The Disputes about Alexander
and his Glorification in the Visual Arts

by Nicos Hadjinicolaou

(from the English translation of the Catalogue of the Exhibition Alexander the Great in European Art, edited by Nicos Hadjinicolaou, Thessaloniki, 22 Septmeber 1997 to 11 January 1998)

The project of devoting an exhibition to the way in which Alexander the Great was perceived by modern European art - that is, of the last five centuries - immediately encountered the problem of the relationship with history. It was clear from the outset, of course, that the exhibition would not have a historical orientation. Its purpose was not to present the facts which research has unearthed about the historical Alexander, his actions, and their impact, using occasional works of art as illustrations among the other materials (manuscripts, coins, etc.). The object of the exhibition was not the Macedonian commander per se, but the interpretation which, as a historical personality, he had received from the visual arts of Europe during the last five centuries. The space of time between the real Alexander and the visual interpretations of him - such of them as are on show in Thessaloniki - varies between 1,800 and 2,300 years. Alexander the Great himself is thus of interest to us only indirectly: to the extent to which certain historical facts involving him were used, distorted or overlooked by the artists of recent years.

As we became more familiar with the visual material, the conviction grew in us that even if we wished to avoid history it would be impossible to do so. Alexander - that is, the image of Alexander - has been transforming himself ceaselessly down those five centuries. In order to understand the changes, we have to set Alexander aside and focus our attention on those who have interpreted him and on their motives. That is the first reason for which we are obliged to turn to modern European history.

In l78l, a French scholar called Nicolas Beauzee, secretary to the Count d’Artois, brother of Louis XVI, expressed the conviction that Alexander the Great “had no other motive than his own vanity, no right on his side other than that he could seize with his sword, no rule other than that dictated by his passions, and no virtue other than a violent and often thoughtless daring”.[1]

The question that arises is the extent to which this condemnation was anachronistic; in other words, the extent to which Beauzee was - perhaps involuntarily - investing Alexander in appreciations and conclusions formulated in the France of the late eighteenth century, and completely unrelated to Alexander’s own historical reality. Were such strongly negative attitudes to Alexander to be found in antiquity? That is the inevitable question. What judgements did Alexander elicit during his lifetime and in the first centuries after his death?

There is also a second reason for turning to the ancient historians, biographers and philosophers who wrote of Alexander: that when painters, sculptors and engravers undertook commissions to depict scenes from his life, they, too, read the ancient texts - in the original or in translation - on the scenes they wished to represent.

In 15l7, when Sodoma (standing in, it might be said, for Raphael) painted in the Villa Farnesina what was in effect the first cycle of monumental paintings on the subject of the Macedonian king in modern history, the question arises of what he and those around him knew of Alexander the Great. In other words, what sources - ancient and modern - were they using, and what was the prevailing opinion in the learned circles of the day about the personality and role of Alexander the Great?

The artists’ sources

Andy Warhol had no need to read Plutarch in order to paint a head of Alexander. Earlier artists, however, from Raphael to Gustave Moreau, read the ancient writers and drew inspiration from their readings. They illustrated extracts from the texts, which, indeed, they sometimes appended to their creations so as to allow connoisseurs to judge their interpretation.

What could the European painters, sculptors and engravers read about Alexander the Great, and what did they read? During the period from 1500 to 1800, when most of his visual interpretations appeared, the image of the Macedonian king was shaped, primarily, by the reading of three ancient writers: Plutarch, who devoted one of the biographies in his Parallel Lives to Alexander[2], placing him side-by-side with Caesar, Arrian[3], author of the Anabasis of Alexander, and Quintus Curtius Rufus, writer in Latin of a History of Alexander the Great.[4] Less often, the Historical Library of Diodorus Siculus might have been consulted.[5] These later writers drew on the works - surviving today only as fragments - of the historians who were contemporaries of Alexander: Callisthenes, Onesicritus and Aristobulus, to whom they refer.

What could the European painters, sculptors and engravers read about Alexander the Great, and what did they read? During the period from 1500 to 1800, when most of his visual interpretations appeared, the image of the Macedonian king was shaped, primarily, by the reading of three ancient writers: Plutarch, who devoted one of the biographies in his ƒ·r·llel Lives to Alexander, placing him side-by-side with Caesar, Arrian, author of the Anabasis of Alexander, and Quintus Curtius Rufus, writer in Latin of a History of Alexander the Great. Less often, the Historical Library of Diodorus Siculus might have been consulted. These later writers drew on the works - surviving today only as fragments - of the historians who were contemporaries of Alexander: Callisthenes, Onesicritus and Aristobulus, to whom they refer.

During the Middle Ages, manuscript codices of Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus and Curtius Rufus were to be found in abundance, often ornamented with elaborate paintings in miniature. They will not concern us here. We are interested principally in the numerous printed editions of the ancient writers, available in the original and in translation. The National Library of France, for instance, has more than ten editions of the Latin text of Curtius Rufus printed before 1550, together with four French translations which appeared at about the same time.

