Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Alexander and Hephaistion side by side

It is absolutely thrilling to find these two great men side by side at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.


I often wonder why there are so few images of Hephaistion, but one should consider that none of the men in Alexander’s entourage were ever depicted while the king was still alive. We do have pictures – mainly coins – showing the members of his bodyguards (somatophylakes) but only when they became king in their own realm after Alexander’s death simply because it was a king’s privilege to be portrayed.

The most obvious example is beyond doubt Ptolemy who started ruling over Egypt immediately after Alexander’s death. Lysimachos had to wait a little longer in the ensuing battle of de Diadochi to be recognized as king of Thrace and to be represented as such on his coinage. The same applies obviously to Seleucos and Antigonus-the-One-Eyed. Yet none of the king’s Bodyguards like Aristonous, Peithon, Leonnatus, Peucestas or even Perdiccas have ever been carved in stone, hence we don’t know what they looked like.

This being said, I should not be ungrateful for the few images we have of Hephaistion, i.e. the head (probably reworked in antiquity) now at the Getty Museum in Malibu, California, and the smaller than life-size marble statue at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens where he is standing next to Alexander.

Alexander looks rather shabby but in my eyes Hephaistion is exactly how he is supposed to be. However, I struggle with the label at the museum, which states "Marble statue of Hephaistion. Possibly a group erected in Alexandria honouring Hephaistion, 1st century BC". Why would Alexander show up next to an honorific statue for Hephaistion? And how come Alexandria is (still) honouring Hephaistion in the first century BC when the Ptolemaic dynasty is reaching its end with the famous Queen Cleopatra fighting for Egypt’s survival? When Hephaistion died in 324 BC, Alexander would have loved to see him deified by the Egyptian priests, who tactfully promoted him to hero instead. So a cult in honour of Hephaistion is not surprising but I find the time-frame and this kind of association with Alexander rather disturbing.

When I wrote my “Ode to Alexander and Hephaistion” I had completely forgotten to mention this group of statues. Shame on me! But then I also had omitted to mention the portraits of both men on the famous Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon, now at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

This sarcophagus in fact deserves a closer look, of course. To start with it does not belong to Alexander the Great but most probably was made for King Abdalonymus of Sidon who was put on the throne by Alexander (with the help of Hephaistion) after conquering the city in 332 BC. It has been dated to some time between 325 and 311 BC and was discovered in 1887 at the Royal Necropolis of Sidon, i.e. when Phoenicia was still part of the Ottoman Empire.


One of the long sides of the sarcophagus definitely shows Alexander fighting a Persian, probably King Darius (but this is not certain) at the Battle of Issus that occurred only a few months earlier and where the Persians were defeated by the Greeks. The other long side represents two hunting scenes, those of a lion and a deer in which both Greeks and Persians participated as well. The short sides of the sarcophagus show respectively a panther hunt and a battle scene.

Alexander is the only figure that has been identified with certainty since he is wearing Heracles’ headdress and the Amon ram’s horn. Hephaistion is probably depicted in the hunting scene where he attacks a lion together with a Persian. It is most unfortunate that the other personages cannot be tied to a name although Perdiccas and Abdalonymus have been suggested. It is a wonderful historical document that sadly has not been entirely deciphered.

Although the appearance of these high reliefs is very Greek, the craftsmen were masters in the Eastern art of decoration. This is based on the use of eagles in the upper row of the acroteria, who according to ancient Syrian believes carried the souls of the dead to heaven. The heads of women added at the bottom refer to the worship of the mother goddess as known from prehistoric times in Mesopotamia. The acroteria above the pediments on the sides represent Persian griffons. Also, there is a lion lying on each corner of the sarcophagus, symbolizing protection. These meagre beasts look more like dogs and seem to be from Ionian origin.

The attentive eye will notice subtle traces of paint all over this marble sarcophagus. Colours range from purple, blue and red to violet and yellow and it is thought that the figures themselves were slightly varnished. Thanks to the intensive work carried out by Vinzenz Brinkman over the past 25 years (see: Ancient Greece in full Technicolor), we can now have a very vivid image of what this sarcophagus must have looked like at the time of its completion.

This being said, we owe a great deal to the owner of this masterpiece. King Abdalonymus is definitely displaying immense gratitude towards both Alexander and Hephaistion since without them he would never have ruled over his city. When the people of Sidon heard of Alexander’s victory over Darius at Issus, they decided to deposit their ruling king, Straton II who was a friend of Darius and opened the city gates to Alexander whose task was then to appoint a new king. He instructed Hephaistion to find the appropriate candidate. It is said that he discovered this distant relative of the dynasty of Sidon, living in the countryside. Abdalonymus, his name meaning “servant of the gods” in Persian, clearly took his task seriously. What an honourable tribute he paid here to both Alexander and Hephaistion!

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