history

Writing Challenges: Literature on Alexander the Great

Did you know that so much is known about Alexander The Great, and yet almost no contemporary literature of his time exists? And that what we have learned about him is almost all from works written hundreds of years after his death?

The best-known sources for Alexander, in order of how close they were to Alexander’s lifetimes, are

  1. Diodorus Siculus — who wrote in 1st century BC, about two hundred years after Alexander, using now extinct works from Cleitarchus and Hieronymus of Cardia

  2. Curtius — 1st century AD, borrowed from Cleitarchus

  3. Justin — 2nd century AD

  4. Arrian — who wrote The Anabasis of Alexander in 2nd century AD, nearly five hundred years after Alexander’s death, is one of the most extensive sources for Alexander history

  5. Plutarch — 2nd century AD, about five hundred years after Alexander’s death

The works of original sources, Cleitarchus, Ptolemy, and Hieronymus, have been lost, so we are left with interpretations and retelling, hundreds of years after the events. In some cases the sources themselves do not agree, which leaves us to our own interpretation of events and characters.

I’ve always found such facts fascinating because when we read about ancient history we often forget that the documentation of those times is rife with inaccuracies, assumptions, gaps, confusion and that what we read is often one person's view of what really happened by cobbling together a whole bunch of fragmentary works.

Of course, this also makes it possible for someone (like me) to write a novel that can take advantage of certain gaps and build certain stories around them.