Alexander the Great – Do Treasures Reveal the Man of Legend?

‘The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be; and if we observe, we shall find, that all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice of them’*

Superb detail of a Mantel clock ‘The Vigil of Alexander the Great’ Bronze, cast, embossed, gilded - Probably St Petersburg, 1820–1830 courtesy State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE), who was he? Why do we still talk about him so long after his early death? Although he was known to make love, he is mostly known for making war and his amazing campaign’s changed the course of political and cultural history. His desire to embrace the east and its cultures was also about taking the civilising influence of Greek culture with him wherever he traveled. Yet within a short period of his early death at 32 years of age, the world he had created fell apart. He wasn’t given any honours in life or death and yet his image in our minds has changed a great deal; impinging on our attitudes and our art for centuries.

Currently at Sydney the show Alexander The Great – 2000 Years of Treasures at the Australian Museum is all about reflecting the man and his myth and unravelling just a little, his legend. The exhibition uses 400 + objects of great beauty, harmonious design and visual impact as a platform on which modern man 2500 years later can seek and find Alexander the real man; to begin to understand his persona, to learn to appreciate his achievements and to consider his campaigns as an aspect of the society, culture and concerns of his time. They are also meant to help us to find out why he has become seemingly immortal.

A clock made by Russian artisans certainly reveals a character trait; about how determined he was to strengthen both his concentration and willpower. He would hold a ball while studying and if he became too relaxed or sleepy, it would clatter into a copper dish to wake him.

Plato and Aristotle, detail from the fresco by Italian artist and architect Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), known as the School of Athens and depicting the pagan and Christian worlds confronting each other

Ancient Greek Philosopher Plato (429–347), student of Socrates (469-399BCE), teacher of Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who in turn taught Alexander the Great, was concerned with the definition of justice; the character of a Greek city-state, one that offered justice as well as the idea of a ‘just man’ to the world at large.

Aristotle was reputed to have said that ‘it was our task to become good men, or to achieve the highest human good’. But is that enough? How do we attain goodness without a sense of purpose or by having a belief that there is something more? Plato championed the ideal republic, one geared to the requirements of Greek military strength. The Greek warrior in ancient Greece for centuries depended heavily upon sophisticated armour, sword, helmet and shield – which in turn depended on a supply of iron, the needs of war and the spurs of trade.

In 320 BC, Macedonian king Philip was posthumously honoured with this gold coin, showing a two-horse chariot and the name of the King

These are the lessons Alexander learned as a young man. The exhibition has examples of helmets, breastplates, greaves and other armaments that were used by ancient Greek warriors.

Cameos, dishes, busts, jewelry, textiles, statues, vases, seals, gravestones, cauldrons, cups, coins, even a tapestry document Alexander’s journey through history.

War seemed a natural condition to most ancient Greeks, and in 431 BCE it broke out between Athens and Sparta. In 430BCE Athens was also ravaged by plague. During this event its great statesman, orator and military leader Pericles (495-419 BCE) falling ill with a lingering fever, finally succumbed to its evil humors and died in 429 BCE, bringing about the conclusion of what had been a brief spiritual and creative flourishing of the arts in this unique and very special city.

Pericles said words to the effect… ‘Each single one of our citizens in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his person, and do this moreover, with exceptional grace and versatility.’

This is what the ancient Greeks meant by liberty. Their ingrained belief in everyone’s right to freedom was sustained by a deep respect for personal honour and nurtured by a love of action.

Athens next prosperous period was under the aegis of the Greek city of Macedon, and its ruler Phillip II (382-336BCE) Alexander the Great’s father. In 356 BCE and 352 BCE Philip of Macedon won the tethrippon, a four-horse chariot race at the Olympic games.

In 348 BC he won the synoris, a race for chariots pulled by a pair of horses.  His successes at the Olympic games played their part in establishing his reputation as a man not only capable of conquering the world but also one whose physical abilities were second to none.

However bringing some of his ideas to fruition would fall to his youthful heir Alexander, later called the Great. He took up his father’s plan to carry the message of the Greek world abroad and to invade the Persian Empire.

The harmony and beauty of art and architecture of Alexander’s time were enhanced because artisans and artists used the Golden Mean, a mathematical ratio that had helped them to create dynamic composition in artwork and architectural design since the time of the ancient Greeks.

2 x Gold Earrings with Eros pendants, 3rd century BCE on show at Sydney courtesy State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

The measurement is found in nature; the spiral of a nautilus shell decreases in size at a perfect l: 1.618 ratios. This ‘mean’ was used by the architects and builders when calculating the dimensions of the classical buildings on the Acropolis at Athens, and throughout the Greek world.

They came down to us via the Roman Empire and 1st century architect Vitruvius in his treatise, that following its rediscovery kept safe in a monastery throughout the Middle Ages, was reinterpreted by 16th Century Venetian architect Palladio and others who admired the ancient ‘classical’ idiom.

They all helped to ensure that the knowledge survived right through to the present day.

Alexander the Great fostered a love for luxury, including gold a rare commodity in ancient Greece.

He recognised that ‘gold’ was a reason for avarice, envy and destruction and banned ordinary people from owning it privately.

