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Speros Vryonis,Jr.

The Byzantine Legacy in Folk Life and Tradition in the Balkans

From The Byzantine Legacy in Eastern Europe, edited by Lowell Clucas, East European Monographs, Boulder,New York, 1988.

7. The figure and legend of Alexander the Great

The importance of the figure and legend of Alexander the Great in the popular literature and lore of the Balkan peoples has only recently been examined in a systematic and scholarly fashion. The subject is not only «glamorous» because it deals with one of the world' s most «glamorous» heroes, but also because it is an important aspect of both Balkan literature and of world literature, given the fact that aspects of the Alexander legend have been adopted in over 35 languages. As far as the Balkan peoples during the Ottoman period are concerned, there are manuscripts and printed books in Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Roumanian, as well as manuscripts in Persian and Ottoman Turkish.

There are ultimately three basic groups of sources for the Alexander myth, legend, and history available during this period.

a) First there are the ancient historians themselves, particularly Arrian, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius, and others. It may be argued that they are insignificant prior to the rise of modern historical scholarship, and particularly for this part of the world. Yet this is an oversimplification as now emerges from the fundamental study of G. Veloudes, who points to the use of these sources by the learned Greek historians of the Ottoman period. As an example he quotes the historian Kontaris of Κοzani, c.1675, who not only knew these sources but used them for purposes which Veloudes terms the cultivation of national consciousness.(66)

b) Second there is the popular legendary tradition of the Pseudo-Callisthenes text-texts, which transform Alexander's real world into an illusionary one and the hero himself is transformed into a mould for all heroes. It was this version of Alexander, which captivated the mind of the Byzantines and as a result of which they not only took over the text but reworked it frequently, variegated it, producing versions in both prose and poetry.(67)

c) Third there is the oriental version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes much reworked by Firdausi, and later in the second half of the twelfth century by the Persian poet Nizami in the Iskandarname, a masnavi of over 10,000 verses.(68)

As is obvious, the first of these sources is a learned scholarly tradition, whereas the other two are legendary and literary.

We see, from this very brief introduction, that the figure and legends of Alexander are spread from the eastern to the northwestern boundaries of the Ottoman Empire, as indeed far beyond both of these borders. We must now ask two questions. (1)

What were the origins of the Alexander figure and legends in the Ottoman period? (2) Ηow widespread were these legends about Alexander: was it a popular phenomenon, or was it restricted to literary circles? or was it both?

What Were the Origins of the Alexander Figure and Legends in the Ottoman Period?

1. The Tradition in Greek - An anonymous author composed a poem of 6,120 unrhymed «political» verses on Alexander in 1388, which is preserved in a manuscript written down in 1391-1404. The author utilized the Pseudo-Callisthenes material, from the Byzantine chroniclers George Monachus and Zonaras, and he wrote in a language close to the late Greek vernacular but also with a command of the learned language. The oldest prose composition on Alexander at this late date is in Vindob. Theol. gr. 244, probably composed between 1435-43.(69)

Thus we have extant prose and poetic compositions on Alexander, in Greek, at the onset of the Ottoman period, all of them obviously tied to the Pseudo-Callisthenes but reworked.

2. The Tradition in Serbian - At the end of the fourteenth century a work entitled Alexandrida was translated into Serbian/Slavonic, based on the Pseudo-Callisthenes and which deals of course with the legends of Alexander the Great, but does so in a peculiar fashion, reflecting feudal society and Christianity.(70)

3. The Bulgarian Tradition -There is a version of the Serbian/Slavonic of the Alexandrida, written in the language of west Bulgaria.(71)

4. The Tradition in Roumanian - There is the manuscript of Neamtzul (F) of the sixteenth century, written in the so-called Bulgaro-Vlach used in Roumania at this period. By the end of the sixteenth or the early seventeenth century, the Slavic text of the Alexandrida was translated into Roumanian.(72)

5. The Tradition in Ottoman Turkish - At the time of the conquest of Constantinople and during the period of the reign of Mehmed II he himself had access to at least a double tradition on the figure of Alexander: first, there was the learned Greek tradition, as his library possessed copies of the Greek text of Arrian. Further, his biographer Critobulus and other Greek learned men at his court constantly compared him to Alexander and discussed Alexander with him. Ιn addition there was the long mesenvi of Ahmedi (early fifteenth century), the Iskandarname, a poem on the deeds of Alexander the Great that goes back to the Persian model of Nizami (second half of the twelfth century) in over 10,000 verses.(73)

Thus we see from this rapid survey that Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars, Roumanians, and Ottomans had produced versions of the Alexander legend or romance in their own languages in the period between the late fourteenth and the sixteenth or early seventeenth century.

