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Alexander the Great and the 'Alexander Mosaic'

Updated on October 24, 2015
Alexander of Macedon leading his army
Alexander of Macedon leading his army | Source

This hub tells the story of a work of art and a moment in time; a moment that has resonated throughout history. This moment occurred in early November 333 BCE when two armies faced each other across the Pinarus River in Asia Minor, close to the modern Turkish town of Iskenderun. On one side stood a force, mainly comprised of Macedonians and their allies, led by Alexander, the King of Macedon; a leader who would later pass into history as Alexander the Great. Opposing them was an army comprised of soldiers from all across the vast Persian Empire. Commanding those soldiers was the Great King of Persia, Darius III; a leader determined to repel the invaders and maintain his empire’s power. On this battlefield the two commanders would meet at a decisive moment in world history.

Darius III, Great King
Darius III, Great King | Source

Artist: The creator of the mosaic is unknown but most historians who have studied the work believe that it is based upon a Greek painting from the fourth century BCE.

Date: The mosaic was probably created circa 100 BCE.

Location: The mosaic was discovered in the House of the Faun, Pompeii, in 1831. It is currently displayed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Dimensions: The mosaic is 582 centimetres wide and 313 centimetres high and contains approximately 4,000,000 tesserae (see endnote 4).

Alexander and Darius: Macedonian and Persian

Alexander, the King of Macedon, had ascended to the throne following the assassination of his father, Philip II, in 336 BCE. During his reign of over twenty years Philip had transformed the previously divided and peripheral Kingdom of Macedon into the pre-eminent military power of the Greek-speaking world. The army which Philip created and Alexander inherited was built primarily upon a combination of superb heavy cavalry and a highly-trained phalanx infantry who wielded long spears called sarissas. This army was maintained and supplied through a remarkable logistical system which allowed the Macedonians to move quickly and widely through enemy territory.

Alexander had served with the army from his teens. In 338 BCE at the Battle of Chaeronea, he had commanded a section of the army during a crushing victory for the Macedonians over a southern Greek force led by Thebes and Athens. Twenty years old when he took the throne, Alexander, or King Alexander III as he was titled, was forced to engage in a series of campaigns on Macedon’s northern border and against Greek cities that had been inspired by news of Philip’s assassination to rid themselves of Macedonian hegemony. Alexander led his troops to victory in all these campaigns and his vicious treatment of the defeated Greek city of Thebes was a salutary lesson to other cities that may have contemplated resistance.

With peace restored and his enemies either cowed or dead, Alexander turned his thoughts to the East and the Persian Empire. Philip, shortly before his death, had sent an expeditionary force to Asia Minor in what was publicly deemed to be a war of revenge against Persia for its invasions of the Greek mainland over a century earlier. In 334 BCE Alexander landed in Asia Minor, near the site of the ancient city of Troy, where he paid homage to Achilles and the fallen heroes of Homer’s Iliad, a story that had intoxicated the king since he was a child. But that was only a brief interlude in his greater plans and Alexander soon joined his forces with those of the expeditionary army. Now that Alexander was on Persian territory, which he claimed as his own, war was inevitable.

The Persians had long been a superpower. Their leaders were not merely titled Kings, but Great Kings, or King of Kings, although by the time Darius had come to power in 336 BCE the previously untrammelled power of the Persians had waned. Originally named Artashata, and from a family related to the Achaemenid Dynasty which ruled the Persian Empire, he had taken advantage of a series of intrigues and plots which had consumed the royal household. In an attempt to legitimise his rule Artashata took the title Darius III, thus linking his reign to that of Darius I, who had ruled from 522 to 486 BCE in what had been a golden age for the Persian Empire. Darius III, aged around 45 when he took the throne, was an experienced and successful soldier but his empire had been weakened by the infighting of the ruling family, regional rulers who he could not entirely trust, and uprisings in provinces such as Egypt. Darius would have no time to address these issues or to fully consolidate his power. The existential threat posed by Alexander and his army would require all of the newly enthroned Great King’s energy.

