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The So-Called 'Alexander' Sarcophagus: A Confluence of Cultures

The so-called 'Alexander' Sarcophagus, once thought to be the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, now reveals to us how the different cultures of Greece, Macedon and Persia may have interacted.

The sarcophagus, c.315-325 BCE, on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
The so-called 'Alexander' Sarcophagus

Above: The so-called ‘Alexander’ Sarcophagus, c. 315-325, on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. 

Discovery and Identity

The so-called ‘Alexander’ Sarcophagus was discovered in the late 19th century in the Royal Necropolis at Sidon and is currently housed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The sarcophagus, which is detailed in high relief marble sculpture, depicts two hunting scenes and two battle scenes, each motif represented on a long and short side. The scenes are well preserved and richly decorated, with the prominent figures associated with Alexander III of Macedon (356 – 323BCE) who subdued the kingdom of Sidon during the early years of his campaign against the Persian Empire. Due to the ornate and detailed friezes that depict distinctly heroic and royal motifs, upon its discovery the sarcophagus was mistakenly presumed to be the intended resting place of Alexander the Great himself. However, this was quickly rejected by scholars of the age as there is no tangible record to suggest that Alexander’s resting place would have been in Sidon.

The identity of the sarcophagus’ owner remains a subject of disagreement. Some scholars have argued that the sarcophagus was the intended resting place of a Persian noble, Mazaeus, who died around 328BCE. Mazaeus had previously fought against Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela (330BCE) but upon the Persian defeat he accepted Alexander as the rightful king and was allowed to maintain control over the Persian city of Babylon in reward. An alternative proposal that has been more widely accepted is that the sarcophagus was commissioned by Abdalonymus, one of the final Phoenician kings of Sidon. Abdalonymus owed his ascension to rule exclusively to Alexander; once the previous king was deposed after the decisive Battle of Issus in 333BC, Abdalonymus was sought out by Alexander’s men to become the new king in return for loyalty to Alexander. Outside of his ascension to king, little is known of Abdalonymus, yet it is likely he outlived Alexander and was active until 312BCE, although there is evidence of coins produced in his name as late as 306BCE. Stylistic dating of the sarcophagus makes Abdalonymus the more likely owner, as like most funerary monuments the sarcophagus was likely commissioned and designed during the owner’s lifetime. The sarcophagus has been dated from between 325-315BC, which would make it too late for the Mazaeus.

Style and Influences

Considering the most likely owners of the sarcophagus were Persian or Phoenician, it is all the more striking that the artwork that adorns the sarcophagus is in a distinctly Greek style. The figures, animals and costumes rendered on the friezes are clearly influenced by Classical Greek works of art, with comparisons being made to iconic structures such as the Athenian Parthenon. Archaeologists examining the artefact have discovered it to be comprised of Pentelic marble from the Greek mainland, and have identified the craftsmanship of six individuals who were likely professional artisans in a Rhodian workshop. Although the sarcophagus is certainly Greek in its origins and aesthetics, the concept of an ornate funerary monument of this scale is rather un-Greek and more in keeping with Persian traditions of kingship. Funerary monuments of the Archaic and Classical period for private individuals were far less ostentatious than those found dedicated to Persian nobility. The sarcophagus therefore represents an interesting intersection of Greek and Persian style during the later years of Alexander’s life which were characterised by attempts to cultivate a cultural cohesion between the Greco-Persian people under his empire. It can interpreted that through his funerary monument, Abdalonymus, as a client king of Alexander, was attempting to cultivate a royal identity that utilised features of both traditional Persian kingship while also applying Classical Greek style to appeal to the Macedonian conquerors during a time that was characterised by imperial violence and systematic shift, making cultural identity more fluid than ever.

Royal and Heroic Motifs: The Battle and The Hunt

A frieze on the Alexander Sarcophagus depicting a battle between the Greeks and Macedonians
The long battle scene

