Alexander the Great Quest for Immortality

Alexander the Great fighting Darius III - mosaic from Pompeii Credit: Museo Archeologico Nazionale
Alexander the Great fighting Darius III – mosaic from Pompeii Credit: Museo Archeologico Nazionale

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is known as the conqueror of much of the ancient world. By the time of his early death at the age of 32, he had won territories from Egypt to India and made a lasting name for himself as a brilliant military commander and strategist. Accounts of his life and exploits are known from an early period, in various cultures and in a number of different languages.

Through the years, so many stories have been told and retold about Alexander the Great that he has become more like a character from Greek mythology than a real human being.

Medieval accounts of Alexander’s adventures and exploits included illustrations with fearsome beasts as seen in several European examples shown below.

Miniature of Alexander the Great in battle with dragons, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 49v. The British Library
Miniature of Alexander the Great in battle with dragons, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 49v. The British Library

 

Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great, in a cage, being carried aloft by griffins, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 76v. The British Library
Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great, in a cage, being carried aloft by griffins, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 76v.
The British Library

As a great general, Alexander was a fitting role model for young princes and kings, particularly during the troubled period of the Hundred Years War, when a ruler’s military prowess was so important.  The illustration above is from a French manuscript called The True History of the Good King Alexander. Whoever its original owner might have been, by the mid-sixteenth century it had indeed found a royal home: the added inscription ‘HR’ (Henricus Rex) at the beginning of the book indicates that the volume eventually found its way into the library of Henry VIII.

Another miniature of Alexander exploring the ocean in a glass barrel accompanied by a cat and a cock. His unfaithful wife tries to murder him by cutting the cord connecting him to the ship. Also from The True History of the Good King Alexander c. 1420
Another miniature from The True History of the Good King Alexander ca. 1420 shows Alexander  exploring the ocean in a glass barrel accompanied by a cat and a cock. His unfaithful wife tries to murder him by cutting the cord connecting him to the ship. It’s the cat that saves the day.

 

Imagery from Song of Alexander by Lamprecht von Pfaffen Photo credit: Lebrecht
Imagery from Song of Alexander by Lamprecht von Pfaffen Photo credit: Lebrecht

In a German epic poem entitled Song of Alexander by Lamprecht von Pfaffen there is another fabulous account of the life of Alexander the Great. This 12th century illustration shows Alexander doing battle with six-handed human-like creatures and pigs with terrible fangs.  The monsters look a lot like the beasts in Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are as seen below:

Drawing from Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (c) Harper & Row Publishers
Drawing from Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (c) Harper & Row Publishers

 

Another illustration from Song of Alexander showing Alexander doing battle with dragons and other fantastical beasts. Credit: Lebrecht
Another illustration from Song of Alexander showing Alexander doing battle with dragons and other fantastical beasts. Credit: Lebrecht

Alexander the Great is quoted as saying, “I would rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity.” That’s exactly what he got. 2,300 years later we remember him as a legendary, mythic figure. He fulfilled his quest for immortality.

 

 

 

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