Monday, November 16, 2009

Did Alexander the Great really see UFOs ?

Among the famous historical stories one frequently finds in ufological literature and all over the Internet is the supposed UFO sightings of Alexander the Great.

It apparently began in 1959 when American writer and broadcaster Frank Edwards wrote the following in his book Stranger than Science :

"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."
(Edwards, Frank. Stranger than Science. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1959).

Possibly inspired by Frank Edwards' claim, Alberto Fenoglio wrote in 1966 in the Italian ufological periodical Clypeus :

"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.
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."
(Fenoglio, Alberto. "Cronistoria su oggetti volanti del passato - Appunti per una clipeostoria", Clypeus no. 9 (1st semester 1966), p. 7, translated from the Italian and cited by Drake, W.R. Gods and Spacemen in Ancient Greece and Rome. London, 1976, pp. 115-116)

Unfortunately for us, neither Edwards nor Fenoglio cared to mention their sources, giving rise to decades of confusion as to the historicity of these two alleged UFO sightings by Alexander the Great and his army. 

Fenoglio's riddle being, in my opinion, the easiest to solve, I will begin by him. He says that five "flying shields" flew in triangular formation and that, after some time hovering over the walls, a lightning-flash came from the largest of these shields and struck the walls of Tyre. Unfortunately, there is no mention whatsoever of such an event outside of ufological literature. I won't even comment the laughable statement by Fenoglio who dares to say that Johann Gustav Droysen did not mention it on purpose.

However, going back to the closest sources we can get, one might ponder this quote from Quintus Curtius, one of the main classical authorities on Alexander, who says that during the siege of Tyre, in 332 BC (between January and August) :

Clipeos vero aereos multo igne torrebant, quos repletos fervida arena caenoque decocto e muris subito devolvebant. Nec ulla pestis magis timebatur: quippe, ubi loricam corpusque fervens arena penetraverat, nec ulla vi excuti poterat, et quidquid attigerat perurebat, iacientesque arma laceratis omnibus, quis protegi poterant, vulneribus inulti patebant.
(Quintus Curtius Rufus, 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 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.

One possibility is that Fenoglio stumbled upon this quote from Quintus Curtius while looking for the source of Frank Edwards' story. We can't tell for sure whether he considered (or intended) it to be one and the same as the latter's or just a similar but independent story but in any case, W.Raymond Drake treated both cases as two different stories, in his 1976 book, Gods and Spacemen in Ancient Greece and Rome.

A close examination of Frank Edwards' story shows that it mentions the war elephants of Alexander. Now, Alexander only began using war elephants after his successful victory over Darius III in Gaugamela (supposedly in Iraq, east of Mosul), on October 1st, 331 BC. Supposing it ever happened at all, the sighting mentioned by F. Edwards must then have occurred after that date, restricting our search to the Persian and Indian campaigns of Alexander, in between 331 and 323 BC.

Unfortunately, none of the classical historians who treated Alexander's life talk of an event who might look similar to the one described by Frank Edwards. That leaves us with the second thread of possible sources, the one which originates with the Pseudo-Callisthenes (4th century AD) and gave rise to the incredibly rich medieval genre known as the Alexander Romance. This genre which has more roots in literature than in historiography extended Alexander's life with various marvelous and prodigious events. It developed more or less independently in western Europe, the Byzantine empire and even the Arabic world, each adding its share of marvels to Alexander's life.

One of the key documents in the development of this genre is the Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem (the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle) which focuses on the marvels of Alexander's campaign in India. The letter itself is a fake, probably composed in the 4th or 5th century AD. It was extremely famous during the middle ages and was eventually inserted in the Pseudo-Callisthenes. A middle English version is also known to us.
The false letter of Alexander describes the marvels of India and is full of encounters with strange animals and beings, but the only celestial prodigy that is mentioned in the Epistola is the following:

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)

Unfortunately, this does not compare to Frank Edwards claim. And even if it was the case, the historiographical value of the documents belonging to the Romance of Alexander genre being more than doubtful, it wouldn't account for much in terms of historicity.

