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Visitor trails Alexander the Great, Legend and History

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities - Length: 1 hr 30 mins - Tour days: Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

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Alexander the Great, called the "Guimet Alexander"
Alexander the Great, called the "Guimet Alexander"

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

00Introduction

The story of Alexander III of Macedonia, whom we know as Alexander the Great, is as much the stuff of history as it is of legend. His youth and extraordinary destiny granted him unparalleled glory. But what do we really know about him? Only a few contemporary accounts have come down to us.

Alexander was born in 356 BC, the son of Olympias, a Molossian princess, and Philip II, the king of Macedonia. The kingdom, which was located in the north of Greece, was prosperous and possessed a powerful army. Philip was able to impose his will over the other Greek tribes and city-states, but was assassinated in 336 while he was preparing to invade the neighboring Persian Empire. Alexander, who was twenty at the time, was proclaimed king of Macedonia. He made his father's projects his own and embarked on an unprecedented military expedition, which resulted in sweeping conquests and immense spoils. Alexander's troops pushed their way into Asia as far as the Indus River, founding a number of cities along the way. The story came to an abrupt end in Babylon — Alexander, who was suffering from a high fever, died in 323 without designating an heir. The period that followed was a troubled one, in which his generals, the Diadochoi, fought over the territories that had been conquered, seeking an unrivaled rule. Nevertheless, by 306 BC they had divided up the lands and each took the title of king. This was the beginning of the Hellenistic kingdoms that were dominated by powerful dynasties. The last of these, Lagid Egypt, disappeared in 30 BC, conquered by the Romans.


How to get to the next stop:
Follow this thematic trail to learn about Alexander the Great via the rich collections of the Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities department. The trail comes to an end in the Paintings department, on the second floor. Let's get started. From the Hall Napoléon, follow the signs for Sully, then turn right and climb the stairs that lead to the ground floor. Enter the Caryatids room (room 17). The visit starts at the far end of this room, on the right.

Portrait of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), called "Hermes Azara"
Portrait of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), called "Hermes Azara"

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

01The Azara Herm

Photography did not exist in antiquity, so how can we know what someone who lived more than 2,300 years ago looked like? To find out, we must go back to ancient sources to find a description of the man, and thus identify portraits of him among the various effigies that have come down to us from ancient times. Alexander the Great was mentioned in many texts, but very few of these were written during his lifetime. Most of them are mixtures of history and legend that were written much later, and have very little to say about Alexander's physical appearance.
According to what sources we have, Alexander was rather short, and his body gave off a pleasant odor. His neck was slightly turned towards one shoulder. His chin was smooth, his eyes were limpid and moist, his forehead prominent, and his hair was wavy and formed a peak above his forehead (anastolé). His voice was hard and strong, and there was something fearsome in his attitude. He was brave, tenacious, frugal and generous, but could also be angry and violent.
The smooth chin and the and the abundant anastolé hair are the rare physical traits mentioned by the texts. The Azara Herm is considered by scholars to be crucial for our understanding of portraits of Alexander the Great. The figure's youth, lack of beard, and curious hairstyle forming waves over the prominent forehead are clues that recall the description of Alexander. But the decisive element is the inscription on the front of the pillar, which reads "Alexander, son of Philip the Macedonian".

How to get to the next stop:
Our second stop is in the same room; it is the sculpture to your right.

Seated Heracles, called "Heracles Epitrapezios"
Seated Heracles, called "Heracles Epitrapezios"

© Photo RMN / H. Lewandowski

02Hercules Epitrapezios

Both Alexander and his father Philip were from the Argeades family, which claimed Hercules, the Greek hero, as an ancestor. Hercules became a role model for the young Alexander through his courage and extraordinary strength, his fabulous exploits, his relationships with the gods of Olympus, and his love of banqueting. The Macedonian kings' interest in Greek mythology probably explains the many artistic creations with heroic themes.
Thus the sculptor Lysippos created for Alexander a statuette of Hercules, in which the hero is depicted sitting on a rock, leaning on his club and holding a drinking cup. Designed to be placed on a table, it is called epitrapezios ("at the table"). Alexander was so pleased with the piece that it accompanied him on all his expeditions. It also survived his death: in the 1st century AD, it was the property of an illustrious Roman collector.
We know of a number of ancient copies of Lysippos's original statue, and two of them are to be found in the Caryatids room. Hercules is recognizable by his muscular body, his club and the skin of the Nemean lion that he slew. The hero's unstable posture — he is depicted leaning back under the influence of drink — shows Lysippos's skill at depicting movement.