What image of Alexander do we gain from these authors? First of all, needless to say, it varies from one to the other. On a first and general level, the predominant feature in Plutarch, Arrian and Diodorus is admiration for the person and virtues of Alexander, while Quintus Curtius Rufus refers at greater length to the negative aspects and does not display a tendency to justify the Macedonian king, as the other writers do.

The light and dark sides of Alexander’s character

The principal concept through which both Plutarch and Aman perceive and present Alexander is ‘virtue’. Mention is made and praise given first and foremost to his ‘courage’, his ‘generosity’, his ‘magnanimity’ and his ‘self-restraint’. In his short life, these virtues were brought together as never before in a single individual. Plutarch, the pro Alexander writer par excellence, is unstinting in his praise, and apart from his Life of Alexander provides further positive references in the ªoralia, although he does not deny himself the right to criticise (see “How to distinguish between a flatterer and a friend”, “Concerning Alexander’s excessive drinking” etc.).

The hero cult identified these virtues even in Alexander’s childhood. Plutarch wrote: “But while he was still a boy his self-restraint showed itself in the fact that, although he was impetuous and violent in other matters, the pleasures of the body had little hold upon him and he indulged in them with great moderation, while his ambition kept his spirit serious and lofty in advance of his years” (Alexander, 4, 8). “He did not court pleasure, nor even wealth, but excellence and fame”, Plutarch adds a little further on (5, 5). “Alexander was naturally munificent, and became still more so as his wealth increased” (39, 1). “Alexander, then, in exercising himself and at the same time inciting others to deeds of valour was wont to court danger [...] in the most trifling attention which he paid to familiar friends there were marks of great good will and esteem” (41, 1-3 ).

The virtues and talents of Alexander were never really called into question. Even Justinus, whose epitome of the Historia Philippicae of Pompeius Trogus was written subsequent to the adverse pronouncements of Cicero and Seneca and who was himself negatively disposed towards Alexander, did not hesitate to recognise his quality of leadership: “and he inspired such confidence in his men that, if he were present, they would fear the army of no enemy, even if they themselves were unarmed. So it was that he did battle with no adversary without defeating him, besieged no city without taking it, and attacked no tribe without crushing it entirely” (12, 16, l0-19). Arrian’s Anabasis is also full of laudatory comments - at least on the first phase of Alexander’s life - which it is needless to repeat in detail here. The significant issue is, however, that after a certain point Alexander’s ethos is eroded and moral decline sets in. None of the ancient authors questions this. Some negative elements are recognised as having existed almost from the start. Even Plutarch notes relatively early in his Life that Alexander was very susceptible to flattery: “And although in other ways he was of all princes the most agreeable in his intercourse, and endowed with every grace, at this time his boastfulness would make him unpleasant and very like a common soldier. Not only was he himself carried away into blustering, but he suffered himself to be ridden by his flatterers. These were a great annoyance to the finer spirits in the company, who desired neither to vie with the flatterers, nor yet to fall behind them in praising Alexander. The one course they thought disgraceful, the other had its perils” (23, 7-8).

The question of the ‘obeisance’ and the storm of opposition it provoked, the killing of the Indian mercenaries after a cease-fire had been agreed with them, and the executions of Philotas, Parmenion and Callisthenes were all events which even Alexander’s apologists record. The turning-point came with the killing of Clitus, which took place when Alexander was drunk and in a towering rage caused by his friend’s taunts that he should “not invite to supper men who were free and spoke their minds, but vie with Barbarians and slaves, who would do obeisance to his white tunic and Persian girdle” (51, 5). Arrian records the admission of Hermolaus, after his arrest, that he had conspired against the king, “for (he said), no free man could longer endure Alexander’s arrogance” (Anabasis, 4, 14, 2). There is no question, then, as to the facts: the problem is how to interpret them. Arrian and Plutarch justify Alexander by pointing to his youth, the role played by the flatterers, and the influence which the barbarians were having on him. However, it should be noted that the reliability of the earliest historiography concerning Alexander, on which Diodorus, Plutarch and Arrian all based themselves, had been expressly called into question as far back as Strabo: “Neither is it easy to believe most of those who have written the history of Alexander; for these toy with facts, both because of the glory of Alexander and because his expedition reached the ends of Asia, far away from us” (Geography, 11, 6, 4).

The phenomenon called Alexander received a much more negative reception in Rome, and it was via Rome that many criticisms lived on into the Middle Ages.I believe that without exceeding oversimplification it is possible to reduce the Roman understanding of Alexander to the following common denominator: what the Roman authors critised in Alexander was his lack of self-restraint. “You should note also that even the pupil of Aristotle initially displayed outstanding gifts and fine manners, but when he became king he grew to be arrogant, cruel and unrestrained” wrote Cicero (Ad Atticum, 12, 28, 3); “Caesar... closely resembled Alexander the Great, but only when Alexander was free from the influence of wine and master of his passions” (Velleius Paterculus, 2, 41, 102).

