Historiography of Alexander the Great

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There are numerous surviving ancient Greek and Latin sources on Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, as well as some Asian texts. The five main surviving accounts are by Arrian, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius Rufus, and Justin.[1] In addition to these five main sources, there is the Metz Epitome, an anonymous late Latin work that narrates Alexander's campaigns from Hyrcania to India. Much is also recounted incidentally by other authors, including Strabo, Athenaeus, Polyaenus, Aelian, and others. Strabo, who gives a summary of Callisthenes, is an important source for Alexander's journey to Siwah.[2]

Contemporary sources[edit]

Most primary sources written by people who actually knew Alexander or who gathered information from men who served with Alexander are lost, but a few inscriptions and fragments survive.[1] Contemporaries who wrote accounts of his life include Alexander's campaign historian Callisthenes; Alexander's generals Ptolemy and Nearchus; Aristobulus, a junior officer on the campaigns; and Onesicritus, Alexander's chief helmsman.[1] Finally, there is the very influential account of Cleitarchus who, while not a direct witness of Alexander's expedition, used sources which had just been published.[1] His work was to be the backbone of that of Timagenes, who heavily influenced many historians whose work still survives. None of his works survived, but we do have later works based on these primary sources.[1]

The five main sources[edit]


  • Anabasis Alexandri (The Campaigns of Alexander in Greek) by the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia, writing in the 2nd century AD, and based largely on Ptolemy and, to a lesser extent, Aristobulus and Nearchus. It is generally considered one of the best sources on the campaigns of Alexander as well as one of the founders of a primarily military-based focus on history. Arrian cites his source by name and he often criticizes them. He is not interested in the King's private life, overlooking his errors. That Alexander should have committed errors in conduct from impetuosity or from wrath, and that he should have been induced to comport himself like the Persian monarchs to an immoderate degree, I do not think remarkable if we fairly consider both his youth and his uninterrupted career of good fortune. I do not think that even his tracing his origin to a god was a great error on Alexander's part if it was not perhaps merely a device to induce his subjects to show him reverence. (Arrian 7b 29)
  • Indica, written in the 2nd century AD, mainly describes the voyage of Alexander the Great's officer Nearchus from the Indus to the Persian Gulf following Alexander's conquest of much of the Indus Valley.


  • Life of Alexander (see Parallel Lives) and two orations On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great (see Moralia), by the Greek historian and biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea in the second century, based largely on Aristobulus and especially Cleitarchus. Plutarch devotes a great deal of space to Alexander's drive and desire and strives to determine how much of it was presaged in his youth. He also draws extensively on the work of Lysippus, Alexander's favorite sculptor, to provide what is probably the fullest and most accurate description of the conqueror's physical appearance.


  • Bibliotheca historica (Library of world history), written in Greek by the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, from which Book 17 relates the conquests of Alexander, based almost entirely on Cleitarchus and Hieronymus of Cardia. It is the oldest surviving Greek source (1st century BC). Diodorus regarded Alexander like Caesar as a key historical figure and chronological marker.


  • Historiae Alexandri Magni, a biography of Alexander in ten books, of which the last eight survive, by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, written in the 1st century AD, and based largely on Cleitarchus through the mediation of Timagenes, with some material probably from Ptolemy. His work is fluidly written, but reveals ignorance of geography, chronology, and technical military knowledge, focusing instead on the character. According to Jona Lendering: ..the real subject was not Alexander, but the tyranny of Tiberius and Caligula. (It can be shown that Curtius Rufus' description of the trial of Philotas is based on an incident during the reign of Tiberius)...Curtius copies Cleitarchus' mistakes, although he is not an uncritical imitator.[3]



Alexander wrote and received numerous letters, but no originals survive. A few official letters addressed to the Greek cities survive in copies inscribed in stone and the content of others is sometimes reported in historical sources. These only occasionally quote the letters and it is an open question how reliable such quotations are. Several fictitious letters, some perhaps based on actual letters, made their way into the Romance tradition.[4]

Ephemerides of Alexander the Great[edit]

The Ephemerides of Alexander were journals describing Alexander's daily activities. Mentioned by ancient writers, but only fragments survive today.[5][6]

Suda writes that one of the works of Strattis of Olynthus was called "On the ephemerides of Alexander" and were five books.[7]

Lost works[edit]

Greek epigraphy[edit]

Non-Greco-Roman sources[edit]

Babylonian Chronicles[edit]

  • Alexander Chronicle mentions the battle of Gaugamela and the incident of Bessus, who was pursued by Aliksandar.[17]
  • Alexander and Arabia Chronicle refers to events concerning the last years of the King.[18]

Zoroastrian texts[edit]

They say that, once upon a time, the pious Zartosht made the religion, which he had received, current in the world; and till the completion of 300 years, the religion was in purity, and men were without doubts. But afterward, the accursed evil spirit, the wicked one, in order to make men doubtful of this religion, instigated the accursed Alexander, the Rûman,[19] who was dwelling in Egypt, so that he came to the country of Iran with severe cruelty and war and devastation; he also slew the ruler of Iran, and destroyed the metropolis and empire, and made them desolate.[20]

The Bible[edit]

Daniel 8:5–8 and 21–22 states that a King of Greece will conquer the Medes and Persians but then die at the height of his power and have his kingdom broken into four kingdoms. This is sometimes taken as a reference to Alexander.

