Alexander was captured in the Mithradatic Wars and sent to Rome, where he served as a slave in the family of the prominent Cornelius Lentulus. Around 80 b.c.e., he received the name Lucius Cornelius (LEW-shuhs kawr-NEEL-yuhs) when Lucius Cornelius Sulla granted him his freedom and Roman citizenship. Alexander became known as Polyhistor (pahl-ee-HIHST-ur) because he was “widely learned,” writing at least twenty-five works. The topics he wrote about attest to the variety of his interests, from the early history of Italy and Rome, to ethnographic and geographical writings about the Jews, Babylonians, Egyptians, and other peoples from the East, to Pythagorean philosophy and the Delphic Oracle.

Unfortunately none of Alexander’s works has survived intact, but 145 fragments of varying lengths have been found quoted in later authors. They show that although learned, he was rarely original, and his works frequently reproduced the errors of his sources. Alexander was also a teacher, earning sufficient income to purchase a home in the Roman suburbs, where he perished in a fire around 35 b.c.e.


Alexander’s greatest value is not in what he wrote but in what he transmitted from earlier authors, whom he copied accurately. For example, his On the Jews, quoted extensively by Eusebius of Caesarea, preserves portions of the writings of several Hellenistic Jewish authors that might otherwise have been lost entirely.

Additional Resources

Gruen, E. S. Heritage and Hellenism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Rawson, E. Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.