The military successes of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) who led the Greeks to conquer Persia, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Western India, were so great that, even during his lifetime, he was described as a mythical hero and even a god. Long after his death, he continued to hold a special place in the imagination of Greek writers, and in the third century CE, a romance was written which recounted his superhuman campaigns, enlivened by imaginative and fantastic episodes. Although this fragment can be dated to 1525, it reproduces one of the most ancient versions of the Romance, the fifth-century CE Armenian translation. The illustrations in other Alexander manuscripts, which are parallel to images in floor mosaics from Baalbek (ancient Heliopolis in Syria) have led some scholars to believe that an extensive illustrated cycle was in circulation in Byzantium from the fifth century.
One part of the Romance takes the form of a lengthy letter that Alexander writes to his mother Olympias, when, having conquered Persia, and now exploring its wonders, he finds fascinating marvels in the Palace at Sousa. He describes works of art, such as a series of reliefs depicting Xerxes’ sea battles against the Athenians; prodigies, such as a throne where the King heard oracles and a lute that played by itself; and of course, great works of gold. The Dumbarton Oaks leaf depicts Alexander encountering one of the gold pieces, a huge goblet holder, sixteen cubits (around 24 feet) tall, over which hovers a giant golden eagle whose wings span the entire structure.
D. J. A. Ross, Alexander Historiatus. A Guide to Medieval Illustrated Alexander Literature (London, 1963), 7.
B. Brentjes, Armenische Miniaturen in Sammlungen der DDR (Erevan, 1978), 1-7.
B. Brentjes, "Armenische Miniaturhandschriften in Sammlungen der DDR (III)," Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Universität Halle 29 (1980): 95-96, 129-32, esp. 96, fig. 4.
B. Brentjes, "Armenische Alexanderromane in Erfurt und Berlin," Armenisch-Deutsche Korrespondenz 92 (1996): 60,61, esp. 61.
Gift of Paul J. Sachs, New York, to Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, December 14, 1948;
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection.