Pseudo-Callisthenes Interpretation of Alexander the Great on Plutarch's Account Edit


The style in which a biography is written widely varies based on what information the individual biographer is interested in and whether or not any biases are held on the subject matter. By examining a single individual’s life through the eyes of two different biographers, the reader is able to draw conclusions of each biographer’s ultimate purpose in writing about a given life. The life of Alexander the Great, for instance, is a widely popular story about a king and general who became a hero through his impressive military conquests. Both Pseudo-Callisthenes and Plutarch are two authors who wrote about this life that was romanticize by the ancient Greeks. However, both authors had their own interpretations and opinions of the driving motivations and the actual events that came to shape his life story. There is a lot to be said about each biographer’s style, but perhaps the unique attributes that each author contributed is what drew a large interest in Alexander’s life. The mystery of what is factual versus what is fictional is entertaining and allows the biographer to present the audience with their own meaning of his life in the way they see best fit. In The Alexander Romance, the author, Pseudo-Callisthenes focuses largely on the mythological aspects and driving forces behind Alexander’s decisions. By reading The Alexander Romance, the information read in The Life of Alexander the Great, by Plutarch, is largely enriched, as this particular story presents Alexander’s life in such a way that appears to have more historical and factual information intertwined within it. The combined readings enhance the historical events that occurred in Alexander’s life, creating an incredibly exciting life that became a hugely popular ancient novel.

Presentation Changes MeaningEdit

A large majority of The Alexander Romance focuses on the interpretations of oracles and dreams as the motivations behind the action that occurs. From the very beginning of the story, it is stated that Nektanebos of Egypt is the father of Alexander, not King Phillip. Nektanebos processed the power of magic in which he was able to live in peace with other countries. Eventually, he determined that his kingdom in Egypt was coming to an end and fled the country. In search for the missing king, the Egyptians read an oracle, the first of many oracles that Pseudo-Callisthenes focuses on. The oracle claimed, “This king who fled will come again to Egypt, not in age but in youth, and our enemy the Persians he shall subdue (Callisthenes 170.3).” The message within this foreshadows that the king of Egypt won’t return as Nektanebos, but rather his son, Alexander. Before he was even born, Alexander was believed to be a very talented and gifted male. His mother, Olympias, thought she bore a child with Ammon, god of Libya. It was said that her son would, “reach the rising sun, waging war with all-like a lion-and capturing cities by force-on account of the spear beneath (Callisthenes174.8).” Another interesting point that the author seems to spend a great deal of time on is the timing of the birth. Depending on when Olympias gave birth, the child could have been born a prisoner, monster, failure, or king. Remarkable, yet fictional, stories create a deeper interest in Alexander’s life, grabbing the attention of the reader and making his story more popular. The use of magic and oracles appealed to the common people of ancient Greece, creating interest by drawing upon a topic that most could be related to.

Another interesting parallel that created between both Pseudo-Callisthenes and Plutarch is the frequent comparisons between Alexander’s traits and those of animals. For instance, in The Alexander Romance, it is claimed that he would have the mane and energy of a lion, with the teeth of a serpent (176.13). This information was given when describing Alexander’s childhood, and at this particular point, he had given no hint as to what his character traits would be. Interestingly enough, when talking about Alexander’s conception, Plutarch proclaims, “… she was with child with a boy, which should have a lion’s heart (Plutarch 386.2).” With multiple references to a lion, one could draw a connection between the strong and powerful king of the animal world with a strong and courageous king that would be Alexander. This commonality is interesting because both of the writers used such drastically different styles that it was strange to see them both choose to personify Alexander’s character traits by using a lion. This further embeds the idea that he was born to be a fierce and courageous leader.

