by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Archeological Museum, Naples
The Alexander floor mosaic from the House of the Faun at Pompeii, 100-120 BC

In the Footsteps of Alexander

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 16 March 1996


Alexander had Aristotle for a tutor, but it was the epic poetry of a more archaic and bloody age, not the clear light of Athenian philosophy, that made the Macedonian boy-king tick and fired his insatiable thirst for conquest. Homer's 'Iliad' was his constant companion (he even kept it under his pillow at night) on his twelve-year-long campaign during which he subjugated Greece, Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, Persia and part of Central Asia, reaching India and the limits of the known world, before his death in Babylon in 323 BC at the age of 32. It was rather as if Queen Victoria had modelled herself on Boadicea instead of following the concepts of civilization of her own day.

The obsessively-driven Macedonian military genius is the subject of 'Alexander the Great: History and Myth' at Palazzo Ruspoli (until 21 May). It is preceded by a separate but complementary display 'The Macedonians: Greeks of the North', which includes bronze and gold finds (though some only in reproduction) from the tomb found in Vergina in the late 1970s of Alexander's father Philip, whose murder in 336 BC brought the son suddenly to the throne.

The main show more or less follows the progress of Alexander's conquests with a range of archeological finds discovered along his route from portrait statues, heads and seals, to helmets, arms and horse tackle. The most impressive piece is a large, dynamic mosaic of Alexander and his friend Efestion hunting a lion, loaned by the museum at Pella, Alexander's birthplace.

What the exhibition, perhaps inevitably, cannot investigate in any depth is the historical impact of Alexander's career. Alexander and his Macedonians were regarded with fear and loathing by many Greeks, and among his feats was to snuff out Athenian democracy. After his death, his empire soon disintegrated into several kingdoms, some ruled by his generals and others reverting to native monarchs. His dream of integrating Greece and Persia - he adopted oriental dress, married local princesses and urged his followers to imitate his example - never came to fruition.

He did, however, forcibly introduce Hellenism into the Near East, effecting a major shift in its center of gravity. But this radically altered the nature of Hellenism itself. The result, among other things, was the birth of 'koine', a Greek lingua franca spoken throughout the Near East and wherever those of whatever racial origins who had imbibed Hellenistic culture could be found. This was, in due course, the language used to record the New Testament gospels.

The show is more successful at a visual level in giving an idea of the plethora of myths that grew up around the Macedonian conqueror. The reality was so fantastic that one might have thought that the mythologizers would have been hard put to elaborate on it. But, in fact, it seems to have urged them on to ever more adventurous flights of fancy. One of the most popular legends, illustrated in surviving art-works here, is of how Alexander finally overcame Death itself, ascending to heaven in a kind of balloon-basket, born aloft by harnessed griffins struggling to reach the chunks of meat the king had set above them on the tips of lances.

Callisthenes, Aristotle's nephew and the Asian expedition's official historian, was executed by the king during the campaign for supposedly being involved in a plot against his life. Later a Pseudo-Callisthenes, whose work gathered together the ever-more embroidered and implausible versions of the Macedonian's career, and other Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic and Armenian accounts appeared. The story spread way beyond the vast sphere of Alexander's actual conquests, duly turning up in Old English and French. The 12th-century 'Roman d'Alexandre' gave France the 12-syllable 'Alexandrine' poetic meter.

Alexander appears in the Hebrew First Book of the Maccabees and in the Koran. And his legendized deeds inspired some the greatest Islamic poets from the Persian Firdusi, composer of the gigantic 'Shahname' (Book of Kings), and Nizami, to the Turkish epic writers, Neva'i and Ahmedi.

Not least of the fascination of these works is how amidst the welter of myth, echoes of historical fact can resurface in psychologically subtle, metaphorical form. Thus while, as we know, Alexander's relentless drive eastwards was only brought to an end when his weary, homesick followers refused to take another step forward, we find this emblematically expressed in the Muslim poets' haunting account of Alexander's lonely, futile quest in the Land of Darkness for the Fountain of Life. And it is finally the imaginatively rich and captivatingly beautiful miniatures painted to illustrate the luxurious courtly editions of the Islamic authors' verses on Alexander, culled from collections both in Italy and abroad, which constitute the single most colorful and absorbing section of the show.

Literal hero-worship was an aspect of Greek religion, mythical warriors appearing amid the pantheon of Olympian gods, and sometimes being singled out for devotion as the legendary founders of cities and colonies. Alexander and his successors became pagan cult figures in Asia, which already had indigenous traditions of king-worship, and representations of the Macedonian king continued to be made long after his death.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023