For precisely these reasons, we should not be surprised by the vehemence with which Seneca repeatedly rejects Alexander. The Macedonian king’s lack of self-control and the ‘mania’ which came over him must have been tolerable for him. There is a characteristic passage in which Seneca, with incomparable rhetorical force, defends the memory of Callisthenes, one of Alexander’s victims: “He had outstanding intelligence and did not submit to the rage of his king. The murder of Callisthenes is the everlasting crime of Alexander, which no virtue, no success in war, will redeem. For when someone says, ‘Alexander killed many thousands of Persians’, the countering reply to him will be ‘And Callisthenes, too’. Whenever it is said, Alexander killed Darius, who had the greatest kingdom at that time’ the reply will be, ‘And he killed Callisthenes, too’. Whenever it is said, ‘He conquered everything on the way to the ocean and even made an attack on the ocean itself with ships unknown to that water; and he extended his empire from a corner of Thrace all the way to the farthest boundaries of the East’, it will be said, ‘But he killed Callisthenes’. Although he went beyond all the achievements in antiquity of generals and kings, of the things he did nothing will be so great as his crimes” (Quaestiones naturales, 6, 23, 2-3).

It was on the basis of this tradition that Dante consigned Alexander to the Inferno, and Petrarch, in his pantheon of famous men, paints an uncompromisingly negative portrait (see the relevant entry in this catalogue). A short passage should suffice to convey the flavour: “In the meantime, the king became more and more unruly as rage and fierceness swelled within him, his pride grew and his courage declined after his good fortune, and his faults increased in wellbeing. What I might describe as the worst of his bad sides was the lack of stability and balance in himself” (De viris illustribus, 15, 30).

Those, in brief, are the facts behind the manner in which Alexander was perceived by the biographers, historians and philosophers who lived in the first centuries after his death and commented on his personality and actions. Recent scholars have looked in detail at the attitude of the ancient schools of philosophy towards Alexander[6] and some reached the conclusion that the Macedonian king was little more than a pretext, an abstract pattern which anyone could pull into the particular shape dictated by his own special requirements.[7] This is not the place to disagree with that point of view, which puts the interpretations proposed on an excessively individual basis. Although individuality is present in the details, the various perceptions of Alexander are always collective phenomena.

Alexandro Invictissimo

These two sides to Alexander - the first positive and in some periods predominant, the second negative and always present though less generally accentuated - were to accompany his reception in the modern times in Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, the model of Alexander was largely identified with the image of the king. After the end of the fifteenth century, Alexander’s role as military commander gradually supplanted that as ruler.

The drawing of parallels between the enemies of the past and the present, between the Persians and the Turks, gave additional interest to the figure of the ‘invincible’ Alexander. Vasari, in his Life of Verrocchio, published in 1568, mentions the gift sent by Lorenzo dei Medici to Matthias I Corvinus, king of Hungary, of two metal reliefs with the head of Alexander and Darius which Verrocchio had made. As Poeshel[8] has pointed out, this was no random choice of gift. Matthias had made a distinctive name for himself in his repeated victories over the Turks in Serbia and Bosnia in 1479-1483, leading Angelo Poliziano, in a letter to the king of 1489, to compare him with Alexander the Great.

The specific needs which predominate in any given historical period determine analogies, comparisons and references to the historical past. It is characteristic that identifications with the Macedonian king are more frequent in the case of the three cardinals (Rodrigo Borgia, I492-I503, Fabio Chigi, 1655-1667, and Pietro Vitto Ottoboni, 1689-1691) who rose to supreme office in the Roman Catholic Church when the Turkish menace was at its height in the West. As Poeshel has also demonstrated, a new period begins in the history of the reception of Alexander with the decoration of Rogrigo Borgia’s living quarters (the ‘appartamenti Borgia’) in the Vatican; indeed, when elected Pope in August 1492, he took the name Alexander VI. We can gain some idea of the spirit of the times from the address to the new Pope of Pietro Cara, ambassador of Savoy: “You will win still greater grace and glory if, as all you contact yourself with the great severity towards the Turks and behave as a new Alexander the Great towards those kings of the East and their people that know not Christ; so we must pray for the greatest good and hope that it will come to pass, that you will unite the Eastern Church with that of the West, and that all will address you and submit to you Alexander the Great, Supreme Pontiff of the Earth, King of the World and Successor of the Christ. As soon as your glorious kinsman Pontiff Callistus III ascended the Apostolic throne, he conceived the plan, to which he devoted himself entirely, of driving out the Turks and infidels at all cost. Now the omens are good for you, the nephew Alexander, to have the honour and glory of completing what your uncle Callistus began. […] Forward, then, Alexander, arise, stand upright, gird up your loins and conduct yourself as a true Alexander towards those peoples of the East.[9]

