This article was co-written and researched by Lyla Sparks.
"When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer."
For some years now many posters on the Forum of pothos.org have enquired about the origin of this - perhaps most famous - quote about Alexander the Great.
A handful of websites attribute this quote to the English poet John Milton (1608-1674), but they never mention any specific citation or poem. An extensive text search to verify the attribution to Milton did not produce any results. Although Milton does make some references to Alexander in both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, it is never in the same context or in words matching the quote in question.
The origins of this alleged 'Milton' quote have been debated extensively on alt.quotations and on Quoteland.com. This has provided the following information.
- W.W. Tarn, in his Alexander The Great II, 262 (1948) says that it does not occur anywhere in ancient writings, not even in the Alexander romances.
- Burnam, in Dictionary of Misinformation (1975) cites Plutarch's passage as 'proof' that the story of Alexander's tears upon conquering the world is a myth. It might have been an apocryphal distortion of facts. We know that Alexander did weep on two ocassions (at least).
- Segrais, on this subject of a hero's shedding tears, observes that historians commend Alexander for weeping when he read the mighty actions of Achilles; and Julius Caesar is likewise prais'd, when, out of the same noble envy, he wept at the victories of Alexander. See Virgil (19 B.C.), in The Aeneid (translated by John Dryden).
- The reference to Caesar weeping after comparing himself with Alexander also appears in Plutarch as: "To which Caesar made answer seriously, 'For my part, I had rather be the first man among these fellows, than the second man in Rome.' It is said that another time, when free from business in Spain, after reading some part of the history of Alexander, he sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. 'Do you think,' said he, 'I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?'"
- Another text which mentions the quote is McGuffey's New Fourth Eclectic Reader, Lesson XXXVI (1866). "Alexander lived many hundred years ago. He was king of Macedon, one of the states of Greece. His life was spent in war. He first conquered the other Grecian states, and then Persia, and India, and other countries one by one, till the whole known world was conquered by him. It is said that he wept, because there were no more worlds for him to conquer. He died, at the age of thirty-three, from drinking too much wine. In consequence of his great success in war, he was called Alexander the Great."
- Robert Hayman, in Quodlibets Book II, 95 (1628). "Great Alexander wept, and made sad mone, because there was but one world to be wonne.
- Samuel Butler, in Hudibras part 1 (1663). "The whole world was not half so wide to Alexander, when he cried because he had but one to subdue, as was a paltry narrow tub to Diogenes."
So for a while it seemed we would never find a definitive answer to the origins of the quote, but there were some more references of interest.
On the 9th of July 2001, on the Forum of pothos.co.uk Tre has suggested Aelian (170-230 A.D.) as possibly the oldest source of the quote. Check Aelian's Historical Miscellany. And finally, on friday 9th of November 2001, on our Forum, Tre reported to have found the most likely source, Plutarch's essay in his Moralia entitled "On Contentment of the Mind". It reads: 'Alexander cried when he heard Anaxarchus talk about the infinite number of worlds in the universe. One of Alexander's friends asked him what was the matter, and he replied: "There are so many worlds, and I have not yet conquered even one."'
The quote from the Moralia can be found on e-classics, so everyone is invited to check the reference there. It appears that Tre has resolved the mystery once and for all.
Many thanks to Lyla Sparks and Tre for their combined efforts.
Written by nick