That Magnificent Man in His Flying Machine: Richard Stoneman Investigates the Strange but Widely Held Belief in the Middle Ages, That Alexander the Great Had Conquered More Than the Land, Taking to the Air and Travelled to the Ocean Depths

By Stoneman, Richard | History Today, April 2008 | Go to article overview

That Magnificent Man in His Flying Machine: Richard Stoneman Investigates the Strange but Widely Held Belief in the Middle Ages, That Alexander the Great Had Conquered More Than the Land, Taking to the Air and Travelled to the Ocean Depths


Stoneman, Richard, History Today


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Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is one of the most famous names of antiquity In just twelve years he created by conquest the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Macedon in the west to the River Indus in the east, and to Egypt and Babylon in the south. But his conquest is not only spatial but temporal, since he conquered the imaginations of the peoples of this entire region for centuries to come. His story was rewritten countless times in all the languages of medieval Europe and of the Islamic east. He appears in the Koran and in the illustrated history, bibles of medieval Germany and Holland. He is a hero of Persian epic and the Latin account of his adventures was translated into every language of medieval Europe, sometimes several times. What gave him such a hold on the medieval imagination?

To begin with, the legends of Alexander were a prime source for geographical information in the Middle Ages. One of the best-known texts, from the tenth century onwards, was the fictional Latin 'Letter of Alexander to Aristotle about India'. The Greek original, probably composed not long after Alexander's death, is lost, but a Latin translation was made in the seventh century. Seventy-two copies survive, from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, and this was among the first works ever translated into English: it forms part of the priceless codex in the British Library that also contains Beowulf. The Middle Ages knew what they knew of India and the Middle East from this fictional Alexander's account of its monstrous beasts and strange races of humans, 'men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders' (as Shakespeare's Othello described them), strap-legged men, giants who grow as plants, dog-men, manticores with three rows of teeth, giant crabs, three-eyed lions and the fearful Odontotyrannus or 'Tooth-tyrant'.

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It appeared natural that a hero who was an authority on the distant regions of the earth should also be an informant on its oceans and the sky above. And that is what we find in one of the many rewritings of the Greek Alexander Romance, a fictional biography of the hero which goes back to the century after his death but was rewritten throughout antiquity. (Most of its versions incorporate the Letter to Aristotle, which started out as a separate text). In about the eighth century a Greek copyist further expanded the text of the Romance by inserting a long section describing Alexander's invention of a diving bell and a flying machine. Both became iconic images of Alexander in the Middle Ages: yet aside from their obvious fascination as adventures, it is difficult to fathom why they became so embedded in religious art and architecture.

How did the Alexander legend arrive in Europe in the Middle Ages? That eighth-century recension of the Greek Romance exists in a single manuscript now in the university library in Leiden. But the dissemination of the Alexander legend in the west came rather through a Latin translation made by the tenth-century Leo the Archpriest, who had been on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople for the Duke of Naples, and brought back a manuscript of the Greek Romance. A manuscript of Leo's Latin translation ended up in the cathedral library at Bamberg, founded by the Emperor Henry II in 1007: presumably he had brought it back from his campaigns in southern Italy along with many others. (There is a second, partial, copy in Lambeth Palace library). Leo's translation became popular through successive adaptations made in the following two-and-a-half centuries: these are known as the Historia de Proeliis or 'History of [Alexander's] Battles' after the beading in one of the manuscripts. The first version of the Historia de Proeliis became extremely well-known and was translated into every vernacular language of Europe between about 1100 and 1400. No other work was more frequently translated in the Middle Ages.

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