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Art from the Ashes:

The Alexander Mosaic

Randy H. Sooknanan & Ani Margaryan

Art & History Writers

Alexander the Great was born in the Pella region of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia on July 20, 356 BC. By the time he reached the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires the ancient world had ever seen, stretching from the Ionian Sea all the way to the Himalayas. He was undefeated in battle and is thus considered one of history's most successful military commanders, At only 32 years old his vast conquests came to a halt when he met his untimely death in Babylon, albeit under some rather mysterious circumstances.

​The Alexander Mosaic is a Roman-era floor mosaic originally produced, later found, then excavated from the well-preserved ruins in Pompeii, Italy. The artwork is dated from circa 100 BC (Pic 1).

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(Pic 3) Tesserae technique - detail of a fallen sword from the bottom right of the Mosaic

(illustrating the individual tesserae)

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(Pic 4) Central Horse (radical foreshortening)

There is also an intriguing nuance: on the surface of the shield is read the reflection of the fearful face of a soldier in the foreground- either suffering or dying (Pic 5). The eye of Alexander (Pic 6), who is depicted not in the compositional centre, but rather in the left corner, is unnaturally exaggerated, probably for emphasizing his extremely-focused and concentrated state of mind, as he is about to throw the spear to the direction of the frightened Darius, of whom is actually the focal point of the composition (Pic 7).

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(Pic 5) Persian soldier reflected in a shield

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(Pic 6) Exaggerated eye of Alexander the Great of Macedon

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(Pic 7) A distressed Darius II king of the Persian Empire from 423 BC to 405 BC

Despite the fact that Alexander is not shown as an idealized and physically attractive Greek god with soft facial and body features, the hint on his divine or semi-divine origin hides within his breastplate ornamentation: central pattern in the form of Medusa’s head. According to the art historians’ interpretation, it is either an apotropaic symbol (a dangerous threat meant to deter other dangerous threats, an image of evil to repel evil) or marks a divine birth. As for the function and intended audience, we need to turn our gazes to the patron/patrons. So who was the patron?

The mosaic was discovered in a mansion in Pompeii, which was full of luxurious objects and once belonged to an aristocratic family, thereafter the mosaic also was commissioned by a wealthy patron to demonstrate his exquisite taste and status to his guests and visitors of the mansion. It’s noteworthy that the subject matter itself corresponds to the ambitions of the patron and tendencies among wealthy Roman citizens of that time; Alexander's conquest notably leads to the unification of Greece, a culture the Roman's respected and imitated, the mosaic would have been a symbol of this respect, as well as a source of inspiration. Besides, the patron most likely wished to make parallels with the heroic Greeks and his roots. Thereby, the mentioned factors elucidate the choice of the theme and its representation. 

Overall the plethora of diagonal spears convey the mess of clashing metals, and along with the crowding of men and horses, the work evokes the sense of commotion that comes in battle. Simultaneously to the viewer, the action is arrested by dramatic details such as the fallen horse and the Persian soldier in the foreground who watches his own death throes reflected in a shield.​​​

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Alexander Mosaic - Originally found at the House of the Faun, Pompeii - Now located at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy

Alexander Mosaic, Pompeii 
*This artwork is the Roman copy of the Greek original mural
Dimensions: 8 ft 11 in × 16 ft 9 in
Material: comprised from over one and a half million pieces of stone and glass 
Location: Naples National Archaeological Museum (since 1843)

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(Pic 1) Battle of Issus - Alexander the Great of Macedon & Darius II of the Persian Empire

(Modern Reconstruction)

The mosaic was unearthed by archaeologists in 1831 and was discovered to be in incredibly good condition due to the volcanic ashes that collected over it during the tragic volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on the city of Pompeii in 79 AD. This artwork was found inlaid into the ground of the House of the Faun in between two open peristyles and was used to decorate the exedra platform adjoining to the building's façade.

Alexander defeated Darius II (king of the Persian Empire) twice - at the Battle of Issus and two years later at the Battle of Gaugamela. This work is believed to depict the events at Issus. The scene illustrates a part of the fight in which Alexander charges the Persian king Darius. The battle scene comprises over 50 men and features Darius's brother Oxyathres, who we see portrayed as sacrificing himself to save his kin and king (Pic 2).

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(Pic 2) Darius's brother Oxyathres

The mosaic's composition is considered as a pioneer in the use of foreshortening (used in art to reduce or distort (parts of a represented object that are not parallel to the picture plane) in order to convey the illusion of three-dimensional space as perceived by the human eye), chiaroscuro (the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures), and one of the finest Roman samples of tesserae technique (tessera- a small piece of stone, glass, ceramic, or other hard material cut in a cubical or some other regular shape - Pic 3). The element of radical foreshortening is especially noticeable with the central horse shown in the work, which is seen from behind, and uses shading to convey a sense of mass and volume to enhance the naturalistic effect of the entire image (Pic 4).

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Art from the Ashes: The Alexander Mosaic

(Pic 1)
(Pic 1)

Battle of Issus - Alexander the Great of Macedon & Darius II of the Persian Empire (Modern Reconstruction)

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(Pic 2)
(Pic 2)

Darius's brother Oxyathres

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(Pic 3)
(Pic 3)

Tesserae technique - detail of a fallen sword from the bottom right of the Mosaic (illustrating the individual tesserae)

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(Pic 4)
(Pic 4)

Central Horse (radical foreshortening)

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(Pic 5)
(Pic 5)

Persian soldier reflected in a shield

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(Pic 6)
(Pic 6)

Exaggerated eye of Alexander the Great of Macedon

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(Pic 7)
(Pic 7)

A distressed Darius II king of the Persian Empire from 423 BC to 405 BC

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Alexander Mosaic
Alexander Mosaic

Originally found at the House of the Faun, Pompeii - Now located at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy

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