How to get to the next stop:
Now walk towards the Caryatids at the other end of the room. In the recess of a window that gives onto the Pyramid you will find the Portrait of Homer.

Imaginary portrait of Homer
Imaginary portrait of Homer

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

03Portrait of Homer

Ancient Macedonia was on the fringes of the Greek world, and neighbor to a number of barbarian peoples. The kingdom's customs were often criticized by the other Greek city-states.
To assert his connection with Hellenic culture, Philip II surrounded himself with a brilliant court, and invited philosophers, historians and artists. He entrusted the education of young Alexander to Aristotle, the brilliant philosopher and Philip's counselor. The future king was taught ethics, literature, history and mathematics, as well as horsemanship, hunting and warfare. From this education Alexander retained a profound love for Homer and the heroes of the Iliad. He also displayed a taste for Greek tragedy and a great interest in the sciences. Homer lived sometime between the 9th and 7th centuries BCE. Like Alexander, he is a figure that is partly historical and partly legendary. Tradition holds that he was blind, and that he died at a young age. His works were used to teach young Greeks how to read, write, sing and compose. Alexander took the Iliad with him on all his expeditions, and identified with Achilles, the young, impetuous hero. We know of a number of portraits of Homer. The sculptor who created this piece has used ingenious methods to create the portrait of a man whose appearance was unknown, but whose main features have been handed down by tradition.

How to get to the next stop:
Our next stop is on the first floor of Sully. Leave the Caryatids room (room 17) and head towards the Venus de Milo. After a few meters, take staircase C to your right and go to the first floor. At the top of the stairs, turn right and go through the terracotta figurine rooms until you reach the Columns Room. Enter the Campana Gallery to your right, then turn left and go to room 43.

Lécythe aryballisque à figures rouges
Lécythe aryballisque à figures rouges

© Musée du Louvre

04Aryballos-shaped lekythos

Who were the Persians that Alexander wanted to conquer?
The Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, was founded in the 6th century CE, and expanded rapidly up until the reign of Xerxes (486–465 BCE). At the time of Alexander, the Empire was ruled by Darius III, and included Egypt and a large part of Asia. It was well organized and kept the peace, and payment of annual tributes kept its treasury full. Relations with the Greeks were incessant and troublesome, but ensured that Darius's empire opened onto the West. The Greeks and Persians waged war several times, particularly during the Greco-Persian Wars in the 5th century BCE. The Greeks repelled the Persians, but feared a new invasion by their powerful neighbor. In the 4th century BCE, Persia strengthened its authority over Asia, and occasionally acted as an arbitrator in Greek affairs. Since it was prosperous and did not feel threatened, the empire maintained only a small army.
To the Greeks, Persians were barbar. This Greek word refers to someone who "speaks incomprehensibly", but also one who is unreasonable, strange and wears curious clothing. This would describe the figure we see on this piece, who wears a richly-decorated tunic, anaxyrides (a type of trouser) and a cap.
Beginning in the 5th century BCE, barbar, enemy and Persian became practically synonymous. By the 4th century, many began to see the Empire as a tempting target, and one that had to be subjugated in order to free the Greek city-states of Asia Minor.

How to get to the next stop:
The next work is in the same display case.

Hydrie à figures rouges
Hydrie à figures rouges

© Photo RMN / H. Lewandowski

05Kalpis

Greek mythology often mentions mythical tribes living at the borders of Greek lands. Some of these tribes, because they lived in the East, were given the fascinating characteristics of the barbars of Asia. This was a way for the Greeks to transpose the present into a fantastical world.
The Amazons were a good example of this transposition. In mythology, they were a tribe of women whose kingdom was located northeast of Greece. These women were warriors who had only one breast, so that they would not be hindered when shooting arrows or throwing a spear. On several occasions they fought against Greek heroes, including Theseus, Achilles and Hercules. These warrior women were considered to be barbars because they did not lead a life that was worthy of a Greek woman, who spent her time weaving in the gyneceum. After the Persian Wars, Amazons and Persians became one in the mind of the Greeks, and Amazons were depicted in place of Persians in both painting and statuary.
The Amazons are eloquently depicted on this kalpis, with they exotic, luxurious and abundant clothing, which contrasted sharply with the athletic and heroic nudity of the Greeks. Their garments are very close to those worn by the Persians. Starting in the 5th century BCE, scenes of combat between Amazons and Greeks became commonplace, reminding the Greeks of the ever-present Persian threat.

How to get to the next stop:
The next vase is located in the display case in the center of this same room.

