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Deconstructing the Alexander the Great UFO story

Marble portrait of Alexander the Great, 2nd-1st century BC (Credit: The British Museum)

Ever since the well known radio broadcaster, author and ufologist Frank Edwards published it in his book Stranger Than Science, the story of a UFO incident during the military campaigns of Alexander the Great has been repeated endless times in books, articles, TV programs and the web. Its latest incarnation appears in the just released book, UFOs in Wartime – What They Didn’t Want You to Know (Berkley Books) by Mack Maloney. It’s understandable than Maloney included this case since Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is one of the most successful and iconic military commanders of all times. Unfortunately, Maloney didn’t do any research on this particular story, limiting himself to paraphrasing the Edwards account and a second story where “flying shields” supposedly helped Alexander’s army to conquer the city of Tyre in modern-day Lebanon.

Despite the many repetitions of Alexander’s UFO story, there are only two modern versions of it and neither one provides historical references or sources. All efforts by various historians and researchers to find ancient sources have failed so far. Before mentioning these efforts by Jacques Vallee and others, let’s see first what was supposed to have happened. The first version published originally by Frank Edwards in 1959 is very brief. It comes at the end of his book in Chapter 72, “Spies in the Skies.” Edwards wrote:

Alexander the Great was not the first to see them nor was he the first to find them troublesome. He tells of two strange craft that dived repeatedly at his army until the war elephants, the men, and the horses all panicked and refused to cross the river where the incident occurred. What did the things look like? His historian describes them as great shining silvery shields, spitting fire around the rims… things that came from the skies and returned to the skies.

The second version was published in 1966 by Alberto Fenoglio in the Italian ufological publication Clypeus (issue #9, 1st Semester 1966) in an article titled, “Cronoistoria su oggetti volanti del passato – Apunti per una clipeostoria” (Chronological History of Flying Objects in the Past – Notes for a History of Shields). Fenoglio’s account, which like Edwards didn’t cite any historical sources, was in turn translated and published by the English ancient astronaut author Raymond Drake in his 1967 Gods and Spacemen in Greece and Rome (recently reprinted by Tim Beckley’s Global Communications as Alien Space Gods of Ancient Greece and Rome). After repeating the Edwards account, Drake goes on to say that Fenoglio based his version on the 19th century historian Johann Gustav Droysen, revealing the following startling information during the Macedonian siege of Tyre on 332 BC:

The fortress would not yield, its walls were fifty feet high and constructed so solidly that no siege-engine was able to damage it. The Tyrians disposed of the greatest technicians and builders of war-machines of the time and they intercepted in the air the incendiary arrows and projectiles hurled by the catapults on the city.

One day suddenly there appeared over the Macedonian camp these “flying shields”, as they had been called, which flew in triangular formation led by an exceedingly large one, the others were smaller by almost a half. In all there were five. The unknown chronicler narrates that they circled slowly over Tyre while thousands of warriors on both sides stood and watched them in astonishment. Suddenly from the largest “shield” came a lightning-flash that struck the walls, these crumbled, other flashes followed and walls and towers dissolved, as if they had been built of mud, leaving the way open for the besiegers who poured like an avalanche through the breeches. The “flying shields” hovered over the city until it was completely stormed then they very swiftly disappeared aloft, soon melting into the blue sky.

Detail of the Alexander Sarcophagus in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, showing Alexander fighting the Persians at the Battle of Issus. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Unverified account

There is a rather modern tone in this account by Fenoglio, reminiscent of contemporary UFO stories, with phrases like the objects “flew in triangular formation” and “hovered over the city until it was completely stormed.” If this was a true story and the “flying shields” played such a decisive role in a key battle, one would expect to find it mentioned by Plutarch, Quintus Curtius and all the other historians of Antiquity who wrote extensively about Alexander the Great, and yet none have been found. I looked at French translations of Droysen’s German biography of Alexander, where he described the siege of Tyre in detail. Needless to say, the flying shields and lightning-bolts are not there. He describes how the Greek army bombarded the walls heavily with catapults until a part of it finally collapsed. Moreover, I later found a more complete translation of Fenoglio’s Clypeus article where he writes that, “during the siege of Tyre in the year 332 BC, strange flying objects were observed. Johann Gustav Droysen in his History of Alexander the Great [Geschichte Alexanders des Grossen (1833)] does not cite it intentionally, believing it to be a fantasy of the Macedonian soldiers.” So Drake misunderstood completely the Droysen reference or else translated a distorted version of the original article, but either way the Fenoglio story lacks any valid ancient or modern sources.