Map of the Persian Achaemenid Empire at its height

The map details the location of some of the Empire's regions and historic battles. By the time of Darius III, regions such as Egypt were in continuous rebellion against Persian rule.
The map details the location of some of the Empire's regions and historic battles. By the time of Darius III, regions such as Egypt were in continuous rebellion against Persian rule. | Source
A scene from the Battle of the Granicus. Alexander, on the far right of the image, is about to be struck down by a Persian soldier. Alexander's compatriot Cleitus the Black, with his axe held aloft, will intervene to save the king.
A scene from the Battle of the Granicus. Alexander, on the far right of the image, is about to be struck down by a Persian soldier. Alexander's compatriot Cleitus the Black, with his axe held aloft, will intervene to save the king. | Source

War comes to Persia: from the Granicus to Issus

While Darius’s generals prepared to resist the Macedonians Alexander gathered his forces and moved inland from Troy. The opposing armies would first meet in May 334 BCE at a river called the Granicus. The Persian force comprised, perhaps, 25,000 men including 5,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries whereas Alexander commanded an army of over 40,000 men.[1] However, it must be stated that ancient sources often provided highly exaggerated numbers when discussing armies and battles. It is not unusual for ancient writers to claim that an army fielded hundreds of thousands, even millions, of soldiers. Also it is common for those sources to provide wildly different figures for the numbers of combatants in a battle. At the Granicus, for example, Diodorus states that the Persian army numbered 100,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry whereas Arrian puts the figures as 20,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry.[2] As a consequence, these numbers are open to dispute despite modern attempts to rectify the differing accounts.

The Persian army, although probably outnumbered, was well supplied with cavalry and well positioned on the far bank of the river. Initially it was a closely fought battle during which Alexander was almost killed but the Macedonians prevailed. They forced the Persian cavalry from the field, leaving the Greek mercenaries isolated. Alexander ordered his army to surround and destroy the mercenary force with the result that around 3,000 of the hoplites were killed and the rest taken prisoner. During the battle the Persians suffered an unusually high number of casualties among their highest ranking officers with the result that Darius was impelled to take direct command of the Persian army when two sides met over a year later at the Pinarus River near a place called Issus.

Events at Granicus had shown both Alexander and his army to be formidable opponents and Darius responded by amassing a large Persian army that may have outnumbered the approximately 40,000 soldiers of the Macedonian army by two-to-one. A key component of Darius’s army was a force of Greek hoplite mercenaries, 30,000 according to the sources, who held the centre of the Persian line.[3] During the Battle of Issus the Persian centre and its right wing, composed of Darius’s best heavy cavalry, engaged the Macedonians in fierce fighting with neither side able to gain a decisive advantage. It was the Persian left wing, however, that would prove to be the key section of the battlefield. This wing was populated by Darius’s most inexperienced and lightly armed troops and they were very quickly driven from the field by a charge from Alexander and his Companion heavy cavalry.

The collapse of the Persian left wing meant that Alexander could now wheel his cavalry inwards towards Darius who was located behind the centre of the Persian lines. At the head of his men, Alexander led the charge towards the Great King. This was the moment when Darius could be captured and killed, the moment when the war could be won. The Persians surrounding Darius fought desperately to protect their king but the Macedonian charge proved irresistible. If Darius stayed then death or capture and ultimate defeat were his only options. He fled in his chariot and as word of the Great King’s departure spread through the ranks the Persian resistance began to fail. Thousands of Persians were killed as they tried to escape the battlefield.

Battle of Issus: The Decisive Moment

The Persians are marked as red and the Macedonians as blue. The battlefield was hemmed in by hills on the right and the sea on the left. The large blue arrow shows the moment that Alexander led his cavalry through the Persian left and towards Darius.
The Persians are marked as red and the Macedonians as blue. The battlefield was hemmed in by hills on the right and the sea on the left. The large blue arrow shows the moment that Alexander led his cavalry through the Persian left and towards Darius. | Source

The Alexander Mosaic: saved by Vesuvius

This moment, the decisive moment of the battle, has been captured for posterity in an extraordinary work of art, a floor mosaic that archaeologists believe was laid sometime around 100 BCE and which adorned a grand private dwelling in the Italian city of Pompeii. Located in what is today known as the House of the Faun the mosaic was preserved, albeit with damaged sections, as a result of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. There it lay undisturbed until it was excavated in 1831. Nowadays that mosaic is displayed on a wall in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, while a meticulous reproduction, created by a team from the International Center for the Study and Teaching of Mosaic, lies in the House of the Faun, allowing visitors to gain an appreciation for the work as it was originally presented.

