Polo on Alexander on Polo

This New Year I’m going to ask you to watch a bit of Shakespeare, which is no huge imposition. We’re in the first act of Henry V, and the Dauphin of France has dramatically misjudged the new king Henry’s character, responding to his claims on France with a gift “meeter for his spirit”, a box of tennis balls. Henry is just a child and should stick to childish things, the implication is. But Henry proves how mature and resolute an opponent he will be by turning the jibe back on the French.

Brian Blessed making the most of a limited script there. As an O-level student many, many moons ago I studied Henry V (and sniggered at the “turn his balls to gun-stones” line, yes), but it was only very recently, when I was reviewing a very interesting book on the “Alexander Romance” (which I’ll come back to), that I realised that the whole scene is actually based on an episode from the life of Alexander the Great. Shortly after I realised this, I discovered (a common occurrence this, for academics) that someone else has realised the very same thing more than a hundred years before me.

Shucks. But it’s still interesting.

The episode in question was when Alexander, contemplating his invasion of Persia, received an embassy from the Persian king Darius, bearing gifts. The precise character of the gifts varies with the telling, as we shall see, but what is a constant is that the gifts that Darius sends to the Macedonian king imply that Alexander is still just a boy (and so shouldn’t bother himself with grown-up things like conquering the Persian Empire); and that in response Alexander offers his own, opposite interpretation of the gifts, as signs that his campaign against Persia will, on the contrary, be overwhelmingly successful.

So an early telling of the story has Darius send to Alexander a whip, a ball, and a casket full of gold, with a letter explaining their meaning: the whip indicating the discipline that the boy Alexander could still benefit from, a ball for him to play with, and gold to indicate the wealth and power of Persia. But Alexander answers Darius with his own interpretation of the gifts (here in an Armenian version, translated by Wolohojian):

you sent me as gifts, a whip, a ball, and a chest of gold. You gave me this present to make fun of me, but I have received it and taken it as a good omen. I took the whip to mean that by my valour and arms I shall thrash the barbarians and, having given them a mighty beating, shall subjugate them into slavery. And I took the ball, which you had designated for me, to mean that I shall master the world and hold it in my power–for the world is ball-shaped, a sphere. And the chest of gold was a great omen you sent me; for in sending it you announced your obedience to me. For having been defeated by me and fallen into my power, you shall humbly pay tribute to me.

The similarity to Shakespeare’s scene is obvious enough, and the first thing to say is that this is a very meaningful reminiscence: throughout the play Shakespeare is keen to associate Henry with Alexander (“Turn him to any cause of policy,/ The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,” etc.; my namesake Fluellen has something to say on it, too), two unexpectedly but spectacularly able young warrior-kings, and to lend Henry’s righteous invasion of France the status of Alexander’s conquest of Persia. So even though the story of the tennis balls had been told of Henry V for a long time before Shakespeare (who found it in sources stretching almost as far back as Henry V’s actual reign), it clearly retained its original association with Alexander.

Secondly, though, and I should probably have made this clear earlier, the episode of Darius’ gifts was not a historical event in the real Alexander’s life, but one of a host of fanciful stories that came to be attached to Alexander in popular tradition in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and are collectively known as the Alexander Romance. This tradition began with a novel, now lost, written in Greek in Egypt quite possibly only shortly after Alexander’s death, but the story, rewritten and embellished but always recognisably a single tradition, proved astonishingly resilient, ultimately travelling as far as Iceland in one direction and China in the other: Muslim merchants seemingly ensured the presence of these stories in Chinese geographical texts. This mythical Alexander has very little in common with his historical counterpart. He explores the ocean in a diving bell, and the sky in a flying machine; protects the world from the Unclean Nations, Gog and Magog, with a great wall; and goes in search, unsuccessfully, of the water of eternal life.

