Before Alexander the Great set out to conquer Asia, his father, Philip II Of Macedon had waged a highly successful campaign against Greece. By defeating the Thebans and Athenians at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. the Macedonian ruler consolidated his power in Greece and became leader of the Corinthian League. It was Philip who began designs to conquer Asia when his assassination left the twenty year old Alexander in charge.
Not only did Alexander take over his father’s role as leader of the rebellious city states of Greece at such a young age but pressed ahead with a Persian invasion on an enormous scale. After securing his position in Macedon and the mainland, he set out to create a reputation that has lasted for two thousand years and is still known as one of the greatest military minds that there has ever been.
The Star of Vergina is best known nowadays as a symbol of the Macedonian dynasty. Found upon all forms of art, this symbol became a typical emblem of Alexander’s legacy. The star is considered a solar symbol and the number of points ranges from 6, 12 or 16. Some scholars say it represents the four elements and twelve Olympian deities. There is still debate as to what the star actually stands for and it is likely to have several meanings during the Classical and Hellenistic ages.
It can be seen before the rise of Philip and Alexander but is more commonly linked with their accomplishments. An impressive gold chest with a relief of the star on the top was discovered in a tomb thought to belong to Philip in the 1970s and still resides in Vergina. Alexander also used the symbol on his coins and several of his successors followed suit. This burst of rays can been seen in relief sculpture and vase painting from earlier works and it is not clear when the Macedonians began to use the symbol.
An old tale from Herodotus links Perdiccas, Alexander’s ancestor and an early Macedonian royal, with the sun but again the star has been a topic of much debate. While we do not know its origins, archaeological discoveries in Macedon directly connect the Star of Vergina to Alexander’s legacy. Widely circulated during the 3rd century B.C., it would have been abundantly clear to Greeks and Persians alike that this symbol represented Macedonian power.
During his life, Alexander manipulated his image to suit his needs as a commander and ruler. According to the historians, he was eager to emphasise his divine ancestry on both sides of his family. This was a common practice among kings and even famous Romans attempted to tie themselves to the gods. On his father’s side he was related to Heracles and therefore Zeus. On his mother’s he claimed to be descended from Achilles, who was born of a nymph and so not quite mortal anyway.
During his later life Alexander supposedly stated that Zeus himself was his direct father having slept with Olympias, Alexander’s mother. This did not sit so well with his followers but equally it could be a rumour exaggerated by Alexander’s fame. Connections to immortals gave a ruler authority and a divine right to rule.
It is obvious that Zeus, the supreme Olympian, is the first choice for a king but the use of Heracles and the Nemean lion suggests strength and brute force. Other coins show Alexander wearing the lionskin, personally imitating Heracles. The Madeconian army conquered most of Asia through warfare, ingenious strategies and revolutionary siege machinery. Heracles, along with Athena and Nike, goddesses of war, intelligence and victory are perfect symbols to promote a successful general. On the reverse of the Alexander and Athena coin, Lysimachos uses the goddesses and image of Alexander to promote his own reign and by doing so implies he will imitate his predecessor in success.
Along with Greek deities, Alexander also took on characteristics of Amun-Ra, the Egyptian sun god, by sporting rams horns. During his time in Egypt he took on the role of Pharaoh and founded Alexandria (where many have searched in vain for his lost tomb!). By adopting the cultures of those he ruled Alexander encouraged a greater following.
Almost all portraits of Alexander feature his leonine hair, brow creased with thought and large eyes gazing straight ahead as if considering his next move. Leochares, the artist on whose sculptures our replicas busts are based, lived in Athens around the 4th century B.C. and also sculpted busts of Philip and Olmpyias. The famous Diana of Versailles is thought to be a Roman copy of his original as well as the Apollo Belvedere. It was important for a ruler to be recognised throughout his empire and coins and busts of Alexander have been found throughout Greece and the Near East. His successors imitated his curly Apollo-like hair and far off gaze in their own designs.
Author: Tasha Dempster
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