BMCR 2011.07.09

Art in the Era of Alexander the Great: Paradigms of Manhood and their Cultural Traditions

, Art in the Era of Alexander the Great: Paradigms of Manhood and their Cultural Traditions. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xxiii, 398. ISBN 9780521769044. $95.00.


Ada Cohen’s book is an invaluable study of three major themes, war, hunting and abduction of women, expressed in the art created in Macedonia roughly between the reign of Philip II and of Alexander’s immediate successors. What makes Cohen’s contribution even more significant is her theoretical approach to visual culture. For example, gaze theory is particularly attractive when dealing with material objects, but as Cohen points out it cannot be used ‘as is’ when discussing ancient art. Feminist theory is very useful in understanding images that can be used in order to construct gendered paradigms of behaviour, but taken to extreme they can trivialize painful human experiences (such as rape).

The first chapter introduces the three themes and addresses the relationship between reality and representation, and the importance of war, hunting and abduction of women within their local (Macedonian) and wider (Greek-Hellenistic) context. The philosopher Thales was thought to have said that he was grateful that he was born a human as opposed to animal, a male as opposed to female and a Greek as opposed to a barbarian. A painter or a sculptor could not use words to show his gratitude for his being a Greek, human male, but he could show men defeating animals, women and barbarians. Such representations became a staple of Greek art beginning in the fourth century BCE and by expressing relationships between adversaries and promoting a specific code of behaviour, artists helped create and maintain a concrete idea of what it meant to be a Greek, free-born man. Cohen’s focus on the material from Macedonia is justified: the fourth century was a seminal period that saw Macedonia emerging from the sidelines and becoming the greatest power in the region — and beyond. Furthermore, according to the literary sources, the fourth century BCE was the century of painting, and it is from Macedonia that we have the most evidence for painting in the Greek-Hellenistic world from this period, both in terms of preservation and quality.

In the second chapter Cohen examines the figural mosaics from the House of the Abduction at Pella, and explores the extent to which they can be subordinated or considered part of a visual programme. Two of the mosaics (one showing a deer hunt and the other the abduction of Helen) were found in the floors of neighbouring andrones (dining rooms for men), and an Amazonomachy was found in the vestibule connecting two other andrones. Cohen examines briefly the importance of the andron in the Greek house and evaluates Vitruvius’ gendered differentiation of domestic space. Her analysis of the three mosaic floors starts in the traditional iconographic manner: description of the objects, comparison with previous, contemporary and later material and interpretation. However, Cohen goes further, first investigating the way the subjects of the mosaics are represented in literary sources and then putting them under scrutiny through her powerful theoretical lens. She acknowledges the dominance of gaze theory, where the relationship between viewer and viewed is constructed as one of control, and where the viewed becomes a powerless object, but rightly assesses its uncritical, wholesale use in relation to ancient artefacts. The hunters of the Pella deer hunt mosaic act as if the viewer is absent, but the act in which they engage invites the viewer to look while at the same time frustrates any notions that the hunters are vulnerable to the watchful gaze. Their actions are theatrical and self-conscious, controlled and commanding. Cohen connects this self-aware representation with the theatrical self-fashioning of Philip II and Alexander III (and his successors) known from the literary sources, and suggests that the artistic representations cannot be isolated or seen oblivious of this Macedonian sense of self-awareness. This is an important point to which she returns in later chapters.

The abduction of Helen by Theseus is analyzed both in texts and images, and the first question posed is one of terminology: is abduction synonymous to rape? Cohen’s examination shows that the answer is a lot more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and highlights the competing attitudes of the male and female viewers of the mosaic. Theseus could be seen ‘as a role model who succeeded in fulfilling his sexual desires’ (Cohen, p. 55), and at the same time the abduction scene emphasizes the perils that women faced away from their homes.

Finally, the Amazonomachy mosaic is examined. The battle between Greeks and Amazons is one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting in Greek art. In the Pella mosaic, the depiction of the battle group, one Greek versus two Amazons, is emblematic of the ambiguity and complexity with which Greeks viewed Amazons: beautiful females capable of fighting. Literary and historical sources show the pervasiveness of Greek fascination with Amazons as well as the existence of warrior women, such as Philip’s II’s wife Audata.

Instead of looking for an iconographic programme with very precise meaning, Cohen proposes that it is best to see these mosaics as following ‘a system of thematic connections’ (Cohen, p. 62). It is precisely these connections between hunt, abducting women and battle that she analyzes fully in the following chapters.

