Worlds Unconquered

I like epigraphs; those short quotes found at the beginning of a chapter or a book, which in theory have something to do with what you are about to read. They often foreshadow the developments of the chapter, or provide a verisimilitude of historical accuracy to an ultimately fictional story.

One of the biggest problems in finding good epigraphs is the utter inability of the average person to properly source their quotes before splattering them across the internet. For example, BrainyQuote, to name one popular repository of misinformation, has enshrined one of Niccolò Machiavelli’s most popular quotes near the top of its Machiavelli page:

“I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.”

I thought this was a terrific quote, worthy of inclusion as an epigraph in one of my stories, but I had read Machiavelli, Hill Thompson’s 1913 translation to be precise, and I did not remember Machiavelli talking about overthrowing the status quo.

I was confident that, as sixteenth century Italian politician, a certain preservation of the status quo would be one of his primary goals. This assumption was somewhat unfounded, but my doubts did kick off an investigation, in which I discovered that this delightful summation of iconoclasm belonged not to Machiavelli but rather the American politician Newt Gingrich. 1

I decided an epigraph citing Newt lacked the panache required by my text—so the quote at the top of the chapter reads:

“‘I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.’ — Commonly misattributed to Niccolò Machiavelli.”

My conscience can now rest easy knowing, that while this is not the most accurate attribution in the history of quotations, it is at least truthful.

All of the above is the lead-in to my latest bit of online sleuthing, and my opportunity to do the world a service. In the 1988 film Die Hard, Hans Gruber, played by the inimitable Alan Rickman says: “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept—for there were no more worlds to conquer. Benefits of a classical education.”

In the director’s commentary John McTiernan mentions that he added the line to script to, “Set up that he was a bit pretentious, and his concern that people know that he was an educated man.” Not only is this line a late addition to the script, it is also a late addition to classical authorship, not extant in any of the Greek or Roman histories.

So, where did it come from?

Unlike the Cristopher Columbus quote they invented out of whole cloth for the end of McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October, this quote does have origins in antiquity. Plutarch writes in his Moralia:

“When Alexander heard from Anaxarchus of the infinite number of worlds, he wept, and when his friends asked him what was the matter, he replied, ‘Is it not a matter for tears that, when the number of worlds is infinite, I have not conquered one?’”2

This quote contains the key elements of Gruber’s line from Die Hard: Alexander, tears, worlds, and conquest; yet it conveys the opposite meaning. Plutarch’s Alexander weeps not for the bounds set upon his global conquest, but rather because that conquest has fallen short of totality. How did this disparity arise?

I will admit that I am not equipped to easily discover the answer; I don’t read Greek or Latin. (Although I was able to demonstrate to my own satisfaction that this twisting of Plutarch’s original thought did not occur in either the anonymous 3rd century Alexander Romance or Quintus Curtius Rufus’s Historiae Alexandri Magni.)

My inquiry has been primarily limited to searching English texts and translations. It was not difficult to determine that this corruption took place a very long time ago. Before William Shakespeare and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men ever set foot on stage, the idea that Alexander bemoaned the paucity of territories open to conquest was deeply entrenched in the English mind.

In 1592, the poet Henry Constable printed a collection of sonnets entitled: Diana. The praises of his Mistres, in certaine sweete Sonnets., in one of which he writes:

But even as Alexander (when he knew
his Fathers conquests) wept, least he should leave
no Kingdome unto him for to subdue:
so shall thy Mother thee of praise bereave.3
(For the sake of clarity in this and all other quotes, I have removed the long S’s and swapped the U’s for V’s)

If we take the title of Constable's sonnet at face value, it was written in 1588, and is the first inversion of Plutarch’s anecdote that I have been able to discover. In the poem we see Alexander’s tears are apprehensive; as he considers Philip of Macedon’s achievements, he realizes it is entirely possible that there may be nothing left for him to accomplish.

By 1628 the juxtaposition becomes more cemented. Robert Hayman, the governor of Bristol's Hope, in an ode to Sir William Alexander contrasts Alexander the great’s shortcoming with his patron’s conquest of a new world a.k.a. Newfoundland.

Great Alexander wept, and made sad mone,
Because there was but one World to be wonne.
It ioyes my heart, when such wise men as you,
Conquer new Worlds which that Youth neuer knew.4

Circa 1708, Jonathan Swift, famed author of Gulliver’s travels, sets the quote in a familiar and less complicated rendition. “I have read in a certain Author, that Alexander wept because he had no more worlds to conquer;”5

This particular comment is maddening because Swift never mentions where he read this. It does, however, suggest that by the early 1700s the incorrect version of the Alexander myth was becoming more popular.

I could carry on with more examples, but a quick perusal of historical literature suggests that by the 1800s Plutarch’s version of the tale was being replaced by the misbegotten alternative. It is probable that the tipping point was after the printing of Lord Byron’s Age of Bronze in 1823. Byron was one of the most popular literary figures of his day. His poetry was read and appreciated by millions. If Age of Bronze fails to possess the same lyrical intensity as “The Destruction of Sennacharib”, it nonetheless poignantly reminds us that Alexander, for all his conquests, was not the master of the entire earth.

Though Alexander’s urn a show be grown
On shores he wept to conquer, though unknown—
How vain, how worse than vain, at length appear
The madman’s wish, the Macedonian’s tear!
He wept for worlds to conquer—half the earth
Knows not his name, or but his death, and birth,
And desolation; while his native Greece
Hath all of desolation, save its peace.
He “wept for worlds to conquer!” he who ne’er
Conceived the Globe, he panted not to spare!
With even the busy Northern Isle unknown,
Which holds his urn—and never knew his throne.6

By the time the 6th edition of McGuffey’s Reader was published in 1857, the misquote had been transferred from the realm of lyrical poetry and philosophical musings to a simple statement of history. In a moralizing paragraph found before a rather ironic poem entitled The Child’s Inquiry the author states:

“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.’”7

So here we are, Hans Gruber’s classical education may have been focused on the Elizabethan poets, or perhaps it focused on the romantics Byron, Shelly and Keats, or maybe he made it up. When you are scenery chewing villain, it helps if your threats have a lyrical quality. In any case, if you want to talk about worlds unconquered, please remember that while history mentions that alexander wept over his fallen foes, wept over the desolation that would fall upon his kingdom when he died, and may even have wept over a strange proto-epicurean philosophy; he did not weep because he was too blind too see beyond the Indus River to a people he never did subdue.

1: Peter Osterlund, “A Capitol Chameleon,” Los Angeles Times. 25 August 1991.

2: Shilletto, Arthur Richard, trans. Plutarch’s Morals, pp 292. London: George Bell and Son, 1888.

3: Constable, Henry, Diana. The praises of his Mistres, in certaine sweete Sonnets., pp 30. London: Printed for Richard Smith, 1592

4: Hayman, Robert. Quodlibets, Lately Come Over From New Britaniola, Old Newfoundland., Vol. 2, pp 35. London: Printed for Roger Michell, 1628

5: Swift, Jonathan, The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift., Vol 3, pp 177. London: Printed for C. Bathurst, 1751.

6: Byron, Lord George. Age of Bronze, pp 6. Printed for John Hunt, 1823.

7: McGuffey, William, ed. McGuffey’s New Fourth Eclectic Reader, pp 115. Cincinnati: Wilson, Hinkle & Co., 1857.