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Alexander the Great’s Encounters with Sea Monsters

sea monster
Alexander the Great is said to have encountered sea monsters during his campaigns. Credit: Johann Bayer / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

As one of the most famous figures in human history, it comes as little surprise that the life of Alexander the Great is tied to several legends of mythic proportions, of which several concern the conqueror’s encounters with sea monsters.

Alexander’s armies traversed much of the known ancient world, leaving their native Macedon far behind them. Over the course of their long campaigns, they encountered many strange sights, some of which may have inspired later myths and legends.

At least two historians, from the ancient and medieval periods, described Alexander the Great and his encounters with sea monsters. The first was Diodorus Sciulus, a Greek historian of the 1st century BC and the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun of the 14th century AD.

The sea creature at the siege of Tyre, 332 BC

In 323 BC, the intrepid Macedonian king laid siege to Tyre, a well-fortified Phoenician city-state on the coast of the Mediterranean. The city was extremely difficult to penetrate because it was located on an island and was defended by high walls that came right up to the sea.

Nevertheless, it was necessary to capture Tyre to deny the Persians access to a strategically important naval base. Thus, Alexander ordered his engineers to prepare artillery pieces and siege works for an assault on the city.

However, whilst this effort was underway, a strange event in which the army of Alexander the Great encountered a sea monster in the waters around Tyre occurred, according to the writings of Diodorus Siculus.

hippocamp
Late 5th century ancient Greek red-figure pottery depicting a hippocamp, a mythical creature with a horse’s body and the tail of a fish. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0, / Wikimedia Commons

“As the Macedonian construction came within range of their missiles, portents were sent by the gods to them in their danger,” wrote Diodorus Siculus.  “Out of the sea, a tidal wave tossed a sea monster of incredible size into the midst of the Macedonian operations.”

“It crashed into the mole but did it no harm, remained resting a portion of its body against it for a long time and then swam off into the sea again,” continued the Greek historian. “This strange event threw both sides into superstition, each imagining that the portent signified that Poseidon would come to their aid, for they were swayed by their own interest in the matter.”

A less fantastical explanation for this incident is possible than a mythical sea monster sent by Poseidon. The creature in question may have been a shark, dolphin, whale, or other entirely normal aquatic inhabitant.

Alexander the Great and the sea monsters of Alexandria

The siege of Tyre was not the only time Alexander is said to have encountered a sea monster. According to the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun, he saw several mythical aquatic beasts in Egypt.

In fact, Ibn Khaldun claimed that sea monsters initially halted the construction of Alexandria until Alexander devised a way to scare them away from the area.

“Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria,” wrote the scholar. “He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw.”

According to Ibn Khaldun, “He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria.”

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