Best-ever portrait of Alexander the Great Found?
18 October 2014
by Rossella Lorenzi
The imposing mosaic unearthed in the burial mound complex at Amphipolis in northern Greece might contain the best-ever portrait of Alexander the Great as a young man, according to a new interpretation of the stunning artwork, which depicts the abduction of Persephone. It might also confirm prevbious speculation that the tomb belongs to Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great.
The mosaic portrays the soul-escorting Hermes, Hades (or Pluto, in Latin) and Persephone. In reality the mosaic most likely has human counterparts represented in the guise of the three mythological characters, said Andrew Chugg, author of The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great. "I am thinking very much that Persephone should be an image of the occupant of the tomb being driven into the Underworld,” Chugg told Discovery News. “That means an important queen of Macedon who died between 325-300 B.C. possibly at Amphipolis. So we are exactly where we always were: Olympias or Roxane,” Chugg said.
Chugg has considered Olympias (and Roxane, Alexander's Persian wife. in second place) as the person most likely buried in the magnificent tomb ever since archaeologists discovered colossal sphinxes and female statues known as Caryatids in the underground space.
According to the researcher, the female sculptures may specifically be Klodones, priestesses of Dionysus with whom Olympias consorted. The Greek historian Plutarch recorded they wore baskets on their heads filled with Olympias' pet snakes. The snakes would rear their heads out of the baskets, terrifying the male participants in Dionysiac rites and orgies.
Chugg’s speculation was indirectly confirmed by Lena Mendoni, general secretary of the Greek Ministry of Culture. In a press conference, Mendoni said that the scene in the mosaic, recounting the the abduction of Persephone, is indeed linked with the cults of the underworld, the Orphic cult-descent into Hades and the Dionysian rites. ”The leader of the Macedons was always the archpriest of these cults,” Mendoni said.
Chugg, who is not involved in the excavation, noted that Persephone has reddish hair in the mosaic scene. “Roxane came from Afghanistan in central Asia. There are, and I think always were, very few redheads there. Conversely Olympias was a Molossian, where redheads were reputedly common,” Chugg said. Therefore, Olympias remains the strongest candidate in the tomb’s occupant guessing game.
“We do have for sure some indications that Alexander was reddish blond, so it would be expected that one of his parents at least had similar hair,” he said.
If Persephone should be seen as Olympias, shouldn’t Hades and Hermes have human counterparts?
Indeed, Hades looks quite similar to a range of contemporary portraits of Philip II. Crowned as a king, he averts the right side of his face: Philip’s right eye was disfigured by an arrow wound from the siege of Methone in 354 B.C., so the right side of his face could not be shown without spoiling the Hades-Philip duality.
“It is a magnificent irony to show him as carrying Olympias into the Underworld, since there were rumors she had been involved in organizing his assassination,” Chugg said.
As for Hermes, he was portrayed with particular movement, care and drama. Staring at us, he almost steals the show, Chugg noted. “If he is to have a human counterpart, he should be somebody close to Olympias who preceded her into the afterlife for he precedes her into the Underworld,” Chugg said.
He noted that in the mosaic scene, Philip is depicted at about his age at death, which was forty-seven. He died in 336BC, twenty years before the death of Olympias in 316BC.
“All the human portraits in the mosaic therefore need to be consistent with the year 336BC in order for them to work as a group portrait of the members of the royal family,” Chugg said.
Therefore, Olympias would have been in her mid thirties in 336 B.C. Rendering her more youthful could be seen as a compliment to the deceased.
“Hermes looks like a young, clean shaven man of about 20 and there is something curiously familiar about him to me,” Chugg said.
The riddle has a simple solution, says the researcher. “The male member of the royal family who was twenty when Philip died and who pre-deceased Olympias was their only son, Alexander the Great,” Chugg said.
He noted there is a family resemblance between Hermes and Persephone. “It is not difficult to believe that they are mother and son,” Chugg said.