Chapter 3 starts with the lion hunt mosaic from Pella. After a detailed study of the mosaic, Cohen examines the evidence for the existence of lions in Greece, and thinks that it is likely that lions did live in Macedonia in the period under consideration. Hunting is of great importance in Macedonia: it is a primarily masculine affair, with the boar hunt having a particular meaning (the successful killing of a boar served as a rite of passage before which no man could recline during a symposium). Lion hunting also had a high symbolic value. It was a royal pastime and status symbol in Assyria and Persia, but in Macedonia too it was associated with royalty, as shown from early fourth century BCE coins and literary sources. Cohen gives an array of examples that show the wide-ranging meaning of the hunt iconography, and how it can be used as a paradigm of ‘dominance of the strong’ (Cohen, p. 118).

Chapter 4 examines the next logical step in this sequence of associations: if the hunt shows the male/strong dominance, then what is its relationship to war? This proves to be not just an iconographical problem, but a linguistic and philosophical one: if hunting is like war, then is war like hunting? What are the moral implications of such an analogy? Cohen argues than in a warlike culture like the Macedonian perhaps there would be no such issues, but visual evidence (such as the Palermo lion hunt mosaic, and the Kinch tomb painting) shows that the picture – and the mentalities – were far from clear and unambiguous. In this chapter she introduces the concept of ‘reversible metaphor’, whereby two ideas are linked in such a way that each one can act both as a signified and a signifier depending on the occasion (so, war is like hunt, and hunt is like war).

The next chapter examines the connections between hunt and rape. Men were considered predators: Theseus’s behaviour is an archetypal example of male rapaciousness towards females. Cohen shows how the connection between hunt and rape was more evident in literature, especially of the Roman period, than in visual material culture. She also shows that it was not a ‘reversible metaphor’: even if hunt could be associated and connected to rape textually and visually, hunting on the other hand was not equated with rape. The example of the two mosaics from the House of the Abduction of Helen shows that hunting and abducting women were ‘two parallel paradigms of manhood’ (Cohen, p. 161), instead of two aspects of the same paradigm.

Another highly fraught concept is the focus of the sixth chapter. Andrew Stewart’s analysis of the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun at Pompeii, in which Stewart sees ‘the relationship between Alexander and Darius as one between rapist and raped’ (Cohen, p. 164), is the starting point of a discussion on the relationship between war and rape. The result is an illuminating analysis of how rape can be used as another weapon, and how we should be careful not to trivialize the reality of rape. Rape and war is seen as another ‘non-reversible metaphor’ (and rightly so).

The last two chapters examine the constructs of femininity and masculinity, based on the visual evidence already examined briefly and building up from the notions of appropriate gender paradigms as these have been explored in the previous chapters. First is the connection between femininity and abduction, already touched upon when discussing the Abduction of Helen from the homonymous Pella house. The monument examined in detail here is the Abduction of Persephone wall-painting from Tomb I at Vergina. Cohen points out one of the most disturbing aspects of this image: even though it highlights the vulnerability of the victim through the use of her nudity (a well-known motif in Greek art), at the same time it invites the viewer’s pleasure-filled gaze.

In the last chapter, hunt and masculinity are connected again, this time through the examination of the Hunt Frieze from Tomb II at Vergina. What is revealed from her analysis is the highly artificial character of the painting that was sought, as well as its meaning in a Macedonian context: a display of valour, collaboration between comrades, control and dominance over themselves and their environment.

Cohen acknowledges the different interpretative theories and debates that surround the identities of the deer and lion hunters of Pella, and of the figures of the wall-painting on the facade of Tomb II at Vergina and the different proposed dates for the monumental tomb. She refuses, however, to be drawn either into the date and ownership debates regarding Tomb II at Vergina, or into the question of who were the artists behind these ‘masterpieces’, the hunting frieze of Tomb II and the abduction of Persephone. Instead, she focuses more on the meaning of these representations in the immediate time they were created, and for the audience they were intended to be seen, as well as their importance for subsequent viewers. Her account does not offer definite and absolute answers, but nuanced ways of looking and thought-provoking suggestions of interpreting the material, grounded in a specific historical/geographical/cultural context.

In summary, it is a dense, thought-provoking book that will prove extremely useful for students and scholars of Greek art alike.