ALEXANDER THE GREAT TALISMAN: Apotropaic use of Alexander the Great in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods

By Amy Arezzolo – University of New England.

In June 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died in Babylon. His increasing paranoia, violent outbursts and unwillingness to provide a viable succession plan jeopardised both his reputation and the integrity of his empire. Despite a changing tide concerning attitudes towards Alexander, his sudden death quickly reversed this. Instead, Alexander’s former generals and court officials, Ptolemy and Eumenes of Cardia among them quickly harnessed the image of Alexander, embellishing his posthumous memory with divine touches via statuary, coinage and literary allusions that would hold substantial political implications during the Wars of the Successors and render Alexander a talisman of sorts for securing and protecting their respective authorities. While the political implications of such usage have been expertly addressed, this tradition has been overlooked for the fact that it would also present Alexander as an apotropaic or protective figure within Hellenistic and Roman political and cultural discourse.

The combination of Alexander’s sudden death and his lack of a viable heir created the conditions where his generals and officials, lacking the traditional forms of legitimacy such as an Argead bloodline, had to cultivate their forms of credibility to gain Macedonian military support. For some figures, this meant marrying directly into the Argead line, as Cassander did with Alexander’s half-sister, Thessalonike and for others, this meant quite literally taking the body of Alexander. In the procession returning Alexander to Macedon several years after his death, Diodorus Siculus (18.28.2) recalls that Ptolemy now in Egypt intercepted the lavish funeral carriage that housed the body of the late King. As it was the custom of the incumbent Macedonian King to bury his predecessor (Green, 1990, p.13), Ptolemy was asserting his succession in terms understandable to his Macedonian audience. However, it was not enough for Ptolemy to merely bury Alexander.

In roughly 290 BCE Ptolemy established a cult to the deified Alexander in his eponymous city, Alexandria and over time this would become part of the broader dynastic cult of the Ptolemies (Dreyer, 2009, p.472). Archaeological excavations throughout Alexandria reveal the discovery of several statuettes dating as late as the first century BCE (figure 1) that were likely used votively for Alexander’s continued blessing and protection over the city Many of the statuettes conform to particular representations of Alexander. This includes Alexander holding a spear, akin to previous heroic models such as those of Achilles (Ridgway, 1990, p.139).  

Further representations included wearing the aegis. In Egypt, this particular symbol held an explicitly political connotation from when it appeared on coinage minted by Ptolemy in 314/313 BCE(figure 2). On these coins Alexander is represented with a myriad of divine elements and the aegis is cloaked around his shoulders. On the reverse of this coin is an image of one of Ptolemy’s patron deities, Athena Alkidemos whose spear is covering an eagle later recognised as the Ptolemaic eagle which would act as a dynastic symbol. Mythically, the aegis was a symbol of protection (Vassilika, 1998, p.70) and through its appearance on Alexander, the coins minted in this period established a tradition in which Alexander was presented as an apotropaic figure for Ptolemy (Stewart, 1993, p.241) who perpetuated this through the Alexandrian cult.

The use of Alexander in this way was not unfamiliar during the Wars of the Successors. Ephemeral strategies such as dreams were also employed by the likes of Eumenes of Cardia to invoke the protection of Alexander. According to Diodorus Siculus and later, Plutarch (18.60.5-6; 13.1-5), Eumenes, due to his increasing age and injuries was faced with a potential rebellion by two of his subordinates, Antigenes and Teutamus. This was exacerbated by the fact that Eumenes was a foreigner, a Cardian in a sea of Macedonians. Conveniently enough, however, Eumenes understood his situation and allegedly dreamt of Alexander for two nights in a row. In recounting his dreams, Eumenes said that the late king was prevailing over a council meeting in his pavilion (Diodorus Siculus, 18.60.5-6). In discussion with Eumenes, Alexander further claimed he would favour ‘every plan and enterprise which they undertook in his name’ (Plutarch, 13.3) so it was decided that Eumenes would need to recreate this pavilion, honouring Alexander through sacrifice towards several of his belongings including his armour, sceptre and crown which were considered vessels for the essence of Alexander. During this meeting, Eumenes and his fellow generals would determine their next strategies in the name of Alexander, not Eumenes. According to Polyaenus, a Macedonian rhetorician (4.8.2), this strategy worked as it appealed to the Macedonian’s love for Alexander and quelled dissatisfaction against Eumenes who appeared to be acting in the name of Alexander rather than for himself. In doing so, Eumenes used Alexander and his enduring appeal as a way to protect himself against a dire political situation and avert potential disaster for himself.  