One of the more prominent and visually striking pieces of the so-called ‘Alexander’ sarcophagus is the battle scene on one of the long sides of the artefact. The scene, detailed in high relief, is densely packed with figures of both Greco-Macedonian and Persian soldiers engaging in battle. The poses are complex, dynamic, and preserved in exquisite detail with each figure clearly defined and identifiable by their dress. The Persian soldiers are notable for their cloth trousers and hats, as are the Greco-Macedonians with their helmets and tunics. Remaining traces of paint indicate that the frieze was originally brightly coloured, and holes and hand placements in certain figures suggest that the piece would have also been embellished with metal weaponry, which has since been lost. On an aesthetic level alone the battle scene has been universally praised, but its iconographical interpretation has been less clear. The key figure on the frieze that has been the subject of most scholarly attention is the soldier on horseback on the far left. This individual has been identified as Alexander the Great himself, on the merit of both his prominence within the scene since he is situated highest over the battle, but also, most compellingly, the choice of helmet. The figure is clearly wearing a helmet in the shape of a lion’s head which undoubtably refers to the great Greek hero Herakles, whose defeat of the Nemean lion resulted in an artistic tradition that saw lion skins as the key visual identifier of the hero. Herakles was a mythical ancestor of Alexander’s royal family, in addition to being revered widely across the Greek world. Herakles’ image had long been used on Macedonian coinage for generations of previous kings, and Alexander and his father were known to make visual and verbal allusions to this great ancestor.

This identification has prompted some scholars to view the scene with an historicising approach as they have attempted to reconcile it with a real event from Alexander’s campaigns. Those in favour of identifying the sarcophagus’ owner as the Persian leader Mazaeus have suggested that the scene depicts the Battle of Gaugamela. However, it is most widely assumed to depict the Battle of Issus in 333BCE, a decisive military victory for Alexander which opened up much of the area around Sidon to his control. However, an alternative interpretation is that the scene is likely not intended as a direct record of a certain battle but is a semi-mythologised scene that alludes to a point in the military conquest. It has been noted that some of the figures are rendered in the nude. Nudity in ancient Greek art was used as a deliberate costume implying heroism, divinity or, in some contexts, mortal athleticism. The appearance of nude figures in an otherwise realistic battle scene can support the idea that the viewer is intended to view the scene within a partially mythic context, and not as an entirely historical depiction. 

A frieze from the Alexander Sarcophagus depicting a hunting scene
The long hunting scene

Alongside the battle, the other recurring motif of the sarcophagus’ friezes is a hunting scene. Once again, the figure on the far left of the frieze on horseback with a flowing cape is identified as Alexander the Great. The figure in Persian style dress beside him, who is at the centre of the hunting action and engaged in a critical moment of combat with the lion, is identified as the speculated owner of the sarcophagus, Abdalonymus. Much like the long battle scene, the hunting frieze is highly detailed with traces of paint and the indication that it was also once adorned with metal weaponry. This scene shows an interesting development in the narrative presented by the sarcophagus as the Greco-Macedonians and the Persians, who in the other scene were embroiled in conflict, are now working together in a different combative context: the royal hunt. Hunting was an elite pastime in Macedonian society, and ancient sources tell us that kings and their close companions in the royal court would engage in hunting trips that also served a social and political purpose. Being to the king politically and in social circles meant accompanying him during these hunting expeditions. The Macedonians saw success in hunting as a mark of ascension to manhood, as it was custom in Macedon that a man would not be permitted to recline at dinner unless he had successfully killed a boar during a hunt.

In addition to the Macedonian background, the sarcophagus is also drawing upon Persian precedent for the ideals of the royal hunt. Lion hunting in particular had been an important royal pastime in the Persian court for centuries, and evidence of Assyrian palace friezes that also depict the Great King in the midst of a hunt emphasise the associations. The choice of prey in this scene reveals the Persian influences on the sarcophagus as they were considered the grandest prey and most suitable for the Persian king. By constructing this hunting scene, the owner is choosing to display a collaborative picture of Greco-Macedonian and Persian relations in stark contrast to the earlier scenes of battle. By placing his own figure in the centre of the action, and significantly including Alexander by his side, Abdalonymus is likely using his funeral monument to exalt himself and his ascension to king while also paying respect to Alexander for enabling him to take this position. As Alexander’s brutal campaigns continued into the east, his treatment of Persian nobles who turned against him or refused to cooperate was notoriously violent. It is therefore understandable that Abdalonymus would strive to create a monument that was recognisably Persian in its conception and motifs, but also utilised aspects of Greco-Macedonian culture to demonstrate loyalty and appropriate deference to the Macedonian conqueror who held the peace of the region in his hands. The scene is an intriguing blend of Macedonian and Persian motifs, of historical and mythical contexts, with the underlining unifying symbolism of the royal hunt exemplifying the bringing together of the two cultures after a period of warfare. 

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