The ultimate source for these versions was the Pseudo - Callisthenes in one or another, or more, of its different versions. Further, there is no reason to assume that the Christian and Muslim versions of the fifteenth-sixteenth century had any affiliation or that one influenced the other. They simply came together on the domains of the Ottoman sultans, and indeed to some degree in the person of the Ottoman sultan himself, Mehmed II.

Inasmuch as the fifteenth and sixteenth century versions of the Alexandrida among Roumanians and Bulgars came from the Serbian version, one need not seek further for the immediate origin of the Bulgarian and Roumanian Alexandrida, in Turkish times. Though the first of the Slavs to translate a version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes were the Bulgars, the translation which they made from a Byzantine Greek text of the Pseudo-Callisthenes probably in the tenth-eleventh century, it is agreed that this earlier version «subsided» and it was the later Serbian version which replaces it through new «translations».(74) The problem which has not yet been satisfactorily addressed is the relation of the fourteenth century Greek and Serbian texts. Murko and Georgiev suggest that the Serbian has been translated from a Greek text influenced by the western romance, whereas Marinkovic, in leaving the question open, indirectly suggests the priority of the Serbian over the Greek late Byzantine text. Thus the question of whether the Alexander legend among the Christian Balkan populations is a Byzantine legacy or not remains in part still open. Ultimately, however, the origin seems to be the Byzantine version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes.

Was the Alexander Legend Widespread ? Was It a Learned or a Popular Tradition or Both?

1. The Greek Tradition during Turkokratia - Veloudes in his remarkable book has stated that the modern Greek Alexander romance is the only one, which stands at the end of a 2,000 year development. Its development phases are not interrupted by translations from foreign languages and it is marked by an unbroken series of reworking within the same language. He concludes, from the oldest Pseudo-Callisthenes text to the last edition of the modern Greek popular book in 1926 that there is no decisive break.(75) Naturally the question of the priority of the late Byzantine romance or the Serbian Alexandrida remains unsolved, but even if the priority of the Serbian should later be demonstrated, it would not substantially take away from the case which Veloudes has made. It would be well to pause for a moment and to consider his conclusions as they bear upon the question as to how widespread this material was among Greeks during the Ottoman period. Veloudes found and catalogues 46 separate editions of the printed form of the prose Alexander romance in Greek, the editions dating from 1680 to 1926.(76) Thirteen, or a little over a third, date from the period before the outbreak of the Greek Revolution. Ιn the form of what he calls and defines as a Volksbuch the romance circulated among Greeks via public readings and recitations by wandering reciters, was very popular, and was heard throughout the Greek-speaking world. But beyond popular consumption, the figure of Alexander was the subject in one form or another of Greek historians during the Turkokratia, who often went back to the original sources, and of literary figures who utilized the example of Alexander only for moral, rhetorical, comparative reasons, but also as an expression of national aspirations. The uniqueness of the Greek Alexander tradition is further illustrated, Veloudes quite properly asserts, by the vast proliferation of the legend in oral materials: lore, tales, folk songs, magical imprecations. His figure early penetrated that spectacular borrowing from Turkish popular culture, the shadow plays of Karagoz. For the Greeks, the Alexander legend was extremely widely diffused in many of its literary and oral manifestations. And, as Veloudes has asserted, this was a survival and further development of the Byzantine version of the Pseudo - Callisthenes.