Measuring 5.82 x 3.31 metres, the mosaic is formed from perhaps four million tesserae (small cubes of hard material such as stone, marble, ceramic, or glass), with 15 to 30 tesserae packed into each square centimetre.[4] The technique by which the mosaic was formed was the opus vermiculatum, a style that was widespread from the Hellenistic period until the fourth century CE. In opus vermiculatum the tesserae are tiny and closely packed, allowing the artist to create subtle gradations of colour and varied shapes and contours. The style was associated with undulating rows of tesserae that give a sense of movement. Indeed, the term opus vermiculatum literally means ‘worm-like work’.

A Scene from the 'Alexander Sarcophagus'

Alexander shown on his horse Bucephalas trampling a Persian opponent.
Alexander shown on his horse Bucephalas trampling a Persian opponent. | Source

Who was the artist?

The mosaic is generally regarded by scholars as being a reproduction of a painting from the fourth Century BCE. There were many works of art, now sadly lost to history, that used the Battle of Issus as a theme and there is much debate among historians as to which of these was the basis for the Alexander mosaic. Some modern historians have suggested that the mosaic is based on a work by Apelles, a familiar figure in Alexander’s court and the most famous painter of the time.[5] Ancient sources state that the king sat for Apelles who painted Alexander atop a horse and wielding thunderbolts in the manner of the god Zeus. Apelles painted more than one portrait of Alexander but, among those ancient records, there is no mention of a work devoted to the Battle of Issus.[6]

Ancient sources mention at least two artworks that were possible inspirations for the mosaic: a painting by Philoxenus of Eretria; and a painting by the Egyptian artist, Helena, daughter of Timon. The work by Philoxenus is known to have been commissioned by Alexander’s contemporary Cassander, who reigned as King of Macedon from 305 to 297 BCE. That painting, described by Pliny, was likely copied on vases and disseminated throughout the Mediterranean world.[7] At least one scholar has suggested that the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, which contains a frieze depicting the Battle of Issus, was based on the painting by Philoxenus.[8] Although created in the late fourth century BCE, the Sarcophagus was not built to house Alexander’s body but was built, probably, for the King of Sidon in what is today Lebanon. The frieze, carved from marble, displays some similarities to the Alexander Mosaic in that the Macedonian king is shown astride a horse charging and trampling the Persian enemy. Apart from this thematic similarity there is no evidence that the sarcophagus and the mosaic are linked to each other or to the work of Philoxenus.

Little is known of Helena’s career but it seems probable that she painted her version of Issus close to the date of the battle in 333 BCE. According to a later writer named Photius we know that the Roman Emperor Vespasian (who ruled from 69 to 79 CE) acquired the painting while campaigning in the East.[9] He subsequently displayed the work in the Temple of Peace in Rome. The fact that Helena’s painting survived until the first century CE allied to the fact that it was clearly a well-known work suggests that it could have been the inspiration for the mosaic at Pompeii. The evidence, however, is unavoidably circumstantial. We cannot be certain which work provided the template for the mosaic. Indeed, it is likely that the artist who created the mosaic, whose name we do not know, never saw the original works of Helena or Philoxenus. Alexander’s life and campaigns were well known to Romans and it could well be that the creator of the mosaic took aspects of various famous works, perhaps known through literary descriptions or reproduced on vases, and merged them to create a unique work of art. It is also possible that the artist merged aspects of more than one of Alexander’s battles, perhaps combing elements of Issus and the subsequent clash at Gaugamela.

