Heracles to Alexander the Great at the Ashmolean

Posted by admin | September 4, 2011 0

On the afternoon of June 10–11, 323 BC, Alexander died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. He was just one month short of 33 years of age. He was one of the most successful military commanders in history, and was undefeated in battle. By the time of his death, he had conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks. The Greek (or more properly Macedonian) Empire did not survive his death and descended into warfare and jostling for position. However he did create a remarkable empire stretching from Greece to India and ushered in the Hellenistic Age which saw an acceleration of human development and trade and the fusion of cultures in the Mediterranean and Middle East acting as a catalyst to the development of three of the greatest cultures the world has known and three of the world’s main religions. Alexander himself was open to foreign cultures and peoples. He integrated many foreigners into his army, leading some scholars to credit him with a “policy of fusion.”

So it is high time that there was a reappraisal of the contribution of Alexander and Macedonia to world history as the modern perspective we have comes from the Athenians through the Romans and has played down the contribution of the small area in Northern Greece which changed the world. So the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has hosted an exhibition of more than 500 objects, most of them never before seen outside Greece which rewrites our knowledge of the Macedonian civilisation that brought forth Alexander the Great – the man who conquered most of the known world, from Greece to Egypt, Afghanistan and India, in the 4th century BC.

The exhibition has just closed but its importance has led to a reappraisal of the pivotal role of Macedonia in history, a cause championed by Robin Lane Fox, a Fellow of New College, Oxford and father of the redoubtable Martha. Indeed he is such an “Alexandrine” he was historical advisor to the film director Oliver Stone for the epic Alexander. He also appeared as an extra in the movie, in addition to his work as a historical consultant.

He says in the exhibition guide;

‘The Macedonians lived under the same political system uninterruptedly for some five hundred years. Nowadays we admire the ancient Greeks for their invention of democracy, but even among the Athenians it lasted much less long. Macedon’s system was monarchy, the most stable form of government in Greek history. It persisted from about 650 to 167 BC and only stopped because the Romans abolished it.’

Mr Robin Lane Fox, Ancient Historian, University of Oxford.

Vergina Tombs entrance

Alexander the Great, descendant of the God Heracles, was the most famous member of the Temenids, the family who ruled Macedon from around 650-310 BC. By defeating the powerful rulers of the Persian Empire and by spreading Greek culture as far as central Asia, Alexander the Great established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen and altered the course of history. The Temenids were based at Aegae, the first capital of Macedon. The royal city remained relatively unknown until the late 1970s, when Professor Manolis Andronikos and his team made an astounding discovery. Excavations brought to light the unlooted tombs identified with Philip II, the father off Alexander the Great, and his grandson, Alexander IV.

The wreath of Meda, wife of Philip II. She is believed to have committed
suicide to follow her assassinated husband into his grave

In the groundbreaking exhibition ‘Heracles to Alexander the Great’ the Ashmolean is displaying more than 500 extraordinary objects, most of which were on display for the first time anywhere in the world. These recent finds were discovered in the royal burial tombs and the palace at Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedon. They rewrite the history of early Greece and tell the story of the royal court and the kings and queens of Macedon, descendants of Heracles whose rule culminated in the empire of Alexander the Great. Aegae remained relatively unknown until 30 years ago when excavations uncovered the unlooted tombs of Philip II and his grandson Alexander IV.

Alexander III of Macedon,
Alexander the Great

Recent work at the site by the 17th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, has continued to unearth a startling wealth of objects – from beautifully intricate gold jewellery, silverware and pottery, to sculpture, mosaic floors and architectural remains.

Gold Larnax with Vergina Sun symbol from Tomb of Phillip II

The exhibition consisted of treasures and artefacts discovered within the ancient Macedonian royal burial sites at Aegae (modern Vergina) from the 1950s onwards. These finds tell the story of the Temenid Kings of Macedon, a dynasty which ran from Perdiccas I in the 7th century BCE and ended with the assassination of Alexander the Great’s heirs roughly four hundred years later. More broadly they help show the development of the Kingdom of Macedon, a subject of the highest historical significance. This kingdom was eventually responsible, through the conquests of Alexander, for first spreading Greek (western) culture and language into the East. On the southern rim of the Macedonian Plain, close to the River Haliacmon in northern Greece, was the royal city of Aegae. It was the first capital of the Macedonians and the seat of the Temenids, a dynasty that ruled for 350 years, from the mid-7th century to the 4th-century BC, and gave to Greece two of its most famous heroes: King Philip II and Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon).

Excavations in the 1970s revealed a series of spectacular tombs of King Philip II and other members of Alexander’s immediate family. Recent archaeological excavations have brought to light further tombs (mostly of women of high social standing, either members of the royal family or their court), remarkably preserved with much of their exceptionally rich contents intact. These burials take us on a journey back from the time of Alexander the Great through classical and Archaic times to the beginning of the first millennium BC.


