Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Alexander the Great at the British Library

If you love books or are intrigued by the figure of Alexander the Great and his achievements, the exhibition at the British Library makes for compelling viewing.


Alexander and Dragon Contemporary Greek Puppets. Richard Stoneman private collection.

Sean Sheehan


What you see is a treasure trove of objects, mostly books, from 25 countries in 21 languages, which have been brought together under the theme of ‘The Making of a Myth’.

This is not an exhibition about Alexander, the man who built an empire that stretched from Greece to India and died at the age of 32, but a visual display of how his incredible achievements became the stuff of legend.

He was adopted by different cultures and interpreted in the light of their different traditions and needs. In Ethiopia, he becomes the ‘enemy of devils’,  endowed with magical abilities; in Persia (Iran) he is a philosopher king –based on the fact that Alexander was taught by Aristotle– and celebrated as such by the 12th-century poet Nizrami; other cultures mythologized him  in different ways.

On display for the first time in the UK is a beautiful and elaborate 14th-century manuscript from the Byzantine empire, with 250 coloured illustrations, of the “Alexander Romance”.

This was originally compiled in Greek, probably in Alexandria (one of the many cities he founded) around the end of the third century AD, and was preserved, translated and transmitted across Europe and Asia.

Largely based on speeches and letters which were falsely attributed to Alexander, it allowed myths and legends to accumulate around his life.

The first exhibit on show, however, is strictly based on the truth: the defeat of the mighty Persian empire and its King Darius at Gaugamela (now part of Iraqi Kurdistan) in 331 BC.

The event is recorded on a Babylonian tablet during Alexander’s lifetime, part of an astronomical diary recording celestial omens – in this case a lunar eclipse which is directly linked to the overthrow of Darius. One of the most lavish exhibits is a 16th-century manuscript depicting Alexander at the Ka’ba in Mecca surrounded by worshippers; quite different to a humble papyrus fragment from ancient Egypt of a child’s homework containing an imaginary speech by Alexander, which is also on display.

Homework of child to create speech for Alexander.

The precious books in the exhibition are a feast for the eyes and the exhibits are not all from centuries long gone.

Visitors can view a clip from a 2017 Indian television series, depicting the legendary conception of Alexander from snakes, and a 1999 Japanese television series based on a three-volume novel about him.

There is an accompanying book of the exhibition which is a treasure trove in its own right.

Its informative text and countless illustrations make it a book that will serve anyone not able to make it to the British Library as well as those who do but want a reminder of what they saw.

“Alexander the Great: The making of a myth” is at the British Library until 19 February 2023.

(Photos supplied and authorised for publication)

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