Trebizond Alexander Romance

Trebizond Alexander Romance

Pontus, formerly Empire of Trebizond (Turkey) — Second half of the 14th century

A literary bestseller as political propaganda for the emperor of Trapezunt: Alexios' III staging as successor and heir of Alexander the Great in one of the finest Byzantine manuscripts ever

  1. Alexios III ruled the Empire of Trebizond for 41 years and wanted to bring it to new splendor and prestige

  2. The Emperor had himself presented as the successor and 'heir' to Alexander the Great in the Alexander romance he had commissioned

  3. 250 gold-decorated, large miniatures illuminate both the legend of Alexander the Great and Alexios III's claim to power

Trebizond Alexander Romance

Cod. Gr. 5 Archivio dell’Istituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Postbizantini (Venice, Italy)
Facsimile Copy Available!
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  1. Description
  2. Detail Picture
  3. Single Page
  4. Facsimile Editions (1)
Trebizond Alexander Romance

The Trebizond Alexander Romance is one of the most luxurious and best-preserved secular Byzantine manuscripts. It was commissioned by Emperor Alexios III in the second half of the 14th century at the imperial court of Trebizond and was intended not only to present the legendary story of Alexander the Great in an ornate setting. Rather, the opulent picture program also shows a deliberate staging of Alexios III as the successor and 'heir' of the ancient king, who functioned as an ideal for many medieval rulers. Although the manuscript bears clear traces of its eventful ownership history, it has lost hardly any of its former splendor and still radiates the intended courtly claim to power.

A Literary Classic

The so-called Alexander romance contains the pseudo-historical legend of the biography of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). It tells mainly about his countless battles and military successes in the expansion of his dominion. Especially in the Middle Ages, the text enjoyed great popularity and its wide dissemination and the many translations contributed to the emergence of different versions of the story over time – Many of them 'Christianized' the ancient text and made Alexander an ideal and model of Christian rulers.
The Greek copy from the Istituto Ellenico holds a particularly detailed version of the tradition-rich text and was probably produced by an unknown scribe in the second half of the 14th century at the imperial court of Trebizond for Emperor Alexios III (1338–1390).

Fine Art for Political Propaganda

The Empire of Trebizond, with its eponymous 'capital', was a successor state of the Byzantine Empire founded after the conquest of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade in 1204. It comprised what is now known as Pontos and was formerly Byzantine territory on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Alexios III's 41-year reign began when he usurped the throne of the small empire in 1349. He took over an empire that was in a state of civil war, which he then sought to pacify by any means necessary. His goal was to recapture the glory of the early days of the empire and regain political prestige in the region in order to assert himself against Constantinople.
These efforts are also evident in the magnificent Alexander romance: in its picture program, Alexios III appears as the successor and 'heir' of Alexander the Great, whose story is actually told in the manuscript. Thus, a continuity between Alexander's powerful Empire of antiquity and the Empire of Trebizond is depicted, which should additionally legitimize Alexios' claim to power. This becomes particularly clear, on the one hand, in the depictions of the ancient ruler in Byzantine imperial garb, i.e. as a Byzantine emperor, but also in the opposing images of Alexander and Alexios on the first pages of the manuscript. Thus, there was once a portrait of the first at the beginning of the codex, which was followed by the still preserved, but badly damaged, frontal representation of Alexios III. – today fol. 1r.

Legendary images in imperial garb

The propagandistic details are found in almost all 250 large-scale miniatures, which were placed by three unknown illuminators on only 386 pages. The expressive and multi-figured images can be read almost like a comic novel and provide the reader with a colorful insight into the almost mythical life of Alexander the Great. His birth, his legendary fights with terrible monsters, the numerous battles, his weddings as well as his death are particularly focused on. The scenes are decribed by captions in red display script, which was also used for title lines and initials.
The dominant miniatures usually take up about half a page, but were also frequently executed on a full page and are then usually divided into two registers. The dynamic, polychrome sceneries unfold in striking red frames. Particularly striking is the exuberant use of gold leaf, which was employed not only for any backgrounds, but also for countless details in the robes of the figures. This sumptuous decoration also radiates courtly power and political legitimacy of rule.

Testimony to an eventful history

The old splendor still dwells in the manuscript today, although it bears clear traces of its changing ownership history. In the course of time, not only was the binding and thus the order of the folios changed, but some were also lost. And the surviving leaves are corroded - partly due to the pigments used - and the ink has faded in many places. On the other hand, the valuable manuscript also received some additions: After Trebizond was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1461, it passed into the hands of Ottoman owners, who added Turkish inscriptions in black ink to the miniatures. After that, the manuscript reappears in the sources only at the beginning of the 19th century, in Venice, where it was possibly brought by Konstantinos Maroutses (Maruzzi), in whose possession it was until shortly after his death in 1846. Thirty years later it was in the Archbishop's Library of San Giorgio dei Greci, and in 1879 it was part of the possessions of the Greek Brotherhood of Venice. Eventually, in 1953, it was transferred to the newly established Istituto Ellenico in Venice.


Alternative Titles
Codex 5 (The Venice Alexander Romance)
Alexanderroman aus Trapezunt
Venice Alexander Romance
Codex Greacus 5
Size / Format
386 pages / 32.0 × 24.0 cm
Second half of the 14th century
Greek Minuscule Naskh script
250 miniatures, many of them full-page, and a magnificently decorated heading
Romance of Alexander
Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond (1338–1390)
Artist / School
Previous Owners
Konstantinos Maroutses
San Giorgio dei Greci
Confraternita greca di Venezia

Available facsimile editions:
Codex 5 (The Venice Alexander Romance)
Istituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Postbizantini – Venice, 2022
Detail Picture

Trebizond Alexander Romance

Alexander and Bukephalos

Alexander's legendary horse Bucephalus, which means 'ox-headed', is probably one of the most famous animals in history. Bought by Alexander's father Philip II, it could not be tamed by anyone. Just the 12-year-old Alexander realized that the horse was afraid of its shadow and was finally able to ride it. As a result, Bucephalus accompanied him in all his battles. Accordingly, the military commander is also frequently depicted on his steed in the Trebizond Alexander Romance.

Codex 5 (The Venice Alexander Romance)
Single Page

Trebizond Alexander Romance

Alexander sends out heralds

After his first victorious battle with 15, the cocky Alexander in the upper register sends messengers to all possible lands to announce his demand: the subservience of the other kingdoms. After receiving the document to be delivered from Alexander, the two couriers in the flamboyant triangular red hats with round pom-poms set off in the upper right, not seeming particularly convinced of their mission.

The lower register shows that their concerns were justified: They were hanged. Alexander's demands especially enraged the Tyrians, who under no circumstances wanted to subject their city to a still insignificant youngster. Alexander probably reads this answer in the document unrolled in front of him.

Codex 5 (The Venice Alexander Romance)
Facsimile Editions

#1 Codex 5 (The Venice Alexander Romance)

Binding: Dark brown hardcover with blind tooling and four metalworks. Facsimile and commentary volume come in a matching case.
Commentary: 1 volume by Flora Karagianni, Theodora Antonopoulou, Amphilochios Papathomas, Karla Grammatiki and Timoleon Galanis
Language: English, Greek
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the five surviving leaves of the original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €
(under 1,000€)
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