The exhibition follows the mythological origins of the Temenids to the rise and domination of Aegae as the seat of power of the Kingdom of Macedon. Through the reconstruction of individual burials, the role of men and women at the palace and the royal court, the lavish banquets (symposia) and the architecture of the palace at Aegae, visitors were given an into the ancient world in the time of these legendary rulers.

Silver tetradrachms dated back to the reign of Philip II.
Part of the Rezhantsi Treasure, Bulgaria

The exhibition shows how an introverted, small tribal kingdom – mythologically founded by the descendants of Heracles – was gradually “drawn into the wider world, developing relationships on the eastern side of the Aegean and forming a key relationship with Athens, which it eventually pushed out of the region”.
“For the first time we will be able to see where they were coming from; put the archaeology against the history, look at how they dressed and how they died. We are so focused on the history of Athens that we completely underestimate the Macedonians.”

Gold Charioteer

The conclusions that can be drawn from the excavations of the last few years show that Macedon was never isolated from the mainstream of Greek culture. Philip II, for example, was a very educated person, who gathered about him the creme de la creme of Greek and Macedonian intelligentsia. The royal palace was the grandest, most elaborately built architectural complex of classical Greece, with an area of 12,500 square metres, making it only slightly smaller than Buckingham Palace.The building, as proved by the dazzling silver, was the scene of royal banquets on a scale which might have made Hollywood splutter: the 16 banqueting halls had space on double couches for more than 400 diners, while the court had room for 3,500 seated guests.

Golden larnax and wreath of Philip II of
Macedon at the Vergina Museum

The Vergina Sun — also known as the Star of Vergina, Macedonian star, or Argead Star — is the name given to a symbol of a stylised star or sun with sixteen rays. It was unearthed in 1977 during excavations in Vergina, in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, by archaeologist Manolis Andronikos. He discovered it on a golden larnax in the tombs of the kings of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. Since its rediscovery, it has taken on a new function as a political symbol associated with modern Macedonia, and has become the object of political conflict between Greece and the neighbouring Republic of Macedonia. The Republic of Macedonia used it on its national flag between 1991 and 1995, when it agreed to change its flag under Greek pressure. Greece regards it as an official national symbol and has asserted an exclusive right to its official use. Well Macedonia as a term has different ethnic, geographic and political meanings but the dispute has serious implications. For myself I really wonder how this can be top of Greece’s priorities (Bankruptcy, corruption, nepotism, failed state?) and how it is at odds with the ethnic diversity espoused by Alexander the Great. Maybe after the failure of the “Big Idea” which turned out to be a very small and stupid idea this is what Greek Nationalism has been reduced to, in the absence of anything useful.

Kingdom of Macedon at the death of Philip II in 336 BC
Click to enlarge

The whole area of Macedonia is fraught with much nasty sectarian nationalist name calling and appropriation of symbols such as the 16 pointed Star of Vergina. There are people who regard themselves as of Macedonian heritage in Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and in Bulgaria and Albania. The sectarian name calling is largely from the Greeks claiming an “exclusive” on being Macedonian. Well the modern transposition of the inhabitants of a 3rd Century Macedon may well be “complicated” being as it was a border kingdom under attack from Illyrians and Thracians at a time when the various tribes, Achaeans, Dorians, Spartans, Athenians, etc; who made up the Greek World were still developing their common cultural identity.

Ethnic Macedon in the 3rd Century BC
Click to enlarge

Instead of appropriating these symbols for the narrow purposes of sectarian nationalism we should instead celebrate what was showcased in this wonderful exhibition at the Ashmolean. We should celebrate the hardy, highly developed and remarkable Macedonian Kingdom which became the Macedonian Empire and truly changed the world. In just over eight years, in his capacity as king, commander, politician, scholar and explorer, Alexander led his army a further 11,000 miles, founding over 70 cities and creating an empire that stretched across three continents and covered around two million square miles. The entire area from Greece in the west, north to the Danube, south into Egypt and as far to the east as the Indian Punjab, was linked together in a vast international network of trade and commerce. This was united by a common Greek language and culture, while the king himself adopted foreign customs in order to rule his millions of ethnically diverse subjects.

Macedonian Empire in 323 BC
Ashmolean Museum

It is an achievement never equalled which established Greek culture and learning as the predominant influence in the Ancient World and laid the foundation of Western Civilisation.

See also;

The Oath of Alexander the Great in 324 B.C.


Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


Alexander the Great 
Basileus of Macedon, Hegemon of the Hellenic League,
Pharaoh of Egypt, Shahanshah of Persia


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