Boris and the Boy Band Singer

Today (31st January 2020) is ‘Brexit’ Day in the U.K. At 11pm tonight, Great Britain will formally cease to be a member of the European Union.

The referendum to decide whether we should remain a member of the EU, or leave, took place three and a half years ago in the summer of 2016.

The fight over what would happen next, however, was only ended last December, when the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson won a decisive victory in the General Election.

Prior to that, the Conservative Party’s lack of Parliamentary majority meant that it was not inconceivable that Brexit might not happen at all.

Tonight, however, it will, and a few days ago Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, leader of the House of Commons, raised the tone of public discourse regarding Brexit (not a difficult job, admittedly) in what can only be described as a very interesting manner by comparing Boris Johnson to Alexander the Great.

According to The Daily Telegraph, Rees-Mogg said

“our current Prime Minister is a great cutter of Gordian knots, and where there is administrative inefficiency, the Alexander the Great of our time will be cutting these Gordian knots”…

The Daily Telegraph

Well, to his credit, Johnson certainly did that but there the similarity ends. Alexander was a soldier and king not a democrat; he created an empire rather than leave it, and faced danger rather than run away from it (I am thinking here of the way in which Johnson refused to be interviewed by Andrew Neill). You knew where you stood with Alexander. With Boris Johnson I am not at all so sure. I hope, therefore, and trust that Rees-Mogg had his tongue in his cheek when he made that comparison.


From The Mail Online

After spending hours researching portraits and statues of famous historical figures, graphic designer Becca Saladin has painstakingly recreated them to give them a makeover for the 21st century.

The Mail Online

Here is her Alexander,

Well, the image makes sense, but I do rather think she has made a mistake with his hair. It looks good on top but Alexander would never have it so short on the sides. He is the descendent of Herakles, after all.

Of course, Ms Saladin has made him look like a boy band singer but isn’t there a sense in which that’s the modern equivalent of what he was – young, handsome, talented, charismatic etc.

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‘Having settled the affairs of Egypt…

… Alexander went off to the Temple of Ammon, where he wished to consult the oracle of the god… At one point, when their road could not be traced because of the sand dunes, the guide pointed out to the king that crows cawing on their right were calling their attention to the route which led to the temple. Alexander took this for an omen, and thinking that the god was pleased by his visit pushed on with speed.’
(Diodorus XVII.49)

I found this image on Pinterest this week and it immediately reminded me of the above passage from Diodorus. I initially thought the passage came from Arrian but he refers to Alexander being led by snakes (III.3.5).

Arrian specifically identifies Ptolemy as his source for this. If any animals ‘helped’ Alexander to find Siwah, it would be easy to understand why Ptolemy made them snakes. Creatures of evil in the Judeao-Christian tradition, they were symbols of royal authority in pharaonic Egypt.

Looking at the picture, I’m not at all sure that the photographer isn’t looking at a snowy landscape but if so, the snow is so smooth as to look – with a little imagination – like sand, especially with that yellow filter.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a credit for the photograph. It came, though, from a Tumblr blog called 7 Crows a Journey, which gives the source as a Tumblr blog called La Sombra.

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Beauty Beyond Expression

Alexander: When will you finish Campaspe?
Apelles: Never finish: for always in absolute beauty there is somewhat above art.
Lyly’s Campaspe

One of the great (no pun intended) things about Alexander is that he is so much part of our cultural memory that one never knows where he might crop up next.

Case in point: I love fairy tales and over the last few weeks have been reading Phantastes by George MacDonald. If you like fantasy novels, especially those of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, MacDonald this book is very well worth checking out. MacDonald was a huge influence on Tolkien and Lewis, and I am sure many others.

A couple of days ago, I came to Chapter 15. Each one begins with a quotation and the one you read above appeared here.

According to the legend – for Campaspe does not appear in any of the five major sources of Alexander’s life – Alexander hired Apelles to paint his mistress Campaspe. He did so, but she was so beautiful, Apelles fell in love with her. Seeing this, and realising that Apelles loved Campaspe more than he did, Alexander gave her to him.

For more information about Campaspe and her story, see Wikipedia here or Pothos here.