Determined, Heroic, Cruel, Ugly? It all depends on who you ask.
Determined, Heroic, Cruel, Ugly? It all depends on who you ask. | Source

Interpretations of the mosaic: refighting the battle

When trying to interpret the Alexander mosaic we face the problem of trying to determine how the mosaic would have been understood by past audiences. If the mosaic is indeed based upon a fourth century BCE painting then what kind of reaction would the original work have generated among its viewers? Would Roman viewers of the mosaic in the House of the Faun, during the two centuries before the eruption of Vesuvius, have experienced similar or differing emotions? The mosaic was then lost and rediscovered in the nineteenth century. How did people respond to the mosaic at that time? Lastly, how do we understand the mosaic today? Can we view the work as the ancients viewed it? It is inevitable that each generation responds to the mosaic, as with any work of art, in the context of its own times but what common ground exists between current generations and those of previous times? Indeed can there be any common ground among modern interpreters of the mosaic. Any reading of the mosaic is inescapably subjective and none can claim to be the final word on this work of art. So, with those caveats in place we will discuss some of the varying analyses of the mosaic and I will also, for what it’s worth, offer my own interpretation.

Consider the differing approaches of Andrew Stewart and Ernst Badian. Stewart, a prominent art historian who specialises in ancient Mediterranean art, sees the portrayal of Alexander as that of a leader who ‘knows the military art like none other’; a leader in total control of his army, guiding his horse, Bucephalas, onward through the enemy.[10] Badian, one of the great historians to have studied the ancient world, saw the mosaic as a satire on Alexander and judged that the Macedonian could barely control his steed which had begun to rear up on its hind legs, afraid to press the attack. Alexander’s visage, Badian suggested, was ugly and the whole appearance of the King of Macedon is ‘deliberately unheroic’.[11] The source of this supposed satire was Cassander, whom Badian credits with commissioning the original work on which the mosaic is based.

Cassander was the son of a general named Antipater, whom Alexander had tasked with maintaining Macedonian hegemony in Greece during the war against the Persian Empire. Antipater performed superbly in this role, defeating a Spartan army at the city of Megalopolis circa 330 BCE. Despite, or maybe because of this success, his relationship with Alexander deteriorated in the years after the battle and Cassander, located in Babylon as Antipater’s representative, suffered intense hostility from Alexander. After Alexander’s death Cassander would eventually take the throne of Macedon. He had Alexander’s mother Olympias murdered, along with Alexander’s wife Roxanne and their son, the proposed heir to the throne, Alexander IV. It is clear that Cassander had a deep hatred for Alexander and he was more than capable of commissioning a work that denigrated Alexander’s memory.

However, if the mosaic was a satire, a joke at Alexander’s expense, it does not seem to have been a very good one. The suggestion that Alexander is rendered in an ugly manner is entirely subjective and not really a firm foundation on which to build an argument. If anything the Macedonian’s expression could be described as determined and implacable. Badian makes similar claims regarding Alexander’s lack of a helmet. Beneath Alexander at the bottom of a damaged section of the mosaic there is what appears to be a helmet, which Badian states is Alexander’s. The lost helmet is, according to Badian, a sly swipe at Alexander making him a king without a crown.[12] Again, this argument is far from conclusive and the fact that Alexander is bare-headed could have multiple other meanings. The artist may have wanted to present a clear image of the conqueror unimpeded by any headgear; or the artist may have wanted to highlight the heroic nature of the Macedonian riding into battle without fear. If there is any symbolism in this lack of a helmet it could be that Alexander has lost his old crown, King of Macedon, since at this very moment he is about to grab a new crown, Great King, King of Kings, King of the Persians.

Persian Resistance

Persian soldiers attempt to protect Darius.
Persian soldiers attempt to protect Darius. | Source

The treatment of the Persians in the mosaic has also been commented upon. It is widely agreed that the mosaic endows the Persians with humanity; some are resolute; others fearful; one dies bravely before Alexander. As a whole they are far from the caricature of weak and cowardly barbarians that the Greeks mostly liked to portray. Badian sees this as further evidence that the mosaic was designed to undermine Alexander’s image but another argument is that by dignifying the Persians as being an enemy worthy of respect the artist heightens the status of Alexander. Their defeat magnifies his success. As Stewart points out, a victory over a weak and ineffectual enemy, ‘mere cattle’, would have been no victory at all.[13] Ultimately, the suggestion that the mosaic is designed to make Alexander appear unheroic is untenable.

