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Two Images, One Battle?: Altdorfer and the Alexander Mosaic

The Alexander Mosaic

The Alexander Mosaic (c. 120 BC) is one of the most iconic images to emerge from ancient Roman culture, as well as one of history’s most notable images of Alexander the Great. Originally a floor mosaic from the House of Faun in Pompeii, it has since been excavated and transferred to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples–where, according to Archeology magazine, it is “safe from the feet of Pompeii’s two million plus yearly visitors, as well as from the rain and sun that have damaged the whole site.”

The mosaic depicts a clash between the Greek king Alexander and the Persian king Darius, sometime during the fourth century BC. About it, however, little else can be said for certain. The precise historical incident depicted is a matter of controversy, as Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello explain in Abbeville’s Greek and Roman Mosaics:

…But exactly which battle is represented here? Some believe that it is Alexander and Darius’s first meeting, at Issus, in southern Turkey, in 333 BC, while others suggest that it is their second, and decisive, clash, at Gaugamela, in northern Iraq, in 331 BC; both times Darius escaped the battlefield in his chariot. A third possibility is that the image synthesizes multiple episodes of Alexander’s campaign against Persia.

The authors then ponder the many other enigmas surrounding the image: who is the artist? Who commissioned it, “or rather the lost painting on which it was presumably based”? Was it executed at Pompeii or imported from a Hellenistic center? How and when did it sustain the damage–the “gaps, repairs, and incongruencies”–that mar its left side in particular?

It’s likely that none of these riddles will ever be definitively solved. The “Which battle?” question, however, remains particularly tantalizing because the answer may bring the mosaic close to another famous image from art history. If the Issus conjecture is correct, the mosaic would portray the same event as The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529), a stunning High Renaissance masterwork by German artist Albrecht Altdorfer. Two images from entirely different cultures and eras, both perhaps representing the same battle–both, in their own way, thrilling.

The Battle of Alexander at Issus, Albrecht Altdorfer

The mosaic is notable among ancient artworks for its command of perspectival illusion. One horse, radically foreshortened, charges into the frame as another charges out at us; the troops’ bristling spears seem to converge toward a vanishing point somewhere in the thick of battle. Altdorfer’s Battle makes even more masterful use of illusionistic depth. Its ranks swirl and clash in a valley extending all the way to the horizon; its clouds churn in the mirroring vortex of the sky. Even the scroll of fate is rendered sturdily in three dimensions; set in a massive wooden frame, it dangles above the scene like a weight about to drop.

Yet where the mosaic has a “you are there” intimacy, our perspective in the Altdorfer is that of a detached god only temporarily visiting earth. We are up the slope a ways, slightly above the fray; the horses and soldiers are a collective, a swarm, as impersonal and destructive as a force of nature. No individual face or figure pulls our focus, with the arguable exception of the horseman at bottom right, who is just about to charge into the madness.

In the Alexander mosaic, we do have a figure in central focus, though perhaps surprisingly (given the title by which we know the piece) it isn’t Alexander. Instead the lines of the spears draw us toward the fleeing Darius, riding slightly higher than the rest, turning on his horse to lament the death of his bodyguard. Part of the success of the mosaic depends on its quality of portraiture, the vividness of the despair on Darius’s face and the implacable calm of Alexander’s expression as he watches. In something of a reversal of expectations, the Renaissance image is more epic and the classical image more intimately human: the one gives us the impersonal sweep of war, the other tragedy on a personal scale.

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Click here to learn more about Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello’s Greek and Roman Mosaics, published by Abbeville Press.