Apelles paints Campaspe (Giambattista Battista Tiepolo)

Credit Where It’s Due
Apelles painting Campaspe: J. Paul Getty Museum

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A Friend, A Father, and a Queen

Google Alerts was quiet this week so rather than do nothing with my Facebook Alexander page (something I do too often) I decided to post three pictures from Pinterest. They appeared on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and judging by the number of ‘Likes’ that they received, they were all quite popular. Here are the ‘final’ scores (i.e. the scores as of 11:43am today when I am writing these words):

Monday Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier – 65 Likes
Wednesday Alexander Threatened by his Father Donato Creti – 99 Likes
Friday Olympias, Queen of the Macedonians (Anon) – 35 Likes

The ‘final’ tally surprises me a little in that Alexander Threatened by his Father proved to be more popular than Alexander and Hephaestion. Hephaestion is a very popular figure with fans of Alexander so to see what is also a very touching scene between him and Alexander outstripped by the rather more violent and disturbing confrontation between Alexander and Philip II is unexpected. If you have a preference between the two why not leave a comment below to say why.

When I posted the pictures on Facebook, I did so without any text to explain them or the scenes that they are depicting. Rather than let them be, I shall do that now.
Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier
This painting draws its inspiration from Chapter 39 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. In it Plutarch describes how Alexander’s mother, Olympias, often wrote to her son telling him to not reward his ‘friends and bodyguards’ so well as it made them ‘the equals of kings’.

Alexander kept [Olympias’] letters to himself, with one exception, Hephaestion was in the habit of reading the king’s letters with him, and on this occasion his eyes fell on a letter which had been opened. The king did not prevent him from reading it, but took the ring from his own finger and pressed the seal to his lips, so much as to tell him to keep silence.

What we see in Plutarch and Gauffier’s painting is an intensely personal and political moment. It is personal for the obvious reason that Hephaestion is reading a letter written by Alexander’s mother and is political because of Olympias’ role as Queen Mother. It is intense because if Hephaestion had had a mind to he could easily have used the knowledge gained from reading Alexander’s letters against the king. Alexander would have known this. The fact that he still let Hephaestion read the letters, therefore, is indicative of the trust he had in him. Having said that, Alexander still makes Hephaestion kiss his ring. There was no need for him to do this but as close a friend as Hephaestion was, Alexander was still his king as well as friend, and it seems never forgot this.
We stay with Plutarch for Alexander Threatened by his Father by Donato Creti. In 337 BC, Philip married his seventh and last wife, Cleopatra. At the post-wedding party…

Cleopatra’s uncle Attalus, who had drunk too much at the banquet, called upon the Macedonians to pray to the gods that the union of Philip and Cleopatra might bring forth a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander flew into a rage at these words, shouted at him, ‘Villain, do you take me for a bastard, then?’ and hurled a drinking cup at his head. At this Philip lurched to his feet, and drew his sword against his son, but unfortunately for them both he was so overcome with drink and with rage that he tripped and fell headlong. Alexander jeered at him and cried out, ‘Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one couch to another without losing his balance.’ 

This incident takes place in Chapter 9. As for the painting, I really like Alexander’s red cloak. No doubt it represents the danger of the moment. But for Philip falling over, it might have represented blood shed as well. Speaking of blood shed, I wonder if that is Attalus lying on the floor in the foreground of the painting. If it is, his red cloak could represent the injury he sustained from Alexander’s cup striking him. In regards the event that the painting portrays, it was probably the most dangerous moment of Alexander’s youth. It tells us a lot about Alexander’s pride and fear and how quickly Macedonian parties could turn nasty.

olympiasOf course, this carved image of Olympias does not depict any scene from her known life. I am do not know much about sculptural conventions so I will quote the following from the Galerie Sismann website from where I took the picture,

This portrait of this woman outstands for its strong graphic character, the sophistication of the tinae and the ribbons in her hair, and the sensuality of the naked breasts.

To read the full text, click here. I have long thought that Olympias is a woman in need of rehabilitation as the image that the sources present of her is of a wholly ruthless, vindictive and wicked person. Well, she was certainly a fighter. In order to survive, she had to be. Evil, though? In his time, Alexander behaved worse than she ever did yet we still hold him in high regard. Why? Why not her? That’s a question for another day; going back to this sculpture, I appreciate it because in the dignity, sensuality and regal bearing that it gives Olympias, it cuts her a break far more than the sources (especially Plutarch who, in Chapter 9 of his Life of Alexander blames her for inciting her son against his father and therefore causing indirectly the near-fatal confrontation at the wedding party) ever do. Going back to the point about sensuality, I do like the way that Olympias’ left breast breaks through the frame barrier. It gives the image an extra dynamism.