Ring with a Cameo: Head of Athena, Greek 3rd century BCE, Gold and Garnet Cameo courtesy State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

Gold jewelry (jewellery) was regarded as barbarically decadent, reserved only for the wealthy elite. This apprehensive attitude only changed following the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Wise men Alexander respected railed against decadence and deceit, however at different times in his own very short life Alexander indulged himself with both, ignoring moral philosophy.

With his conquests, especially in the east, Greek jewelry made from gold that had been embellished occasionally with garnets became more widely available.

In the west by the fourth century gemstones were more or less valued intrinsically or because of their beauty.

The colour of the gems – had important symbolic meaning and psychological influence. Garnets, being red were particularly significant, as red signified the divine.

Of all the colours we have red would be the most dramatic and the most powerful. It is the colour of our life force, blood.

In Ancient Greece red was a colour to sanctify weddings and to strike awe into the enemy. Its ‘awe inspiring’ connotations were in play when red was used to paint temples.

Red and gold together was even more powerful, because it was about life and light.

Symbolically red represented the power of good and evil as well as faith and love and it is said to be the first colour man that man ever perceived.

Necklace; gold, garnet-almandine, amber, enamel, Greek 2nd century BCE courtesy State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

Alexander the Great 356-323BCE aligned himself with the most popular of the heroes Zeus’ son Heracles, whom the Greeks believed ‘was the benefactor of mankind’.

Alexander’s expeditions would become a triumphant march of Hellenistic conquest that spread out across the Persian Empire until it reached as far away as the banks of the Indus, establishing many cities along the way some of which bear his name.

With his conquests the influence and architecture of the Greek world would expand and its centre of gravity would move eastwards. They would include the capitals of his all-new Hellenistic kingdom Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria and Pergamum in Asia Minor.

Figure Horseman with a Bow Gold Iran, 5th - 4th century, courtesy State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Persians had a long history of invading Greek land and orators had mooted the idea for a crusade against them for some 60 years. This was a role Alexander saw himself playing if he were to be King of Asia and he would use his power for the benefit of those he conquered, especially if they accepted his rule.

His actions and alleged statement on landing on Trojan soil, hurling his spear into the ground, claiming that the Gods granted Asia to him, indicates that he ultimately believed in his divine right to do so.

It was important for him to gain the respect of the Asian people by convincing them that here was a King, who not only honoured the customs and beliefs so central to their existence, but one who could be trusted to guarantee they would also be protected.

Security again was at the heart of peace and happiness, just as it is today.

Gold and Garnets - Heracles Knot Bangle courtesy State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

At Troy, as a powerful weapon of propaganda, Alexander sacrificed to the Greek heroes and King Priam. His military strength lay with his cavalry and the superiority of his land forces and a decision not to plunder the land as he advanced meant that towns along the route surrendered to him and he repaid them well.

These actions added to his power as the cities had long been ‘cliques of the rich and powerful’ where local dictators had flourished. He wrote, and re-wrote his own legend as he journeyed further than any other conqueror.

In 332BCE Alexander the Great took Egypt from the Persians and made it a part of the Greek Empire. It is difficult to access him personally and gauge the sequence of his actions so for our purposes we will source our information from the ancient author Plutarch, who said Alexander was crowned Pharaoh at Memphis in 331BCE sailing down the Nile where, prompted by a vision, he built a fortified port on the site of a natural harbor naming it Alexandria.

He designed the layout of the city, connected it to the island of Pharos, which was located in the center of the bay and to the mainland with a 1,300-meter causeway, the Heptastadion, creating two great harbours.

Towering over it was the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, some of the remains of which have recently been rediscovered. He did not, however, stay long enough to see a single building constructed in his newest city, traveling on to Siwa to visit the oracle of Jupiter Ammon so that he could establish his parentage before traveling back to Memphis from where he set out on his conquest of Asia.

Sculpture Alexander the Great at Alexandria

Following Alexander’s mysterious death aged 38 in 323BCE his generals divided his Empire, each setting up their own kingdoms. One of them, Ptolemy, who had been appointed satrap of Egypt, made Alexandria his capital and established the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was the last to rule Egypt with the title of Pharaoh.

During the next two-and-a-half centuries Alexandria became the cultural and economic center of the ancient world, the Greeks mingling Hellenic tradition with the mighty legacy of the Pharaohs. Ptolemy’s descendants ruled Egypt until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC when Egypt was absorbed into the now expanding Roman Empire.

Russia, where the treasures on exhibition are held in trust for mankind, has known the themes and motifs associated with Alexander since the 12th century when they arrived in that country by way of Byzantium (Constantinople) and the influence of Christendom.

There are ample ancient sources to support the claim that Alexander’s body was brought back to Alexandria to be buried, reuniting the famed conqueror with the city that bore his name. However its final resting place, and whether or not his body was placed in a crystal sarcophagus, remains today perhaps the single greatest mystery from ancient times.

The life and death of Alexander the Great, and indeed his ‘afterlife’ remains a subject of continuing debate and an appealing and compelling target for those seeking to find such a treasure, or indeed the remains of the body of a legend.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

*Socrates (469-399 BCE)

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