Homeric Mimesis in the Alexander Romance

Recently I posted a guest blog by NT scholar Dennis MacDonald, which discusses the possible use of Homeric mimesis in the canonical Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark. Mimesis of earlier literature is a common literary technique found in the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography, which I argue is the genre that the Gospels most resemble in Hellenistic literature. Even if one does not grant that the Gospels imitate Homer, however, it is still widely accepted among NT scholars that the Gospels imitate the language, tropes, and characters of the Old Testament, and thus model Jesus off of OT figures such as Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha.

The same is true for the Life of Aesop, which is a philosophical biography blended with heavy novelistic elements. In the biography Aesop is modeled off of famous Greek philosophers, such as Diogenes and Socrates. In the latter case, a clear echo of Socrates is heard in the Life of Aesop (25) when the philosopher Xanthos asks him, “What do you know how to do?,” to which Aesop replies, “Nothing at all.” When Xanthos asks, “Why do you say nothing,” one of his students responds, “No man alive knows everything. That’s why he said he knew nothing.” This imitates Socrates’ declaration in Plato’s Apology (29b), where he states that he knows only one thing: that he knows nothing.

Socrates Quote

I likewise discuss in this earlier post how Alexander is modeled off of Odysseus in the Alexander Romance (1.21), when he drives out Philip’s wedding banquet (as Philip was in the process of marrying another woman than his mother), which mimics Odysseus driving out the suitors from his house in the Odyssey. Below I will discuss another instance of Homeric mimesis in the Alexander Romance, which this time imitates the cycle of the Trojan War.

The Trojan War is famous for being a war about a woman, namely Helen of Troy, whose face is said to have launched a thousand ships. Of course, one of my former Classics professors, Bella Vivante, used to point out that Helen was not actually from Troy. She actually should be called Helen of Sparta, or Egypt in some of the traditions. Although Helen is depicted as the cause of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad, other ancient authors proposed alternative causes for the war. Thucydides (1.9) argued that the war was fought for the sake of military conquest, rather than for the sake of retrieving a woman, while Herodotus (2.116) argued that Helen never even went to Troy, but was actually taken to Egypt. Herodotus maintained that Homer only favored a tradition that had Helen remain in the city for all ten years of the war, in order to heighten the drama of his narrative. The lyric poet Stesichorus is even said to have become blind (like Homer), for claiming that Helen went to Troy, and was only cured of his blindness once he had recanted this tradition.

Regardless, the story of the Trojan War is famous for being a war fought over the abduction of a woman, and a similar story, imitating the Trojan War, is likewise told in the Alexander Romance (3.19-20). In relating this story, I will use Ken Dowden’s translation, which is based on manuscript L of Recension β, although the online translation of the Alexander Romance, which I provide a link to above, is based on Recension α. After his expedition into India, Alexander has a letter correspondence with Queen Kandake of Meroë, which is located in Sudan. Alexander later visits the queen in her home country (3.21), but before that there is an interceding episode involving her son Kandaules. The prince Kaundales visits Alexander’s camp after a disaster has befallen him:

“Some days later it happened that Kandake’s son, Kandaules, in the company of some riders, was attacked by the prince of the Bebrykians, and Kandaules, the son of Kandake, rode into Alexander’s tents in his flight. The guards arrested him and brought him before Ptolemy, surnamed Soter, who was second-in-command to Alexander (King Alexander was asleep). Ptolemy questioned him, ‘Who are you and your companions?’ He replied, ‘I am the son of Queen Kandake.’ Ptolemy asked him, ‘Why have you come here, then?’ He replied: ‘Together with my wife and a few soldiers I was on my way to celebrate the annual mystery rite among the Amazons. But the prince of the Babrykians saw my wife and came out with a huge force; he seized my wife and killed most of my soldiers. So I am returning to collect a larger force and burn the land of the Bebrykians.'”

Now, the abduction of Kandaules’ wife is already an allusion to the Trojan War, imitating Helen’s abduction, but there are also a number of other allusions contained in this passage. As Ken Dowden (Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, pg. 233) explains:

“The names connect this story with Asia Minor: the Bebrykians are a legendary people of Bithynia; Kandaules, a king of Lydia; Amazons have several important Asia Minor connections; the real Antigonos was a satrap in Asia Minor.”

Why connect this episode with Asia Minor? Well, for the simple reason that the city of Troy is located in Asia Minor:

Asia Minor 2

But the references only become more obvious from there. Following Kandaules’ arrival, Ptolemy informs Alexander of the situation, and Alexander forms a dastardly plan. He decides to hide his true identity and to instead pretend that he is his lieutenant Antigonos. Alexander makes this disguise not only so that he can personally accompany Kandaules on the campaign to retrieve his wife, but also so that he can later visit his mother Queen Kandake in disguise. Alexander likewise orders Ptolemy to pretend that he is King Alexander, so that Kandaules does not know who the real king is. Ptolemy then introduces Alexander to Kandaules, and they set off on the expedition:

“Ptolemy gave instructions, as though he were Alexander, to Antigonos, and this was done. Antigonos reached the region of the prince in one day together with Ptolemy. And Antigonos said to Ptolemy: ‘King Alexander, let us not be seen by the Bebrykians by day, in case the prince discovers and kills the woman. So let us break into the city by night and set fire to the houses: then the masses will rise and return Kandaules his wife. Our battle is not about the kingdom but about demanding back the woman.”

Here, the reference to breaking into a city at night and setting fire is not only a reference to the Trojan War, but likewise this passage even states that this is not a war about a kingdom, but about a woman. The mimesis of Helen’s abduction could not be more clear. Here is how the battle is described:

“So then they broke into the city by night, while the people were asleep, and set fire to the suburbs. And as they woke up and asked why the city was being set on fire, Alexander had the shout raised, ‘It is King Kandaules with a massive force, demanding you return his wife before I set your whole city on fire.’ They were surrounded and all advanced to the prince’s palace and by force of numbers broke it open. Kandaules’ wife was in bed with the prince: they dragged her away and returned her to Kandaules, and they killed the prince.”

Burning of Troy

Following this episode, Alexander continues to remain in disguise as Antigonos, and travels with Kandaules to visit his mother Kandake in his home country.

So, what we have here is a sort of miniature Trojan War inserted into the rest of the narrative of the Alexander Romance. Ancient readers would have certainly picked up on the reference. Alexander is modeled off of Odysseus, not only because he is in disguise (similar to how Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar in the Odyssey), but also because it is his idea to storm the city at night (just like Odysseus hatched the plan to attack Troy at night using the Trojan horse). I also think that this episode may utilize ring composition. The scene where Alexander drives out Philip’s marriage banquet is located at the beginning of the text in book one (chapter 21), whereas this second Homeric episode is located in book three (chapters 19-20), which is at the end of the biography. Both events compare Alexander to Odysseus.

It’s very interesting to apply mimesis criticism to ancient literature, since it shows how the kind of imitation that Dennis MacDonald suggests is in the Gospels (as well as the Testament of Abraham and Acts of Andrew) is certainly in other literature from the same period, such as the Alexander Romance.

-Matthew Ferguson

This entry was posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Dissertation, Exegesis and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Homeric Mimesis in the Alexander Romance

  1. busterggi says:

    Sometimes it seems like the last original trope was created before writing was invented and everything has been cut & paste since.

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