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Of Lions and Men

It occurred to me the other day that images of Alexander most often show him in the guise of Heracles. Think of all those coins, for example, where he is wearing the same lion-cap that the mythical hero wore. Why is this, I wondered, when he drew his real inspiration from Achilles?

The answer to this is perfectly obvious, which is probably why I missed it: Heracles was Alexander’s paternal ancestor, the god from whom the Argead dynasty claimed descent. Alexander may have liked Achilles more but for propaganda purposes he had to focus on Heracles. I am very grateful to my friend Jen for helping me see this.

This morning, another question occurred to me – did Alexander really wear a lion shaped helmet? One, that is, like Colin Farrell wears in Oliver Stone’s Alexander,

Well, he is certainly portrayed wearing one on the Alexander sarcophagus,

In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox notes the sarcophagus image and says ‘no doubt Alexander wore it in real life’. This wording suggests to me that we don’t know for sure that he did but (at least in RLF’s opinion) it is very likely.

One final question: What exactly is Alexander’s relationship to Achilles? I don’t mean in terms of his family, but rather, did he really see himself as a second or new Achilles or is that the invention of the ancient historians? Well, I don’t know for sure – none of us do – but as I write these words I feel that even if details were made up later on, if Olympias – Alexander’s mother and descendent of Achilles – had any influence on her son, she would have imbued him with a knowledge of, love for, and desire to emulate/beat the great hero of the Trojan War.

Jen’s Alexander blog
Silver tetradrachm: VRoma
Colin Farrell as Alexander: Aceshowbiz
Alexander Sarcophagus: SUNY Oneonta

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The British Museum’s Alexander Bust: A Different Angle

In his Second Oration Concerning the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander the Great, Plutarch describes Alexander as having a ‘slightly bent’ neck (see here). What may have been a physical deformity became in Alexander’s own lifetime part of his iconography with his court artist Lysippus making no attempt to disguise it.

During the Hellenistic period, various kings imitated the crook, occasionally with a little too much effort, as Mithridates VI (135-63 BC) shows here.

Mithridates VI

There are numerous examples of Alexander with his neck ‘slightly bent’. Here is one:

Head of

One famous bust of Alexander, however, where he is not shown with a bent neck is the British Museum’s. This is how it is displayed to visitors:


As you can see, his head is quite straight. But notice that his neck on your left is angled outwards. A week or two ago I noticed this and it got me wondering – is the British Museum displaying the bust as it was originally intended to appear or have they ‘straightened’ it?

I don’t know the answer to this question. One thing I am certain of, though, is that if the bust was attached to a body and Alexander’s head was conceived of as being, and carved, straight then the body would have to be angled, as if in motion. I’m sure of this because I have tried to replicate the position of the bust in my bathroom mirror and it can only be done by sloping one shoulder and raising the other, as if running.

Alexander’s head, however, does not look like the head of a man in a hurry. I suspect, therefore, that whoever carved this bust meant for his head to be angled as a result of his crooked neck. During a quiet moment at my office the other day, I used the Photos App on my mobile ‘phone to see if I could recreate the crook. Here’s a second version that I did on my tablet for this post:


I apologise for the close-up nature of the photograph – I could not get the iPad to save it in any other way. That aside, what do you think of the picture? When I first saw it on my mobile ‘phone, I thought it made Alexander look much more tender, almost feminine, than when his head was straight (or, dare I say, erect). I have to admit, though, I really like the bust this way. It is still familiar yet in a way completely new. The leonine toughness of Alexander remains yet the tilt makes him so much softer. I must be honest – this version of the bust makes me love Alexander in a way that I didn’t before.

I could be completely wrong about whether the bust was meant to tilt or not but if it was why would the British Museum show it straight? I wonder if it was indeed because whoever decided on its position wanted to emphasise the tougher Alexander over the gentler one. What do you think? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Photo Credits
Mithridates: Alchetron
Alexander (black and white): Emaze
British Museum Bust of Alexander: Wikipedia

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Ptolemy in Jerusalem and other works of art

This painting is a mediaeval representation of Ptolemy I Soter taking Jerusalem in 320 B.C. It is by French artist Jean Fouquet (1420-82). I’m not aware that Ptolemy ever entered Jerusalem; still, it’s nice to see him portrayed here – looking very splendid in his gold armour and fine beard.

