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Durham University

Department of English Studies


Academic Staff

Publication details for Dr David Ashurst

Ashurst, David (2009). The Ethics of Empire in the Saga of Alexander the Great: a study based on MS AM 519a 4to. Reykjavik: Bókmenntafræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands.
  • Publication type: Authored book
  • ISSN/ISBN: 9789979548614
  • Keywords: Alexander Norse Saga History Empire

Author(s) from Durham


The book argues that the ethical judgements of Alexanders saga on Alexander the Great’s imperial venture are much more positive than has sometimes been suggested, but at the same time are radically ambiguous in ways that have not previously been acknowledged. It examines the ethical issues of the following: Alexander’s accession to universal power; the roles of fame and the goddess Fortuna; the advice given by Aristotle; the effects of Babylonian luxury; the speech of a Scythian spokesman for national liberty; the mythological scene in Hell; and the treatment of Alexander’s death. Two episodes are indicated as the narrative’s most important cruces, from which stem much of the work’s ethical complexity and ambiguity. The first of these is the visitation in which Alexander receives God’s promise of hegemony over all peoples: the terms of the promise validate the imperial enterprise and also introduce the important themes of Alexander as a pagan forerunner of Christ (hence also as a potential Antichrist) and of Christian men. At the same time the promise sets up the context for the second crux, which is Alexander’s decision to attack ‘the other world’, a term that is used ambiguously to mean either the southern hemisphere, where people included in the divine promise may or may not exist, or Hell. The ethical ramifications of these possible meanings are examined, according to which Alexander may be seen as a transgressor or man of faith, as a type of Christ or of Antichrist, as a sinner whose greed can never be satisfied or a precursor of the Christian who must never rest content with this world; and it is concluded that the multivalent ethical vision thus provided by the saga is a response to the fact that Alexander was a pagan and yet was so very great.


Alexanders saga, the saga of Alexander the Great, was most probably presented by an Icelander as a gift to the joint kings of Norway in the winter of 1262-3. The Icelander, abbot Brandr Jónsson, had just been appointed bishop of Hólar by the Norwegian hierarchy, thus becoming the first native of Iceland for several decades to occupy an Icelandic see. And 1262 was the very year in which Iceland finally succumbed to pressure and became part of the Norwegian empire.
Keeping these events in sight without laying undue emphasis on them, The Ethics of Empire examines the thinking of the saga in contrast with that of its source, Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis, the most successful Latin epic of the Middle Ages. Walter’s poem is radically ambiguous in its portrayal of Alexander, but the Old Norse-Icelandic translator proves himself more than a match for his master, clarifying some issues whilst adding ambiguities of his own and producing a work of astonishing richness and subtlety. The present analysis gives special prominence to the relationship between the scene in which God promises Alexander sovereignty over all peoples and that in which the Macedonian declares his wish to conquer peoples who may live beyond the world of the northern hemisphere.

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