Deux cratères en cloche du type "Falaïeff"
Deux cratères en cloche du type "Falaïeff"

© Photo RMN / H. Lewandowski

06Falaieff-type krater

The "otherness" of the barbars is also shown in another story from mythology: the battle between the Arimaspi and the griffons. Griffons were fantastical birds with the beak of an eagle and the body of a lion. They were entrusted with defending the treasure of Apollo from the greed of the Arimaspi, a race of one-eyed men who were first-rate horsemen and archers, and who lived in Hyperborea, i.e. to the north and east of Greece on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Once again, we are presented with extraordinary garments — anaxyrides (a type of trouser), long, ornamented tunics, and caps — that are similar to those of the Persians and the Amazons.
This myth emphasizes the exoticism and the confusion that reigned far from the temple of Apollo at Delphi, a place that was, for the ancient Greeks, the seat of reason.
Representations of griffons and Arimaspi became widespread during the 4th century BCE, at a time when the Greeks faced the question of war with the Persian Empire.

How to get to the next stop:
Return to the previous room (room 43) and go to the display case near the window.

Attic Red-Figure Amphora
Attic Red-Figure Amphora

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Peter Harholdt

07Amphore

This amphora, attributed to the painter Myson, is one of the rare vases produced in Greece to feature a historical event and to link it to a scene from mythology.
On side A we see Croesus, the king of Lydia. He is wearing a crown and holding a scepter, and is seated on a richly-decorated throne that is placed atop a funeral pyre. While Croesus is performing a libation to the gods, and his servant, weeping, is approaching the pyre with a torch, rain miraculously begins to fall and extinguish the fire. This scene refers to the struggle between Croesus and Cyrus the Great of Persia. Beaten by Cyrus in 547 BCE, Croesus was locked up in his citadel at Sardis and condemned to be burnt to death. In the end, however, Cyrus spared Croesus's life and made him his counselor. The events that brought Cyrus and Croesus into opposition are related by Herodotus.
Face B of the amphora shows us the abduction of Antiope, queen of the Amazons, by Theseus and his friend Pirithous. Faint inscriptions placed near the figures allow us identify them. We see the Amazon queen dressed in luxurious garments and, in this scene, the Greeks are wearing armor that we recognize from archaeology — plumed helmet, breastplate, knemides (greaves), spear and a round shield with an episemon (central decoration).
It is clear that the two sides of this piece refer to the strained relationship that existed between the Greeks and the Persians in the early 5th century BCE.

How to get to the next stop:
Return the way you came and leave the Campana gallery. Turn right and continue through the terracotta figurines rooms until you reach room 74, the Room of the Seven Fireplaces. Turn right and cross the Henri II Room (room 33) with its ceiling painted by Braque.
In the bronze room (room 32), go to central display case number 3.

Alexander with the Spear
Alexander with the Spear

© 1989 RMN / Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville

08Alexander with the spear

In the spring of 334 BCE, Alexander's powerfully efficient army entered Persia. The infantry carried very long spears known as sarissas, and was organized in phalanxes. The young sovereign fought at the head of his troops, astride his horse Bucephalus. In less than four years, Alexander inflicted heavy losses on the Persians, and triumphantly entered Babylon, Shush and finally Persepolis. The spoils that fell to him were enormous.
Alexander founded more that seventy cities, in which he placed portraits of himself. This was, for him, a means of imposing his power over territories that had been conquered by the spear.
This bronze statuette, called Alexander with a spear, was inspired by a major work that was created by the sculptor Lysippos to celebrate the glory of Alexander. The sculpture, which Plutarch mentions, depicted the conqueror proclaiming, with Zeus as his witness, "Olympus belongs to you, but the earth is mine!"
Despite the worn surface of the Louvre's statuette, we can make out the features of Alexander: the leonine hair and anastolé. The right hand once held a sword, and in the left was a spear. Alexander is depicted nude, an ancient Greek tradition that rendered the figure heroic. Lysippos's talent lay in his ability to capture Alexander's ardent dynamism by composing the piece in successive planes around a central axis, which gives a feeling of movement.

How to get to the next stop:
The next piece, another statuette, can be found opposite the display case, fastened to a plate of sandblasted Plexiglas.

