Map 1. Map of Alexander’s campaigns


On the mezzanine level of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples is a large mosaic depicting a battle (Figure 1). Although the left-hand part of it is quite damaged, it is easy to pick out the figure of Alexander the Great, bare-headed, on his horse, looking intently at Darius III, who rises above the rest of the mass of horses and men, standing in his chariot, looking and pointing at Alexander in obvious alarm. Just behind Darius his charioteer is whipping his team of horses to drive him away from the imminent danger: Alexander has just run his lance through the last Persian horseman to stand between him and his opponent. Behind, the skyline is bristling with Macedonian pikes, while the foreground is littered with abandoned weapons and fallen Persians. A Macedonian victory is inevitable. The mosaic, which is nearly 6 metres long and over 3 metres high, was created not long before 100 BCE, for the owner of the House of the Faun in Pompeii. This was one of the largest private houses in Pompeii, built probably by a leading Italian aristocrat, and the mosaic occupied a prominent place in it, covering the floor of an exedra, a reception area where every important visitor to the house would see it. The owner clearly considered that he benefited from association with the image of Alexander as heroic warrior king.

Alexander the Great was born in 356, and was king of Macedon from 336 to his death in 323. As king, he led an army into the territory of the Achaemenid Persian empire, and took control of a territory that consisted of what is now Modern Greece, parts of Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, parts of Libya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, parts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and most of Pakistan. The story of his campaigns was constantly retold after his death and, almost uniquely among figures from classical antiquity, he was never absent from the popular imagination across Europe and the Near East, from his lifetime until the present day. It is not surprising then that Alexander should be the subject for a piece of Italian art made some two centuries after his death. But asking some questions about the mosaic will help us to think about Alexander himself, and what we really know about him. It will turn out that Alexander is a rather more enigmatic figure than he might appear.


1. The Alexander Mosaic: an Italian view of Alexander the Great, based on an earlier Greek painting, and depicting his victory at the battle of Issus, or possibly Gaugamela

So what is the Alexander Mosaic, and what does it represent? It is agreed that the mosaic itself was created sometime between 120 and 100, but many scholars have argued that it was a copy of an older Greek painting, probably painted in the late 4th century, not long after the event it portrays. Attempts have been made to attribute it to a named painter, with candidates including Philoxenos of Eretria, or a woman, Helen of Alexandria. Since no certainly ascribed work by any ancient painter survives, these attributions do not get us very far. There is debate about which battle the mosaic depicts: Alexander encountered Darius twice, at the battles of Issus (333) and Gaugamela (331). Most scholars prefer Issus, but there is again no possibility of certainty. Does it in any case depict the battle accurately, or is it largely a work of artistic imagination? And what of other figures in the picture? Who is the man in the distinctive white helmet with a gold wreath just to the left of Alexander himself? Is it his personal seer, Aristander of Telmessus, or perhaps one of his bodyguards, Ptolemy, who went on to become ruler of Egypt, and may possibly have commissioned the picture on which the mosaic is based? Some people have rightly raised the question of whether it is appropriate to treat the Alexander Mosaic simply as a ‘Roman copy’ of a Greek original, and then treat the image as if it actually were a 4th century painting. What we have is an Italian artwork, and attention should be paid to the context of its creation in Pompeii in the late 2nd century: what did it mean to the man who commissioned it, and the artists who worked on it, and indeed to the men and women who saw it when they visited the House of the Faun? These questions are no easier to answer, but at least they are questions about the work of art we have, rather than its imagined original.

Such concerns may not seem crucial when we are dealing with an artistic representation of one moment in Alexander’s life. But very similar questions can be asked about the literary evidence for Alexander’s career. The surviving narratives of Alexander’s life and deeds date from between 30BCE and the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE. The earliest surviving account that has come down to us is the work of Diodorus of Sicily, who wrote a massive Library of History in 40 books, starting in mythical times and extending to the death of Julius Caesar. Much of the work has been lost, but most of the seventeenth book, which is devoted to Alexander, has survived. Then there is the History of Alexander the Great of Macedon by the Roman, Quintus Curtius Rufus, who wrote in the reign either of Claudius or Vespasian, in the 1st century CE, and a biography of Alexander written by the Greek Plutarch of Chaeronea sometime around 100, and an account of his campaigns by another Greek, Arrian of Nicomedia, a friend of the emperor Hadrian, writing in the first third of the 2nd century. Finally, at some point after this, another Roman writer, Justin, produced an epitome, that is an abbreviated version, of the Philippic Histories of Diodorus’ contemporary, Pompeius Trogus, which included an account of the reign of Alexander. These writers are collectively referred to as the Alexander historians. Their narratives are clearly directly or indirectly based on accounts written in the decades following Alexander’s death, in several cases by men who accompanied Alexander on his campaigns, but how faithfully the authors of the surviving texts transmitted what they read is not certain. It is clear that, to a greater or lesser extent, the surviving accounts have been shaped to appeal to a contemporary readership, that is to say a readership of Greeks and Romans living in a world governed by powerful emperors, for whom Alexander might serve as a model for how to rule, or how not to rule. Fundamentally, the Alexander of the narrative sources is a Roman Alexander.

