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The Alexander Mosaic

The Alexander Mosaic: Greek history and Roman memories

Perhaps the finest representation of battle to survive from antiquity, the Alexander Mosaic conveys all the confusion and violence of ancient warfare. It also exemplifies how elite patrons across diverse artistic cultures commission artworks that draw inspiration from and celebrate past and present events important to the community. Specificity of visual imagery (e.g., identifiable protagonists, carefully rendered details, and inscriptions) combined with commemorative intent differentiates historical subjects from scenes conceived generically or drawn from daily life. In celebrating events meaningful to those holding power, historical subjects are propagandistic in that they foster a supremely favorable conception of those responsible for their creation. Yet no matter how carefully makers try to control the message, artworks can acquire an autonomy that permits audiences to construct “memories” of those events never intended.

Properly speaking, the Alexander Mosaic’s manufacture comprises Roman work, but most scholars believe it reflects a lost painting described by Pliny the Elder: “Philoxenos of Eretria painted a picture for King Cassander which must be considered second to none, which represented the battle of Alexander against Darius” (NH 35.110). This would date to ca. 330-310 BC, when memories of the battle were still fresh, and its propaganda value would be most effective. That painting may have been brought to Italy as plunder after the Roman conquest of Macedonia in 146 BC. The fact that the mosaic reproduces an earlier work for a later audience forces us to consider the discrepancies between historical narrative and artistic tradition.

All of the surviving accounts of Alexander’s conquests were written against the background of Roman imperialism, and ancient readers necessarily interpreted what they read in the light of the social and political structures that characterized their age. Alexander “the Great” was a Roman creation: the title first appears in a Roman comedy by Plautus in the early second century BC. Because historical representations are distinctive and clearly recognizable to contemporary viewers, since its discovery in the House of the Faun at Pompeii in 1831, scholars have had to reckon with how the mosaic’s imagery functioned in two very different contexts: first as a fourth-century Greek painting and then as a first-century Roman mosaic. A painting celebrating a Macedonian victory meant something quite distinct when originally displayed in a Hellenistic palace than when it was possibly displayed as war booty in a Roman temple; and the mosaic copy in a Roman private house would carry still different significance. For a Roman audience, the commemorative specificity of the battle scene was probably less important than celebrating the qualities of Alexander’s personality that spoke to them: his ferocity in battle, his charisma, and his military genius. Alexander was as much a part of the cultural memory of Rome as Homeric epic was for Greece, providing a paradigm for their own military triumphs.

Heinrich Fuhrmann first suggested that the Roman patron of the artwork had participated in the Macedonian Wars, and that this mosaic copy of a spoil of war functioned as both a sign of his admiration for the “greatest” general and perpetuated the memory of his own role in overthrowing the dynasty that Alexander founded. A Roman viewer might have imagined a broader reenactment of the paradigmatic conflict between East and West, a conflict he may have participated in or merely appreciated through the lens of Roman ideology. Given the Roman taste for the allusive, a history become anachronistic could have also been appropriated and meaningfully reused through a cognitive metaphor whereby in place of Alexander’s empire, Roman viewers could have understood their own (since Rome had conquered the territories formerly occupied by Macedonia). Roman sources repeatedly compare Roman campaigns on the eastern frontier with earlier Greek struggles. Given that Parthia, which had fought on the Persian side against Alexander, was now Rome’s enemy in the east and Alexander’s legacy was now Roman, a Roman viewer could have easily identified with the Greeks. Furthermore, the patron who commissioned the mosaic copy belonged to the new Roman ruling class, which appropriated older Greek artworks—the fruits of their conquest—to express social status. It was prominently featured in a luxury dwelling, of a type also of Greek origin, whose colonnaded courtyards and receptions rooms were sumptuously decorated with other paintings and sculptures meant to impress visitors. Its Roman owner may even have appreciated the Alexander Mosaic as a “work of art”: an image divorced from its original context by its new role in a Roman social performance.

When artworks reconstruct a past in order to explain the present, their makers determine which events are remembered and rearrange them to conform to the required social narrative. Their display provides visible manifestations of collective memories. More than merely passive reflections, monuments with historical subjects reinforce those memories and confer them prestige. Divergent motivations were again in evidence after the Alexander Mosaic’s discovery when various European leaders such as the Prussian King Fredrick Wilhelm IV ordered copies of the copy: was the motivation for such modern commissions the desire for prestige achieved through association with a masterpiece from antiquity or with the political symbolism of its historical subject?

Featured image: Alexander Mosaic (ca. 100 BCE), Naples, Museo archeologico nazionale. Berthold Werner via Wikimedia Commons.

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