The Alexander Romance used a lot of assumed dialogue in the form of letters in order to explain the relationship between Alexander and his enemy, Darius, King of Persia. By using letters to explain the context of what happened, the relationship between Darius and Alexander came to life. By switching to a first person point of view, the reader was able to feel a connection with the author of the article, creating more of an interest. There is also a certain level of humor within the letters, making the reader forget at times that Alexander and Darius are military rivals. For example, in a letter written from Darius to Alexander, Darius claims, “I sent the strap to let you know you still need correction. I sent the ball so that you can play with children your own age…(Callisthenes 194.36).” This letter is making fun of Alexander’s young age and goes on to poke fun at the fact that his army doesn’t stand a chance against Darius. This immature reaction is almost startling because there is a certain severity of the situation, but yet Darius is almost joking about it. This keeps the audiences attention, wanting to know how Alexander is going to respond. Likewise, Alexander responds with a sarcastic message, claiming that the strap will be used to “flay the barbarians with my spear and weapons and reduce them by my hands to servitude (Callisthenes 195.38).” He also claims that the ball is an indication that he is going to take over the whole world. The letters keep a serious situation very light-hearted, to the point where the reader almost forgets that they are rivals. Plutarch, however, gives extremely factual accounts and details of each battle and military strategy used by both parties. The details used are almost excessive, completely, with few breaks in the sentences and paragraphs, creating a more informative account of what was most likely to have happened.

As the battles between the Macedonians and the Persians continue, the mood of the letters becomes more and more serious, as the relationship between Alexander and Darius becomes more strained. Alexander was consistently treated his enemies with respect, as he demonstrated time and time again that loyalty and bravery were two necessary traits that human beings must have. In a letter to Darius from his own mother, who was currently under the control of Alexander the Great, she claimed that, “we receive the greatest respect from King Alexander: he has not treated me as the mother of an enemy, but with great courtesy, and as a result I hope that a decent agreement will be reached (Callisthenes 207.12).” This speaks a lot about the person Alexander was, not only as a ruthless war hero, but also as an honorable king. Honor and loyalty were necessary traits for the ancient people, so having such an extreme example of an individual who gave the utmost respect to his worst enemies was appealing to the general public.

Further more, Darius played a large part in the success of Alexander the Great. His death was memorable in a way that touched the reader on an emotional level. Two of Darius’s satraps, Bessos and Ariobarzanes, decided to slay Darius because they believed they could gain financial security. Alexander, finding Darius half dead, felt pity towards his enemy. Darius turned to him and said, “King Alexander, never exult in your royal position. When you succeed in a project of divine scale and want to reach heaven with your own hands, consider the future (Callisthenes 214.20).” In his dying words, a legendary king passes on advice to a younger, upcoming king. Darius and Alexander both had a respect for each other because they were both knowledgeable, honorable, and skillful war heroes. Darius went so far as to claims that “Darius and Alexander shall be of one family (Callisthenes 214.20).” He also gave his daughter to Alexander and gave him his mother to treat as his own. This chilling conclusion to Darius’s life makes the reader feel the emotions that Alexander was feeling. The ancient people would have been drawn to the reading.


From Callisthenes reading of The Alexander Romance, the reader is placed in the ancient world, complete with emotional connects and three-dimensional characters whose personalities become a part of the reading. The meaning of Alexander’s life that was drawn out from Callisthenes interpretation was that Alexander was much more than a war hero; he was also an iconic individual who lived a life that ancient people respected. By using letters to explain the relationship between Darius and Alexander, the events became more realistic, drawing a deeper connection with the audience. Also, the biographer reaches out to the audience by creating a common area that everyone could relate to, such as oracles and magic. Plutarch, on the other hand, gives a very straightforward account of what happened. He was not concerned so much with entertaining the reader as he was by getting the facts out. Both authors use very different techniques to portray the same life, and when using the two sources side-by-side, they can enhance the reader’s experience.


Callisthenes, Pseudo. "The Alexander Romance." Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature. By William F. Hansen. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. Print.

Plutarch, John Dryden, and Arthur Hugh Clough. "Life of Alexander the Great." The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. New York: Modern Library, 1932. 385-465. Print.