Like the Alexander Mosaic, the narrative accounts of Alexander’s career probably preserve much material that goes back to Alexander’s time, but what we have is in part fragmentary, and as a whole transmitted through the work of people from later centuries, who have transformed the material to suit new techniques and changed tastes. Finding effective ways to interpret these narratives is a challenge that faces anyone trying to tell the story of Alexander’s life and campaigns. In many places the Alexander historians provide conflicting versions of the same set of events—and indeed Arrian notes that sometimes even eye-witness sources disagree with each other. On the other hand, when the same story appears in several different narratives, we cannot be certain that it is true: some stories about Alexander were invented in or soon after his lifetime, for example that he met, and slept with, the mythical Queen of the Amazons, and these stories rapidly became part of the narrative tradition. Some stories about him became so popular that no author could afford to ignore them, even if they could not be found in the accounts of the earliest writers. Despite decades of research into the sources of the Alexander historians (sometimes referred to by the German word Quellenforschung) we still have no reliable way of determining how much, if any, of their accounts can be trusted.

We can, however, make some progress in determining what is more or less likely to have happened by trying to build up a fuller picture of the world around Alexander, and to do this we need to look at more material evidence. In a case in the Ancient Iran gallery of the British Museum is displayed a small fragment of greyish terracotta, 4–5 cm wide and 6 cm high, inscribed with neat lines of cuneiform script (Figure 2). The fragment, written in Akkadian, is part of a Babylonian astronomical diary referring to the second month of the fourteenth year of the king’s reign. Towards the bottom of the fragment the following can be read: ‘On the 29th [day] the king died; clouds […] the sky’. The date corresponds to 11 June 323, and the king was Alexander the Great. This small piece of clay is a near-contemporary piece of evidence for Alexander, but this is a very different Alexander from the one on the mosaic. We have texts of astronomical diaries like this covering the period from 652 to 60 BCE. Every night men would stand on the roof of the king’s palace in Babylon to observe the heavens. When it was not cloudy, they would note down the position of the planets, and any other unusual phenomena (comets, eclipses, and so on). These observations would then be recorded in diaries, and after each month’s observations there would be a report on the prices of staple goods in the market, and notes of any significant events that had occurred. The aim of these observations was to establish the attitude of the gods to the city and to the king in particular: if signs in the sky indicated that the king faced danger, steps could be taken to protect him. Alexander first entered Babylon on 20 October 331, and was almost certainly recognized as its new king at that time. He returned to the city in the Spring of 323, and died there a few months later. While he was in the neighbourhood of Babylon, the whole system of the Babylonian scholar-priests was focused on his well-being, and his actions were recorded in royal chronicles and other kinds of text. There was a Babylonian Alexander as well as a Roman one.


2. A fragment of an astronomical diary from Babylon recording events in the second month of year fourteen of Alexander’s reign, including the king’s death

A further vision of Alexander can be found on coins issued in the period after his death by the men who took control of the various parts of his empire. Alexander himself did not issue coins with his portrait on at all: instead he followed an earlier Macedonian practice of putting the head of Heracles on his silver issues. His successors started the practice of issuing coins with his portrait on them, which indicates that, like the owner of the House of the Faun somewhat later, they saw an association with Alexander as being advantageous to them. But the Alexander of these coins had unusual attributes. Some coin portraits show Alexander with ram’s horns around his ears (Figure 3). These horns were the symbol of the Egyptian god Amun, whose temples in Thebes Alexander restored, and whose oracular shrine at Siwa in the Libyan desert he visited in the Spring of 331. According to the Alexander historians, it was after this visit that Alexander began to claim that he was the son of Amun (or of Zeus, with whom Amun was identified), and these claims were a major cause of resentment from Alexander’s soldiers, and his companions; and most modern scholars have accepted this idea. But the coins indicate that some of these same companions actually chose to advertise the relationship between Alexander and Amun themselves. It is possible that their attitude to Alexander’s claims changed after his death, but it is also possible that the coins, which date from the late 4th century, are telling a truer story than the narratives written hundreds of years later.


3. Alexander depicted with ram’s horns, the symbol of the Egyptian god Amun, on a silver coin of one of his successors, Lysimachus

There are other images of Alexander that can help us build up a better picture of how he was seen by his contemporaries or near-contemporaries. Greek cities inscribed and erected copies of decrees he made about them; Athenian orators referred to his activities in their surviving speeches. His name and his image, in pharaonic style, were carved into the walls of the temples of Upper Egypt where restoration work was done in his name. Still other contemporary documents and artefacts can help us get a fuller picture of the world in which he operated, even when they do not mention him by name.

While it does not ignore the narratives provided by the Alexander historians, this Very Short Introduction to Alexander the Great attempts to give greater weight than has been customary to these contemporary documents, and to indicate what we do not know, as well as what we do. Although it is broadly chronological in its structure, it is not intended to provide a straightforward narrative of Alexander’s life and his campaigns. As it happens, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, which is the only one of the ancient narratives to provide an account, not necessarily to be trusted, of Alexander’s childhood as well as his actions as king, is about the length of a Very Short Introduction, and would make a suitable companion to this one. However, the timeline provided here, along with the map showing Alexander’s progress (Map 1), should be enough to prevent the reader getting lost. The next chapter, ‘Before Alexander’, will give a brief history of the Achaemenid Persian empire and the kingdom of Macedon, before they came into conflict, while the last chapter will explore the way Alexander’s memory has continued to haunt the world in the millennia following his death. In between, we will examine Alexander in his own world: not just Greece and Macedonia, but the whole complex web of places that made up the ancient Near East.

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