Blog Week 8: Alexander’s Image


Above are several different known portraits of Alexander the Great.  Pay attention to the dates – some of these portraits reflect/copy (we think) portraits made of Alexander during his lifetime; others are made after his death.  I’ve also stuck a couple of images of deities in there for comparison.  Having read the ancient sources and some of the discussions about Alexander’s appearance and character, consider the following questions:  What elements go into portraits of Alexander, and how is this reflected in the images you see above? What are some of the similarities/differences/inconsistencies between these various portraits? Why do these portraits look the way they do? Do they have any bearing on reality? Can we know what Alexander “really looked like”? Is this even a relevant question to ask?



5 responses to “Blog Week 8: Alexander’s Image

  • Lili Dodderidge

    In most portraits of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king is portrayed with a smooth face and wavy head of hair, complete with a cowlick. These features are subject to interpretation, from both the viewer’s perspective and the mission of the artist. Stewart’s chapter on encountering Alexander proposes an interesting discussion on the reality behind the portraits of Alexander the Great, suggesting that the real image of Alexander may not be reflected in typical portraits; rather, the images of the king are meant to convey an idealized version of the leader of the empire.

    Every image of Alexander consists of a smooth, beardless face. Stewart suggests that this can be interpreted in more ways than one. Looking from the Greek perspective, a smooth face inspired negative connotations. As seen in picture 5 above, the Greek god Zeus has a thick, long beard; this image translates to an ideal male attribute of facial hair, bringing men to a more masculine, deified state. From this theory, Alexander would be seen as a leader who did not live up to the godly ideal. Stewart reminds his readers, however, that as Macedonian king, Alexander was more concerned with the impact his image would have on his own people than that of his neighboring empires. In Macedonian culture, “not only was the usual image of the king as a bearded father figure inappropriate, but a better model was ready to hand: the eternally youthful hero, out to shape the world anew” (Stewart 75). The increased power that the empire gained under the leadership of young Alexander inspired a new standard of idealized appearances for leaders. Picturing Alexander as a youthful, beardless man increased his masculinity and authoritative figure for his Macedonian citizens, a more important message to convey than appreciation from the Greeks.

    Greek interpretation of facial features does come into an effect, however, when taking into consideration Alexander’s cowlick. This cowlick has been suggested to represent the leonine nature of leaders so respected by Greeks and Macedonians—that the likeness to a lion reflects the emphasis on masculinity and unmatchable prowess in leadership and victory. Here, this idealized attempt at explaining this particular feature of Alexander’s hair falls back on classic tradition, allowing people of both Macedon and other empires to recognize the virility and masculinity of the king.

    Stewart begins the discussion by explaining ancient texts’ lack of describing the true form of Alexander. Most of our knowledge comes from the story of Alexander sitting on the throne of Darius and falling short of the height of the Persian king, suggesting a smaller frame for the Macedonian king. This shorter stature does not connote a very manly, capable vibe; if all of Alexander’s portraits portrayed him as he is told to be in ancient texts, respect for the king would not be as universal amongst the kingdom. Like all propaganda pieces we have discussed in class, portraits of Alexander were used for political and social purposes. Portraying the king in an ideal way creates a stronger model for the empire to look toward. It does not matter whether or not Alexander was actually the youthful, highly-masculine figure art depicts him to be; what matters is that his portrait sent a message to his citizens that he was a strong, capable leader that fit the ideal characteristics his people prescribed to men in positions such as himself.

