Wars of Alexander (Alexander Fragment C)

General Information

(N)IMEV: *3947.3
Form: Irregular alliterative lines
Date of Composition: c. 1450
Place of Composition: Northumbria?
Keywords: Animal, Bedchamber, Conquest, Disguise, Dreams, Ekphrasis, Familial Discord, Jerusalem, Marriage, Military Combat, Monster, Other-world, Sexual Encounters, Siege, Supernatural, The Orient, Travel, Treachery

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

When King Nectanabus of Egypt learns by magic that his country will be invaded by the Persians he flees in disguise to Macedonia. While the king, Philip, is away at war Nectanabus seduces the queen, Olympias, through sorcery, fathering Alexander, whose birth is marked by portents. Tutored by Aristotle, Alexander is extraordinary – fearless as a lion, a brilliant scholar, skilled in the arts of war. He alone can ride the man-eating horse Bucephalus.

When he kills Nectanabus, in unwitting fulfillment of the prophecy that the Egyptian will die at the hands of his own son, Alexander seems to enter a new stage of life. Although still only a child, he asks Philip for an army. Returning victorious from his first campaign he discovers to his fury that Philip has put aside Olympias for a new wife. Their quarrel is ended by Philip’s capitulation. As heir, Alexander defends his kingdom against rebels, and refuses to pay tribute to the Persians. When Philip is killed Alexander ascends the throne and begins the extraordinary record of conquest in Europe, Africa and Asia that mark the rest of his life.

Knowing that he will die young, thanks to the prophecy of the god Serapis, Alexander founds Alexandria. Cities and countries fall to him within a few lines, but the narrative expands on the siege of Tyre, which reveals Alexander as a chivalric hero who weeps for his knights, almost single-handedly destroys his opponents and is generous to those who capitulate. The Jews yield Jerusalem to him, acknowledging that it is his god-given destiny to rule the entire world.

As he has long intended, Alexander turns eastward, seeking the destruction of Darius and his empire. The rivals exchange letters: Darius’s contemptuous, Alexander’s eloquent reflections on the human condition. Darius sends him a ball, and grains numberless as the Persian soldiers; Alexander returns sharp peppercorns. Although their meeting is interrupted by Alexander’s return to Macedonia to see the ailing Olympias, with a few martial episodes along the way, inevitably the Macedonians and Persians fight, to the latter’s disadvantage. Even Darius’s mother advises him to submit.

The long, drawn-out campaign against the Persians is not only full of the expected battlefield combats and sieges, but it also includes prophetic dreams, epistolary exchanges full of political philosophy, noble speeches and dramatic gestures. Alexander is invincible, even visiting Darius’s court in disguise. Trapped in a palace dripping with treasure, Darius grieves for what is to come. After yet another defeat, Darius, acknowledging the transitory nature of power, writes an abject letter to Alexander. Unwilling to resume the war, two of Darius’s knights attack him. When Alexander enters the city and finds the dying emperor, he weeps, holding him in his arms and returning to him all his possessions, so he can die a ruler once more. Darius kisses the hand of his conqueror, reflecting on the unstable nature of human existence.

Alexander, undaunted by the Persian’s example, ascends Darius’s throne, with its jeweled steps symbolizing the nature of kingship. He now calls himself the son of Ammon. He marries Roxanna, the daughter of Darius, writes home to his mother and Aristotle and, seemingly incapable of rest, turns his reluctant soldiers towards India and his next great foe, Porrus. After the requisite exchange of letters the two armies meet, where, thanks to Alexander’s bravery and clever stratagems, the Macedonians prevail and Porrus flees. Next, Alexander writes to the Amazons, demanding tribute, but they point out that he will get no glory from defeating women, and laughing, he makes peace with them.

Meanwhile Porrus has raised another army, and marching towards him Alexander and his men encounter long lists of horrible beasts, hostile landscapes and monstrous beings. Confident in his superior size, Porrus challenges Alexander to single combat, and is killed. The Indians are granted their goods and freedom and, driven by his quest for wisdom and marvels, Alexander begins a long and arduous journey across India.

Throughout his career his men are often terrified of the long list of legendary horrors they encounter, and long for home. At one point they accuse Alexander of feeding on conflict, like a man who would starve to death after a few days of peace, but Alexander, thanks to his absolute self-confidence, is always able to urge then on. In his encounter with the Gymnosophists, peaceful hermits, he defends his life of relentless striving, in an exchange of letters which contrast their life of innocent poverty with his of conquest and riches. Meeting more wonders of the east, Alexander’s army arrives at the bank of the Ganges, where he engages in yet another extended epistolary debate, this time with Dindimus, king of the Brahmins. Dindimus is relentless in his long denunciation of the way of life of Alexander and his kind, contrasting their greed and violence and worship of false gods to the Brahmins’ life of passive simplicity. Unconvinced, Alexander declares that they live no better than beasts and moves on.

Remarkable sights follow in rapid succession as they journey eastwards to the palace of the sun, where Alexander learns, from the sacred trees of the sun and moon, that he will never return to Macedonia but will die in less than two years, poisoned by treachery. Grieving, he hides the truth from his men, and marches on to his next significant encounter, with Queen Candace and her three sons. In disguise Alexander helps rescue the queen’s daughter-in-law, but Candace recognizes him from a portrait she has had made of him. He has longed to meet her, thinking her fresh and fair, like his mother, but she proves too clever for him. Alexander at first is enraged at being bested by the witty and wise queen, but in the end they part in amity.

Finally reaching the Red Sea, after more battles, tribute, prophecies, hardships and monsters, he hitches four griffins to an iron chair, flying so high he can look down on the world like a god. He then descends into the sea in a glass box to see indescribable spectacles.

Traversing the desert sands of Arabia, once again losing men to strange and horrible foes before leading them to victory, he comes to a plain where he suffers his greatest loss so far: the death of Bucephalus. He builds a tomb and a city for his heroic steed. He conquers Babylon, and writes a letter to his mother and Aristotle, telling of his adventures. Aristotle praises him in his reply, saying he is like a god. His pupil builds a throne in Babylon, richer and greater than any in the world, inscribed with a seemingly endless list of places he has conquered, and here the fragment ends.


Click a title below to search for all romances in that manuscript.

Dublin, Trinity College, MS 213 (folio: 27r-66v)Late fifteenth century, Northumbria. c.3000 lines.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 44 (folio: 1r-97v)Mid-fifteenth century, Northern. 5803 lines.

Modern Editions

Joseph Stevenson, ed., The Alliterative Romance of Alexander. From the Unique Manuscript in the Ashmolean Museum (London: William Nichol for the Roxburghe Club, 1849)Edited from Ashmole 44.
W.W. Skeat, ed., The Wars of Alexander: an Alliterative Romance translated chiefly from the Historia Alexandri Magni de Preliis, EETS e.s. 47 (London, 1886, repr. 1973)Ashmole and Dublin texts.


Pseudo-Callisthenes, Historia de Preliis, J3a recenscion