It is to precisely the same historical context that we should turn in order to explain the identification of another Pope -whose baptismal name was Alexander - with the Macedonian King. This was Alessandro Farnese, Pope from 1534 to 1549 under the name Paul III, to whom we owe the decoration of his apartments in the Castle Sant’Angelo in Rome with scenes from life of Alexander the Great.[10]

What made its first rather timid appearance in the apartments of Rodrigo Borgia in the form of a relief portrait of Alexander in plaster (one of a pair of heads, the other being of Thalestris, queen of the Amazons) continued in the first half of the sixteenth century with the monumental ornamentation of the Villa Farnesina in Rome, which originally supposed to be executed by Raphael[11] but was actually completed by Sodoma. The next step was the decoration of the palace at Fontainebleau of Francis I, king of France,[12] and, almost simultaneously, of the Sala Paolina in the Castel Sant’ Angelo.

In general terms, the sixteenth-century image of Alexander the Great was a positive one. The few negative judgements expressed of him were largely a survival from the earlier medieval tradition. What appeared emphatically during the sixteenth century and continued, in part, down to the eighteenth was the highlighting of Alexander’s virtues and his proclamation as a model of the virtuous king.

The references made to Alexander in the conversations that took place on successive evenings in the palace of Urbino, as related for us by Castiglione in the Book of the Courier are characteristic. In the field of visual arts, Alexander’s triumphal parade through the palaces of the princes of Europe was a truly spectacular one lasting almost three centuries, from the first timid appearance in the appartamenti Borgia of Alexander VI to the iconographic cycle in the Palace of La Granja of Philip V (1736-1740).[13]

What is most characteristic in the revival of interest of this period (which lasts, to put it schematically, from 1500 to 1750, given that the belated flickerings under Napoleon is something of an exception) is the presence, apart from the countless individual scenes from the life of Alexander to be found in all genres and techniques of the visual arts, of complete iconographic cycles of his life, which function as allegories of the princely virtues: courage, generosity, magnanimity, self-restraint. Some of the events in Alexander’s life were called upon, as allegories of virtue, to supplement the Christian virtues equally essential for a monarch of the period.

It is interesting also to observe the quantitative differences in the way that depictions of this type spread. The scene of the family of Darius before Alexander immediately after the battle of Issus - exemplifying the virtue of Magnanimity - is without doubt the most popular subject. If we add to these works the equally numerous scenes of the Magnanimity of Scipio and the Magnanimity of Coriolanus, the sum total is truly striking. Could one advance the hypothesis that the members of the immediate court environment and those who were directly dependent on the monarch had every reason to remind him that he ought to be magnanimous? When the ruler governs ‘by the grace of God’, it s certain beneficial - for third parties, at any rate - that his attention should constantly be drawn to the example of someone whose magnanimity was among the reasons for his fame.

The parallel between Alexander and Louis VIV and criticism in France

The Parallel, an idea which of course goes back at least as far as Plutarch, began in France in the time of Louis VIII, and the comparison always favoured the living monarch. The faults of the Macedonian king were identified almost at once, in Nicolas de Soulfour’s L’ Alexandre francois, of 1629: “µy your Justice, which enriches your own soul and which will later be seen to have gilded our age, you will make your glory as complete as Alexander’s was incomplete”, de Soulfour wrote in his declaration. “The conflicts you undertake are all just and your wars are waged in the name of piety, while Alexander, in order to acquire the title ‘Great’, ceased to be just and did not hesitate to appropriate the empires of the others or lay unjust hands on the treasures of all the world to increase his own glory”.[14] Here the author is referring to the conquest of Type, “where Alexander’s fury stained his victory with blood, with unprecedented torture and with the killing of people who had surrendered and been defeated”. The dedication ends with an exhortation: “Be a just Alexander and our great Louis”.[15]

Now the way was open for a distinctive image of Alexander which lasted for about a century and a half and which, while not overlooking some of his virtues, always laid stress on his more regrettable acts, thus making it possible to end by singing the praises of the French king. The jocular references of Boileau form part of this framework. This tendency among the court historiographers of France is striking both for its volume and for the forthrightness with which it states its intentions. Of even greater interest, however, is the fact that this tendency converged with, and to some extent was fed by, another tendency, one embraced above all by Protestant intellectuals; after a certain point, and as 1789 grew closer (as we see things from our viewpoint, of course), this second tendency blended in to the tide of opposition to the Bourbon regime.
Alexander here found himself in the line of fire of the enemies of the French court in its absolutist exercise of power and its moral turpitude. In this case, the emphasis on the negative aspects of the Macedonian king led directly, and on the basis of a parallelism, which was sometimes implicit and sometimes expressly stated, to a denunciation of the French monarch.

