The Greater Number, Living or the Dead?

The following is from the Alexander Romance attributed to Pseud0-Callisthenes. There are dozens of versions of this legendary version of Alexander’s exploits and journeys–and some of the details are extraordinary, to say the least. You can find a collated translation online for free.

In the passage below, Alexander meets and interrogates the famous ascetic philosophers of India, the gymnosophists (lit. “naked philosophers”).


“After these events [Alexander] made an expedition to the Oksudrakai, not because they were bellicose, but because they were gymnosophists who inhabited caves and thickets. They wrote a letter to him: We, the Brakhmanes, write to Alexander, the human being. If you come to us in an act of war, you will benefit in no way. For you will be able to carry nothing away from us. But if you want what we have, there is no reason to fit for it. For it is your nature to war, ours to philosophize.”

After he read this, Alexander went to them in peace and saw that all of them were half naked. So he asked: “Don’t you live in tombs? And they responded: “This is the place we inhabit and it is ours….” …And turning to another he asked, “Who are greater in number, the living or the dead?” they answered “The dead are more numerous, but do no measure those who no longer are. For those who are seen outnumber those who no longer appear. “ Then he inquired of another “What is stronger, death or life?” And he answered, “Life, because the rising sun has stronger rays, but as it sets it is much weaker.”

[5] E   Μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα τὴν ὁδοιπορίαν πρὸς Ὀξυδράκας ἐποιεῖτο οὐχ ὡς ὄντας πολεμιστάς, ἀλλ´ ὡς γυμνοσοφιστὰς εἰς καλύβας καὶ εἰς κατάγαια καταμένοντας. οἱ δὲ γράφουσιν αὐτῷ ἐπιστολήν· ‘Βραχμᾶνες γυμνοσοφισταὶ Ἀλεξάνδρῳ ἀνθρώπῳ ἐγράψαμεν. εἰ μὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς παραγίνῃ πολεμήσων, οὐδὲν ὀνήσῃ· τὶ γὰρ 〈παρ´〉 ἡμῶν βαστάσαι οὐκ ἔχεις. εἰ δὲ θέλεις ὅσα ἔχομεν, οὐ δέεται ταῦτα 〈τοῦ〉 πολεμῆσαι· σοὶ γὰρ ἕπεται πολεμεῖν, ἡμῖν δὲ φιλοσοφεῖν.’

[6] E   Οὕτως ὁ Ἀλέξανδρος ἀναγνοὺς εἰρηνικῶς πρὸς αὐτοὺς πορεύεται καὶ ὁρᾷ πάντας γυμνοπεριβόλους. ἐξετάζει οὖν· ‘Τάφους οὐκ ἔχετε;’ οἱ δὲ εἶπον· ‘Τοῦτο τὸ χώρημα, ὅπου μένομεν, ἔστιν ἡμῶν . . .’ καὶ στραφεὶς ἑτέρῳ εἶπε· ‘τίνες πλείονες, ἐκεῖνοι οἱ τελευτήσαντες ἢ οἱ ζῶντες;’ καὶ ἀπεκρίθησαν· ‘οἱ μὲν τελευτήσαντες πλείονες, ἀλλὰ μὴ μέτρει τοὺς μηκέτι ὄντας· οἱ γὰρ ὁρώμενοι πλείονές εἰσι τῶν μηκέτι φαινομένων.’ καὶ ἑτέρου ἐπύθετο· ‘τί ἰσχυρότερον, θάνατος ἢ ζωή;’ εἶπεν· ‘ζωή, ὅτι ὁ ἥλιος ἀνατέλλων ἰσχυροτέρας τὰς ἀκτῖνας ἔχει, ἑσπέρας δὲ δύνων ἀσθενέστερος ὁρᾶται.’


Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander Romance 3.6-7 (Go here for collated Greek texts and a translation)

Alexander continues his conversation with the gymnosophists in India and ends it with an epic mic-drop.