Alexander is briefly mentioned in the first Book of the Maccabees. In chapter 1, verses 1–7 are about Alexander and serve as an introduction of the book. This explains how the Greek influence reached the Land of Israel at that time.

The Quran[edit]

There is evidence to suggest that orally transmitted legends about Alexander the Great found their way to the Quran.[21] In the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn, "The Two-Horned One" (chapter al-Kahf, verse 83–94), Dhu al-Qarnayn is identified by most Western and traditional Muslim scholars as a reference to Alexander the Great.[22][23][24]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Green, 2007, pp xxii–xxviii
  2. ^ Cartledge, P., Alexander the Great (Vintage Books, 2004), p. 290.
  3. ^ "Curtius – livius.org". www.livius.org.
  4. ^ Lionel I. C. Pearson (1955), "The Diary and the Letters of Alexander the Great", Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 3(4): 429–455, at 443–450. JSTOR 4434421
  5. ^ Samuel, Alan E. (1965). "Alexander's 'Royal Journals'". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 14 (1): 1–12. JSTOR 4434864. Retrieved 15 March 2023 – via JSTOR.
  6. ^ Anson, Edward M. (1996). "The "Ephemerides" of Alexander the Great". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 45 (4): 501–504. JSTOR 4436444. Retrieved 15 March 2023 – via JSTOR.
  7. ^ a b "SOL Search". www.cs.uky.edu. Retrieved 15 March 2023.
  8. ^ Cartledge 2007, p. 278.
  9. ^ A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, Antidamas
  10. ^ Owen Jarus (7 February 2023). "AI is deciphering a 2,000-year-old 'lost book' describing life after Alexander the Great". livescience.com. Retrieved 15 March 2023.
  11. ^ The Hellenistic Settlements in Europe, the Islands, and Asia Minor Page 94 by Getzel M. Cohen ISBN 0520083296
  12. ^ "Error - PHI Greek Inscriptions". epigraphy.packhum.org. Retrieved 15 March 2023.
  13. ^ From the end of the Peloponnesian War to the battle of Ipsus By Phillip Harding Page 135 ISBN 0521299497
  14. ^ "Error - PHI Greek Inscriptions". epigraphy.packhum.org. Archived from the original on 20 March 2019. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  15. ^ The Greek world after Alexander, 323-30 B.C. Page 37 By Graham Shipley ISBN 0415046181
  16. ^ New terms for new ideas By Michael Lackner, Iwo Amelung, Joachim Kurtz Page 124 ISBN 9004120467
  17. ^ "The Alexander Chronicle (ABC 8)". www.livius.org. Archived from the original on 19 January 2019. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  18. ^ "Chronicle concerning Alexander and Arabia (BCHP 2)". www.livius.org.
  19. ^ Alexander the Great was called "the Ruman" in Zoroastrian tradition because he came from Greek provinces which later were a part of the eastern Roman empireThe archeology of world religions, by Jack Finegan, p. 80 ISBN 0415221552
  20. ^ "The Book of Arda Viraf". www.avesta.org.
  21. ^ Stoneman, Richard (2003). "Alexander the Great in Arabic Tradition". In Panayotakis, Stelios; Zimmerman, Maaike; Keulen, Wytse (eds.). The Ancient Novel and Beyond. Brill Academic Publishers NV. p. 3. ISBN 978-90-04-12999-3.
  22. ^ Bietenholz, Peter G. (1994). Historia and fabula: myths and legends in historical thought from antiquity to the modern age. Brill. pp. 122–123. ISBN 978-9004100633.
  23. ^ Stoneman 2003, p. 3.
  24. ^ Montgomery Watt, W. (1978). "al-Iskandar". In van Donzel, E.; Lewis, B.; Pellat, Ch. & Bosworth, C. E. (eds.). The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Volume IV: Iran–Kha. Leiden: E. J. Brill. p. 127. OCLC 758278456.

Further reading[edit]

  • Zambrini, Andrea (2017). "The Historians of Alexander the Great". In Marincola, John (ed.). A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. Blackwell Publishing (published 12 September 2017). pp. 193–202. doi:10.1002/9781405185110.ch17. ISBN 978-1405102162.
  • Hammond, Nicholas G. L. (2007) [1st pub. 1983]. The Historians of Alexander the Great: The So-Called Vulgate Authors, Diodorus, Justin, and Curtius. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521036535.