The silence of the Fine Arts

The volume of critical comment which, as we have seen, was to be found in Alexander’s own time, in the Middle Ages and in the modern period - down to the early nineteenth century - is particularly striking if we search out its visual equivalents. The only scene which left some imprint in the painting of the seventeenth century, was the banquet with Clitus before his assassination. In other respects (with one interesting exception which we shall be examining below), the dark side of Alexander does not seem to have made much impression on the visual arts. The positive image that emerges from the Thessaloniki exhibition is completely representative of the situation.

This allows us to observe, once more, that the role of the visual arts in the period down to l789 (or until the revolution of 1830) was basically ornamental and laudatory. Of course, religious disputes (especially those of the sixteenth century) provided an opportunity for fierce denunciations in visual terms, often, throughout this period, making use of allegory in a manner which was at the least covert. In the essay by Klaus Herding in this catalogue we can see that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Alexander’s meeting with Diogenes and the philosopher’s determined indifference to the self-satisfaction of power and its sense of omnipotence occupied a firmly critical position vis-à-vis the inclinations of absolutism. It is certain that, given the hierarchy of the arts and the genres of painting of the time, much more could be accomplished if one went down the ladder to engraving (whose products, of their nature, circulated widely and among a public which was very different in social terms) than if one were to stay at its top, in the realm of oil-paintings or murals with historical subjects.

Let us now look at the exception to the rule: a painting by Louis Lagrenee the Elder called The Devotion of · Satrap of Darius: Alexander and Betus, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1787.[16]

Langrenee never provided examples of critical thought in his work, or conveyed with his brush any sense of painterly radicalism. He was a good, traditional painter, certainly less important that Marc Sandoz, the principal student of his work, would have us believe; a kind of average somewhere between the heritage left by Boucher and the radical renovation of the visual language proposed by David in his early contributions to the Salon in 1781 and 1785, Belissarius and The Oath of the Horatii. It should not be forgotten that in 1787 Langrenee was the director of the French Academie in Rome, where David had been, as “pensionnaire”, in 1784-1785. This enabled him to experience, at close quarters, the enthusiastic support for neo-Classicism among an international circle of painters who lived in Rome. In the life and previous work of Lagrenee there is nothing to lead us to expect a painting such as that which he exhibited at the Salon of 1787. This was a royal commission without any initial obligation as to the subject, and Lagrenee, who we know to have been eager to create something new[17] and who was also compelled by circumstances (that is, by neo-Classical idiom which had become fashionable) -chose as his subject the following scene from Rollin’s Ancient History:

“Alexander, irritated by the indomitable spirit of Betus, one of Darious’ generals and commander of the province of Gaza, whom he had with difficulty subdued on his march towards Egypt, was harsh when faced with the brave satrap. This king, who was unable to tolerate any opposition to his wishes, was infuriated when Betus appeared before him without kneeling to do him honour, as he did to Darius, and when he remained silent before Alexander’s threats. “I shall overcome this stubborn silence”, said Alexander, “and if I cannot extract a word from him, then I shall at least extract a sigh”. In the end, his rage became a frenzy and he ordered that Betus be tied behind a chariot and dragged around the city. Betus remained silent and gazed contemptuously at Alexander, triumphant within himself in seeing the insatiable arrogance of his foe being humiliated by his own courage and loyalty to his king. He died without uttering even a sigh.” This text was published by the artist in the exhibition catalogue - the Livret du Salon - as an ‘exhibition’ of the subject he was exhibiting; a common practice at a time when it was still believed that there was nothing demeaning about a work of art that ‘illustrated’ a text.

The work contains the harshest criticism of Alexander the Great ever formulated in history painting. To the best of my knowledge, there is no precedent for the depiction of Alexander as an arrogant and inhuman prince who tortures to death an opponent who had fought bravely against him and did not break his oath of loyalty to his king. This is expressed even on the level of the composition itself, in which Alexander predominates as a large vertical axis slightly to the left of the centre of the painting, parallel to the two tall cypress trees, while Betus lies, horizontal, at his feet. The interpretation of each of the figures leaves no doubt as to the artist’s position: Alexander massive and princely, is making an irritated movement with his left hand, and Betus - fragile and feeble - is looking with a sad yet calm and determined expression at the infuriated victor who has just given the order that he is to be brutally put to death. Behind is Betus’s wife, in despair, while his mother begs Alexander, in vain, for mercy.

On the one hand, of course, there is nothing new about this approach, especially if we remember that it was not unusual in France for similarly critical, or even harsher, criticisms of Alexander to be made in the historical and philosophical writings and theatrical works of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The new element lies in the fact that here we are dealing with a painting, one which handles a historical subject in very large dimensions (3.30X5.30 m.)[18]

It is interesting to note that the criticism, usually divided for ideological reasons, seems here to have converged on complete rejection. Absolutely no one approved of the work, and there were many protesting voices, perhaps best summed up in the brief comments of an anonymous critic: “The Devotion of the Satrap of Darius, a repulsive theme, poorly composed and worse thought-out. Alexander looks enraged and corrupt. The details are good. The study for the work is better and more warmly composed” (Critique des quinze critiques du Salon, 1787, p. 59). “An artist should never paint scenes other than those which demonstrate heroism and virtue”, wrote another critic (Lanlaire au Salon Academique de Peinture, 1787).