“He asked again, “What is greater, land or the sea.?” And one responded, “Land, for the sea rests upon the earth.” Then he asked “Which of all the beasts is the most capable?” And another answered, “man…” Then he said to another, “Whom can we not deceive but must always present with the truth?” And he answered, “God: for we cannot deceive one who knows everything?” And then he said to them, “What do you want to ask of me?” And he said “Immortality.” Alexander said, “I do not have this wealth—for I too am merely mortal.” And they said, “Since you are mortal, why do you make so much war? Is it so that you may seize everything and carry it off somewhere? You will leave them to others in turn.”

And Alexander said to them, “These things depend on the will of those above—and we are but servants of their assignment. The sea will not move unless the wind blows. The trees will not dance unless the air strikes them. Man accomplishes nothing without the will of those above. Even though I wish to stop warring, the tyrant of my mind does not allow it.   If we were all in agreement; the universe would be sluggish, the sea would not fill; the land would not be farmed; marriages would not be completed, and there would be no child-bearing.  How many met misfortune in the wars I waged by losing all their possessions? Well, how many profited from their losses? For all who steal from others eventually leave their possessions to others still. Nothing belongs to anyone.” After he said this, Alexander walked away…”


εἶπε πάλιν· ‘τί πλεῖον, ἡ γῆ ἢ ἡ θάλασσα;’ εἶπεν· ‘ἡ γῆ· καὶ γὰρ αὐτὴ ἡ θάλασσα ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἵδρυται.’ ὁ δὲ εἶπε· ‘τί πάντων τῶν θηρίων πανουργότερον;’ καὶ εἶπεν· ‘ὁ ἄνθρωπος.’ . . . ἑτέρῳ ἔφη· ‘τίνα οὐ δυνάμεθα ψεύσασθαι, ἀλλὰ τὸν ἀληθινὸν λόγον αὐτῷ προσφέρομεν;’ — ‘θεόν· οὐ γὰρ δυνάμεθα ψεύσασθαι τὸν πάντα εἰδότα.’ . . . Εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· ‘τί θέλετε ἐξαιτήσασθαί με;’ οἱ δὲ εἶπον· ‘ἀθανασίαν.’ ὁ δὲ Ἀλέξανδρος εἶπεν· ‘ταύτην ἐγὼ οὐκ ἔχω τὴν ἐξουσίαν· καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ θνητὸς ὑπάρχω.’ οἱ δὲ εἶπον· ‘τί τοίνυν θνητὸς ὑπάρχων τοσαῦτα πολεμεῖς; ἵνα πάντα ἄρας που ἀπενέγκῃς; σὺ πάλιν αὐτὰ ἑτέροις καταλείψεις.’ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἀλέξανδρος· ‘ταῦτα ἐκ τῆς ἄνωθεν προνοίας διοικοῦνται, ἵνα ἡμεῖς [ὑμῖν] διάκονοι γενώμεθα τῆς ἐκείνων ἐπιταγῆς. οὐ γὰρ κινεῖται θάλασσα, εἰ μὴ πνεύσῃ ἄνεμος, οὐδὲ σαλεύεται δένδρα, εἰ μὴ ῥιπίζῃ πνεῦμα, οὐκ ἐνεργεῖται ἄνθρωπος εἰ μὴ ἐκ τῆς ἄνωθεν προνοίας. κἀγὼ δὲ παύσασθαι θέλω τοῦ πολεμεῖν, ἀλλ´ οὐκ ἐᾷ με ὁ τῆς γνώμης μου δεσπότης. εἰ γὰρ πάντες ὁμογνώμονες ἦμεν, ἀργὸς ἐτύγχανεν ὁ κόσμος, θάλασσα οὐκ ἐπλέετο, γῆ οὐκ ἐγεωργεῖτο, γάμοι οὐκ ἐπετελοῦντο, παιδοποιίαι οὐκ ἦσαν. πόσοι γὰρ ἐν τοῖς ὑπ´ ἐμοῦ γενομένοις πολέμοις ἐδυστύχησαν ἀπολέσαντες τὰ ἴδια, ἄλλοι δὲ ηὐτύχησαν ἐκ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων; πάντες γὰρ τὰ πάντων λαμβάνοντες ἑτέροις παραχωροῦμεν καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν ὑπάρχει.’ Οὕτως εἰπὼν ὁ Ἀλέξανδρος ἀπεχώρει . . .

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