This image of Alexander as a protector continued to be used and was gradually exaggerated through the Hellenistic and Roman periods through associations with other apotropaic figures. Archaeological finds dating between the third and first centuries BCE attests to this trend with an architectural element from Etruria (figure 3), a votive plaque from Asia Minor (figure 4) and an antefix from Rome (figure 5) all combining the standard features of Alexander with the snake hair and wings typically reserved for representations of the gorgon Medusa (Grossman, 2001, pgs. 59, 62 and 75). According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Glennon, 2000), artistic representations of  Medusa from the Classical Period onwards were often used in an apotropaic context as a way to ward evil away. Coupled with the information regarding provenance, each of these of Alexander representations was discovered in a religious or funerary context that provides further evidence towards considering Alexander’s apotropaic dimension through the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Alexander’s posthumous image in the Hellenistic and Roman periods was ultimately diverse as it was often reconstructed or reshaped to engage in contemporary political and cultural ideas. This took place through a range of mediums including portraiture, statuary, coinage and literary allusion which also contributed to the enduring fascination that lingered around Alexander. While this interest and use has been expertly examined with regards to the construction of legitimacy during the Wars of the Successors and later as a model of Kingship during the Imperial period, Alexander’s apotropaic aspects have been curiously overlooked, stopping short by being described as a ‘talismanic’ figure when in reality, the evidence provided in this brief examination shows that this aspect of Alexander is ultimately deserving of further consideration.

Figures:

Figure 1- Statuette of Alexander wearing the Aegis ca. 1st century BCE <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statuette_of_Alexander_wearing_the_aegis_1st_century_BC,_discovered_in_Alexandria_(Egypt),_Louvre_Museum_(7463008906).jpg

File:Statuette of Alexander wearing the aegis 1st century BC, discovered in Alexandria (Egypt), Louvre Museum (7463008906).jpg


Figure 2-  Tetradrachm ca. 314/313 BCE, obv. Head of deified Alexander right with horn of Ammon, in mitra of Dionysus and elephant headdress, aegis around neck, rev. Athena Alkidemos, Ptolemaic Eagle <https://www.wildwinds.com/coins/greece/egypt/ptolemy_I/Svoronos_033.txt


Figure 3- Architectural Element ca. early third century BCE, Retrieved from Grossman, J.B. 2001, ‘Images of Alexander the Great in the Getty Museum’, Studia Varia, vol. 2, p. 59


Figure 4- Votive Plaque ca. third-second century BCE, Retrieved from  Grossman, J.B. 2001, ‘Images of Alexander the Great in the Getty Museum’, Studia Varia, vol. 2, p. 62 


Figure 5- Antefix ca. first century BCE – first century CE, Retrieved from Grossman, J.B. 2001, ‘Images of Alexander the Great in the Getty Museum’, Studia Varia, vol. 2, p. 75

References

Ancient Sources:

Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, trans. R.M. Geer, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. 1947

Plutarch, Life of Eumenes, trans. B. Perrin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. 1919

Polyaenus, Stratagems, trans. R Shepherd, 1793 < http://www.attalus.org/translate/polyaenus4B.html#8.1>

Modern Sources:

Green, P 1990, Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Dreyer, B 2009, ‘Heroes, Cults and Divinity’, in W. Heckel and L.A. Tritle (eds.), Alexander the Great: A New History, Wiley & Sons, London. pp.467-505

Ridgway, B.S 1990, Hellenistic Sculpture. Volume 1, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WIS.

Vassilika, E 1998, Greek and Roman Art, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

Stewart, A.F 1993, Faces of Power. Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Grossman, J.B. 2001, ‘Images of Alexander the Great in the Getty Museum’, Studia Varia, vol. 2, pp.51-79

Glennon, M 2000, ‘Medusa in Ancient Greek Art’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, viewed 11 October 2020, < https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/medu/hd_medu.htm>

Published by Alexander R. Priest

Founder of Anarch: Ancient History and Archaeology discussion blog.

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