In Roman times it seems certain that Alexander was the main focus of attention for viewers of the mosaic. Martin Beckmann, a historian who specialises in Roman art, has conducted an innovative analysis of the mosaic which gives clues to how the Romans would have approached the work. Beckmann analysed wear and tear caused by people walking over, or standing on, the mosaic in the hope of understanding how visitors to the House of the Faun in Pompeii viewed the piece. The mosaic was repaired many times by its owners and through analysing the locations of those repairs Beckmann concluded that, unsurprisingly given his status in the Greco-Roman world, Alexander rather than Darius was the main point of interest. Beckmann suggests that the owner, as host, would have brought his guests on a ‘tour’ of the mosaic ending with Alexander. The guests would have huddled around the image of the King of Macedon, trying not to step on his head or that of his beloved horse. The other items of interest to Roman viewers seem to have been Darius and also the two Persian soldiers who are in the process of being crushed by the Great King’s chariot.[14]

Beckmann’s analysis and research presents a plausible case, although there can never be certainty in such matters. Roman viewers, and the owners of the House of the Faun, may have been primarily motivated by, in the words of Ada Cohen, 'the Roman desire to possess things Greek'. The Romans, especially at the time of the mosaic's creation, were obsessed with appropriating older Greek works. Cohen, who has written the leading text on the mosaic, has stressed the prestige that the work would have bestowed on the House of the Faun. That is not to suggest that the owners would have been uninterested in the aesthetic or symbolic aspects of the work but its main benefit to them was, perhaps, that it signified their wealth and power within the locality. Such motivations were again in evidence after the mosaic's rediscovery in the nineteenth century when tile copies were commissioned by various European leaders such as the Prussian King Friedrick Wilhelm IV. For Cohen it was the need to acquire 'prestige', rather than any overtly political symbolism, which inspired those such as the Prussian leader.[15]

The Alexander Mosaic, currently displayed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
The Alexander Mosaic, currently displayed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. | Source

The critical moment

The mosaic presents the confusion and destruction of the ancient battlefield. In front of Darius a Persian has been run through by Alexander’s spear. Beneath the dying man, his bloodied horse has slumped to the ground already dead. To their right and below Darius a Persian struggles to hold his panicked horse, the use of foreshortening adding depth to the work. To that man’s right lays an unfortunate Persian who has been trampled beneath Darius’s chariot, his dying face reflected on the polished interior of his shield. A second soldier is also being crushed by the chariot’s horses on the far right of the image. Discarded weapons are scattered along the foreground, no doubt the future spoils of the victors.

Two Persian soldiers are trampled beneath the Great King's chariot
Two Persian soldiers are trampled beneath the Great King's chariot | Source
The dead tree towers over the battle
The dead tree towers over the battle | Source

The artist’s usage of diagonal lines, especially in the Persian spears which dominate the image, give a sense of movement. The vast majority of these weapons are pointing left in the direction of the enemy. On the right of the image three spears point in an opposing direction, away from Alexander. These spears appear to be held by retreating Persians and if you look under Darius’s outstretched arm you can see plumed helmets, probably Macedonian soldiers attempting to encircle Darius’s position. To the right under the charioteer’s whip hand can be seen Persians soldiers staring in the direction of these plumed helmets. One Persian soldier holds his right hand to his head as if in despair. The three spears, whether held by Persians or Macedonians, demonstrate that the battle is at the turning point. Soon all the spears will point in that direction as the Persians retreat. On the left of the image stands a bare-limbed and dead tree. This dead tree, which rises above the action and offers a vertical counterpoint to Darius, may symbolise the decline and death of Great King and his Persian Empire. This feeling is intensified by the fact that the tree is not merely dead but has had its top chopped off. The tree has lost its crown and Darius is about to lose his.

Darius, powerless and overawed
Darius, powerless and overawed | Source

The mosaic is filled with soldiers fighting and dying but Darius remains the emotional centre of the image, atop his chariot with his right arm extended and his hand empty. Some commentators have suggested that Darius is reaching out towards the slain Persian nobleman directly in front of him, a figure who could be the King’s brother Oxyathres. Yet this interpretation, while valid, seems to me to be insufficient and fails to adequately respond to the composition of the mosaic. Look at Darius’s eyes. He is not watching the dying noble but, wide-eyed and amazed, stares at Alexander. The Macedonian king, his eyes fixed on his immediate foe, has burst into frame from the left, cutting a path through the Persians.

