New exhibition to explore mythology of Alexander the Great

British Library showcases two millennia of storytelling inspired by the ancient Macedonian conqueror

Who was Alexander the Great? And how did this Macedonian general, who died aged just 32, come to conquer an enormous swathe of territory stretching from Greece to modern day Egypt, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and even northern India?

The first question we can answer, based on a range of historical sources. The second, however, has intrigued the cultures Alexander invaded – and far beyond – since his own lifetime 23 centuries ago, his remarkable achievements giving rise to mythology ever since.

Now a new exhibition at the British Library explores the diverse and remarkably enduring legends that have sprung up about Alexander, and the ways successive cultures have shaped stories of him to their own ends.

Those seeking the real man will not find much of him here. There is a small Babylonian tablet, written during his lifetime in 331BC, recording his victory over King Darius of Persia, and a coin showing his defeat of the Indian ruler Porus in 326BC that may have been issued by him, or by a successor.

“But this exhibition isn’t about trying to find the historical Alexander,” said Adrian Edwards, the head of printed collections at the British Library. “That’s not what we are trying to do here.”

Nor could they, he argues, as a repository largely of the printed word. “That is something you would need to do in a place that has access to archaeological fragments, perhaps even at an archaeological site itself.”

In the library, on the other hand, “we have the afterlife, we have the storytelling, and that’s what we can showcase. We don’t think anyone, anywhere has done that before.”

In its own terms, the diversity and wealth of material the library can showcase is striking, capturing some of the dazzling range of stories told about one man over two millennia. There is a small fragment of papyrus, dating from the second or third century AD, on which a child has sketched an imagined speech that Alexander might have given after defeating Darius. A 750-year-old illustrated manuscript of the Greek medieval bestseller the Alexander Romance depicts the general being welcomed by the citizens of Rome; a French manuscript from the 16th century tells a legend of him being shipwrecked in Britain.

We see Alexander appropriated as a Christian ruler on an Ethiopian magical scroll, as a Persian philosopher king in a 12th-century collection of poems from Herat in Afghanistan, and visiting the Ka’ha at Mecca – now the most sacred site in Islam – in an Iranian Book of Kings dating to the 16th century.

Macedonian general Alexander
Macedonian general Alexander died at just 32, having conquered a vast swathe of territory. Photograph: Museum of Classical Archaelogy

He was upheld as the model for the young (future) Henry VIII, whose teacher modestly compared himself to Alexander’s tutor Aristotle in a pamphlet given to his student. The eldest son of King James I, Prince Henry Frederick, was given the optimistic nickname of “the second Alexander”, though he would die at 18 – his childhood armour, covered in illustrations of the Macedonian general, is also featured in the exhibition.

And Alexander is still popping up many centuries later – including in a Superman comic dating from 1983 in which a megalomaniac villain called Planeteer kidnaps eight heads of state including Margaret Thatcher, in an attempt to cast himself as Alexander’s reincarnation.

The ongoing contemporary resonance of Alexander is one reason why the exhibition felt timely, said Edwards. “The stories tell us he was trying to bring together a multicultural empire, to merge a Persian and Greek culture – we know that led to discontent among his soldiers on both sides.” Recently, too, the ruler has been celebrated as an LGBTQ character from history, said Edwards – his relationships with men as well as women having been discussed even in his lifetime.

What is most striking, perhaps, is the continuity of the storytelling. One of the most arresting parts of the exhibition – which Peter Toth, the curator of western ancient and medieval manuscripts, admits is his favourite – is a display in which a 16th-century manuscript from Iran showing Alexander conquering China is displayed alongside an Indian poem about his defeat of the Russians.

Between them sits a DC comic from 1979 – “the peak, peak of the cold war” – showing a battle between Alexander’s Macedonian army and the Chinese. In all three, the imagery of muscular men on horseback riding into battle is remarkably similar. “This was so striking, it was killing me,” said Toth. “I could not resist showing the two very contrasting items next to each other to tell the same story. They’re in a completely different medium, but it’s still very relevant.”


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
British Library explores changing attitudes to gay love in exhibition
Show includes original marks 50th anniversary of decriminalisation of homosexuality

Nadia Khomami

01, Jun, 2017 @2:58 PM

Article image
Rare Leonardo da Vinci notebook to go on show at British Library
Bill Gates to lend notebook for 2019 show marking 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

04, Dec, 2018 @3:18 PM

Article image
Magna Carta exhibition is an 800-year-old lesson in people power
British Library showcase highlights value of enduringly popular document still relevant to everything from control orders to European integration

Jonathan Jones

12, Mar, 2015 @7:06 PM

Article image
Living by the pen: British Library explores history of writing
Angry telegram by playwright John Osborne and 2,000-year-old homework among exhibits

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

24, Apr, 2019 @12:23 PM

Article image
Behemoth Bible returns to England for first time in 1,300 years
The 34kg Codex Amiatinus forms centrepiece of British Library’s Anglo-Saxon show

Esther Addley

18, Oct, 2018 @4:54 PM

Article image
Mole and Rat meet the horned god Pan in British Library summer exhibition
Wind in the Willows – and forgotten chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – in Cultural Olympiad exploration of landscape

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

28, Feb, 2012 @2:57 PM

Article image
State propaganda exhibition puts Morph and Hitler under scrutiny
More than 200 posters, films, interviews and other ephemera part of look at gentle – and not so gentle – methods of persuasion

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

16, May, 2013 @1:50 PM

Article image
British Library explores 20th century maps in new exhibition
A Soviet plan for Brighton, Tolkien’s Middle-earth and a Guardian spoof at Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

03, Nov, 2016 @7:22 PM

Article image
Oldest complete Latin ​​Bible set to return to UK after 1,302 years
British Library secures loan of giant Codex Amiatinus Bible from Laurentian library in Florence for exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

30, Nov, 2017 @4:59 PM

Article image
British Library stages UK's biggest comics exhibition

Superheroes feature but show focuses on the importance of British talent to what some perceive as a very American genre

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

01, May, 2014 @5:32 PM