Alexander’s underwater adventure

A medieval story about Alexander the Great

A wealth of stories sprang up around the figure of Alexander the Great. One of these stories involved the Macedonian conqueror’s exploration of the world beneath the sea.

Josho Brouwers

Few historical figures of the ancient world loom as large as Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), the son of Philip II of Macedon. Following in his father’s footsteps, he conquered the Persian Empire in a hitherto unprecendented campaign, founding the largest empire the world had yet seen. And even though this empire disintegrated almost immediately after his death, there is no question that he had a tremendous impact on the world.

As befitting a person who was larger-than-life, Alexander became a figure of legend. In the fourth century AD, a novel about Alexander appeared. Copies of this text were later wrongly attributed to Alexander’s court historian, Callisthenes. This novel gave birth to a new genre of literature, the Alexander romance. These contained fictionalized accounts of the adventures of Alexander the Great. They would become very popular over the course of the Middle Ages.

The Alexander romance, as a genre, spread across the world. Manuscripts are found from Great Britan in the west to India in the east, each featuring a version of Alexander tailored for that region and time. In Britain, Alexander looks like a proper medieval monarch, complete with golden crown. In India, he wears a turban. The idea that Alexander may have looked differently in the fourth century BC was of no concern.

Much of the Alexander romance is, of course, fiction, but the genre does have some roots in more historical accounts of Alexander. For example, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), who had himself been born in Stagira, not far from Alexander’s birth place of Pella, had been Alexander’s tutor. Aristotle had instilled in Alexander a curiosity and an eagerness to learn. This curiosity was carried over into the fictionalized accounts of his life.

One story, of which different versions have been recorded, claims that Alexander the Great, after having conquered much of the world, wanted to seize control of the world beneath the oceans. He orders the construction of what is essentially a glass diving bell, with which he intends to explore and conquer the sea.

In the French Roman d’Alexandre, created in the twelfth century and written in verse, Alexander explores the world beneath the waves. The story makes up the third of the four branches that make up the text. Alexander emerges shaken from the experience, having learnt that big fish will eat small fish. He comes to realize the folly of his desire to conquer the oceans.

Graham Anderson has compared the diving bell episode to some of the adventures that Mesopotamian heroes embarked on (2012, p. 87):

The essence of the episode in the Alexander-Romance is that Alexander and his contraption are seized by a huge fish which takes him off course so that he realises the error of his arrogance (2.38). It is not too much of a stretch to compare the myth of “Ninurta and the turtle”: the god, buoyed up by his victory over the Asakku-demon so that he has mastered the mountain, now tries to seize the tablets of destiny from the lair of Enki, the underwater Apsu; Enki leads him into a trap where he is held in a pit in the Apsu by a gigantic turtle created by Enki for the purpose, and is not let go till he has been mocked and learned a bitter lesson.

In a German version of the tale, dated to ca. 1400-1410, Alexander has a chain fixed to the diving bell so that he doesn’t drift off too far. He orders a mistress to hold onto the chain. But no sooner has Alexander disappeared beneath the waves does the mistress invite her lover over, promptly throwing the chain into the sea. (This may have been out of revenge: some versions of the story say that the woman in question wanted revenge because Alexander had killed her father.)

As strange as these stories are, the diving bell is an ancient concept. It is first mentioned in an ancient Greek text known as the Problemata, i.e. “Problems” (16.8; 32.5). This text was, fittingly enough, attributed to Aristotle. However, this attribution is incorrect: the text postdates Aristotle – and also Alexander – by perhaps as much as half a millennium.