Sunday, April 22, 2018


Krzysztof Nawotka, The Alexander Romance by Ps.-Callisthenes: A Historical Commentary. Mnemosyne Supplements no. 399. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. xii, 360. ISBN 9789004335219. $138.00. ISBN 9789004335226. ebook.

Reviewed by Christian Thrue Djurslev, The University of Edinburgh (

Version at BMCR home site


This book represents a welcome contribution to a surge of recent studies on the Greek Alexander Romance. It is one of the results of a longer journey with Alexander at the University of Wroclaw. Since the early 2010s, the Institute of History has produced a series of books and conferences on the Alexanders of the Near East and beyond. Krzysztof Nawotka has himself published two books on 'Aleksander Wielki' in the 2000s, among them a Polish translation of the Alexander Romance. Nawotka's new commentary fittingly expands much of this previous work. While we have commentaries on the Alexander Romance in German, Polish, and Italian (partially complete), Nawotka provides the first full commentary in English. The choice of language will ensure that the commentary reaches an even wider scholarly community, which is useful because Nawotka collates and updates much of the previous scholarship on the text. Taken together with the previous and forthcoming publications on the greater Alexander tradition from Wroclaw, this book builds momentum for further study of the text's origins and development.

The strangeness of the Alexander Romance invites commentary. The oldest Greek version, the so-called 'alpha recension' preserved in a unique MS from the 11th century, professes to be the true story of Alexander's life when it is in fact a novelistic biography. Its three books throw the king into a stream of hyperreality, mixing stories and literary tropes from many cultures, above all Egypt and Greece. To take just one of many examples, the Egyptian Nectanebus―Pharaoh, magician, charlatan―travels incognito to Macedon, seduces Olympias and fathers the future king. Another strange aspect is the date of composition. The Alexander Romance can be variously dated between the third century BC (Stoneman) and the fourth century AD (Kroll) because of its constituent parts, some of which are early Hellenistic, and others late imperial. Moreover, even the very name of the author is dubious.1 The conventional name of 'Pseudo-Callisthenes,' Isaac Casaubon's identification in a letter of 1605 to Joseph Scaliger, is here maintained, although there is no substantial support for this. After all, ancient translators of the Alexander Romance attributed the text to Aesop (Latin translation by Julius Valerius) and even Aristotle (Armenian translator), so we need not perpetuate the Renaissance rectification of the Byzantine 'Callisthenes.' Of course, we tend to prefer works to which we can attach a well-known name.

Nawotka deals with such issues in a thorough introduction to the text (pp. 1–33). Against his predecessors, he makes a case for the mid- third century AD for the final form of the text (pp. 3–5). He also discusses genre, composition, language, and historical value. His general approach to the Alexander Romance is advertised in the subtitle, 'a historical commentary.' This method is similar to the one Adolf Ausfeld used in his commentary published posthumously in 1907 ('historischer Kommentar,' pp. 123–213).2 This choice may surprise readers, as Nawotka dismisses Ausfeld's commentary as 'outdated' (p. ix). Nawotka accepts, however, the arguments of his predecessor on multiple occasions (e.g. pp. 59, 73, 93), sometimes with updates (pp. 158–9). Good points of the past deserve to be brought into present scholarship, and one such example of this updating is the commentary on Nectanebus' death (Alexander Romance 1.14, Ausfeld p. 130, Nawotka p. 75). When Nectanebus takes Alexander to see the stars, the young prince hurls the astrologer into a ditch because Nectanebus concerns himself with the sky, unaware of the affairs of the earth. This story echoes the sad fate of the philosopher Thales (for Ausfeld, Aesop's Fables no. 40 Perry; for Nawotka, Diogenes Laertius 1.34, Plato Theaetetus 174a), but it also has its own function within the narrative of the Alexander Romance and is treated in different ways in the Romance's wider tradition. Nawotka comments on all these aspects, whereas his predecessor simply mentions the reference to Thales' death as in the archaeology of the Alexander Romance story.

The 'death of Nectanebus' episode is one of those instances in which Nawotka's points align with those found in Stoneman's commentary (pp. 501–2). There are, however, some fundamental differences between the two new commentaries with regard to authorship, date, and interpretation of the Egyptian and Indian material in the Alexander Romance, which Stoneman himself has noted.3 These single- authored commentaries on the Alexander Romance each have their forte according to the fields to which their authors belong. For example, Nawotka makes some excellent observations on the Near Eastern material in the Alexander Romance, but he does not say much about the Latin and Armenian translations, which are crucial for reconstructing the contents of the Greek 'alpha' version. Given the difficulties posed by this multi-layered work, I wonder if the text might lend itself better to a collaborative project between scholars of many fields both within and beyond the realm of Classics and Ancient History.

Rather than comment on the commentary point by point, I limit myself to some further remarks on interpretation. I have a few minor quibbles with the introductory part. Nawotka argues that, of the extant historians, the Alexander Romance has the most in common with Plutarch's Life of Alexander (p. 21). This point hardly needs so much labouring, for Plutarch and the Alexander Romance are the only ancient accounts of Alexander's birth and upbringing. Perhaps more in need of justification is Nawotka's contention (p. 18) that the Alexander Romance was a 'pagan hagiography.' The religious significance that Nawotka attributes to this term is unclear. Moreover, Nawotka suggests that the Alexander Romance is closer to a historical account than other 'fringe' novels, and so stands out. I am not, however, persuaded by this generic distinction when we possess comparable texts, such as Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana and the Life of Aesop, that operate in the same way as the Alexander Romance. They 'purify' their protagonists' imperfections in the same manner that the Alexander Romance does, regardless of historical accuracy. In this context of prose biographies of holy persons and popular heroes, I miss engagement with Thomas Hägg's The Art of Biography in Antiquity. The ancients knew what a biography 'ought to look like' (Michael Williams in BMCR 2013.01.60) and did not worry as much about 'genre' as we now tend to.

A commentary is structured around the text it comments on, and the main bulk of the book is naturally devoted to the chapters of the Alexander Romance. There are also many other helpful sections. Instead of a full Greek text or translation, we are provided with a detailed summary and useful overview of the historical events that the Alexander Romance covers (pp. 6–13). Nawotka also offers a rich bibliography, index of references (primarily Greek sources), and a general index. Since the primary texts and the scholarship range from different cultures and periods, there could have been a greater care with verifying and presenting information. For examples, the Letter to Theophilus is merely attributed to John Damascene, not a genuine work as Nawotka says (p. 213); I cannot verify Nawotka's claim that George the Monk wrote a Commentary on Daniel (p. 245); and 'Annus 2010' does not appear in the bibliography (p. 231). Even though this book is a costly volume from Brill, I noticed some editorial haste, even with oft-used names (e.g. "Ausfled" for Ausfeld, p. ix; "Merkalebach" for Merkelbach, p. 4; "Instinsk" for Instinsky, p. 291; "Aaarhus" for Aarhus, p. 286). Despite these irregularities, however, the volume is generally of high quality. 1


1.   Stoneman, R., and Gargiulo, T. Il Romanzo di Alessandro, vol. 1. (Milan: Mondadori, 2007).
2.   Ausfeld, A., and Bernays, U. Der griechische Alexanderroman, (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1907).
3.   Stoneman, R. Review of Nawotka, Ancient History Bulletin online reviews 8 (2018), 18–20. Ancient History Bulletin.

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