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Medieval Submarines

based on the Alexander Romance

Alexander tiles from the Romance of Alexander, 13th to 16th century.

The the world is damned and lost. The large and powerful fish devour the small fry...
Upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.
~Alexander the Great, discovering the Truth of the Sea


Medieval Submarine Tiles

The inspiration for these tiles comes from the Alexander Romance. It is one of several stories in this retelling of several part-historical, part-fantastic stories about Alexander the Great.

Nine-tile set of medieval submarines

The set of ten tiles consists of four 8x6 tiles and six 6x6 tiles. All but one depict Alexander the Great's undersea adventures. The remaining illustration (top left) shows Cornelius van Drebbel's "diving boat", built under the auspices of King James I, being tested in the Thames in 1620.

Background Colors: Available background colors are: black and cobalt.


6x6 tiles: $66

8x6 tiles: $78

Alexander the Great being carried away by a big fish

Alexander the Great lowered into the sea in a barrel

Alexander and friends

What is the Alexander Romance

The Alexander Romance, is the most retold story of the Middle Ages; only the Bible has more versions, and has been translated into more languages. The Alexander Romance, and the variations that preceded it in both oral and written traditions, is both a history of Alexander the Great, as well as select legends and fantasies that surrounded Alexander, with different versions including different histores.

In the Middle Ages, versions made appearances in Greek, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, and Hebrew as well as the common European languages through the middle ages. Originally told in Greek some time before 338AD, it was translated into Latin about that time by Julius Valerius Alexander Polemius in the 4th century, and an Armenian version not long after (5th century). It was that Latin version that was freely translated into Old French and that prose version became known as the Alexander Romance.

But... But... But... Why Alexander the Great?

The popularity of the Alexander Romance, aside from its being a well-spun tale about heroes, magic, and adulterous intrigue, was given further status in medieval Europe by virtue of Alexander being one of the "Nine Worthies" or "Nine Good Heroes, nine historical, scriptural and legendary "princes" who personified the ideas of medieval chivalry (The others are: Julius Cesar, Hector, Charlemagne, King Arthur, Godfrey of Bouillon, King David, Joshua, and Judah Maccabee). They later became popular subjects for masques in Renaissance Europe. Female Worthies ("The Most Illustrious Ladies of All Ages and Nations") did not appear until the late fourteenth century.

Olympia and Nectanebo, early Roman codex

Prose, then Poetry: Le Roman D'Alexandre

The Alexander Romance made its written debut, and for most of its first millenium, as a winding prose tale of many parts. But late in the 12th century AD, It appeared as a 16 thousand verse long poem the Roman d'Alexandre; the poetic meter, Alexandrine, takes its name from that poem. The Roman d'Alexandre consists of four branches, some more historical and some more fantastical, but the threads interweave throughout:

Alexander, Alchemy and the Sola Busca

From an exchange of letters between Alexander and his tutor Aristotle, we know that Aristotle had introduced Alexander to the mysteries of alchemy. Alexander's magical heritage features prominently in the Sola Busca, the earliest surviving complete tarot deck (at the Brera Museum in Milan, Italy. Alexander is the King of Swords, the hero who has reached the heaven on a griffin-drawn chariot. The Egyptian connection can be seen in other cards of the series: Zeus Ammon (AMONE, Horse of Swords -- Nectenabo persuaded Olympia to take Ammon to her bed in order to bear a god-son, who was Alexander), Olympia, dreaded lady of the snakes (OLINPIA), Queen of Swords, Naptanabus (NATANABO, Horse of cups), the magician mentor of Alexander.

Alexander the Great, Sola Busca Tarot

And when we came to the coast, we boarded our boats afterputting all the troops and tents aboard. And we sailed to an island in the sea which was not far from shore, on which we heard human speech in Greek; but we did not see who was speaking. And the soldiers risked death to swim12 from the ship over to the island. And a lobster rose and knocked 54 soldiers into the water. And we were frightened and moved on from that area. And in two days, we came to a place where the sun does not rise. ~Alexander Romance, by Pseudo-Callistenes

Medieval Submarines and the Pearls of the Sea

In the Li romans d'Alixandre, Alexander grows weary of conquering all the nations of the world, and and after pursuing a giant crab and discovering six magnificent pearls, Alexander sets out to discover "the truth" of the great ocean. He asks for a mighty barrel, of white glass, beautiful as no one had seen before" with a bottom hatch which would allow him to gather pearls from the ocean floor. In Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, he takes a lamps to light the way, a cockeral to tell the time, and a cat whose breath purifies the air. He is guided in all this by his astrologer, Ethicus.

In the Indian Sufi version, as told by 14th century Sufi poet Amir Khusrau tells of Alexander leading expedition to China, Russia and the western islands. In this telling, Alexander asks his companions, 350 men in four ships, to lower lower him by chains and when he pulls on the chains, to draw him back to the surface. This is less successful than one might think, as the first two times, fish brushed against the chain and Alexander was prematurely drawn up. On his third attempt, he reaches the bottom at 308 cubits, but a giant fish swallows his conveyance and pulls the four ships attached by chains but eventually expels the barrel onto the shore.

In a 15th century version, Roxane (one of Alexander's three wives) appears with a friend, possibly a lover. By lack of strength or subterfuge, she releases the chain and Alexander sinks to the ocean floor.


Medieval submarines, tiles

From top left: Alexander being lowered into the sea at Tyre, Alexander and his four ships, Alexander being lowered by chains.


Alexander the Great tiles, square and rectangular

Two far right tiles: Betrayed by Roxane and her lover, Alexander well-prepared with his cat, lamps, and rooster.


Alexander Romance diving bells

Two bottom tiles: Alexander reflects that larger fish feed upon the smaller fry, , Alexander reaches the bottom of the sea.


Alexander Romance tiles

Seven Alexander Romance tiles seen as a group.



Medieval Overview


De Materia Medica

Carta Marina Sea Monster Map

Albrech Durer and Hans Hoffman Hares and Harebells

Alexander Romance by Psudo Callisthenes (pdf)

Alexander Romance, Armenian Version (pdf)