Iranian Religions and the Alexander Romance

Recorded: February 20, 2020
Event: Contextualizing Iranian Religions in the Ancient World - 14th Melammu Symposium

by Krzysztof Nawotka (University of Breslau)

Iranian Religions and the Alexander Romance

The Alexander Romance attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes is the encomiastic biography of Alexander the Great, who is depicted as the champion of Greek culture and way of life. It frequently references non-Greek religions and cultures, often used as a foil that enforces the superior nature of Greek cultural values. Reference to Iranian culture and religion take distant place, paling in comparison to frequent mentionof the Egyptian counterpart. For the most part the image of Iranian religion in the Alexander Romance belongs to the topos of Greek representation of barbarians and is divorced from any meaningful Achaemenid tradition. Occasionally Pseudo-Callisthenes attributes to the Persians Greek religious behavior, such as the divine worship of a living person. Some references to Iranian religion in royal titles are listed in fictional letters of Darius to Alexander and to his satraps, which do reflect genuine titles of Sasanian kings and their aspiration to divinity, as well as the Roman perception thereof. When Mithra is named in the Alexander Romance, there is no indication as to whether the Iranian god or its Roman manifestation is referred to. The most significant genuine reflections of Iranian religion and the Avesta are in the episodes connected with the Stranga, an intermittent river. Alexander crosses this river on horseback, while his Persian enemies cannot, as if the farr “royal glory” had already passed from Darius to Alexander. Another possible reflection of Iranian religion is the episode pertaining to Alexander’s willingness to gain immortality by drowning in the Euphrates. The method of transmission of Iranian cultural traditions into the Alexander Romance is largely unknown, although its author had a penchant for borrowing freely from various sources to embellish his biography of Alexander.