The Alexandreis, Book X

At the close of Book IX, Alexander has conquered the world, and sets his sites on more distant pastures:
The boundary of the world lies near at hand.
Not to provoke the ill will of the gods,
the world’s too narrow, and the breadth of the earth
is insufficient for its only lord.
Bu when I’ve passed beyond this conquered universe,
I’ll undertake to open to my followers
another world.  The strong man finds no goal
insuperable.  I hasten now to penetrate
the shores of the Antipodes, and view
the other Nature. Though you begrudge your arms,
I cannot fail in duty to myself.
I’ll think the entire world my theater,
and move my troops throughout its length, ennobling
ignoble lands and peoples by my wars.
While I stand as your duke, your feel will trample
lands hidden from all races by great Nature.
IX.655-69
This troubles Nature, who decides she must put a stop to the Macedonian before he shatters the rightful order of things even more:
That same while, Nature with a mindful grief
recalled how both the world and she herself
had suffered insult from the prince, who’d called
the earth too narrow and prepared armed throngs
to lay open her secret parts.  Distressed,
her noble white hair tangled, she left off
her latest works, the figures she’d begun
to form of Matter, and in rage she ceased
instilling souls into diverse limbs.  Veiled
in cloudy mantle, toward the Styx she turned,
and to the hidden kingdoms of the second world.
The elements gave quarter where she trod
and rose to meet their Shaper. Newly calmed,
the air worshiped the advent of the goddess.
In vernal pleasure Earth’s flowers burst forth,
the sea reined in the waves more than its wont,
and now the tumid billows held their silence.
All things bestowed on Nature worth honor,
praying that what she’d sown she’d multiply,
and grant increase unto the seeds of things,
infusing warmth and moisture.  Paying thanks
to her creatures, she bade them keep her laws
and in nothing exceed the bounds she’d set.
X.6-28
So, Nature goes to Hell (!) and enlists Leviathan, “the father of all crimes and their avenger”, by threatening him with the possibility of Alexander laying siege to Paradise itself, “What praise is yours, serpent, what glory, that you cast the first man out, if such a garden should yield its honors up to Alexander?” (X.116-8) Can Hell be far behind?
Everything about this is fascinating.  The way Nature is portrayed – veiled, shaping matter, all created things growing calm at her advent – especially so (there’s an interesting parallel between creation’s reaction to Nature and the nations of the world’s reactions to Alexander later in the book).
Plus, I love the descriptions of Hell:
Without delay, he roused the shadowy town
and called a council, bellowing across
the ancient plain of evils, which there lay
hardened by ice, and ravaged by the snows,
unconquered by the sun or gentle breeze.
X.123-9
Anyway, as you might expect, the Devil is all about killing Alexander and sets Treachery to the task.  Stirred by treachery, Antipater does the actual killing and the rest is, literally, history.
There’s one more passage I found especially poignant.  Alexander knows that when he conquers the whole world he will die, yet he refuses to stop, unquenchable is his desire for glory and conquest:
No otherwise, the tiger sees far off
a herd of horses, and a bitter thirst
burns in he flashing jaws; then is she lashed
by hunger’s goad to drink in living blood,
and savagely devours the shredded limbs;
but if, perchance, upon a hidden path
the tracking hunter’s spear pierces her flank,
she wails, he blood poured out, and dies upon
the grass, still thirsting, still unslaked with gore.
X.299-307
What better way to describe the end of Alexander?

 

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The Alexandreis, Walter of Châtillon

Lately, I feel like I’ve lost some of my connection to the Medieval world.  I’m rooted in Honorius, but not in the Middle Ages more broadly.  In an attempt to rectify this, and to get through some books that I’ve long had on my to read/to reread list, I’m going to try to read a number of “medieval” books during my free time for the next few months.
For accountability, I’m going to try to post my thoughts on each here.

First up, the Alexandreis, a 12th century epic poem on the life of Alexander the Great by Walter of Chatillon.  It’s pretty fun and was rather popular in its day, well worth a read.
Like any good epic poem, the Alexandreis also serves as a primer on geography, and I found Walter’s description of Jerusalem especially beautiful.  It was perhaps my favorite passage in the book:
Then over all the fields of Palestine
towers the one Judaea of one God,
and at the center of the earth, Jerusalem
is set, where, sprung from virgin womb, Life died,
nor was a reborn world content to stand,
but shuddered, stricken, at the death of God.
I.492-7
Tarsus also:
He therefore sent a force under Parmenion
to save a half-dead Tarsus from their flames —
Tarsus that was adorned, as Scripture tells,
by his illustrious birth through whom faith’s lamp
shone on nations long blinded by their error.
Pure and unsullied, through the city’s midst
there flows the Cignus, drawing its cold streams
from bubbling springs.  Content with its own waters,
receiving none from other falling torrents,
it tosses pebbles in its swirl, and sand
rolls playfully beneath its swift descent.
II.160
Interesting the use of the past tense in both passages, the cities are somehow already adorned by events of centuries later.  That the Incarnation’s effects echo backward and forward in time (I picture ripples in a pond after a stone’s been dropped in) is, I think, an underappreciated facet of medieval thought.  I’m certain it has interesting implications for their understanding of history, which I’d love to explore one day.
Early on we also run into Zoroas of Memphis, whose story deserves to be recounted at length.  Zoroas is quite the impressive figure,
…whom none surpassed
in starry lore, or in foreknowledge of
mundane affairs.  He knew beneath what star
the fields suffer a dearth, what year bears fruit,
the source from which come winter’s snows, what mildness
impregnates the warm soil in early spring,
why summer burns, what grants autumn a robe
hung round with grapes.  He knew whether the circle
can be squared, whether music forms
celestial harmonies, and what proportion holds
among the four elements; what force compels
the planets on a course against the world,
what grades divide them, and which star impedes
the rage of the adverse Old Man, which tempers Mars;
how each seeks out its house, which holds its sway
within this hemisphere.  He sought their paths,
noted their hours, and all human events
perceived among the stars.  I say too little-
all heaven’s vault he held within his breast.
And since he presaged fate and coming death
by heaven’s portents, nor could turn aside
the fatal sequence, boldly he pushed through
to meet the Macedonian’s commander.
IV.171-193
Alexander is reluctant to kill such a distinguished man,
“Portent that you are, live on,
whoever you may be.  Do not destroy
in death, I pray, the lodging of such arts.
O never may my right hand an my sword
endeavor to make gory such a brain
The world has use of you.  What error, then,
drives you in longing towards the Stygian banks,
where knowledge never flowers?”
IV.209-216
Yet, Zoroas refuses to relent in his attack and is brutally killed, having his legs sliced off at the knee before,
A varied rabble then hacked him to pieces,
and set the man again among the stars.
IV.225-6
I just find so much fascinating here, the interaction of fate and free will, Zoroas containing within himself “all heaven’s vault”, discerning all human affairs in celestial motion (a sort of semi-sanctioned “white magic” during the Middle Ages), and his death placing him back amidst the stars, a happy cap to a gruesome end.
The tenth book is extremely interesting, and I think I’ll try to dedicate a separate post to it.