Strolling through the temporary exhibition about Samothrace at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, I was surprised to find two odd looking objects labelled as Dedications of Philip III and Alexander IV.
When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC there was no heir to the throne of the King of Asia and his generals had a tough time to agree on a successor. Alexander’s son with Roxane was not born yet and his earlier son with Barsine was never recognized by Alexander. After many flaring discussions, it was decided that Alexander’s simple minded half-brother Arrhideus would share the throne with Roxane’s baby-boy, under the respective names of Philip III Arrhideus and Alexander IV. It is obvious that neither of them was to rule as king, at least not at this very early stage.
Here at the museum, this is the first time I actually see artefacts that are tied to both kings and I even wonder whether these are the only ones. The dedication dates from between 323 when their co-kingship was implemented and 317 BC, the year in which Philip III Arrhideus was brutally murdered by Olympias.
Samothrace is, of course, the place where Philip II and Olympias, Alexander’s parents met during an initiation ceremony to the sacred rites of the most secret Mysteries, but why is this island so important that even young Alexander IV and his simple-minded uncle honour it with a dedication of their own?
According to Diodorus, an initiation at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods promised an opportunity to “become a better and more pious person”. Divine forces of earth, sky and sea played a fundamental role in the mysteries that shrouded (and are still shrouding) the island. From as early as the 7th century BC all the way down to the 4th century AD, the sanctuary provided insight in spiritual, political and cultural life. The intense activity is shown through the host of monuments that were erected here since they are all set in selective locations throughout the landscape in order to enhance the initiates’ experience.
The marble Doric building where the Dedication of Philip III Arrhideus and Alexander IV was found would have been the first major construction the visitor saw when entering the Sanctuary. It stood nine meters high and welcomed the pilgrims with the dedicatory inscription reading “King Philip [and] Alexander to the Great Gods”, a proof – if needed – that both kings ruled equally. I did not find the inscription itself at the museum; only a fragment of a monumental eagle’s head and a wing is all that remains from the two large eagles that once adorned the construction, probably as acroteria. The Dedication monument was the work of local craftsmen who used two different kinds of marble. For the façade, which counted six columns, Pentelic marble from Attica had the preference while the sides and back marble came from the nearby island of Thasos as was common elsewhere in Samothrace. The open chamber is said to have preserved its mosaic floor with a central panel unusually made of rhomboid marble tesserae, which I have not seen at the museum but may still be in situ.
The construction of such a major monument by the two kings or by whoever acted on their behalf certainly was meant to reinforce their rightful succession to Alexander the Great. Using Pentelic marble for its façade was an iconic reference to other great monuments in Athens and to Athenian dedications in other locations. To the visitors of those days this dedication would also be seen as Macedonia’s claim to power over mainland Greece.
After this exciting discovery, I spend some more time investigation the other artefacts in the hope to learn more about Samothrace. A nice reconstruction of the site and a clear map of all the pertaining buildings are most useful tools.
I find another intriguing testimony of Alexander’s heritage in one of the showcases: a small gold applique of a lion of Achaemenid origin once inlaid with precious stones. It has been dated to the 4th century BC and may be a trophy one of his soldiers brought back from Persia.
There also is the top part of a stele containing a dedication of King Lysimachus of Thrace from between 288 and 281 BC. Based on the surviving first fifteen lines, Lysimachus is being honoured for restoring sacred lands on the mainland originally granted to Samothrace by either Philip II and Alexander the Great or by Philip Arrhideus III and Alexander IV. Boundary stones for said sacred land have been found near Alexandroupolis in Greece. Lysimachus is also being honoured as friend and benefactor of Samothrace, hence his title of Lysimachus Euergetes as inscribed on the altar erected in his honour and used during annual festivals.
Just a few years later, between 285 and 281 BC, Ptolemy II built a Propylon, one of the most lavishly decorated entrance buildings from Hellenistic times. This must have been an impressive monument since the metopes were an elegant succession of alternating 100 rosettes and 104 garlanded bucrania or ox skulls. It makes you wonder about the richness of the other details.
To remain with the Ptolemaic dynasty, Arsinoe II built a splendid Rotunda at the Sanctuary. It is not clear, however, whether this Rotunda was built while she was married to Lysimachus of Thrace mentioned above and her first husband (288-281 BC) or after she became the wife of her brother Ptolemy II, her third husband (273-270 BC). The meaning of the dedication thus varies accordingly. If the Rotunda was built during her marriage with Lysimachus, it may stand for the alliance of Egypt with Thrace and the northern Aegean. If it was erected when married to her brother, it could be meant to thank Samothrace for sheltering her after fleeing from her second husband, Ptolemy Keraunas. This Rotunda was also decorated with reliefs of alternating rosettes and bucrania, a favourite theme, apparently. A lovely rosette is exhibited here as well as a very strange looking round and flat tile from the roof.
Much more recent is the Dedication to the Great Gods of Samothrace by the Thessalian League from 170-140 BC. It tells us that their embassy was led by Damothoinos, son of Leontomenes and a member of a prominent family from Pherae; he was the leader of the league in 161/160 BC. This Dedication shows the importance of the Thessalian League after being freed from Macedonian rule.
By far the best known sculpture from Samothrace is the famous Nike now at the Louvre and recently restored and cleaned for the pleasure of our eyes! It has been dated to the 2nd century BC and was a gift from the people of Rhodes to thank the gods who protected seafarers and granted them victory in war, maybe in commemoration of the Battle of Myonnissos or the victory over Antiochus III at Side in 190 BC.
Yet the Athens’ exhibition shows another Nike statue less flashy than this famous one which is said to be one of four that stood at each corner of the Hieron built between 325 and 150 BC.
Another piece that caught my attention was this lovely frieze of dancing girls. It was found in an imposing building of 34x23 meters that is neither a temenos nor a propylon and thus has been labelled as the Hall of Choral Dancers after the frieze that was discovered inside. Dating from the middle of the 4th century BC, this Hall is the first marble structure of the sanctuary, maybe even the oldest and the largest one. The frieze that we see here is only a small section of the continuous row of hundreds of dancing maidens that ran around the entire building. Beside the dancing figures, there were female musicians accompanying the long procession as well. The wealth exposed in this monument leads experts to believe that it was commissioned by an influential donor and the name of Philip II, Alexander’s father, has fallen since it was here that he met his Queen Olympias.