
  • van Thiel, Helmut, ed. Leben und Taten Alexanders von Makedonien: Der griechische Alexanderroman nach der Handschrift L. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1983. The MS L, the most extensive representative of the lambda recension,
  • Trumpf, Jürgen, ed. Vita Alexandri Regis Macedonum. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1974. The epsilon recension (MS Bodl. Barocc. 17, 13th century: “Q”).

The gamma recension, represented by three MSS, is edited synoptically in three volumes by the following:

  • Lauenstein, Ursula (book I). Meisenheim am Glan: Anton Hain, 1962.
  • Helmut Engelmann (book II): Meisenheim am Glan: Anton Hain, 1963.
  • Franz Parthe (book III): Meisenheim am Glan: Anton Hain, 1969.
  • Müller, Carolus. Scriptores rerum Alexandri Magni, 1846. MS C (Parisinus, suppl. 113, 1567) was used as the basis of this edition.
  • Pfister, Friedrich, ed. Der Alexanderroman des Archipresbyters Leo, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1913. Leo’s Latin version.
  • Simonyan, H., ed. Patmowt’iyn Ałek’sandri Mahedonac’woy. Haykakan xmbagrowt’iwner, Erevan, 1989. Translated into English by Albert Mugrdich Wolohojian, The Romance of Alexander the Great by Pseudo-Callisthenes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. The Armenian translation.
  • Trahoulias, Nicolette S., ed. MS D Athens: Exantas, 1997. There is a facsimile edition of the beautifully illustrated MS D (Venice: Hellenic Institute gr. 5, 14th century).
  • Valerius, Julius, Res Gestae Alexandri Macedonis, is edited by M. Rosellini, Munich: K. G. Saur, 2004. The Latin translation.
  • Wallis Budge, Ernest A., ed. The History of Alexander the Great: Being the Syriac Version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes: Edited from Five Manuscripts, with an English Translation and Notes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 1889. The Syriac translation.

Portions of the Greek text are edited in the following works:

  • Braccini, Tommaso Leipzig: De Gruyter, 2004.
  • Gunderson, Lloyd L. Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle about India, Meisenheim: Hain, 1980.

Stoneman, Richard, and Gargiulo, Tristano, eds. A comprehensive edition of A, beta, gamma and Julius Valerius has been prepared by Richard Stoneman and Tristano Gargiulo, Il Romanzo di Alessandro, and is appearing, with Italian translation and commentary, with Mondadori, Fondazione Lorenzo Valla. Volume I (book I) was published in 2007, volume II (book II) in 2012; volume III (book III with papyri and Palladius, de Bragmanibus) remains forthcoming.

  • Haight, Elizabeth H., trans. The Life of Alexander of Macedon. New York: Longmans Green, 1955 (A version); Stoneman, Richard. The Greek Alexander Romance. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991 (L version with supplements); and Dowden, Ken. “Pseudo-Callisthenes: Alexander Romance.” In Bryan P. Reardon (ed.), Collected Ancient Greek Novels. University of California Press, 1989 (L version).


  • Cary, George. The Medieval Alexander. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1954.
  • David John Athole Ross. Alexander Historiatus: A Guide to Medieval Illustrated Alexander Literature. London: Warburg Institute, 1963.
  • Doufikar-Aerts, Faustina. Alexander Magnus Arabicus. Paris: Peeters, 2010.
  • Jouanno, Corinne. Naisance et metamorphoses du roman d’Alexandre: Domaine grec. Paris: CNRS, 2002.
  • Merkelbach, Reinhold. Die Quellen des griechischen Alexanderromans: zweiter neubearbeitete Auflage unter Mitwirkung von Jürgen Trumpf. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1977.
  • Nawotka, Krzysztof. Pseudo-Callisthenes: A Commentary. Boston: Brill, 2017.
  • Nöldeke, Theodor. Beiträge zur Geschichte des Alexanderromans. Vienna: Tempsky, 1890.
  • Pfister, Friedrich. Kleine Schriften zum Alexanderroman. Meisenheim: Anton Hain, 1976.
  • Stoneman, Richard. Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend. London: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Stoneman, Richard. “The Author of the Alexander Romance.” In Readers and Writers in the Ancient Novel. Edited by Michael Paschalis, Stelios Panayotakis, and Gareth Schmeling, 142–154. Groningen, The Netherlands: Barkhuis, 2009.
  • Stoneman, Richard. “Primary Sources from the Classical and Early Medieval Periods.” In A Companion to Alexander Literature, in the Middle AgesI. Edited by Zachary David Zuwiyya, 1–20. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.
  • Stoneman, Richard, and Nawotka, Krzysztof, eds., The Alexander Romance: History and Literature. Groningen, The Netherlands: Barkhuis, AN Supplements, forthcoming.


  • 1. Kim Ryholt, “Nectanebo’s Dream or the Prophecy of Petesis,” in Apokalyptik und Ägypten, eds. A. Blasius and B. Schipper (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002), 230.

  • 2. Richard Stoneman and Tristano Gargiulo, eds., Il Romanzo di Alessandro, Vol. 1. (Milan: Fondazione Lorenzo Valla, Mondadori, 2007); and Richard Stoneman, “The Author of the Alexander Romance,” in M. Paschalis, S. Panayotakis, and G. Schmeling, eds., Readers and Writers in the Ancient Novel (Groningen, The Netherlands: Barkhuis, 2009), 142–154.

  • 3. P. H. Thomas, ed. Epitoma rerum gestarum Alexandri magni et liber de morte testamentique eius, 2d ed. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1966).

  • 4. W. Berghoff, ed., Palladius de gentibus Indiae et Bragmanibus (Meisenheim am Glan, Germany: Anton Hain 1987); and by John Duncan Martin Derrett, “The History of Palladius on the Races of India and the Brahmans, Classica et Medievalia 21 (1960), 77–135.

  • 5. Berghoff, Palladius de gentibus Indiae; and Derrett, “The History of Palladius,” 77–135.

  • 6. Faustina Doufikar-Aerts, Alexander Magnus Arabicus (Paris and Leuven: Peeters, 2010).

  • 7. Raffaella Tabacco, ed., Itinerarium Alexandri (Florence: Olschki, 2000); and Naomi Reed Kline, Maps of Medieval Thought (Rochester, NY: Boydell, 2001), 175.