BMCR 1995.02.09

1995.02.09, Stewart, Faces of Power

, Faces of power : Alexander's image and Hellenistic politics. Hellenistic culture and society ; 11. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 1 online resource (xxxvii, 507 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 0520909844.

Over the past two decades, the number of publications dealing with the history and art of ancient Macedonia has increased dramatically. This explosion of interest resulted, at least in part, from the spectacular finds at Vergina of the 1970’s and was further stimulated by the highly publicized international exhibition, The Search for Alexander. Indeed, as the controversies surrounding the Vergina material have clearly demonstrated, the figures of Philip and Alexander have loomed large over all arguments concerning the material culture of Macedonia in the late Classical and Hellenistic eras. Further exploration and publication have provided more data on Macedonian artistic and cultural traditions—data which promise to broaden our framework of interpretation. Nonetheless, given the status of Alexander’s lifespan as the conventional pivot between the Classical and the Hellenistic world, Alexander himself—his actions, institutions, personality and image—has attracted, and probably will continue to attract, the lion’s share, so to speak, of attention. One might think that so focal a subject as the portraiture of Alexander had been exhausted by existing scholarship, but such is far from the case, as Stewart’s new volume has shown. Various circumstances can prompt re-evaluation, including new material, new assessments of well-known material, and new applications of interpretive theory; all play a role in Stewart’s study. As the author informs us (p.xxxiii), this work began as a publication of a series of fragments in the Getty Museum, ostensibly a sculptural group including an image of Alexander. When confronted with the plethora of difficulties surrounding any attempt to understand the imagery of Alexander, Stewart expanded his study and has produced by far the most comprehensive treatment of the topic to date.

One’s first impression on encountering this volume is, indeed, its thoroughness, for Stewart concerns himself not simply with the portraiture of Alexander in the circumscribed sense of artistic representation but rather with the image of Alexander according to the broadest possible definition of that term. Naturally, much of the study has to do with the appearances of Alexander in sculpture, painting and coinage primarily during the period from his own lifetime down to the mid-second century B.C. However, Stewart seeks to frame our understanding of these portrayals within the much broader context of the idea of Alexander, as formulated and propagated in the service of his own imperialist ambitions as well as those of his successors. Of course, the evidence for the reconstruction of the concept of Alexander is just as problematic as that for his physical representation. Documentation is thus of primary importance and documentation is provided abundantly in a series of appendices which, together with a useful index and copious bibliography, constitutes a full third of the book. Separate appendices include collections of: literary sources on Alexander’s appearance, literary and epigraphic documentation of the portraits, evidence for cults of Alexander, preserved Alexander portraits, and a catalogue of the Getty fragments. When one adds the nearly two hundred well-selected illustrations, it is clear that this volume is, at the very least, the starting point for all future studies of the topic.

The text is divided into three sections comprising ten chapters, each of which includes three to five sub-chapters. Such extensive compartmentalization makes the book easier to follow and especially easier to consult, although the titles chosen only sometimes make clear the content of the section, chapter, or sub-chapter in question. A narrative structure does, however, emerge. Part I, “Approaching Alexander,” provides background: a criticism and analysis of the nature of the literary and artistic documentation collected, an exploration of the crucial problem of identification, an overview of previous approaches, and explanation of the conceptual bases of his own approach. Its last chapter seeks, on historical evidence, to isolate aspects of the image (in the broad sense) of Alexander, including clues to his actual appearance, his emulation of various heroic models, his role as a Macedonian king, and finally his status as divine son of Zeus. Part II, “King and Conqueror,” concerns itself primarily with portraiture of Alexander during his own lifetime. Its chapters consider, roughly diachronically, his image as prince and young king, as victor in the battles with Darius and his forces, as Asian king and conqueror of the east, and the knotty question of divine images in Greece perhaps shortly before his death. Part III, “Survivors and Successors,” deals with the use of Alexander’s image by his successors and other rulers in the Hellenistic world during the two generations or so following 323.