  • Sarah Murphy

    When creating portraits of Alexander, especially when in his contemporary period, artists had to consider how to strike a balance between realistic and idealized depictions. Stewart’s article “Alexander: An Encounter” analyzes how physical qualities of Alexander can have either positive or negative connotations. For example, Alexander’s smooth chin “had extremely negative connotations in fourth-century Greek society”; this quality, however, would be consider positive by Macedonians since it alluded to the “eternally youthful hero” (Stewart 74, 75). When depicting this particular characteristic, artists had to make sure that they did not make Alexander seem effeminate, since he was a successful general in battle. As seen in the above images, Alexander is never depicted with facial hair. Instead, the artists use other characteristics to make him more masculine. For example, in the sculptures of Alexander’s full figure, the artists show Alexander as having an athletic body with extremely toned muscles. Although this musculature may not have been realistic, this characteristic is not so prevalent that it would be well known. Artists therefore took liberty of creating portraits with some sort of idealization that could not be easily refuted.
    All of these various portraits of Alexander depict perhaps his most famous quality: his hair. Alexander’s tousled and curly hair evokes a lion’s mane; the anastole may have been realistic, but it also helped Alexander’s image as a leonine figure. Stewart argues in “Shadow of Macedonia” that Lysippos “simply merged the genres of portrait and warrior-hero into one, blending them with the charged iconography of the king of beasts” (Stewart 290). By giving Alexander a well-known characteristic, artists ensure that the subject of their work will be immediately recognizable throughout the empire, especially by people who have never seen the ruler. Artists focus on familiar characteristics of Alexander and idealize or spin them in some way in order for the young general to display his power and authority with his appearance. Alexander was only thirty by the time he conquered most of his empire; portraying him as an eternal youthful hero emphasizes his strength.
    Although these portraits vary slightly, certain characteristics are prevalent throughout. These characteristics may have been exaggerated or underemphasized by the artists to convey a particular image of Alexander. What matters is the selection that both Alexander and the artists made in conveying the general in a particular way. The image of a youthful, heroic, leonine ruler inspires a feeling of security for those within the empire and a feeling of fear in Alexander’s enemies. When remarking on Alexander’s appearance, Aelian, without mentioning any specific feature, stated that “There was something in his appearance that aroused fear” (37). Alexander’s physical depiction was just as much a conscious choice as it was his actual appearance.

  • Danielle Lee

    I think that there has to be some grain of truth in all the portraits of Alexander. My guess would be that, at the least, the real Alexander had wavy hair that he liked to keep pretty short and a rather fair complexion. In many of the portraits, Alexander also has a prominently pointy nose. Perhaps it is simply a casualty of the era’s artistic talent, but it seems that Alexander simply had no distinct features that could be advantageously depicted in portraits. If he did indeed have a crooked neck or ruddy cheeks, then the sculptures and coins do not seem to want to focus on such features.

    As I keep looking at the images while pondering the different heroes and gods that Alexander was associated with, it almost seems that it was to Alexander’s benefit to have a common face. He had no distinct features and therefore could be linked to Herakles, Achilles and other local deities. The image of the tetradrachm (#6) with Alexander and Herakles on two sides of the same coin is such an instance. Even the way Alexander wears the lion skin as was Herakles trademark would cause the viewer of the coin to become confused as to who they were actually looking at. Sooner or later, as the common peoples continue to see the face of their leader constantly in the same context of heroes like Herakles, they would begin to associate Alexander with the heroes’ glory and power.

    This, of course, does not seem to have been a big issue since Alexander led his invincible army into the far reaches of Asia and back without conceding to defeat. Alexander even achieved victory in the same places where Herakles and other gods were associated; Tyre, for example. And by having a rather common looking face it is left up to the imagination of the people to create the glorified image and recollection of the fearless and invincible Alexander.

    Of course, having his name and identity so closely linked to the divine, Alexander was able to bypass obstacles that a less successful leader would have faced. His beardlessness comes to mind. It seems that Alexander was simply incapable of growing facial hair but utilized that generally embarrassing feature to link his name even closer to that of the gods since they were usually depicted without facial hair. While his saying that the beard is the enemy’s best friend on the battlefield did give some credence to his lack thereof, I feel that it was the link of Alexander’s beardlessness to the beardlessness of divine portraiture that truly excused Alexander’s deficient facial hair.