Here’s just one example of the astonishing diffusion and persistence of the Alexander Romance: the tales that Marco Polo encountered when he passed through Badakhshan, northern Afghanistan, on his way to China in the thirteenth century (Yule’s translation):

Badashan is a Province inhabited by people who worship Mahommet, and have a peculiar language. It forms a very great kingdom, and the royalty is hereditary. All those of the royal blood are descended from King Alexander and the daughter of King Darius, who was Lord of the vast Empire of Persia. And all these kings call themselves in the Saracen tongue Zulcarniain, which is as much as to say Alexander; and this out of regard for Alexander the Great.

What Polo had heard were stories that we find across the Islamic world in Arabic, Persian, Mandinka and Malay. In this fictionalized version of Alexander’s life his bride Roxane (who in fact came from Bactria, not far from Badakhshan) became the daughter of the Persian king Darius, and Alexander himself was identified with the mysterious figure of Dhu’l-qarnayn, the “Two-horned”, described in Sura 18 of the Qur’an. According to Richard Stoneman, author of a brilliant survey of the Alexander Romance, Alexander’s “legend lived on in oral tradition in Afghanistan perhaps longer than in any other part of the world except Greece.” The stories were certainly alive and kicking when the West renewed its acquaintance with Afghanistan: the Alexander folklore that British soldiers encountered in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, for example, fed their delusion that they were in a familiar and welcoming place. But the same essential tradition of stories was found in Muslim Mali, Christian Ethiopia, in Mongolia, and in England, and pretty much everywhere in between, subtly adapted to suit the host culture, so that in Islamic versions Alexander becomes a thoroughly Muslim figure, in Christian Christian, and in Jewish Jewish. In Mongolia Alexander takes on the attributes of a Mongol Khan.

But I want to concentrate on the scene picked up by Shakespeare, Darius’ gifts, partly because it illustrates the dynamics, but also the essential consistency, of the Alexander tradition, and partly because the way this scene gets elaborated over time and across cultures is simply fascinating.

By the time we get to a tenth-century Latin version of the story by Leo the Archpriest of Naples (translated from a Greek version he found during a diplomatic mission to Constantinople), which became the major vehicle of the Alexander myth in Europe, Darius’ whip and ball have become a ball and a “curved rod”; and in expanded versions of Leo, in the twelfth century, known as the Historia de Proeliis, we find a pila ludrica, “a ball for playing,” and a zocani, an obscure word which in Byzantine Greek is tzukanion but is originally the Persian word چوگان, chowgan, used in the traditional Persian game of guy-o-chowgan, “ball and mallet,” better known as polo.


Over time, it seems, the general implication of childish play borne by Darius’ gifts hardens into a more precise evocation of a formal game. In the Persian tradition, apparently echoed in Leo, Darius encourages Alexander to go and play polo; and in Henry V the young king’s advised to stick to tennis. But what’s the relationship between the Persian versions of the Alexander Romance and the version that feeds into Henry V? Have the two traditions just developed naturally, and quite independently, in the same direction, from generic play to formalized sport? If so, the sports in question are remarkably similar, in England one “royal” sport, Real (i.e. Royal) Tennis, and in Persia the proverbial Sport of Kings, polo.

That’s interesting enough, but the more exciting possibility is that in the fiendishly complex and convoluted history of the Alexander Romance currents from the Persian East fed into European versions of the story, in other words that in the tennis balls received by Henry V of England we have a distant echo of the Persian game of polo.

Well, Shakespeare’s audience knew that they were seeing Henry built up as a latter-day Alexander, but they wouldn’t have had a clue that this story of Henry/Alexander had been forged in the most remarkable international storytelling crucible, the tradition of the Alexander Romance, perhaps with a crucial contribution from Persia.

And as an example of cross-cultural interaction in the Middle Ages, that would frankly take the entire packet of digestives.


About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

3 responses to “Polo on Alexander on Polo”

  1. CC says :

    Very late, but my favorite bit of Marco Polo’s account of the kingdom of Badakshan is that until shortly before his visit the kings had mantained a herd of unicorns (!) all descended from Boukephalas.

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