Alexander, wearing his Gorgon-headed breastplate, is at the apex of a great army whose sole aim is Darius’s destruction. It is he, not Darius, who is driving the action, forcing those in his path to fall or flee. Darius’s charioteer, desperate to escape the maelstrom, whips his terrified horses and tramples over fellow Persians. Those horses look directly at the viewer, as if they are to drag Darius and the fury that is Alexander in our direction. It is here that the mosaic displays an important aspect of the Greek worldview, especially in relation to the Persians. The Greeks regarded the Persian system of governance, and wider Persian society, as flawed especially in the godlike reverence afforded to the Great King. Even the highest of Persian nobles had to indulge in Proskynesis; a form of obeisance involving prostration before the king. Such acts were regarded with derision by the Macedonians who regarded all Persians as little better than slaves.

The Macedonian self-image was of rugged egalitarianism, at least among the ruling class, and this was displayed on the battlefield. While Alexander rides with his companions, the first among equals, Darius stands above his troops, his vast power divorcing him from the rest of humanity. Alexander leads his troops while Darius literally crushes his as he flees. But there is a hint in the mosaic that Darius is being presented, perhaps, as a victim of his position. The mosaic does not suggest that Darius ordered the retreat. It looks as if his charioteer is in the process of pulling the king from the battlefield. Darius, leaning forward, seems as if he could be thrown from the chariot. The Great King, even if he wanted to, could not fight with his men. The Persian system would not allow it and when the moment of crisis arrived he could not intervene.

As the Macedonian's break the Persian line the wheel of the Darius’s chariot is turning away from Alexander and moving through his own troops. It is the turning point of the battle. The Persian King seems powerless, overawed, his outstretched hand is that of a man symbolically and literally losing his grip. This was the moment when the Great King, the master of the world, could feel his crown, his empire, and his future slip from his grasp.

The moment when two worlds collide
The moment when two worlds collide | Source

The aftermath of Issus: ‘I shall seek you out’

Darius escaped the battle but his army had been thoroughly defeated and his power over the Persian Empire greatly diminished. In his desperation to escape, Darius had not only abandoned his army but also his family. Darius’s wife, children, and mother, were captured by the Macedonians and the Great King was forced to beseech Alexander for their release.

"…Now, since Darius’ reign began, Alexander has sent no representative to his court to confirm the former friendship and alliance between the two kingdoms; on the contrary, he has crossed into Asia with his armed forces and done much damage to the Persians. For this reason Darius took the field in defence of his country and of his ancestral throne. The issue of the battle was as some god willed; and now Darius the King asks Alexander the King to restore from captivity his wife, his mother, and his children, and is willing to make friends with him and be his ally. For this cause he urges Alexander to send to him, in company with Meniscus and Arsimes who have brought this request, representatives of his own in order that proper guarantees may be exchanged."[16]

Alexander’s reply was a harsh lesson for Darius in the geopolitical realities that the Battle of Issus had wrought. In a letter the Macedonian began by laying out his justification for invading the Persian Empire and concluded by declaring his hegemony over all the Persian realms.

"Your ancestors invaded Macedonia and Greece and caused havoc in our country, though we had done nothing to provoke them. As supreme commander of all Greece I invaded Asia because I wished to punish Persia for this act – an act which must be laid wholly to your charge… First I defeated in battle your generals and satraps; now I have defeated yourself and the army you led. By God’s help I am master of your country…

Come to me, therefore, as you would come to the lord of the continent of Asia. Should you fear to suffer any indignity at my hands, then send some of your friends and I will give them the proper guarantees. Come, then, and ask me for your mother, your wife, and your children and anything else you please; for you shall have them, and whatever besides you can persuade me to give you.

Alexander's letter to Darius

"If, on the other hand, you wish to dispute your throne, stand and fight for it and do not run away. Wherever you may hide yourself, be sure I shall seek you out."