    Additionally, the link between Alexander and the name of Achilles gave excuse to his own crazy and radically emotional behavior. Though in most of the portraiture and the mosaic, Alexander is depicted stoically and unemotional as opposed to the emotion-ridden Persians (in the mosaic), historians tell us that he too was subject to a great range of emotions. He would, on whim (rather than detached and strategically) scale fortresses alone as a reaction to his own men’s detachment. It is also well known that Alexander grieved greatly (in the manner of Achilles) at the death of his companion Hephaiston. Now, any other leader, I presume from the general historical context, would have been greatly ridiculed and humiliated with such displays of emotion, especially on the battlefield. However, with the knowledge of Alexander’s blood lineage to Achilles as well as his own great military prowess, the Macedonian men continued to follow their leader in spite of his relatively strange behavior.

    Therefore, it seems that Alexander’s portraiture, though containing a theme of wavy hair and fair skin, were not meant to depict him exactly as he was. Perhaps it began as a way of concealing his not-so-ideal physique but it became an asset in establishing himself as divine (or as close to it as possible).

  • Ena Dekanic

    In “Alexander: An Encounter,” Stewart notes that Alexander’s portraiture “is only a representation of Alexander,” because the “‘real’ Alexander cannot be recovered” (72). The various portraits of Alexander above support Stewart’s argument. While the portraits do not entirely complement the description of Alexander found in the ancient sources, they reincarnate Alexander’s alleged flaws into positive qualities in order to further a conscious crafting of his royal image.

    According to the ancient texts, the “real” Alexander was pale, short, and beardless, with a crooked neck, limpid eyes, and unruly hair. Such descriptions do not create a flattering image of Alexander, leading Stewart to conclude, “Alexander was therefore not the absolute paragon of Greek male beauty that late antique and modern scholarship often alleges” (76). The portraits of Alexander, however, suggest quite the opposite. They are all very similar in their adulation, in that they present Alexander as eternally youthful, heroic, athletic, and, in short, godlike.

    Many of Alexander’s characteristics, such as white skin and a smooth chin, carried negative connotations in the ancient world. Stewart convincingly argues that, faced with these realities, Alexander’s court artists, particularly Lysippos, transformed these negative traits into positive ones. Through conscious artistic decisions, Alexander’s smooth chin, for example, no longer suggested homosexual perversion, but rather the perpetually youthful Homeric hero. Likewise, his crooked neck became incorporated into the common sculptural contrappostic pose, implying, according to Stewart, “driving energy or heroic defiance,” while his troublesome cowlick revealed his leonine nature.

    Given this artistic program, it becomes difficult to define reality when it comes to Alexander’s appearance in his portraiture (or to portraits in general). On one hand, when compared to the textual descriptions, Alexander’s portraits seem like blatant lies, the ancient equivalent of radical airbrushing. On the other hand, the portraits do not stray as far from the truth as they could have. The artists could have chosen to portray an Alexander far more at odds with the textual descriptions, by giving him a beard, for instance, or different hair. By instead transforming Alexander’s actual physical characteristics into more idealized metaphorical representations of his positive qualities, they perhaps more accurately capture the “real” Alexander by revealing his inherent nature. As we discussed last week, many elements go into a portrait of Alexander, beyond simply what “he really looked like:” his identity as a Macedonian monarch, his character, traditions of Greek portraiture, and the point of view of the artist. As discussed above, Stewart acknowledges each of these elements. Alexander’s image as an eternally youthful beardless hero, for example, depended upon specifically Macedonian, not Greek, traditions of heroic kingship, and the contrappostic pose that hid his crooked neck referenced a common sculptural idiom.

  • Ryan Day

    We can assume that some of Alexander’s basic features are probably present in these images. Alexander likely had no beard and had rather long messy hair but I doubt we no much more about his appearance than that. The images of him that are more akin to those of a god than a man are likely idealized representations of Alexander, as opposed to realistic portraits.

    Alexander, according to ancient texts, that still weren’t written until after his death, was kinda scrawny and awkward looking. He was short and pale, with a crooked neck and weird hair. Quite literally none of these images seem to adhere completely to that description. They appear to have taken the traits that could be applied to Alexander without him looking too goofy, and discarded the other traits. This way, the portraits can be identified as Alexander while still deifying his appearance. It’s doubtful that we’ll ever really know what Alexander looked like, and we likely wouldn’t want to know as his actual visage would serve no purpose other than to disappoint our high expectations

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