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Alexander Commonplaces as a Roman Imperial Idiom

Yvona Trnka-Amrhein

Harvard University

This paper explores whether a set of Alexander commonplaces can help reveal a literary culture in the world of the Roman Empire that operated above linguistic and cultural differences. To do so it considers whether Alexander commonplaces can be productively viewed as a widely understood idiom for discussing kingship that was deployed in a variety of texts from the Latin, Greek, Jewish (Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew), and Demotic Egyptian literary traditions. As discussed in the organizers’ statement, recent scholarship has explored how the life and legend of Alexander translated easily across cultures and times. This paper builds on such work to consider in more detail how the figure of Alexander operated and traveled among the cultures that co-existed within the Roman Empire and whether such consideration can reveal more about the culture of the Roman Empire itself.

The popularity of Alexander in Greek and Latin literature of the Roman Imperial period has been well studied, especially his role as a medium for discussing the very relevant topic of one-man rule (e.g. Spencer 2002, Whitmarsh 2001). It is thus clear that Alexander was an important figure in the primary culture of the Roman Empire, Graeco-Roman culture. Yet, it is notable that Alexander was also a useful medium for discussing kingship in Demotic Egyptian (Ryholt 2013) and Jewish literature (especially the episode of Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem discussed in Paper 4). The paper thus suggests that it may be productive to view the Alexander-kingship-commonplace as a common idiom that could be understood by most people living in the Roman empire, no matter their cultural or linguistic backgrounds.

Indeed, there are several reasons why an Alexander commonplace could have become an imperial commonplace. Alexander was a well-known and often-discussed figure in the Mediterranean World before Rome took control, and this legacy undoubtedly allowed Alexander commonplaces to continue as “shared idioms” after the Roman Empire assumed the position of command. Just as Roman Emperors consciously took Alexander as apt model for their imperial personas, the career of Alexander the world-conqueror provided many avenues for imperial subjects to discuss Roman kingship. The safe distance between the Roman present and the Macedonian past offered the protection necessary for discussing potentially sensitive issues. Finally, the legend of Alexander clearly lent itself to creativity and fiction which allowed many authors, literary genres, and literary traditions to make use of the rhetorical potential of Alexander commonplaces.

Yet, perhaps the most important consequence of reconsidering the Alexander-kingship-commonplace as a common idiom of the literatures of the Roman Empire is the jumping off point it can thus provide for exploring an Imperial culture that transcended the limits of individual linguistic and ethnic communities. The paper suggests that placing Alexander in this framework may pave the way for identifying other common idioms that were shared among the literatures of the Roman Empire, in particular idioms that derived from the legends of world conquerors from the past like Sesonchosis the Egyptian, Semiramis the Assyrian, and Cyrus the Persian. Indeed, the Sesonchosis character appears in Latin, Greek, and Demotic discussion of kingship in the Roman Imperial period, and as such it too could be considered a similar common idiom of Roman Imperial culture. The paper thus suggests that Alexander as imperial idiom is a specific instantiation of the long history of Alexander commonplaces that may help scholars identify the links that bound the literatures of the Roman Empire together.

Session/Panel Title

Reframing Alexandrology

Session/Paper Number


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