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Alexander the Great’s Romance: The Story of the Illuminated Codex

Alexander the Great Romance
The original version was composed in Ancient Greek sometime before 338 CE. Credit: AMNA

The “Romance” of Alexander the Great is a unique illuminated manuscript on his life and was the most widely-read romance in the Middle Ages as it was translated into thirty languages.

The original version was composed in Ancient Greek sometime before 338 CE, when a Latin translation was made, although the exact date is unknown. It was subjected to various revisions during the Byzantine Empire, some of them recasting it into poetical form in Medieval Greek vernacular.

According to researchers, the manuscript is a romance based on the life of Alexander and gives a detailed account of the events before and during his campaign of conquest, which took him as far as India, where he also carried the ideals and values of Greek thought and science taught to him by his teacher, the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Most of the content of the Romance is fantastical, including many miraculous tales and encounters with mythical creatures such as sirens or centaurs.

The priceless manuscript takes an almost “cinematic” approach to the life of the ancient Macedonian king, including more than 250 illuminated illustrations richly decorated in brilliant colors and gold leaf.

Alexander the Great Romance
The codex has exceptional artistic value. Public Domain

The codex has now been fully digitized and has been sent to various exhibitions around the world.

The most richly illustrated version of Alexander the Great’s Romance

According to Christos Arabatzis, the president of the Venice Hellenic Institute‘s Supervisory Committee, Greek version is unique in the entire world, since it is the most richly illustrated version of the Alexander romance, and it also has exceptional artistic value in and of itself.

According to Byzantine expert Flora Karagianni, the Alexander Romance appears to be based on an account by the ancient historian Callisthenes who had accompanied Alexander on his campaign, which he had written shortly after Alexander’s death.

In the centuries that followed, this became the most widely-read romance of medieval times, spreading from Istanbul to the west and from the city of Trebizond east to Mongolia, Persia, Sumatra and China – even making its way into Islamic religious texts.

Alexander the Great Romance
miniature illustrations depicting Alexander’s life and accomplishments. Public Domain

“For the Byzantines, especially, Alexander came to have almost mythical dimensions, fighting whole armies, mythical monsters and defeating many Roman and then Byzantine emperors… he was the model of a hero, warrior and hunter,” Karagianni said.

In the mid-14th century, Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond ordered a manuscript with the Alexander romance to be prepared for his library. This was then copied down and illustrated with four miniature illustrations depicting Alexander’s life and accomplishments, she added.

When the city of Trebizond was conquered in 1461, an unknown individual who was part of the new Turkish society there added notes to each illustration in Ottoman Turkish script.

Somehow, by some near-miraculous, still-unknown means, the manuscript resurfaced in the hands of Konstantinos Maroutsos, a Venetian merchant, in the early nineteenth century — and thanks to him, the priceless book was given back to the Greek community.

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