Within this text, there is much that is new or at least newly emphasized. For example, other treatments of Alexander tend to stress the importance of implied connections with Herakles (especially from numismatic evidence) or Dionysos (from the analogy of the eastern conquest). Stewart, however, convincingly argues that it was Achilles who was the paradigmatic hero for Macedonian royal culture generally and for Alexander specifically. There is a tendency to generalize about the employment of Alexander’s image more or less equally by the successor dynasties as a device of legitimization. Stewart’s close study of this phenomenon clarifies the extent to which this was primarily a Ptolemaic policy shared only very sporadically by rival kings and pretenders. There are many other specific observations along these lines which richly repay close reading. However, what seems the most original contribution of this study is the degree to which Stewart has woven into his approach observations and insights from disciplines outside those traditionally associated with the study of classical art. Scholarship on ancient portraiture, with few exceptions, even today rarely transcends the long dominant and somewhat naïve concerns of identification and biography. Stewart, drawing from the interest in semiotics displayed in earlier works on, for example, the François vase, the Athena Nike complex, and Hellenistic “‘baroque” sculpture, recognizes that a portrait is first and foremost a statement. In the case of Alexander, it is a statement concerning power and the role of personal charisma in maintaining and extending power. Beginning from that premise, Stewart introduces concepts from theoretical writings in sociology and philosophy, especially Weber and Foucault, and applies them to models of reading found in the literary/linguistic studies of Peirce, Bakhtin and Eco. Through this synthesis Stewart foregrounds the essentially semiotic question of how Alexander’s portraiture functioned as a vehicle of conquest and rule for Alexander and his successors alike. Although his explicit statement of approach is a relatively small portion of the book (pp.59-70), the attitudes presented inform the entire text.

These new insights are, however, integrated into a study which approaches many long-standing questions in an essentially traditional manner. The study of Alexander portraiture necessarily involves the application of the entire apparatus of positivistic interpretation which to a large degree has created our understanding of free-standing statuary from the Classical and Hellenistic period. Here, as always, two general areas of concern emerge: the creation of a corpus and the creation of context(s) for that corpus; both are obviously subjective enterprises. As Stewart himself points out, there exist only three undisputed examples: the inscribed Azara herm (a Roman work), the Alexander mosaic (presumably a copy of an early Hellenistic painting), and the images on the coins of the Diadochoi, especially Ptolemy and Lysimachos. These scraps of evidence can be complemented with information from literary descriptions of Alexander and of his portraits, but the only identifying features which suggest themselves are the “leonine” hairstyle with anastole, the turn of the head (in some images), and the thoughtful facial expression. Since the anastole is neither ubiquitous among nor exclusive to the representations of Alexander, distinguishing the heavily idealized image of the king (later god) from images of the gods themselves is a highly subjective enterprise. A most obvious example would be the difficulty in identifying a heroic figure with thunderbolt as Alexander Keraunophoros rather than a youthful Zeus. As Stewart’s perceptive analysis has shown, the conflation of images very much suited Alexander’s own purposes, but it very much hinders the task of the modern cataloguer. Further complications in the creation of a corpus are of course introduced by the problem of “copies” and reconstruction, and indeed (as two of the three sources of evidence cited above illustrate) the vast majority (perhaps all) of Alexander images involve some judgment concerning the relationship between a Hellenistic or Roman image and its possible source. The contexts invoked to explain these monuments are, like the corpus itself, a creation of the modern scholar. No example of an Alexander portrait is dated or signed, and few, if any, are provenanced originals. Thus it is the scholar’s skill which provides the assignment of date, the attribution to a particular artist and/or geographical school, and the identification of a specific historical explanation for the commissioning and execution of the monument in question.

How a particular scholar visualizes the portrait tradition of Alexander necessarily depends on how troubled that scholar is by the element of subjectivity in this interpretive process. In sculptural scholarship generally, current approaches reflect the full spectrum from perverse skepticism at the one end to unquestioning confidence at the other, while the majority naturally fall somewhere in the middle. Readers familiar with Stewart’s prodigious output will not be surprised to find that in his work on Alexander too he ranges to the side of confidence, albeit a confidence borne from an impressive command of the literary sources and thorough knowledge of the sculptural material. While some of the more skeptical might take exception with (or have trouble seeing) some individual identifications, distinctions and attributions, the value of his study as a whole will certainly stand on its own. Stewart has not only put the study of Alexander imagery on a new and solid footing, he has produced an important model for the intellectually integrative approach to the study of classical art which is itself the most significant contribution of current scholarly enterprise.