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The Age of Alexander

Randy H. Sooknanan & Ani Margaryan

ASAG Journal

May 27, 2020

The Age of Alexander the Great, which took place from 336 BCE to 323 BCE, was a significant period in history, culture, and art for several reasons. Firstly, Alexander the Great's conquests had a profound impact on the political, social, and cultural landscape of the ancient world. Under his leadership, the Macedonian Empire became one of the largest and most powerful empires in history, stretching from Greece to India. Alexander's campaigns led to the spread of Greek culture and ideas throughout the empire, creating a new Hellenistic culture that blended Greek and Eastern influences. This cultural fusion had a lasting impact on the development of art, literature, philosophy, and science in the ancient world.

Secondly, the Age of Alexander the Great was a time of great artistic achievement, particularly in the field of sculpture. Alexander himself was a patron of the arts, commissioning many sculptures and monuments to commemorate his victories and promote his image as a divine ruler. Greek sculptors during this time developed new techniques and styles, including the use of more naturalistic poses and expressions, and the creation of larger-than-life-size sculptures. The Hellenistic period also saw the rise of new art forms, such as mosaics and relief sculpture, which were used to decorate public buildings and private homes.

Finally, the Age of Alexander the Great was a significant period in the development of Western civilization. Alexander's conquests helped to spread Greek culture and ideas throughout the ancient world, laying the foundation for the later development of Western art, literature, philosophy, and science. The Hellenistic period saw the rise of new schools of philosophy, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, which had a profound influence on Western thought. The art and literature of the Hellenistic period also had a lasting impact on Western culture, with many of the themes and motifs of Greek art and literature continuing to be used and adapted in the centuries that followed.

Overall, the Age of Alexander the Great was an important period in history, culture, and art, with a lasting impact on the development of Western civilization. Alexander's conquests helped to spread Greek culture and ideas throughout the ancient world, creating a new Hellenistic culture that blended Greek and Eastern influences. This cultural fusion had a profound impact on the development of art, literature, philosophy, and science, and laid the foundation for the later development of Western culture.

Let's take a look at some artwork depicting a key event in his short but storied life...

Art from the Ashes: The Alexander Mosaic

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 (Fig 1).


Fig 3. Tesserae technique - detail of a fallen sword from the bottom right of the Mosaic (illustrating the individual Tesserae) (Credit: Wikipedia, 2009)


Fig 4. Central Horse (radical foreshortening)
(Credit: Pinterest, 2022)

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 (Fig 5). The eye of Alexander (Fig 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 (Fig 7).


Fig 5. PPersian soldier reflected in a shield (Credit: Brewminate, 2021)


Fig 6. Exaggerated eye of Alexander the Great of Macedon
(Credit: Wikiwand, 2022)


Fig 7. A distressed Darius II king of the Persian Empire from 423 BC to 405 BC
(Credit: Smarthistory, 2021) 

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.​​​


Alexander Mosaic, Pompeii, 100BC - Originally found at the House of the Faun, Pompeii - Now located at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy (Credit: Wikipedia, 2022)

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)


Fig 1.  Battle of Issus - Alexander the Great of Macedon & Darius II of the Persian Empire (Modern Reconstruction) (Credit: The University of Sheffield, 2022)

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 (Fig 2).


Fig 2. Darius's brother Oxyathres, Zoomed in View, Battle of Issus - Alexander the Great of Macedon & Darius II of the Persian Empire (Modern Reconstruction) (Credit: The University of Sheffield, 2022)

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 - Fig 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 (Fig 4).


Discover, Learn & Appreciate.


Art from the Ashes: The Alexander Mosaic

Let's learn a bit about Alexander's father Philip...