However, the most revealing criticism of all is latent in the remarks of a third commentator: “Alexander does not seem to have inspired the artist; there is nothing noble about his anger”, he wrote. All the critic’s aesthetic philosophy is inherent in what appears to be a rational syllogism: a) Alexander, like any other prince, is noble; b) consequently everything about him, including his anger, ought to express his nobility; c) since there is nothing noble about Alexander’ s anger in this particular painting the conclusion is, d) that the painter was unable to perceive the true Alexander and render him convincingly in the painting.

The possibility that a painter might want to criticise Alexander’s behaviour, which may at least on some occasions not have been worthy of a noble man, was quite simply inconceivable to the advocates of this social and aesthetic ideology. Our friend Langrenee thus (probably quite involuntarily) revealed the limits within which art (or at least high art, that is, history painting) was supposed to move even in the late eighteenth century.

This is a demonstration of the extent to which the arts of the image were tamed and kept ‘under house arrest’ by comparison with the arts of the word, even on the threshold of the French Revolution. Everything, including minor squabbles and large-scale controversies, had to be resolved within the constraints set by the aristocratic aesthetic ideology.As Thomas Crow has shown in connection with the critical reaction to the Oath of the Horatii,[19] the emergent bourgeois criticism, even when it was beginning to embark upon its revolution, expressed itself in the conceptual categories of the aesthetic theories belonging to the ruling classes against which it was fighting. Sixty years later, when Daumier conceived the outstanding series of lithographs under the general title Ancient History, it is clear that we are in another era, and a different social space.

Daumier does not criticise Alexander or the subject-matter of antiquity more generally. He makes people laugh about something he himself no longer takes seriously at all, precisely as was the case in the French theatre after about 1730. Langrenee, on the other hand, goes some way towards believing in the principles and values proclaimed by the French court; perhaps his belief went further than did that of the court itself. That is why he is so severe in his criticism of Alexander, who showed himself arrogant and ruthless in the Betus affair.

In the time of Daumier - that great figure in French nineteenth-century art - satire of the ancient world was addressed both towards those who for centuries had been using antiquity as an ornament to their own dominance and to those who were now in control of things. The middle class as an entity, clear-headed and unrhetorical, saw the confirmation of the correctness of the path they themselves had chosen to take. At the same time, the fact that Daumier transferred ancient history into the world of the petit-bourgeoisie is something that made both the middle classes and the aristocrats laugh. Daumier’s satire ended the attitude of awe towards the ancient world which for centuries had dominated in the intellectual life of the Old World.

Although the Macedonian King continued to appear occasionally as a virtuous ruler during the first half of the nineteenth century, this was merely a survival resulting, on the one hand, from the identification of Napoleon with Alexander the Great during the Empire and, on the other, from the fact that some artists, who had received a sound education in the classics and looked back to the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Ingres to Raphael, Delacroix to Veronese abd Rubens, Gustave Moreau to Hellenistic and Mannerist art), were attracted by the Alexander story.

The identification of Napoleon with Alexander found its visual expression par excellence in the decoration of one of the Emperor’s private salons in the Palazzo del Quirinale, now the residence of the President of Italy and then the papal residence. Pius VII was in exile at the time that Napoleon and his family were expected in Rome. A relief frieze on the subject of Alexander’s Triumphal Entry into Babylon was commissioned from the Danish artist Thorvaldsen - with Canova, the most famous sculptors of the times - in March 1812, and the work was installed in November of that year.[21] Here the idea of identifying Napoleon with Alexander became specific once more, since the triumphal entry which Napoleon was expected to make into Rome would find its historical counterpart in Alexander’s entry into Babylon.

The fact that Ingres included Alexander among the great patrons of the art in the Apotheosis of Homer (1827, the Louvre) and the drawings for Hellas Crowing Alexander had preceded the Apotheosis of Napoleon I, painted in 1853 for the City Hall of Paris (burned in 1871), is perfectly natural if one bears in mind the political conditions of Restoration and the Second Empire in conjunction with Ingres’ personal ideology. At this point, we should note the drawings which Ingres produced for paintings which were never completed, such as those for the theme of Alexander resigning Campaspe to Apelles and the Alexander and Hephaestion theme.

The same applies to Delacroix, another profoundly-read and widely-educated artist who found himself unable to resist the allure of the Alexander myth. However, as we have noted, these were isolated examples of the survival of the myth in high art; the general atmosphere was one of silence and indifference.

It was particularly during the twentieth century, when his personality and life were no longer a source of inspiration for artists adopting a positive or negative view of him - that Alexander the Great ceased to be a divisive figure. In Greece, for various reasons, statues of Alexander are still created; some of them, however, are impossible to distinguish from representations of any mounted hero. As usual, a rhetorical and pompous style is the solution chosen for commissions of public monuments. The Alexander the Great of Dimitris Kalamaras, included in this exhibition, and some of the efforts of Halepas constitute brilliant exceptions to this rule.

