Alexander the Great is a figure so wrapped up in myth and legend that it can almost be difficult to remember that he was a real man, and the British Library is taking a look at the man behind the myth.

If you’re expecting an exhibition filled with lots of old books and manuscripts, you’re in for a bit of a surprise, as Alexander is also depicted in modern day comic books. So amongst the old books and old texts that do dominate are bright colourful cartoons. However, the core of the exhibition are the many ancient texts that tell the story and the legends that sprung up about Alexander, during his life and later, but also how each of the many peoples he conquored incorporated him into their own cultures.

Opening with the classic curly-haired youth, the exhibition starts with an argument about his name. Was it Alexander, Iskandar, Sikandar, or something else? They’ve stuck to the Anglicised form for the exhibition, but it’s an early hint at the vagaries of his history.

Alexander, for all his greatness, might be a name only known by historians if it wasn’t for a mamoth publication, the Alexander Romance, probably written around the end of the 3rd century AD – and has been the source for many subsequent retellings of the Alexander myth. The exhibition though peers through that veil at the even older documents that the Romance is thought to have relied on for its own narrative.

Some of the top objects they’ve managed to bring together for this exhibition rages from the oldest known fragment of Alexander’s story, a small Babylonian fragment from around 330 BCE, to papyrus letters that are a mere 2,000 years old, and even the oldest surviving copy of the Romance itself that’s about 750 years old.

Just as, for example, Jesus is often shown as a white medieval man in old european paintings, this exhibition shows off the many ways that Alexander was also represented in so many different styles depending on where a book or painting was made.

If you don’t like snakes, I’d skip the bit about how an Indian TV show recreated Alexander’s conception. And maybe how a German drawing of a horse looks more like a lion or of elephants with cloven hooves. There’s a lot of guesswork in old drawings.

And do look out for Margaret Thatcher — who makes an unexpected appearance in the exhibition while being rescued from captivity by Superman — in a section about contemporary representations of Alexander.

As all exhibitions of famous people tend to do, this one ends with the death of Alexander, and being a great man, his death is as great as you might expect, and as he died young, his legacy as a conquer wasn’t bothered by the reality of being a decades long ruler.

The exhibition finishes with a flourish though — a huge stone sarcophagus atmospherically lit so that the ancient Egyptian heirogrphs seem to glow from within. This is a replica of the actual coffin found by Napoleon in 1798, and often attributed to being Alexander’s final resting place. The question you leave with is whether the ancient historians could be correct when so much of Alexander’s life and death are shrouded in the depths of myth.

The British Library has managed to bring together a remarkable collection of old documents, but in doing so also teaches us that there’s a lot more to the man than the headline myths that we hear about.

As Tony the Tiger might have said about Alexander… it’s Grrrreat!

The exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is at the British Library until 19th February 2023.

Adults: £17 | Young person (18-25) £7.50 | Child (12-17): £8.50 | Child (<12): Free

Tickets should be booked in advance from here.

Exhibition Rating


British Museum
Great Russell Street, London


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