There are two Coptic romances: the Alexander Romance and the Cambyses Romance.
The Alexander Romance
All genres of literature—from history to poetry—include chronicles of the life of Alexander the Great of Macedonia (reigned 336-323 B.C.). The most widespread work, the Alexander Romance, is falsely ascribed to the Greek historian Callisthenes (c. 370-327 B.C.).
In different forms, whether varying recensions, synopses, or entirely new collections, the Alexander Romance filtered into the Middle East and later into the West. As a result, the history of the transmission of the work has become very complicated.
The Coptic version played an active role in that transmission. Probably during the sixth century, a text translated from Greek into Coptic was revised and perfected, and it gained an independent character that gave it a special place in the development of the romance. The fragmentary Coptic (Sahidic) version was taken from a book in the White Monastery (DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH) of Apa Shenute the Great near Suhaj in Upper Egypt.
Originally the 220-page manuscript consisted of about thirty-seven chapters. In all probability, each chapter had for its motto a verse from the Bible. The surviving recensions deal with Alexander among the Elamites, his rescue from the abyss (chaos) by Antilochos (Eurylochos in Gedrosia), how the disguised Alexander discovers the fidelity of the Macedonians and the disloyalty of the Persian King Agrikolaos, the legacy of the true Selpharios, Alexander’s sojourn near the four streams of Paradise on the borders of the land of darkness, Alexander with the Brahmans, and finally Alexander’s murder by poisoning. The last fragment closely resembles the text of Pseudo- Callisthenes.
The style of these Coptic versions of the Alexander Romance duplicates the literature of edification written by the monks. The narratives extend the stories of the martyrs and also of the apocalypses. Those who treat some Coptic literature as being “profane” err; Coptic literature is Christian. As a tool of God, Alexander could be considered a prophet; as a martyr, he foreshadowed Christ.
The Cambyses Romance
Of the Cambyses Romance there remains only a fragmentary version of six parchment leaves in poor condition at the Staatliches Museum in Berlin (P9009; probably eighth or ninth century). The text is written in Sahidic Coptic, and undoubtedly formed part of a larger manuscript of unknown origin.
The romance deals with the Persian King Cambyses II (reigned 529-522 B.C.). The epistle of Cambyses to the “Inhabitants of the East” attempts to incite them against Egypt and the pharaoh without success. Helped by the wise Bothros, the addressees stand firmly by Egypt, the pharaoh, and the holy bull Apis, god of Memphis. In their replies to his writings, the Egyptians express their animosity toward Cambyses and their loyalty to the safe stronghold of their country. At this point, the name of Cambyses changes to the Assyrian Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 B.C.).
One of the seven wise men of Nebuchadnezzar proposes that false messengers be sent to the Egyptians to assemble them for a feast—in the name of the pharoah and in the name of their god Apis. However, the Egyptians are not to be deceived. Soothsayers reveal the plan, and under the guise of accepting the invitation, the Egyptians assemble a strong army for the pharaoh Apries (588-568 B.C.). Here the text ends, but undoubtedly an Egyptian victory occurred, in spite of recorded history about the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses II.
The incomplete state of the manuscript makes it very difficult to judge the character of this romance. It can be compared to the World Chronicle of Bishop JOHN OF NIKIOU (C. A.D. 700). But, of course, this cannot be considered a source for the romance, although both works include the prophet Jeremiah. Otherwise, the Cambyses Romance echoes the reports of the Persian invasion of Egypt. The unusual geography, in which Egypt is presented as a land of the East, can be explained from the viewpoint of the Libyan oases and its robbers infiltrating into Egypt.
We cannot know for sure the extent of the work, nor the purpose of the author. We do know that the Cambyses Romance as it survived was revised by Christian Egyptians, and this would explain the name change from Cambyses to Nebuchadnezzar. The Coptic author seems to have been a monk of Upper Egypt who probably revised an older original for his own purposes. Biblical and Greek authors (including Herodotus) are the sources for the text.
The form follows other examples of Coptic rhetoric. The fragments consist mainly of speeches and epistles. The romance was probably composed before the fifth or sixth century, or perhaps even as late as the eighth or ninth century, in response to the pressure of an Arabian invader. Jansen’s hypothesis that an Aramaic-speaking Jew participated in the revision of the story (1950, p. 33) is also possible.
Without doubt, this Coptic romance connected the Bible— ending with the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt—to the history of Egypt for the monastic community.
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- Müller, C. D. G. “Kambysesroman (kopt.).” Kindlers Literatur Lexikon, Vol. 4, ed. Wolfgang von Einsiedel, cols. 282-84. Zürich, 1965.
- Schäfer, H. “Bruchstück eines koptischen Romans uber die Eroberung Ägyptens durch Kambyses.” Sitzungsberichte der Königlichen Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 2 (1899):727-44.
- Spiegelberg, W. “Arabische Einflüsse in dem koptischen “Kambysesroman.'” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 45 (1908-1909):83-84.