Alexander, Not Who We Think He Was

Susan Tailby
4 min readFeb 25


Alexander The Great: The Making of a Myth, British Library London

Was he something like this?

Or maybe more like this?

Turns out, in this exhibition at the British Library, that we don’t know much — and so like, Robin Hood or Kind Arthur or Jane Austen, cultures around the world have embraced his character and deeds for themselves. I wasn’t expecting Indian, Persian, Iranian, Iraqi, Ethiopian texts, even Chinese as well as colourful medieval versions of his stories. Like James Bond, ‘women want to be with him, men want to be him’ and Julius Caesar allegedly wailed ‘’Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success’. Even Handel turned him into an opera, like so many other composers of the time. What’s causing all this Alexander comparison FOMO? (And well, when griffins carry you into the sky, why not?)

Mostly, his enormous empire. In addition, Alexander seems to have had atleast two named wives, making diplomatic alliances through marriage as he dynamically conquered most of the known world before dying (mysteriously) in his ’30s. There may have been bromance or romance with male lovers too, and an unnamed Chinese Princess as another wife, and a lifelong horse companion. But we don’t know for sure. Whilst parts of the exhibition are a bit gimmicky, these don’t overshadow and I loved the recreated tomb at the end. Wish there’d been more about Alexandria, it’s famed lighthouse and library. Was Alexander more of a scholarly king (or atleast promoter of education and learning) than we give him credit for, focusing more on his beefcake warrior prowess or legendary lovelife instead?

Conquerors of worlds, traveller of curious worlds and lands, student of Aristotle, warrior king and leader, fulfiller of prophecy, victor…No wonder young princes are counselled to be like Alexander, in their armour design or in advice to Henry VIII. But we don’t really know who he was, just who we think he was. Much was being made of his sexuality here, but again, this is unknown — we don’t know, for everything is written about him…later…He appears duplicitous though — promising to protect Zooastrian religious treasures and sites, then torching them. He fights a Zooastrian priestess who becomes a dragon/serpent to see him off, then marries her once she’s defeated. Not to mention encountering ‘tiny’ Amazons (oe perhaps they were just far away).

I think the exhibition did get stuck in identity politics — more could have been said about the international appeal of Alexander — what they took on, and what they didn’t. Such as in India or Persia (or in two reunited texts from Russia), it was incredibly flattering for a ruler to be compared to Alexander. His legendary fighting abilities impressed Chinese artists who created a battlefield with a whirl of heads and limbs everywhere. He conquers and tames a flesh eating horse, who weeps at his deathbed and makes a great statue in Edinburgh. Not to mention the lavish gold wheeled and netted funeral carriage pulled by hundreds of mules — I can’t even imagine! (and that library)…

Given how many texts there are, why are cultures embracing all these fragments? Are these inherited folk memories of his trail of conquests? Or something else? Why do we value Greco-Roman and Medeo-Persian or Ancient Egyptian or African cultures at all — what is about these ancient civilisations that appeal? Would have liked more interrogation of the objects, but still well done and much more than the advertising suggested; what is about the commonality of his stories that we’re all embracing?

Given how crowded parts of the exhibition were initially, I was surprised at how sparsely populated the tomb area was.

Best of all, Jules Verne-like, Alexander travelled under the sea in a glass vessel, only to be cut off by a sneaky girlfriend. But the wonder! and maybe that’s what and who Alexander really is…

@ Images are from the British Library’s Alexander The Great: The Making of a Myth exhibition, not the author’s and used purely to illustrate the points made, February 2023



Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....