The Death of Darius

Alexander continued to chase Darius after Gaugamela. Darius was stabbed by some of his generals and left to die. He was later found by a Macedonian soldier. This romanticised image from 1696 shows Alexander arriving to view Darius's body.
Alexander continued to chase Darius after Gaugamela. Darius was stabbed by some of his generals and left to die. He was later found by a Macedonian soldier. This romanticised image from 1696 shows Alexander arriving to view Darius's body. | Source

And in the future let any communication you wish to make with me be addressed to the King of all Asia. Do not write to me as to an equal. Everything you possess is now mine; so, if you should want anything, let me know in the proper terms, or I shall take steps to deal with you as a criminal. If, on the other hand, you wish to dispute your throne, stand and fight for it and do not run away. Wherever you may hide yourself, be sure I shall seek you out."[17]

There is an element of bluff and propaganda in this letter. Alexander’s forces had not yet won the war but no one, least of all Darius, could now doubt that the army of Macedon was willing and able to follow its king across the Persian Empire. They had already defeated the Persians at the Granicus and Issus. Could any force of Persians stop these invaders? Alexander’s promise to hunt down and defeat Darius was both a threat and a prediction. The known world was not large enough to house two Great Kings.

Darius would muster his vast forces for one more titanic battle at a place called Gaugamela in modern day Iraq. That battle has some similarities to its predecessor and a few scholars have suggested that the mosaic may in fact represent Gaugamela rather than Issus.[18] Yet the admittedly sparse ancient evidence suggests Issus rather than Gaugamela as the subject of the mosaic.[19] At Gaugamela, Alexander, again at the head of his Companion cavalry, broke through a gap in the Persian lines and charged towards Darius. The King of the Persians, as he had at Issus, fled the battlefield and escaped. After the battle Darius sought to raise one final army but the series of defeats had shattered his personal authority and he was assassinated by some of his own commanders, thus bringing the Achaemenid Dynasty to an end.

New worlds and new ideas

The Macedonian victory at Issus had set in motion a chain of events that profoundly influenced the course of world history. The importance of Alexander the Great rests not so much in his brilliance as a military commander which, we should not forget, caused a wave of human suffering, death, and destroyed cities. Although it is not always possible, or meaningful, to seek parallels between different eras in history, the course of the past century should have taught us to be fearful and distrustful of the ‘great men’ and those who seek to recast the world in their own image.

Yet Alexander was one of those rare figures whose actions transcended what was thought possible. Driven by a yearning to conquer new lands and new peoples he had created an empire so vast in such a short period of time that his progress seemed beyond comprehension. Indeed, the Greeks ascribed his actions to pothos. This concept had many meanings but it was sometimes attributed to historical figures who displayed a longing, an unquenchable drive, to achieve and succeed. Alexander’s ultimate inspiration was mysterious but his longing to achieve greatness was manifested in his stunning, almost otherworldly, successes.

Alexander’s empire would not survive his death, aged 32, in 323 BCE. His generals engaged in a prolonged struggle over their dead king’s legacy and these ‘Wars of the Successors’ carved what had once been the Persian Empire into a group of competing dynasties. Nevertheless, the intermingling of two worlds that resulted from Alexander’s campaigns allowed for the creation of a new kind of civilization that was partly Greek and partly Persian. Whether or not this was Alexander’s intention has divided scholars for generations but the era that emerged after his death, what we now call the Hellenistic period, was a time of extraordinary intercultural exchange. During this time it became popular for the educated upper classes in the regions conquered by Alexander to speak Greek.

The use of Greek as a lingua franca across much of the Mediterranean and near east allowed for a greater ease of travel, for shared cultural experiences, and for shared religions. For example, Christianity was born and formed in this world and the New Testament was originally written in Greek, a fact which facilitated its spread throughout the Roman Empire. That was a consequence of the Macedonian invasion of the Persian Empire that was as profound as it was unpredictable. So, when we look upon the Alexander Mosaic we see a singular work of art which encapsulates a moment in time, a moment in a war, a moment when world history was forever altered.