We have to take note however of a striking element in F. Edwards' narration : the precision about the alleged flying crafts, these being supposedly described as "silvery shields". It comes as striking because of the name of an elite infantry unit of Alexander's army, namely the Hypaspists, who at the beginning of the campaign in India, in 326 BC, changed their names to Ἀργυράσπιδες (Argyraspides), the "silver shields", after decorating their shields with silver. The coincidence is remarkable enough to wonder whether the renaming of the Hypaspists led to a confusion between their silver shields and some supposed flying "silvery shields".

In any case, the absence of mention of such an event as the one described by Frank Edwards in any historiographical source must lead us to consider this case as extremely dubious. As a conclusion then, the bottom-line is that everything in these cases comes from unreliable and/or posterior sources with little to none historiographical value.

One might find it amusing however that, in a limited sense, the aforementioned ufo writers have somewhat become the spiritual continuators of the tradition of the Alexander Romance into our century, still adding marvelous events to it, as had done before them their medieval predecessors...


  1. Ah, Ufologists. If no evidence exists, invent it (without naming any source of course).
    I've just been watching some rubbish on one of the documentary channels that cited this story as evidence.
    Then a quick search of the internet shows dozens of sites repeating the story in different ways.
    Thankfully there are sceptics out there who will look into these claims to tease out the truth (if it is out there).
    Why is it so hard for the people who desperately believe in alien inspired building techniques to accept that there is nothing more mysterious than the power of human imagination, inspiration and sheer hard work involved in creating megalithic and colossal monuments? It is not as if these things were all built at the same period of time. And why inspire neolithic people in Britain to create a circle of roughly hewn stones at approximately the same time (c2500BC) as the Great Pyramid? Did the aliens prefer the Egyptians? Did they send their best architect to Egypt and a student with some half baked wacky ideas to Britain?
    No! Both monuments are testiment to the individual societies that created them, but their technology was simply not equal. Put Stonehenge down on the Giza plateau (easy to do with your flying saucer) and it would look rubbish. Set on the plains of southern England it is a thing of wonder.

    No aliens required, just human innovation.

  2. in response to Gruffling. You're taking a skeptics word for it, why is that any better than taking someone else's word for it? You did no independent research your self, you just searched for what you wanted to find, found it, and deemed it correct. Not that it isn't correct, it's just that you should do your own research. We all should. like, Chromosome 2 for example, lets all research how that got fused :)

  3. @Anonymous: I couldn't agree more. I also notice the glaring stereotype in the opening sentence: "Ah, Ufologists."

    @Gruffling: Obviously, there are more than enough crackpots in the UFOlogy field to go around. I won't argue that point. But there are also a lot of good, intelligent researchers who don't manufacture evidence and are simply looking for answers to why so many people see things in the sky that are not easily explainable. Certainly, the vast majority of those things are misinterpretations and there are quite a few hoaxes as well. Still, there are those that don't easily fit into either of those categories.

    Your comment betrays your own bias. You obviously already had an opinion and then went looking for "proof" to back it up. But the fact that the original author didn't cite his source and that others haven't found it doesn't mean that he made it up. It makes it a questionable claim to be sure, but it doesn't assume malfeasance on his part. There is also nothing in the statement that speaks to any kind of lack of human innovation. That is a projection on your part.

    The question you ask about ancient building techniques is not really relevant here, but the short answer is that there are quite a few things that don't quite add up and to which mainstream archeology hasn't provided a satisfactory explanation. For the sake of brevity, I won't go into it here, but I'll be happy to provide examples if you want them.

    I will say that while ancient alien theorists don't really provide statisfactory answers either, they frequently DO do a pretty good job of identifying the anomolies. They ask interesting questions, and that has a lot of value in itself.

  4. Droysen's work is available on Google Books ( and the account of Alexander's siege of Tyre is found on page 185, but it doesn't say anything even remotely close to UFOs coming from the sky and demolishing the walls of the city. The fact is that this story was completely made up. What is really more shocking is that there are so many people who believe the story to be true that when you tell them it is fake they'll accuse you of being the liar or that one has something to hide. They are unable to face reality and it is like talking to a brick wall. Once they've made their mind up (after hearing the claims on a TV show or reading a book, never doing research themselves) it is nearly impossible to change it. I've watched nearly every episode of the History Channel's "Ancient Aliens" series, and virtually every episode speaks authoritatively about events that turn out to have never happened. They speak of them so convincingly that the unknowing public are duped. It makes me wonder why a channel devoted to history would do such a thing. There are no disclaimers, and many of the "experts" have impressive titles, suggesting that these ideas are accepted by some respected researchers rather than the fringe elements. People are being lied to, and something needs to be done about it.