However, there are two traditions - authentic traditions, this time - which have been functioning more or less smoothly in the Greek world for centuries. The first is that Orthodox iconography, as evidenced by monuments dating from the period since the sixteenth century.[21] The last echo of this tradition is the wall-painting by Kontoglou in the Pesmatzoglou familiy chapel of St Irene in Kifissia, on the the theme of Abbot Sisoes.

This is, above all, an allegory of the vanity of human life. Abbot Sisoes opened the tomb of Alexander the Great, in which he saw the king’s skeleton. The remains“of him who once shone in glory”provide him with an opportunity of expressing with moving bitterness the sense of the vanity of all things earthly:

    “Seeing you, tomb, I shed tearswrung from the heart,
    bringing to mind the common fate.
    How, then, shall I undergo such an end?
    Ah, ah, death! Who can escape thee?

The second tradition which functions in the Greek world is that of the widely-read Alexander romance and folk poems, a true vernacular tradition on which the popular imagination and folk art frew until almost the present day. The Alexander themes to be found in the work of Theophilos, a genuine folk painter, were nourished in this tradition, and when Theophilos himself dressed up as Alexander the Great and posed, sword in hand, for the photographer, he was reviving in his mind these texts and the legends that went with them.

The approach adopted by Rigas Ferraios in the late eighteenth century was unique and had no sequence. Here, the reference to Alexander expressed the irridentist tendency among the Greeks, reminding them of the glory of Alexander and the limits his kingdom had once reached, as well as of the recognition these achievements had received at the court of the Sun King himself.

The gradual disappearance of Alexander

In general, and with the exception of the conventional monumental tributes, Alexander gradually has ceased to be a point of reference. He neither inspires, nor provokes criticism. In the twentieth century, of course, the Fascist regimes-and especially that of Germany - took an interest in Alexander.[22] In the liberal democracies, however, and in the international socialist movement the reaction was one of embarrassment: not surprisingly, when we remember the type of political power which the Macedonian king embodied. His form of government was absolutist, centralising, autocratic and personal - all the things, in other words, that advocates of modern democracy reject. On the other hand, the undeniable and partly conscious effort he made to foster the co-existence of the peoples of Asia and Europe within the boundaries of his realm appeals to the supporters of modem commonwealths, who would like to see him as an important forerunner of their own ambitions. Furthermore, the spread of the Greek koine as a means of communication among different peoples served as a model for other attempts to establish a shared linguistic vehicle in the West as well as in the East. In that sense, then, it would be an error to say that Alexander had been forgotten. This, however, is not the point, and it is not only Alexander that has disappeared.

On the level of historical research, academics have of course continued to investigate, to publish their studies and to engage in passionate debate over whose theory about Alexander is correct. However, this now seems to be of interest only to the academic community. Alexander is among those figures which no longer inspire interest in wider social groups. Alexander no longer exalts, but neither is he a target for criticism, because what for centuries attracted both praise and disapprobation was Alexander’s attitude towards moral issues. The reasons for the loss of interest are, I believe, to be sought in a more general change in the points of reference of Western culture.

The question of what Plutarch, in an outstanding essay calls ‘moral virtue’ (Moralia 440d-452d) lies at the centre of European thought and sensibility. It was possible for Theophrastus’ Characters to take on flesh and blood because of a system of social morality which nurtured and animated them. It is in that sense that it is meaningful for Theophrastus to class Alexander among the arrogant. When Korais translated the Characters into French, he dedicated them “to the free Greeks of the Ionian Islands”, in the hope that “la langue de la Raison et de la philosophie ne tardera point a instruire tout l’ Univers” and in the certainty that he was thus making a useful contribution to the moral education of the nation.

From Aesop to Lafontaine and from Theophrastus to La Bruyére, Tolstoy or Thomas Mann, European culture has been motivated, on the level of thought, by the demand for virtue and, simultaneously, by the observation that it is permanently threatened. As long as that demand continues to slacken and as long as thinking about moral behaviour as part of the vital fabric in a society is treated with contempt, as mere moralising, then the instance of Alexander will continue to be of no interest. The more widely, the more substantively and the more profoundly the Barbarians prevail in our lives, the more the ideal of virtue will tend to give way to the ideal of effectiveness. In this process of changing values, which does not appear to be final and irrevocable (though one would have to be blind not to recognise its power and pervasiveness), there is no place for Alexanders, whether positive or negative.