The Black lines indicate the extent of Alexander and his army's journey. The start point on the upper left of the image is Pella, the capital of their homeland, the Kingdom of Macedon.
The Black lines indicate the extent of Alexander and his army's journey. The start point on the upper left of the image is Pella, the capital of their homeland, the Kingdom of Macedon. | Source

Further Reading

The ancient sources are generally available online so the following is a brief list of some modern works that may interest readers: Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon (University of California Press, 1992); Peter Green, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age (Phoenix, 2008); Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence, Pompeii, the Living City (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005); Brian Todd Carey, Warfare in the Ancient World (Pen & Sword, 2005); Kaveh Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert, Ancient Persia at War (Osprey Publishing, 2007); Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great, the Search for a New Past (Macmillan, 2004); Art, a World History (Dorling Kindersley, 1998); Guide to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (Electa Napoli, 2009); Matt Waters, Ancient Persia, a Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire 550-330 BCE (Cambridge University Press, 2014); Ada Cohen, The Alexander Mosaic, Stories of Victory and Defeat (Cambridge University Press, 1997); Ada Cohen, Art in the Era of Alexander the Great, Paradigms of Manhood and their Cultural Traditions (Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Andrew F. Stewart, Faces of Power, Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics (University of California Press, 1993).

A youthful Alexander hunts a lion on a mosaic in the archaeological museum in Pella.
A youthful Alexander hunts a lion on a mosaic in the archaeological museum in Pella. | Source


[1] For modern accounts of the battle see the books listed in the ‘Further Reading’ section of this Hub. See also Ruth Sheppard (ed), Alexander the Great at War – His Army, His Battles, His Enemies (Osprey Publishing, 2008), pp. 111-134.

[2] Diodorus Siculus, Universal History, Book 17, Chapter 19. Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin, 1971), p. 71.

[3] Arrian, Alexander, p. 115.

[4] There seems to be no agreed figure for the number of tesserae used in the mosaic. While various sources offer figures ranging from two to four million the Guide to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which houses the mosaic, states that the work contains ‘about a million tesserae, with 15 to 30 tesserae per square centimetre’ (p. 59). However, according to the museum, the mosaic is 582 centimetres wide and 313 centimetres high. That corresponds to 182, 166 square centimetres. If we use the lower number of 15 tesserae per square centimetre then that corresponds to a total of 2,732,490 tesserae. The higher number of 30 tesserae per square centimetre would yield a total of 5,464,980. If, as seems probable, the concentration of tesserae varies throughout the mosaic then a total figure of approximately 4,000,000 is reasonable.

[5] See the work by Paola Moreno, Apelles – the Alexander Mosaic (Skira, 2001).

[6] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 35, Chapter 36.

[7] Pliny, Natural History, 35, 36

[8] See the work by Volkmar von Graeve, Der Alexandersarkophag und seine Werkstatt (Berlin, 1970)

[9] William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870), p. 871

[10] Andrew F. Stewart, Faces of Power, Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics (University of California Press, 1993), p. 147.

[11] Ernst Badian, ‘A Note on the “Alexander Mosaic’ in Frances B. Titchener, Richard F. Moorton’s (editors) The Eye Expanded: Life and the Arts in Greco-Roman Antiquity (University of California Press, 1999), p. 82.

[12] Badian, Alexander Mosaic, p. 84

[13] Stewart, Faces, p. 144

[14] For a piece on Beckmann’s work see

[15] See Cohen, Ada, The Alexander Mosaic, Stories of Victory and Defeat (Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 195-199

[16] Arrian, Alexander , p. 126

[17 Arrian, Alexander, pp. 127-128

[18] See, for example, Badian, Alexander Mosaic.

[19] Modern analyses of the mosaic strengthen the traditional idea that the mosaic depicts Issus. For example, see Stewart, Faces, pp134-140. Among the many points raised by Stewart he discusses the dead tree which plays such a telling role in the mosaic. It was widely reported in ancient sources that Darius had the plain of Gaugamela levelled and cleared of all obstructions, such as trees, so that his scythed chariots could freely engage the enemy.

© 2014 Joseph Tully


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    • Joseph Tully profile imageAUTHOR

      Joseph Tully 

      4 years ago from Planet Earth

      Thank you, I'm glad that you enjoyed reading it.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Very interesting. I visited the museum in Naples a few years ago. The mosaic is amazing.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Great article, thanks.


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