Dwarf carrying a cock and a <i>lagynos<i> (a type of vase made in Alexandria)
Dwarf carrying a cock and a <i>lagynos<i> (a type of vase made in Alexandria)

© R.M.N./Hervé Lewandowski

09Dwarf carrying a rooster and a lagynos

Alexander the Great founded more than seventy cities in the course of his campaigns. In this way, by settling Greeks among the various conquered populations, he was able to impose his presence and control the immense territories under his sway. One of the most well-known of these was Alexandria, in Egypt, famous for both its library and its lighthouse. It was a vast, bustling city which was endowed with a palace and a number of public buildings, laid out according to a plan that Alexander himself drew up. It was surrounded by powerful fortifications, and was visited by scholars and merchants from every land. Both artist and artisan flourished in Alexandria, and their creations in silver- and goldwork, ceramics, faience, bronzes, glass, precious stones and mosaics contributed to the city's renown.
A number of bronze statuettes — some of them caricatures — have survived, which illustrate the daily life of the city's residents. This is the case of this misshaped dwarf carrying a lagynos (a sort of vase) and awkwardly clutching a rooster. These figurines are often fitted with a ring, which allowed them to be carried as a good-luck charm. Their success led the city's artisans to continue producing them into the Roman era, and a number of these statuettes have been found outside of Egypt.

How to get to the next stop:
The next piece, the Priest of Isis, is to your left, on the long side of the display case.

Priest of Isis
Priest of Isis

© R.M.N./Christian Larrieu

10Priest of Isis

This statuette represents a priest of the cult of Isis during a religious ceremony. He can be identified by his shaved head, as well as a long linen robe that covers his hands in order to avoid defiling by direct contact the sacred vase containing water from the Nile.
The Egyptian goddess Isis was extremely popular during the Hellenistic period, particularly at Alexandria where several temples were devoted to her. In the 5th century BCE, the Greeks considered Isis to be the equal of Demeter — the Greek goddess of fertility — and she was venerated as a universal benefactress and healer who reigned over the sea, the fruits of the earth, and the dead. The mysteries of the cult of Isis were complex. The public ceremonies held in her honor were occasions of great pomp, but neophytes could not take part in the sacred rituals unless they had first undergone an initiation ceremony that signaled their spiritual awakening.
Gods of Egyptian origin such as Isis and Serapis were taken into the Greek pantheon, and continued to be worshiped under the Roman Empire.

How to get to the next stop:
The next work is nearby, at the end of the display case.

Black adolescent with his hands tied behind his back
Black adolescent with his hands tied behind his back

© 1999 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

11Young black man in chains

This bronze figurine depicts a genre subject that was particularly popular in Hellenistic Egypt. The figure, a young black man with carefully-drawn ethnic traits, his hands tied behind his back, shows the interest that the Greeks had in people from distant lands. It testifies to the very cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria, where slavery was common. The city's residents came from every corner of Greece, Europe and Asia Minor, and mixed with the local population. To this were added Iranians, Jews and blacks from Ethiopia and Equatorial Africa. The ethnographic interest in these populations was real, and contemporary accounts of travels are witness to this. These representations of blacks, whether in bronze, terracotta or more precious materials, indicate a taste for the exotic that was a hallmark of this period.
The surface of the figurine has been left unpolished, with very little reworking of the metal. This technique was characteristic of the Alexandrian workshops.

How to get to the next stop:
Now leave the bronze room and cross the Henri II room once again, then turn left and take elevator C down to the ground floor. As you step out of the elevator, go towards the Venus de Milo. The next works we will look at are in room 11 just before the Venus de Milo.

Alexander the Great, called the "Guimet Alexander"
Alexander the Great, called the "Guimet Alexander"

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

12Guimet Alexander

The death of Alexander in Babylon left his entourage at a loss: the empire that had been conquered was above all the work of one man. Struggles and intrigues followed between his generals — the Diadochoi — which ended in the late 4th century BCE with the division of the conquered territories and the installation of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Each sovereign wanted for himself the spiritual and political heritage of Alexander, and each claimed to be Alexander's rightful heir in order to impose an authority that was frequently threatened. Portraits, whether posthumous depictions of Alexander or those of a king, became a frequently-used means of propaganda.
This portrait of Alexander is known as the Guimet Alexander, and was created shortly after the ruler's death. Although the anastolé and the leonine hair are present, this portrait differs from those sculpted by Lysippos thirty years earlier. The regular oval face, the softness of the flesh, and the very carefully polished surface highlight the youthful character of the subject, and create an aura that seems to render the figure sacred. It is not surprising to see this type of idealized portrait in Egypt, where the Lagid dynasty kept the memory of Alexander alive.

How to get to the next stop:
The next two portraits are located at the other end of the room.