In this picture we see Thaïs of Athens stand proudly in front of Alexander as she is given the torch that she will use to burn the royal palace in Persepolis. In a very short time the party that is raging all around her and Alexander will be replaced by fire – the scorch marks of which I believe are still visible today. I first saw this picture a few weeks ago; unfortunately, I can’t remember where or, for that matter, who the artist is. I found the picture again today on a blog titled The Honest Courtesan.

The above link takes you to a potted biography of Thaïs by The Honest Courtesan‘s writer, Maggie McNeill. As with all historical studies there are points one can dispute but it is a good précis. One thing it doesn’t mention, which I certainly would have, is Ptolemy’s discretion towards Thaïs, which is indicated by Arrian’s omission of her name in his account of the fire. Having said that, McNeill’s closing paragraph is excellently written and, interestingly, echoes the Venerable Bede’s statement about the bird who lies through the mead hall.
This painting, by Sebastian Conca (16680-1764), is titled Alexander the Great in the Temple of Jerusalem. Ever since I saw it over at Alexander’s Army a while ago I’ve been meaning to write a post about it but couldn’t because I could find nothing out about Conca. As I look at the painting now I am just as struck as I was a few months ago by the twisting pillars. They remind me very much of the pillars in St Peter’s basilica that hold up the baldacchino.

Note also St Peter’s arches which reappear in Conca’s painting. To the best of my knowledge, Alexander never visited Jerusalem or had any contact with the Jews. Why might Conca have decided to paint a fictional scene, then? To find the answer to that we would have to know for whom he painted this piece. Whoever it was, I wonder if he was not creating an allegorical scene – Alexander being his patron; the Temple the Catholic Church; Conca is directing his patron to God and obedience to the Church.

St Peter’s baldacchino was designed by Bernini. This painting, below, appears on Tumblr where I have seen it described as being a self-portrait of Bernini as Alexander the Great. I have looked around on other websites to see if I can find any proof that Bernini did indeed paint this work but without success. Do you know anything about it?


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Hermes Comes to Odysseus’ Help

Circe offers Odysseus her magic potion - J W Waterhouse (image from atrogallery on Tumblr)

Circe offers Odysseus her magic potion – J W Waterhouse (image from atrogallery on Tumblr)

….I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades, as I came close to Kirke’s house and neared the palace of the enchantress, I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; he seemed a youth in the lovely spring of life, with the first down upon his lip. He seized my hand and spoke thus to me: `Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know? Your comrades are yonder in Kirke’s grounds; they are turned to swine, lodged and safely penned in the sites.

…..“Is your errand her to rescue them? I warn you, you will never return yourself, you will only be left with the others there. Yet no–I am ready to save you from all hazards, ready to keep you unscathed. Look. Here is a herb of magic virtue; take it and enter Kirke’s house with it; then the day of evil never will touch your head. I will tell you of all her witch’s arts. She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic herb will thwart her. I will tell you the rest, point by point.

…..“When Kirke strikes you with the long wand she has, draw the keen sword from beside your thigh, rush upon her and make as if to kill her. She will shrink, back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest. But first, make her swear the great oath of the Blessed Ones [by the river Styx] to plot no mischief to you thenceforward– if not, while you lie naked there, she may rob you of courage and of manhood.’

…..“So spoke the Radiant One…”
What happened next? Find out at Theoi Greek Mythology. Includes a storehouse of references to Circe in ancient Greek literature.
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Alexander in Memphis

Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis (Andre Castaigne 1861-1929)

Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis (Andre Castaigne 1861-1929). Picture: Wikipedia.

From Heliopolis, [Alexander] crossed the river to Memphis, where, among the other gods, he offered a special sacrifice to Apis and held Games with both athletic and literary contests.
(Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander)
Alexander was deeply impressed by Egypt, and it is generally supposed that the potential strength of the country, which was greater than he expected, induced him to divide the control of it among a number of officers, as he judged it to be unsafe to put it all into the hands of one man.
(Arrian Ibid)

Ptolemy I Soter as Pharaoh (British Museum). Photo:

Ptolemy I Soter as pharaoh (Photo:

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T E Lawrence: To “S.A.”

T E Lawrence (1888 - 1935)

T E Lawrence (1888 – 1935) (Wikipedia)

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.
T. E. Lawrence Dedicatory poem to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922)

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