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A Polytheist or Christian Journey in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias?

Matthew W Ferguson

UC Irvine

This paper analyzes variant readings of Alexander’s Letter to Olympias—an epistolary narrative affixed to the end of book II of the Alexander Romance (2.23-41)—across the Romance’s different recensions, in order to trace a redactional trajectory in which polytheistic details are removed from the Letter while new Christian elements are included. The Letter relates a journey Alexander took to find the end of the world, during which he describes otherworldly creatures, exotic geographical locations, and even a near approach to the afterlife. Since the Alexander Romance functioned as an ‘open text’ (Konstan), which went through multiple stages of composition, the provenance of the Letter in its earliest form is called into question when it appears differently across recensions, particularly when the differences that arise appear to be religious in character.

The Armenian recension includes the detail of Alexander sacrificing to local deities at the end of his journey (2.40), which is notably missing from recension β. In turn, β includes an episode that features a dead fish returning to life when one of Alexander’s cooks washes it in a spring (2.39, 41). The episode with the resurrecting fish is notably absent from the Armenian (Cook), and has been interpreted by Tesei to serve as an allegory for Christian baptism. Whereas the Armenian (c. 5th century CE) appears to offer a polytheistic reading of the Letter (Millet 108), and β (c. 300-550 CE) a Christian reading, scholars dispute which version preceded the other (Stoneman).

The Letter to Olympias is missing from recension α, which is regarded as the earliest version of the Alexander Romance proper. Although the Armenian recension is a translation of α, Jouanno (14; 36 n.17) is inclined to see the chapters with the Letter as dependent upon β, on the grounds that a number of passages in the Armenian (e.g., 2.20 and 3.3) appear to borrow from β. Even granting the Armenian’s familiarity with β, however, it does not necessarily follow that β represents the earliest version of the Letter. Merkelbach (64) argues that the absence of the Letter from recension α should not fix a terminus a quo for its material, since the opening chapter (2.23) seems to belong to source material used elsewhere in the recension; instead, Merkelbach proposes that the Letter was purposefully omitted from α due to the fabulous nature of its content. Granting this assumption, it is possible that the Armenian is following an earlier version of the Letter, which precedes the surviving recensions.

Notably, recension α includes mention of Alexander sacrificing to local deities at the end of book II (2.22), which is a detail missing from the same section of β. If the Armenian truly depends upon β for the Letter, therefore, it has likely added this detail from the main narrative of α to the borrowed chapters of the Letter from β. Alternatively, if the Letter precedes α, then the mention of the sacrifices in chapter 2.22 could represent a vestigial trace of the original ending of the Letter, which survives in its earliest form in the Armenian.

Depending on which version of the Letter to Olympias is granted priority, a different redactional trajectory is implied for its religious character. If the Armenian reflects the earlier version of the Letter, then β has likely redacted a common source, in order to remove polytheistic elements such as the sacrifices and to include Christian elements such as the resurrecting fish. Alternatively, if the Armenian depends upon β, a theory must be presented for why a late antique editor would wish to subtract the Christian symbolism, while adding the sacrifices to the end of the Letter. This paper argues that the former theory is more probable, particularly since Christianizing the Letter would better suit late antique audiences than redacting the narrative in the direction of polytheism. Alexander himself would likewise be Christianized, better suiting the imitatio Alexandri of a post-Constantinian Roman Empire (Spencer, Amitay).

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Literature of Empire

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