  1. Histoire d’ Alexandre Ie Grand par Quinte Curce, trans. ª. Beauzee, l78l (quoted by C. Grell and C. Michel, L’Ecole des Princes ou Alexandre disgracié - Essai sur la mythologie monarchique de l· France absolutiste, Paris l988, p. 205). [back]
  2. We have used the Loeb edition of the Lives, which follows the Ancient Greek text of the Teubner edition (ed. K. Ziegler) and has an English translation by Bemadotte Perrin (Vol.VII, 224-439). [back]
  3. The Loeb edition follows Teubner, ed. Roos and Wirth. English translation by ƒ.A. Brunt. [back]
  4. The Loeb edition with an english translation by John C. Rolfe. [back]
  5. The Loeb edition, in twelve volumes, english translation by C. Bradford Welles, is particularly useful. [back]
  6. For instance: W.W.Tarn, ‘Alexander, Cynics and Stoics’, American Journal of Philology 60, 1939, pp. 41-70; Eckart Mensching, ‘Peripatiker über Alexander’, Historia, 12, 1963, pp. 274-282; Dietmar Kienast, ‘Augustus and Alexander’, Gymnasium, 76, 1969, p. 430-456; and the Entretiens of the Fondation Hardt, Alexander le Grand - Image et Realité, 25-30 August 1975, published in Geneva, 1976, as vol. xxii of the series Entretiens sur l’ antiquite classique. [back]
  7. Alfred Heuss, ‘Alexander der Grosse und die politiche Ideologie der Altertums’, Antike und Abendland 21, 1954, pp. 65-104. [back]
  8. Sabine Poeschel, ‘Alexander Magnus Maximus - neue Aspekte zur Ikonographie Alexanders des Grossen im Quattrocento’, Römisches Jahrbuch fur Kunstgeschichte 23-24, 1988, pp. 62-74. [back]
  9. Ibid., p. 73. [back]
  10. See Richard Harprath, Papst Paul III als Alexander der Grosse - das Freskenprogramm der Sala Paolina in der Engelsburg, Berlin - New York 1978, and the essay by David Ekserdjian in this catalogue. Alessandro de’Medici who took the name of Leo XI, was Pope for only eleven days (10-27 April 1605). [back]
  11. See Konrad Oberhuber and Achim Gnann on “The Marriage of the Alexander and Roxana”, Alexander the Great in European Art, (Thessaloniki, 1997), pp. 214-245. [back]
  12. See, Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier, “Alexander the Great of Fontainebleau”, Alexander the Great in European Art, (Thessaloniki, 1997), pp. 25-34. [back]
  13. See, José Alvarez Lopera, “Philip V of Spain and Juvarra at the Palace of La Granja: The difficulty of Being Alexander”, Alexander the Great in European Art, (Thessaloniki, 1997), pp. 37-47. [back]
  14. The study by Chantal Grel and Christian Michel of the manner in which Alexander was received in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contains an extremely interesting section on contemporary accounts (Sylvio Ferino-Pagden, “Alexander, Apelles and Campaspe”, Alexander the Great in European Art, (Thessaloniki, 1997), pp. 135-141). [back]
  15. Ibid., pp. 140-141. [back]
  16. The Significance of this painting in the history of the reception of Alexander was identified by Chantal Grel and Christian Michel in their fascinating study, L’ ecole des Princes ou Alexandre disgracié - Essai sur la mythologie monarchique de la France absolutiste, mentioned above. My thanks to Emmanuel Swartz for drawing my attention to this book, on which the first part of the present exhibition relies heavily. [back]
  17. “This powerful subject may strike you as being rather alien to the type of painting I have cultivated so far, but I feel that it has relit the flame within me which my sixty years might have extinguished”, he wrote to d’Angivillier, who was in charge of the royal commissions of art works, on 11 January 1787 (Sandoz, 1983, p. 284). [back]
  18. Today the work is on permanent loan from the Louvre to the Municipal Museum of Aurillac. Unfortunately, its dimensions prevented it from being moved to Thessaloniki for the exhibition. [back]
  19. Thomas Crow, ‘The Oath of the Horatii in 1785: Painting and pre-Revolutionary Radicalism in France’ in Art History, I, 4, December l978, pp. 424-47l. [back]
  20. See the study by Bjarne Jørnaes, ‘Thorvaldsen’s Triumph of Alexander in the Palazzo del Quirinale’, in Thorvaldsen - l’ ambiente, l’ influsso, il mito, Analecta Romana Instituti Danici, Supplementum XVIII, Rome 1991, pp. 35-41. My thanks to Hubertus Kohle for drawing my attention to this paper. [back]
  21. George Galavaris, ‘Alexander the Great Conqueror and Captive of Death - his Various Images in Byzantine Art’, Canadian Art Review XVI, 1, 1989, pp. 12-18 and 74-77, and in particular pp. 17-18 and figs. 15-19. [back]
  22. See the thesis by Verena Hintner, Zur Darstellung Alexanders des Grossen in der deutshen Hisoriographie der NS-Zeit, Innsbruck 1988, and the contribution of E.Badian during the Fondation Hardt symposium (1976, in particular, pp. 280-286). [back]

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