Philip of Madedon

Conquer and unite Greece now in decline, annihilate the great Persian Empire and make small Macedonia the center of a new course in history. This was the vision of Philip II king of Macedonia (359 and 336 BC) in a combination of great diplomatic skills and creator of the greatest ancient model of military efficiency, the Macedonian Phalanx, before the Roman legions. But without the genius of Philip II would his son Alexander the Great really exist? History documents that the extension of the Hellenic world to the East in about 35 years stems from the union between the father's strategic-political projects and his son's dream of glory. Most Greeks did not know Macedonia, a mountainous region not very integrated in the Greek world, different living habits, different political institutions, different language, he was a semi-barbarian people. Macedonia was a monarchy, the king was limited by the authority of the nobles who were age "companions of the king".
Philip II, upon the death of his father Aminta III defeated by the Illyrians, finds himself hostage in Thebes where he learns the military arts following Epaminonda, the Theban general winner of the Spartans with the use of the Sacred Battalion. The Macedonian phalanx was organized on 16 rows of 16 men, 256 warriors, each armed with a shield and sarissa, a spear from 5 to 7 meters long with an iron tip. The first row held the sarissa in a horizontal position while the other ones kept it progressively more vertical. The aim was to break through enemy lines and keep opponents at a distance by combining it with the contribution of cavalry, which Filippo had more than the Greeks had.
Having become king, he devoted himself to a profound reorganization of the state. His vision foresaw the unity of his kingdom, to impose itself on the city-states of Greece and finally to overthrow the Persians. The first enemies defeated, in a period of instability that continues to see the Greek pòleis always fighting each other, between 359 and 348 BC, are the Illyrians in the Balkans, then Thessaly in the West and the city of Olinto which allow him to reach the gold of Thrace and control of the high Aegean Sea. These victories, and the precarious situation of Athens from an economic and military point of view, allow Philip to enter the Anfitional Congress where he makes all his influence felt pending the clash with Athens represented in growing tension by the speaker Demosthenes and his Philippicae however Demosthenes persuaded the Athenians to enter into a temporary peace (348 BC) to reorder forces, find allies and ruin the agreements between Philip and several Greek cities including Thebes. Thus Philip's plan to bring Greece under control with Greece's consent failed. War was inevitable.
The battle of Cheronea, in Boeotia, in 338 BC is considered among the central conflicts of history because the victory of Philip marks the end of Greek independence and sees for the first time in battle his son Alexander who was eighteen years old and commanded the left wing of the deployment. Philip released two thousand prisoners he had captured and sent his son Alexander, who had covered himself in glory, and the most experienced of his lieutenants, Antipater, to Athens as messengers of peace. Philip asked for the command of all Greek military forces against the Persian enemy to be recognized. At the conference in Corinth all the states that sent their representatives, minus Sparta, agreed to meet in a confederation by pledging to give their troops and guarantee peace.

Without his death Filippo would probably have achieved other extraordinary results, perhaps the same as Alessandro, but enriching them with politics and strategy rather than ambition. 

Certainly Alexander's victories became a model of imitation for the subsequent conquerors but it is fair to think that the death of Philip II prevented him from having a place among the greatest conquerors and generals in history. And then, the extraordinary army had created him almost out of nowhere, delivering to his son an extraordinary, innovative and original instrument that was only partly inspired by the best military minds produced by the most recent history of Greece.

Alexander, Greek Aesthetics
& Artistic Interactions

Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

May 27, 2020

Classical art, particularly from the 5th century Athens, has held up to be a universal model of aesthetic excellence, as we have seen from artists later in antiquity, such as the Romans, as well as much later in the 18th and 19th centuries, they often strove to emulate classical ideas and forms. For example, this is most evident in some of the sculptures and architecture produced within western Europe, especially during the Baroque. Also noticeable are paintings whose themes are derived from classical mythology and history. Neoclassicism in architecture was also popularized in the 18th century and since often used on public buildings, like museums, universities, and banks. However, it is also interesting to note that classical sculpture and techniques were also used in Buddhist and Indian art. Like the art of Europe, they seem to have drawn on classical art for inspiration in treating the human forms. Artistic interactions between the classical world and India began in the Hellenistic period, after Alexander of Macedon's campaigns and the Indo-Greek kingdoms' establishment. Notice the cloth work in this Greco-Buddist statue from 1st-2nd century Pakistan, this carving of a boddhisatva and Herakles, the Titan Altlas supporting a Buddhist monument, this Gandhara Poseidon head bust, and another frieze in purely Hellenistic style, placed inside Corinthian columns, among others.