Ptolémée Ier Sôter (sauveur)
Ptolémée Ier Sôter (sauveur)

© Photo RMN / H. Lewandowski

13Ptolemy I Soter

Ptolemy I Soter, the king of Egypt (306–285 BCE), from the Macedonian Lagid family, was a faithful companion of Alexander. After his friend's death in Babylon, Ptolemy quickly appointed himself ruler of Egypt, an important hub of the eastern Mediterranean. He also took Alexander's body and brought it to Alexandria, where a monument was erected and a cult of Alexander was established. Through this political act, Ptolemy established himself as the legitimate heir, placed himself under the protection of Alexander the deity, and raised the young city of Alexandria — his capital — to the rank of capital of the Empire.
Ptolemy founded a powerful dynasty which ended only in 30 BCE with the death of Cleopatra VII and the subjugation of Egypt by the Romans.
This piece presents an image of the king that was inspired by that of Alexander. He is depicted as young, clean-shaven and vigorous. The wavy hair is fairly long and held with a royal diadem in the form of a flat band.
The features, although regular, are rendered in a rather realistic manner — the heavy flesh, the large round eyes and the small fleshy mouth appear to really belong to an individual. These same features were often employed by Ptolemy's descendents for their own images. In addition, we know of a number of idealized, posthumous portraits of the Lagid rulers. For them, this was the way to demonstrate their connection with the founder of the dynasty, to emphasize their stability and to encourage a large dynastic cult.

How to get to the next stop:
The next work can be found in the same area.

Lagid queen as Isis: Cleopatra II or III?
Lagid queen as Isis: Cleopatra II or III?

© Photo RMN / rights réservés

14Cleopatra II or III

By deifying his deceased father and instituting religious festivals in his honor, Ptolemy II added a sacred character to the royal authority in Egypt. This helped to consolidate the dynasty's power and the unity of the kingdom. A number of portraits of Lagid kings and queens can be associated with this dynastic cult, which was a real innovation in the Hellenistic period.
The many portraits of queens can be explained by the traditional association of women and power in Egypt. Identifying them, however, is just as difficult as those of male portraits. Although they were of Greek origin, the Lagid queens, like Cleopatra II or III (queens of Egypt in the 2nd century BCE) were often represented with a royal band around their hair, and adorned with the attributes of the goddess Isis. In this portrait this is shown by the curls of hair around the forehead. In this way, the dynasty made themselves appear to the local population as the heirs to the pharaoh.
The marked torsion of the neck, the accompanying movement of the curls of hair, and the determined expression give this portrait a very different energy that that normally seen in depictions of the Lagid queens, which are normally more gentle and serene.

How to get to the next stop:
Retrace your steps back to elevator C and take it to the second floor. When you get out of the elevator, turn left. After a few steps, turn right and then go through the rooms devoted to 17th century French painting. In room 32, you will find the large canvases painted by Le Brun.

Alexander Entering Babylon, or The Triumph of Alexander
Alexander Entering Babylon, or The Triumph of Alexander

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

15The entry of Alexander the Great into Babylon

Over time, the story of Alexander the Great became a myth. The young conqueror enjoyed an exceptional renown, and several authors wrote lengthy texts about him. Some emphasized his qualities of a man of action, other denounced this excessive man who was carried away by his passions. In medieval times, the myth was known in both East and West. The Alexander Romance, which was illustrated and translated into many languages, presents us with the portrait of a valiant knight or a philosopher-king, an image that was adopted by Christianity, Islam and Judaism. On the other hand, during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Alexander was seen as a cruel despot seeking absolute power.
Early in his reign, Louis XIV wished to become a new Alexander, but all he retained of the life of the Greek was his great military accomplishments and his generosity. The large paintings commissioned from the painter Le Brun in 1665 were the vehicles for this propaganda. Le Brun was able to recreate the tumult and ferocity of battle through facial expressions. He carefully described an imagined Antiquity, set up carefully centered compositions, and selected colors that emphasized the action of the hero across the vast surface of the canvas.
Crossing the Granicus and The Battle of Arbela illustrate the famous battles between the Greeks and the Persians, while The entry of Alexander the Great into Babylon evokes the triumph of Alexander entering this eastern city, in which we can make out the city's famous hanging gardens. This visit is now at an end. The Louvre has other works which illustrate the legendary life of Alexander the Great. Some are in the Sculpture department, and others can be found in the Islamic Art department.

How to get to the next stop:
To return to the Pyramid, retrace your steps to elevator C and take it to the ground floor. As you exit the elevator, turn left and then right. Cross the Caryatids room, take the stairway to your left, and at the bottom turn left again.


Author(s) :
Corinne Jouys-Barbelin