Cover of the book Wonders in the Sky by Vallee and Aubeck, showing an artist’s rendition of Alexander’s silver shields. (Credit: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin)

All the researchers who have spent some time with this story have come up empty-handed so far. Gordon Creighton, the longtime scholarly editor of Britain’s Flying Saucer Review wrote in 1970 that, “so far I have seen no indication as to which classical author is responsible for it,” and “I hope if there is a Greek or Latin text somebody can tell me where to find it.” The Swiss ufologist Bruno Mancusi looked into it with the Macedonian historian Aleksander Donski, concluding a 2003 post in UFO Updates that “this story remains very dubious.” Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck reached the same conclusion in their recent important book, Wonders in the Sky – Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin), where they even put Alexander’s “silver shields” battle scene on the cover. The story of the Tyre siege, however, was relegated to the “Part II: Myths, Legends, and Chariots of the Gods” in their catalog of historical UFO cases. The authors first questioned the idea that there were two incidents (river and siege) involving Alexander rather than one. They also pointed out that Fenoglio was an unreliable source who had invented or embellished several ancient stories. To say, as put by Edwards, that “his historian” had described the “flying shields” is a moot point because the Deeds of Alexander written by Callisthenes (who accompanied the Macedonian King in his campaigns and wrote the official history of them) is lost. Some excerpts were quoted by later Greek and Roman historians but none cited the “flying shields.” For all these reasons, Vallee and Aubeck conclude: “Until some original source can be located, we are left with the suggestion that Alexander’s army at Tyre simply witnessed fiery projectiles, some sort of flaming weapon.”

By far the most thorough analysis of this case was made by historian Yannis Deliyannis in his excellent website “Chronicom Mirabilium – A historian’s look on ancient anomalous celestial phenomena and mysterious history,” specifically on his piece, “Did Alexander the Great really see UFOs?” posted in November 2009. After going over the same material by Edwards and Fenoglio discussed already, Deliyannis made an honest effort to find some sources to the legend. He discovered that the classical historian Quintus Curtius Rufus wrote the following in his Historia Alexandri Magni (lib. IV, cap. V):

Furthermore, they [the Tyrians] would heat bronze shields in a blazing fire, fill them with hot sand and boiling excrement and suddenly hurl them from the walls. None of their deterrents aroused greater fear than this. The hot sand would make its way between the breastplate and the body; there was no way to shake it out and it would burn through whatever it touched. The soldiers would throw away their weapons, tear off all their protective clothing and thus expose themselves to wounds without being able to retaliate.
(From Heckel, W. and Yardley, J. Alexander the Great: historical texts in translation, 2004, p. 147)

“This is as close as we can get to Fenoglio’s ‘flying shields’ by looking at ancient sources,” commented Deliyannis, “and I believe this passage from Quintus Curtius is the basis Fenoglio used for his version, whether intentionally or as a result of a (hard-to-believe) misunderstanding or mistranslation.” As for the description of “silvery shields,” Deliyannis points out that an elite unit of Alexander’s army known as the Hypaspists changed their name at the beginning of the campaign in India to Argyraspides, which means “silver shields” because they decorated their shields with silver, so that could be another source of confusion for modern writers like Edwards, Drake and Fenoglio.

The Alexander Romance

A naval action during the siege of Tire in 332 BC by the 19th century artist André Castaigne (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Deliyannis also mentions another possible source—the literary genre known as the Alexander Romance, which reached extraordinary popularity in medieval times. It was basically a fantastic version of Alexander’s campaigns which started in the waning years of the Roman Empire with a writer known as the Pseudo-Calisthenes, to distinguish him from the official historian Calisthenes. Another apocryphal document that contributed to the Romance was the so-called Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, “a fake, probably composed in the 4th or 5th century AD” that “was extremely famous during the middle ages and was eventually inserted in the Pseudo-Calisthenes,” according to Deliyannis.

The personality of Alexander the Great was already larger than life even in his own lifetime. There were rumors that he was not the son of King Philip II of Macedon, but that the chief god Zeus had seduced his mother Queen Olympias (played by Angelina Jolie in the Oliver Stone movie), thus becoming a semi-god. This rumor was probably used as propaganda to discourage any resistance to his invasions. In just 12 years, Alexander changed completely the ancient world, conquering the mighty Persian Empire and pushing all the way to India in the east and Egypt to the west. Many cities still bear his name, such as Alexandria in Egypt and Kandahar (from his name in Persian, Iskandar) in Afghanistan. Although his empire was divided among his main generals after his death in Babylon in 323 BC at the age of 32, the era of Hellenic civilization spread through the Mediterranean and beyond, symbolized by the famous Library of Alexandria.

