Alexander the Great
(c. 356 - 323 BCE)

(click image to view enlargement)
Roman version (perhaps early third century A.D.) of a Hellenistic original.


Alexander (356-323 B.C.) remains among the most influential and exciting personalities of antiquity. He was the son of Philip II of Macedonia and Olympias of Epirus, two very strong characters in their own right. During his adolescence Alexander was tutored by Aristotle. After the assassination of his father (336 B.C.), Alexander ascended the throne at the age of nineteen. The following years were a heady whirlwind of activity: the conquest of Asia Minor (333 B.C.), Egypt (332), Persia (331) and the eastward march to India (battle with Poros, 326). (View a map of Alexander's campaigns). His unparalleled military achievements inspired and depressed later generals like Julius Caesar (cf. Suetonius, Caesar 7) and Napoleon. Alexander's untimely death occurred at Babylon on 3 July 323 B.C. when he was only thirty-three.

A series of factors combined to insure that Alexander would be the subject of numerous portraits. First, we learn from Plutarch that "Alexander gave Lysippos [the greatest Greek sculptor of the fourth century B.C.] the sole authorization for producing all his portrait statues, because he alone expressed in bronze Alexander's character [ethos], and in his features represented the brilliance of his virtues, while others, who sought to imitate the characteristic turning of his head and the liquid, melting softness and brightness of his eyes, were unable to preserve the manliness and lion-like ferocity of his countenance" (De Alexandri fortuna aut virtute 2.2; cf. Plutarch, Alexander 4.1). Second, he was physically attractive, as we learn from several ancient sources, and his brilliant early victories inspired biographers to chronicle his life and attempt to determine how such a miraculous personality had influenced the creation of a Hellenistic world. Third, the nearly constant emulation of Hellenistic rulers and Roman emperors created a demand for copies or newly revised portraits of Alexander. As a result, there are more extant portraits of Alexander than any other Greek historical character.1

The Riley Alexander bears a physiognomic resemblance to several other better preserved portraits of this hero: the youthful face, sensuous lips, large eyes, heavy jaw, thick neck and the royal fillet about his hair. Furthermore, the tiered locks of hair over his forehead remind one of a lion's mane and may be associated with Plutarch's description as well as Alexander's supposed descent from Herakles, one of whose attributes is the lion-skin. These leonine locks above the forehead appear on many Alexander portraits and are so characteristic of his appearance that they have their own Greek name: anastole.

An additional feature of this portrait is a small hole at the top of the fillet. This appears to be ancient and may have been meant to accommodate an attachment, perhaps a bronze star-burst of a type often shown above personifications of the sun, Helios. In fact, other sculptures of Alexander have similar attachment holes and may also have represented him as Helios. We know that Lysippos produced a statue of Helios for the Rhodians and that his pupil, Chares of Lindos, was the creator of an even more famous Helios, the "Colossos of Rhodes" (Pliny, 34.63).2 Because the back of the Riley head is treated so superficially, it is likely that it was not meant to be displayed in the round. Rather, it was probably placed in a niche high above the viewer.

Copies and variants of Alexander's many portraits were made for centuries after his death. It is difficult to place this particular piece in a specific period. However, it is likely to be a Roman version, based on a Hellenistic original, perhaps produced in the early third century A.D. This corresponds to a strong revival of interest in Alexander promoted by Caracalla (cf. Cassius Dio 78.7).



1. For more on the subject, see M. Bieber, Alexander the Great in Greek and Roman Art (Chicago 1964); E. Schwarzenberg, "The Portraits of Alexander" in A. Bosworth et al., Alexandre le Grand [Fondation Hardt, Entretiens 22] (Geneva 1975) 248-76; N. Yalouris, The Search for Alexander (Boston 1980).

2. For the iconography of the Alexander-Helios type, see H. Hoffmann, "Helios," Journal of the Arnerican Research Center in Egypt 2 (1963) 117-23; cf. Yalouris, no. 42.


Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, The Tom and Nan Riley Collection, formerly in an English private collection. Copyright © 1997 Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

Photos by C. Randall Tosh, copyright © 1988 The University of Iowa Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

Text from Richard Daniel De Puma. Roman Portraits. Iowa City, IA: The University of Iowa, 1988. Copyright © 1988 The University of Iowa Museum of Art. All rights reserved.


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