From October 21, the British Library in London will host an exhibition titled “Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth”. Son of Philip II of Macedon and his wife Olympias, the historical Alexander was born in Pella, capital of Macedon in July 356 BC. By July 330 BC he had defeated the Persian army, becoming, at the age of 25, ruler of Asia Minor, pharaoh of Egypt and successor to Darius III, the “Great King” of Persia. During the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece in the west to beyond the Indus river in the east – before his early death in Babylon aged 32.
The exhibition, however, is not about history, but the first of its kind to explore 2,000 years of storytelling and mythmaking. With objects from 25 countries in 21 languages, it shows how one figure could serve so many purposes, creating shared narratives of universal appeal. The Alexander Romance, composed originally in Greek in the third century AD, was at the heart of this storytelling. But legends also found their way into epic poetry and drama, and more recently into novels, comics, films and video games. You will see examples of all of these in the exhibition.
Out of approximately 140 objects, some 86 are from the British Library’s collections. To give a taste of what’s in store, I have chosen to highlight a few of the 37 exhibits from our own Asian and African collections.
The exhibition is arranged in six sections based around Alexander’s legendary life. After an introduction, A Conqueror in the Making explores the different versions of Alexander’s origins, his education by the philosopher Aristotle and Bucephalus, his faithful warhorse.
Section three, Building an Empire, describes Alexander’s victory over Darius III of Persia and his expeditions further east to India and China – but while Alexander did reach India but he never went to China.
In a section on Alexander’s relationships, we introduce the important people in his life: his wives, the powerful women he encountered, his general Hephaestion and the eunuch slave Bagoas.
The Mythical Quest is the most fantastical section. Here Alexander travels through strange lands inhabited by people with faces in their chests, sirens, griffins and dragons. His journey leads him to the ends of the earth, into the skies above and to the bottom of the ocean, always seeking new experiences and the key to immortality.
The final section, Journey’s End, describes Alexander’s return to Babylon and the mystery of his subsequent death. His body was transported on a magnificent carriage to Egypt, where it was eventually placed in a mausoleum at Alexandria. The tomb is now lost, but his final resting place is still a subject of debate.
This article first appeared on the British Library blog.