The Classical Greek Aesthetic & Artistic Interactions

The influence of Greek art on Asian art can be traced back to centuries when the Greek culture was in its zenith, and it spread far and wide across Europe, Asia Minor, Egypt, and beyond. The spread of Greek art and culture across these regions had a profound impact on the art, literature, and other forms of creative works. From the first contact of the Greek settlers in Asia Minor, their artistic practices had an impact on the indigenous cultures, leading to the emergence of Greco-Asian cultural synthesis.

The influence of Greek art on Asia can be best studied through the Hellenistic period, which is the time when the Greek civilization reached its peak. This was the time when the Greek art and culture had spread all over the Mediterranean world and even beyond. This cultural wave touched the eastern territories of Parthia, Bactria, and the Indian Subcontinent, where it mingled with the local art, leading to the emergence of a unique style that blended the Greek and Asian art.

One of the most notable examples of the influence of Greek art on Asia can be found in the art of Gandhara, a region in ancient India, present-day Pakistan, and Afghanistan. During the third century BCE, this region was under the influence of the Greco-Bactrian rulers, who brought with them the Hellenistic art and culture, that blended with the existing Buddhist art of the region. Gandhara art was characterized by the blend of classical Greek elements, such as the idealized human form, with the local Indian artistic traditions. This led to the emergence of a unique art form, which had a profound impact on the development of Buddhist art in the region.

Another notable example of the influence of Greek art on Asia is seen in the art of ancient China. During the Han dynasty, in the second century BCE, the Silk Road emerged as a critical trade route for the exchange of goods and ideas between China and the West. The Greeks, who had established themselves in Central Asia, along the Silk Road, played a significant role in introducing the Hellenistic art and culture to the Chinese artists. This led to the emergence of a unique Chinese style that blended the Chinese artistic traditions with the Greek art elements, such as the idealized human form, use of light and shadow, and the incorporation of mythological themes.

The Greek influence on Chinese art can be seen in the sculptures of the Han dynasty, which featured Greek-style clothing and hairstyles, and in the use of the idealized human form. This was particularly evident in the depictions of the Western Regions (central Asia) traders who brought with them their Greek-style clothing and hairstyles. They were depicted in sculptures as idealized Greek figures rather than as realistic portraits, which further highlights the influence of Greek art on the Chinese artistic traditions.

The influence of Greek art on Asian art can also be seen in the art of the Khmer civilization of Cambodia, which flourished during the Angkor period, from the ninth to the fifteenth century CE. During this period, the Khmer rulers were heavily influenced by Indian art and culture, which they incorporated into their artistic traditions. However, the Khmer art also had a significant Greek influence, particularly during the Angkor Wat period, from the twelfth century CE.

The Greek influence on Khmer art can be seen in the depictions of the Hindu gods and goddesses, which exhibit elements of Hellenistic art, such as idealized human forms, drapery, and the use of light and shadow. This influence can also be seen in the representation of the Khmer kings, who were sometimes depicted as idealized Greek figures rather than as realistic portraits.

In conclusion, the influence of Greek art on Asian art is evident in the blending of the Greek art elements with the local artistic traditions of the Asian regions. This influence can be seen in the emergence of a unique art form in regions such as Gandhara, China, and Cambodia. The Greek influence on Asian art had a lasting impact and was instrumental in the development of the artistic traditions in these regions. The Greco-Asian cultural synthesis is a testament to the enduring legacy of Greek art on Asian art.


Philip of Macedon

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