  5. Great comments by both Anonymous and JohnnyG.
    Mr. Gruff: Questions are invaluable tools when exploring truth from claims. Use that tool against both the believers and the non believers.
    From your post, it appears that you took the authors words for granted and accepted his reasoning without questions. Keep an open mind. I have long questioned this theory of flying saucers helping Alexander. Truth is, there is no solid proof to support either of the arguments.
    All we know is, something prompted the historians to write what they wrote and no one knows what prompted them.
    Though Ancient aliens show is very entertaining, i don't necessarily agree with all of what they discuss in the show. Ancient Astronaut theorists have misinterpreted certain epic stories to their advantage. Mahabaratam, an Indian epic is a good example that was mis interpreted. I know that because i have read it. That is how i know they misinterpreted the story. Just because they were wrong with one example, i am not going to say that they are wrong about everything they have discussed so far. I keep an open mind.
    Possibilities are endless my friend.Always keep an open mind..

  6. the perceptibility of the human mind is open to being exploited and what this so-called popular science does is pose fiction for facts and the best proof is any lack of sourcing. I wish not to comment on ancient (or present) visitation of beings other than earthly ones, but claiming with so-called facts that yield under the slightest investigation is doing nobody a good service.

  7. Let's all admit that humanity likes clean, well-defined answers. If we don't know it, we invent it, for better or worse. However, let's all also admit that there ARE things we don't understand, some things we can barely detect, and even some things that our ancestors seemed to know that we today do not. Let's not be ridiculous in asserting UFOs built the pyramids, but let's all agree we don't really know for sure WHY they were built nor exactly WHY they were built with the dimensions and rather exacting orientation they are in. Perhaps some of us think we know, but, as Socrates was fond of pointing out, this only illustrates our foolishness. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with Ufology, when it is practiced skeptically/scientifically with an open mind. There is much in this field that merits serious study. Skeptical? Good. However, I encourage you to watch the testimony of military officers, pilots, intelligence personnel, as well as the reports of history (and religious texts), all of which (along with the reliable video and radar evidence) does definitively assert a phenomenon exists, it isn't "normal", and if someone does possess the answer, it isn't shared. Finally, whether Alexander encountered UFOs can be debated ad infinitum, but look at ALL the available evidence before reaching a conclusion concerning the phenomenon we call "UFOs". Thank you.

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  9. @ Gruffling
    ”If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.” -Peter Ustinov

    You sir are that voice, minus the expert part!

  10. It was argued that Gruffling was blindly taking the word of the skeptic over the believers. I, myself, tend to believe, but think Gruffling is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT on this one. If they claim that there are "ancient texts" that state Alexander the Great encounter UFOs, then they should be able to produce the text or site their reference.

    For example it is claimed that both Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus reported UFO sightings. You can download both of these documents.

    The Thomas Jefferson report is on pg 77 of the pdf that can be downloaded form Note that rbedrosian is an archive for historical documents, not a UFO website. I find this account of a UFO extremely credible. It was published in the year 1800. It describes the effects of the UFO breaking the sound barrier. (The object past overhead and THEN there was a rush of noise.) Mankind did not have a vehicle that could break the sound barrier until 1942. I doubt that Thomas Jefferson or any of the witnesses were well enough versed in aerodynamics to fake that detail.

    Christopher Columbus supposedly saw a UFO on October 11th, because he describes seeing a light above the water. But in his journal which can be found at, he says he took it to be an indication of land, and sure enough, when the sun came up, there WAS land and there were natives who lived on the land. The object was neither unidentified nor flying!

    If you can't site your reference its a rumor, not proof. If you have a credible source, why would you NOT site your source?

  11. My logic is, it only takes one of these UFO stories and eyewitness accounts to be true for the whole phenomenon to be true. These accounts have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. What are the odds of every single one of them being hoaxes or figments of imagination?