Although the known facts about Alexander the Great were fantastic enough, the Pseudo-Calisthenes and a series of Byzantine, Armenian, Arab and European variants developed through the Middle Ages converted the “Alexander Romance” into a kind of medieval science-fiction. There are dozens of variants—some of the more famous are the 15th century French illuminated manuscript, La Vraye Histoire du Bon Roy Alixandre (The True Story of the Good King Alexander), now in the British Library, and the Spanish epic Libro de Alexandre (Book of Alexander), written between 1178 ad 1250 AD. Many of these versions are magnificently illustrated. Among other fantastic deeds of the Alexander Romance, the Macedonian hero built a wall in Asia confining the armies of Gog and Magog, which will not be unleashed until the end of times; reached Eden or the primeval Paradise of Adam and Eve; flew in the sky in a chariot propelled by griffins and descended to the bottom of the ocean in a barrel-shaped submarine; fought and killed dragons and many other exotic monsters; encountered all kinds of strange creatures including the fabled Amazons, a bigfoot-type Wildman, and the legendary headless beings known in Antiquity as Blemmyes, who had eyes and mouth on their chests.

Beautiful illustration by medieval artist Jean Wauquelin showing Alexander’s aerial voyage in a cage flown by griffins, from the Histoire du bon roy Alexandre, 1438. (Credit: Biliothèque nationale de France)

Illuminated manuscript from the XV century showing Alexander the Great’s diving bell submarine. (Credit: British Library)

Alexander encounter the Wildman in his voyage to Asia, from a medieval manuscript of the Alexander Romance. (Credit: Biliothèque nationale de France)

One of the most delightful stories of the Alexander Romance is the King’s flying chariot pushed by griffins, which exhibits the most quaint propulsion system ever devised in literature. According to the various versions of the Romance, Alexander had captured two griffins during his campaign in India. He built a cage for one man to stand up and kept the animals without eating for three days, so they would be really hungry. He then tied the griffins to the cage and put a big piece of meat on top of a spear, dangling the meat in front of the griffins. “Trying to grab it, the griffins kept flying,” says the Libro de Alexandre. This scene was particularly popular with medieval illustrators, and so was another science-fiction type episode of his descent into the bottom of the ocean in a barrel-shaped submarine, which is mentioned in a famous letter on future inventions by Friar Roger Bacon, one of the wisest men of the Middle Ages. In this letter written c. 1260, Bacon wrote:

A machine can be constructed for submarine journeys, for seas and rivers. It dives to the bottom without danger to man. Alexander the Great has made use of such a device, as we know from Ethicus the astronomer. Such things have been made long ago and they are still made in our days, except perhaps the flying machine…

Alexander the Great in his griffin-powered flying machine, XV century, from La Vraye Histoire du Bon Roy Alixandre. (Credit: British Library)

It is clear that the many exploits of the Alexander Romance are fanciful and not factual, although they deserve a spot in the history of science-fiction. The historian Yannis Deliyannis found a “celestial prodigy” in the so-called Letter to Aristotle worth citing:

Immediately after that the sky grew very black and dark, and from the dark sky there came burning fire. The fire fell to the earth like a burning torch, and the whole plain was burning from the fire’s flame. Then men said that they thought it was the anger of the gods which had fallen upon us. Then I ordered old clothing to be torn up and used as a protection against the fire. After that we had a quiet and peaceful night, once our difficulties assuaged.
(Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript, Cambridge, 1995, p. 245)

Deliyannis points out that this account is not as fantastic as the one described by Edwards and, in any case, “the historiographical value of the documents belonging to the Romance of Alexander” are not reliable. He concludes his thorough study of Alexander’s alleged UFO incidents by pointing out the amusing fact that “the aforementioned UFO writers have somewhat become the spiritual continuators of the tradition of the Alexander Romance in our century, still adding marvelous events to it, as had done before them their medieval predecessors…”

We have to agree with Deliyannis. Until ufologists and ancient astronaut writers find legitimate historical accounts that back up the alleged UFO incidents of Alexander the Great, the story should not be repeated as factual.

About Antonio Huneeus

Open Minds Investigative Reporter J. Antonio Huneeus has covered the UFO field from an international perspective for over 30 years. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Japan. He was also the co-author of the Laurance Rockefeller-funded “UFO Briefing Document – The Best Available Evidence” and edited the book “A Study Guide to UFOs, Psychic & Paranormal Phenomena in the USSR.” Huneeus studied French at the Sorbonne University in Paris and Journalism at the University of Chile in Santiago in the 1970s. He has lectured at dozens of UFO Conferences all over the world and been interviewed by many media outlets including The Washington Post, the Sy-Fy and History Channels, Nippon-TV, etc. He received the “Ufologist of the Year” award at the National UFO Conference in Miami Beach in 1990 and the “Courage in Journalism” award at the X-Conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in 2007.