Histor is wont to bestow epithets on its more colorful characters, from the vertically challenged King Pepin the Short (714?-768), father of Charlemagne, to Ethelred the Unready, who ruled England with singular incompetence from 978 to 1016. Few, however, have so richly deserved their title as Alexander the Great (365-323 B.C.), the Macedonian king who led his armies on an odyssey of conquest from Greece to India, crushing the superpower Persian empire and taking Egypt along the way.
Alexander, however, might have disputed the epithet awarded by history — likely he would have preferred “the Divine.”
The future conqueror of almost all the known world, who acceded to his father’s throne at age 18 and died of fever aged just 33, claimed descent from the immortal Hercules. His mother, Olympias, stoked her son’s god-complex by claiming she was impregnated not by Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedonia, but by a giant serpent.
All these myths collide in “Alexander the Great,” an exhibition now showing at Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, which displays a number of representations of the great leader (statues, busts and coinage) in company of which he would doubtless have approved — an extensive pantheon of classical gods and heroes.
Alexander was certainly divinely good-looking. Three images (one a nearly contemporaneous head of a statue, the others two Imperial Roman copies of third-century B.C. originals) clearly represent the same face over a period of time. The first is a beautiful boy with a head of curls; the next a youth with a resolute, firmly set chin; the third a mature man, his face filled out slightly though not a whit less handsome for it.
But Alexander’s reputation didn’t rest on his looks. At age 6 he is said to have received Persian envoys during his father’s absence; at age 13 he began to study under Aristotle; at 16 he served as his father’s regent; and, while still a teenager, in a wager with his father he subdued and rode a wild horse that no one had been able to handle. (The steed, named Bucephalus, became Alexander’s warhorse.)
That was merely Alexander’s grooming for greatness, and the beginning of the legend.
After his father’s murder in 347 B.C. — apparently the result of a bizarre love triangle involving Philip and two men both named Pausanius — Alexander moved swiftly to stamp his authority on the kingdom he inherited, and then to embark on his own imperial expansion. Developing entirely new military tactics utilizing tightly disciplined, highly mobile units that were to remain a model for the Romans and even on into the 20th century, Alexander’s forces crushed incipient rebellion in Thebes and brought Athens to heel. Then his blitzkrieg rolled on across Asia Minor, engaging with Darius of Persia in 333 B.C. Alexander sidetracked to Egypt, where he was welcomed with open arms and declared Pharaoh, before returning to Persia to finish off Darius in 331 B.C. After that, and with complicit local leaders installed (as the British did 2,000 years later) to secure his conquests, he pressed on into India in 327 B.C. before turning his weary troops westward two years later. Three-quarters of his men never made it back, claimed by sickness and starvation on the long road home.
Scattered around this haphazardly curated exhibition are various items testifying to this remarkable empire-building. Most stunning are Persian friezes loaned by the Louvre, which show finely detailed craftsmanship, strong contours and gorgeous, vibrant coloration in turquoise, gold and pale green.
The cultivated Persians never stood a chance against Alexander’s army, which he developed into the mightiest war machine the world had ever seen, building on his father’s realization that by making soldiering a paid job rather than a seasonal occupation, he could build up a formidable corpus of professional warriors.
Sometimes, however, that army ran up against unexpected opponents — as in India, where his troops faced war elephants deployed by a local ruler named Porus. A second- or third-century B.C. phalera (an ornament for the head or breast of a horse) displayed here shows a mighty elephant, bearing a small armored turret on its back, marching into the field. Alexander won that battle, fought on the banks of the river Hydaspes in July 326 B.C., as he did so many others — but at great personal cost: His beloved Bucephalus was wounded there and died.
Alexander had ambitious plans to integrate his far-reaching empire — most especially to unite Greece and Persia. In 324 B.C., for example, he promoted mass weddings involving thousands of Greek soldiers and Persian women (he himself took as his second wife Stateira, one of Darius’ daughters). Indeed, Persian culture seems to have been congenial to him — much to the displeasure of his troops, he adopted Persian dress after his overthrow of Darius.
Part of the reason may have been Persians’ reverence for their leaders. Whereas Macedonians would only perform proskynesis (prostration) before their gods, Persians did so before their king. This doubtless suited Alexander just fine, and he enforced the custom for all his subjects.
To further promote the notion of his divinity, Alexander identified himself with Hercules, who was born a mortal but became a god. Some Alexandrian coinage bears a likeness of Hercules on the obverse — the two looking remarkably similar. The many images of Hercules displayed here attest to Alexander’s popularization of the hero across his empire — there are examples from Greece, Turkey, Persia (Hatra, in present-day Iran) and India (Gandhara, in present-day Pakistan). There is even a remarkable late piece (from the second or third century A.D.), a bas relief also found in Gandhara, showing the bodhisattva Vajra^pani in the guise of Hercules
Here, too, are a number of ornate items from Pakistan that give a sense of the astonishing extent of Greek influence spread by Alexander’s conquests. Elite Gandharan women of the second century B.C. used toilet-trays bearing images familiar from classical legends — of Dionysus and Ariadne; Aphrodite and Eros; and the rape of Europa.
All of this makes for a very pleasing and revealing exhibition — or rather it would, if there weren’t also a lot of curious, often beautiful, but decidedly peripheral items on show that distract from the central theme of Alexander’s life and career.
There’s the beautiful “Crouching Aphrodite” lifted from the Louvre. She’s certainly eye-candy, but she’s also a Roman copy of a ca. 100 B.C. Hellenistic original. What is she doing here? The same goes for a contemporaneous sculpture, the notorious “Sleeping Hermaphrodite.” This gorgeous naked woman, reclining face down with her toes tangled teasingly in a bedsheet, has male viewers licking their lips — until they walk around the other side and see, below a pair of beautiful breasts and a smooth belly, a generous set of male genitals. (Curators of an earlier, stuffier age kept the piece shoved up against a wall.) It’s questionable what light s/he sheds on Alexander.
Then we get to the final part of the exhibition, which seems even more gratuitous, examining as it does well-known links between the Buddhist cultures of Japan and of Gandhara. The idea, presumably, is to demonstrate that Alexander’s influence even made it over the subcontinent’s cultural stepping stones to these far-flung isles. Frankly it’s rather a stretch, although there’s no disputing that Greek gods such as Hermes, Boreas, Hercules and Tyche got stirred into the rich iconographic mix of Eastern Asia, influencing the representation of certain Buddhist deities.
The reason for this “Epilogue,” as the last room is called, is presumably to provide a little local context for Japanese gallerygoers. As a museum spokesperson confirmed, Alexander the Great does not feature prominently in the curricula of schools here, and this exhibition has not proved a hit with the Japanese public.
That’s a shame, because the items on show, however haphazardly presented, include real treasures and offer valuable insights into the one-man melting pot that was Alexander the Great.
Still, don’t broadcast too widely the attractions of this exhibition. This may be the only chance you’ll get to visit a major art venue on a weekend and find it blissfully uncrowded. You may even have the space to linger face to face before the divine Alexander. Prostration no longer obligatory.
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