2. The Serbian Tradition during Ottoman Rule - The Serbian version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes Alexander seems also to have been widely diffused, influential and popular among the Serbs of the Ottoman period. This is particularly demonstrable for the literary Serbian world of that period, as some 350 manuscripts of the romance are known. Marinkovic states that generations of Serbs formed their tastes, style, and literary language on the basis of this change, which in time underwent changes of language, content and tone. But though the Byzantine origin of the original Serbian is neither proven nor disproved, nevertheless, the contents go back to the Pseudo-Callisthenes.(77)

3. The Bulgarian Tradition - At this moment it has been studied even less than the Serbian, so the degree of its diffusion into Bulgarian society cannot be discussed, although the conditions of the Turkish period were particularly infelicitous for the Bulgarians and so it would be surprising to see this legend as developed and as diffused as it was first among the Greeks and second among the Serbs.(78)

4. The Rοumanian Τraditiοn - Here it seems to have been at first an import from Serbia, and once translated into Roumanian it still must have been restricted to the learned circles of the courts of Moldavia and Wallachia.(79)

Cοnclusiοn. The figure of Alexander the Great, primarily in his legendary Pseudo-Callisthenes form, was a Byzantine legacy among Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars, Roumanians, and Turks. Among the Turks it came through the oriental version that split off early from the Greek or Byzantine Pseudo-Callisthenes version, and once it came to the Turks it remained largely and hermetically sealed off from the Balkan traditions. The Byzantine tradition remained strongest, most diffused, and variegated among the Greeks, secondarily among the Serbs. Among the Roumanians and Bulgars it probably remained restricted due to social and political conditions in both regions.

From the brief analysis of Constantinople-Istanbul, religion, man's relation to human life and to the unknown, the agricultural and pastoral cycles and calendars, the panegyris, and the legend of Alexander the Great we see that the Byzantine experience of the Balkan peoples was a profound one with enduring influences on their popular culture. Ιn effect, Iorga's concept of Byzance après Byzance is more nearly applicable to the layer of popular culture in the Balkans than it is the political domain where Iorga had sought to find it.


66. G.Veloudis, Der neugriechische Alexander Tradition in Bewahrung und Wandel (Munich, 1938), 167.

67. H-G. Beck, Geschichte der byzantinischen Volksliteratur (Munich, 1971).

68. R. Levy, An Introduction to Persian literature (New York, 1969), 88-91.

69. Beck, op. cit., 31-32, 125.

70. R. Marinkovic, Srpska Alexandrida. Istorija osnovnog teksta(Belgrade,1969); 337ff.

71. Marinkovic, op. cit.;343.

72. Marinkovic, op. cit.; 343. Istoria Rominiei, ed. Α. Otetea et al (Bucharest,1974), ΙII, 278.

73. "Ahmedi", Islam Ansiklopedisi, 218. F. Babinger, Die Geschichtsschreiber der Osmanen und ihre Werke (Leipzig, 1927), 11-12. Levy, op. cit., 89-91.

74. V. Velcev, Ε. Georgiev, Ρ. Dinekov, Istoriia na bylgarskata literatura Ι. Starobylgarski literatura (Sofia, 1962), 166-167. Μ. Murko, Geschichte der alteren sudslawischen Litteraturen (Leipzig, 1908) 95-96, 182-183. Marinkovic, op. cit., 337-346.

75. Veloudis, op. cit., 5.

76. Veloudis, op. cit., passim.

77. Marinkovic, op. cit.,-337 ff.

78. Ι. Kohler, Der neubulgarische Alexanderroman. Untersuchungen zur Textgeschichte und Verbreitung (Amsterdam, 1973), pp.v,1,4-10,74-75, 131-144,149,210.Kohler gives a clear analysis of the origins of the modern Bulgarian Alexander Romance, primarily from the Roumanian and secondarily from the Neo-Hellenic versions, the Roumanian going back to the late medieval Serbian version.

79. Nevertheless the Alexander Romance was more widespread and more popular among eighteenth century Roumanians than among contemporary Bulgarians, Kohler, op, cit., passim. G. Dancev, "Traduceri ale Alexandriei din limba romana in limba bulgara moderna". Romanoslavica, XV (1967), 109-116.

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