Alexendre de Bernay lived in France in the twelfth century. He collected all the available materials, poetic, hearsay and parchments, about the still more ancient Macedonian conqueror who is now known as Alexander the Great. He put all these together in what was then an unusually long poem in Europe: an epic running to more than ten thousand lines, and called the poem Le Roman d’Alexendre.. It has been preserved in its pristine French, barely understandable to a modern reader. It reads not unlike how Kamban’s Tamil is to a modern Tamil speaker.
I tried to plod through several passages of it at random, but it was not easy. Here, for example, is what it says about the Persian king Darius and the Hindu king Puru whom Alexender is said to have defeated. Here we also read about the Duke of Palatine and Queen Candace, and of Alexander’s guru Aristotle also. [You will enjoy this poem if you understand medieval French.]
Or entendés, segnor, que ceste estoire dist.
De Dayre le Persant qu’Alixandres conquist,
De Porron le roi d’Ynde qu’il chaça et ocist
Et de la grant vermine qu’es desers desconfist
Et des bonnes Artu qu’il cercha et enquist,
De Gos et de Magos que il enclost et prist,
Que ja mais n’en istront jusqu’au tans Antecrist,
Ainsi com Apellés s’ymage contrefist,
Du duc de Palatine qu’il pendi et deffist,
La roïne Candace qu’en sa chambre le mist
What struck me when I skimmed through all this was that it was written more than a thousand years after Alexander lived and looted. But it was so powerful and popular that it served to form in the minds of the people of the Middle Ages an image of Alexander that persists to this day. The imperialist ventures of Alexander would have been partially or totally forgotten but for this epic, some scholars say; or been totally different if an Alexander-hating poet had written about him. For one thing, a conqueror who was probably feared and cursed by the hundreds of thousands of people he victimized became in the minds of the reader of this poem a hero of the highest order, deserving of respect and regard, admiration and veneration.
This may be said of every hero and conqueror in history: thoroughly detested by countless victims, but honored and memorialized by the eloquence, persuasive and poetic, of able authors. Indeed, the heroes of ancient literature, whether of history or mythology, whether human or semi-divine, have gained indelible statures in many cultures, and pride of place in the hearts of worshipping multitudes all over the world. For every Ashoka there were thousands who perished in the Kalinga war, for every Caesar there were thousands who fell under his trampling soldiers.
Yes, they are gone, one and all of them, victors and victims alike. The ruthless conquerors have their able successors in our own times. Now, intruding belligerents are not as successful as internal despots and petty tyrants who hold sway over their people. They too probably have their adulating poets, and they too will thus be memorialized in the annals of their nations, except that a new revolution may well erupt in the country and the mob would the depose and despise the current upstart. This happened to Hitler and Mussolini and the Shah of Iran, to Stalin and Lenin and Mao, to Trujillo and Papa Doc. Others are in the waiting for their turn to be dumped into the dark and dirty dustbin of their respective national histories.
January 12, 2011
PS: This piece was written before the Arab Spring of 2011.