In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alexander the Great

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Medieval Studies Alexander the Great
Charles Russell Stone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0291


Alexander the Great inspired a body of literature that grew throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages by accumulating various episodes and local contributions across a host of languages, cultures, and appropriations. This extraordinary transmission of texts resulted in an ever evolving and often contradictory figure. In some accounts, Alexander’s ambition was a defining characteristic, in others benevolence; some writers idealized while others condemned Alexander; and in texts classified as histories from a modern perspective Alexander built an empire as the son of Philip of Macedon, while in texts classified as romance or legend Alexander was the illegitimate son of an Egyptian sorcerer and traveled to exotic lands populated by the creative lens of storytelling. Medieval writers engaged with a core set of plotlines inherited from their predecessors in Antiquity. These provided the narrative framework of Alexander’s childhood in Macedon, expansion of an empire stretching to India, and death in Babylon. However, countless adaptations and interpolations ensured the vibrancy of this narrative and created a version of Alexander dependent on availability of texts and authorial agenda. For example, writers and scribes in southern Italy had access to episodes that emphasized the limitations of Alexander’s ambition—how the intrepid explorer constructed a flying machine that the gods turned back to land and received prophecies of mortality in the far reaches of an earthly paradise. Under the influence of such accounts, they emphasized the temporality of Alexander’s career in allegorical terms that were, at least until these accounts traveled westward, quite different from the idealized warrior portrayed in French romances. The textual corpus that accounted for Alexander’s reception thus comprised a vast network founded on Greek and Latin but shaped by the vernacular. Navigating this network is a formidable task, and this article is written with a guiding principle in mind: to assist readers in finding their starting points for engaging with the medieval Alexander. It includes texts that were largely or exclusively devoted to Alexander’s exploits, and it identifies scholarly works intended for readers in the early stages of their navigation; more specialized research can be found in the scholarship cited. Finally, it organizes the medieval reception of Alexander the Great into two broad categories: Greek and Latin texts (both foundational accounts of Late Antiquity and medieval Latin literature) and the vernacular texts based on them.

General Overviews

Cary 1956 is still a highly recommended introduction, especially for its cataloguing of the Latin texts that served as the foundational texts for medieval Alexander romance. Stoneman 1999 also offers a survey of the surviving texts, albeit in a chapter-length format. For essays on individual Latin texts and their influence within western Europe, see Ross 1985 and Gaullier-Bougassas 2011. Ross 1988 can be read as a companion volume to Cary 1956, in that it catalogs illuminated manuscripts featuring Alexander. Zuwiyya 2011 and Stock 2016 offer very welcome introductions to non-French and non-English Alexander texts and serve as excellent examples of the growing interest in a more widespread view of the influence of Latin and Greek narratives.

  • Cary, George. The Medieval Alexander. Edited by D. J. A. Ross. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

    Still the seminal study of Alexander’s medieval reception. Although this study is supplemented by modern edited collections (e.g., Zuwiyya 2011), Cary offers an accessible and exhaustive introduction to a complicated topic. Best read for its organization of texts and themes (some references to critical editions are outdated).

  • Gaullier-Bougassas, Catherine, ed. L’historiographie médiévale d’Alexandre le Grand. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011.

    An edited collection that addresses one of the central questions of Alexander’s medieval reception—the appropriation and adaptation of the corpus of texts discussed in Latin Alexander Texts. Focused on western European texts and traditions.

  • Ross, D. J. A. Studies in the Alexander Romance. London: Pindar Press, 1985.

    The collected papers of an eminent scholar of Alexander’s reception, especially in England and France.

  • Ross, D. J. A. Alexander Historiatus: A Guide to Medieval Illustrated Alexander Literature. Frankfurt, Germany: Athenäum, 1988.

    Still the most useful introduction to Alexander’s depiction in illuminated manuscripts and early printed books, but also valuable as an introduction to the texts themselves. Originally published in 1963.

  • Stock, Markus, ed. Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages: Transcultural Perspectives. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

    Like Zuwiyya 2011, an edited collection that considers Alexander’s reception beyond western Europe. Organized by the themes of the transcultural transmission of the medieval Alexander legend (rather than, strictly speaking, surveys of literature organized by language and/or national identity), as well as the ambivalence of Alexander’s reception across a variety of genres (see the editor’s introductory chapter, “The Medieval Alexander: Transcultural Ambivalences”). Originally published in 1963.

  • Stoneman, Richard. “The Medieval Alexander.” In Latin Fiction: The Latin Novel in Context. Edited by Heinz Hofmann, 238–252. London: Routledge, 1999.

    A brief survey, beginning with the Latin texts that informed Alexander’s medieval reception.

  • Zuwiyya, Z. David, ed. A Companion to Alexander Literature in the Middle Ages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    Edited collection with dedicated chapters arranged by language, modern nation, theme, and/or author. Especially helpful as an introduction to receptions of Alexander both in and beyond western Europe. Readers are encouraged to consult this collection for surveys of surviving texts and Stock 2016 for critical readings of specific texts and themes within the legend. Includes a valuable list of printed editions and translations (organized by chapter) in the appendix.

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