Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 17a Alexander (the Great) 1

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), Alexander Entering Babylon (1665), oil on canvas, 450 x 707 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Of Plutarch’s Lives, one of its longest and most painted is his account of Alexander ‘the Great’, the king of Macedonia, who in just a decade won the largest empire of the ancient world. Because it is long and has been the basis of so many paintings, this is but the first article summarising this biography. Plutarch is also careful to point out that his account is intended not as history but biography, providing a portrait of Alexander as a person.

Alexander was the son of King Philip of Macedonia and his wife Olympias. She was involved in strange and portentous events even on the night before their marriage, and was engaged in mysterious cults.

As a boy, Alexander was little interested in earthly pleasures, and showed exceptional maturity in thought. When his father was absent, he entertained envoys from the Persian king, impressing them with his questions about their country. His tutor was Lysimachus, but the stern Leonidas oversaw the prince’s education and upbringing.

When Alexander was still quite young, Philoneicus the Thessalian brought the horse Bucephalus to sell to King Philip for 13 talents. Philip tried the horse out and found him so savage as to be unrideable. When his father was on the verge of rejecting the purchase, Alexander became distressed. He assured his father that he could manage him and offered to forfeit the cost of the horse if he couldn’t.

Philip was speechless when his son demonstrated that he could ride the horse well, and eventually uttered the prophetic words “My son, seek thee out a kingdom equal to thyself; Macedonia has not room for thee.”

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Alexander and Bucephalus (1859-61), oil on canvas, 115 x 89 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The Athenaeum.

This story is shown in Edgar Degas’ early and incomplete painting of Alexander and Bucephalus from 1859-61. Traditionally Bucephalus is shown as being black, with blue eyes and a large white star on his brow, but Degas here depicts him as a black-eyed bay, with the young Alexander taming him.

Philip discovered that it was better to try to persuade his strong-willed son rather than to command him, and had Aristotle himself tutor the boy, which resulted in his love of medicine.

When Alexander was just sixteen, King Philip went on an expedition against Byzantium, and left his son in charge of the kingdom as its regent. During this period, Alexander subdued the rebellious Maedi, took their city by force, drove out its barbarian population, resettled it and renamed it Alexandropolis. This established him as his father’s general in the eyes of the Macedonians.

It was as well that Alexander proved so precocious: he was only twenty when Pausanias killed King Philip and Alexander succeeded to the throne. One of his first campaigns was to lead his army through the pass of Thermopylae against the Thebans, then to thoroughly defeat them in combat, and take the city of Thebes.

When Thebes was falling to the Macedonians, some Thracians broke into the property of a noble and chaste woman, Timocleia. As the others plundered her property, their leader raped her and demanded gold and silver. She led him out to the well, where she said she had hidden her most valuable possessions. As he bent over its lip, she pushed him down it, then thew rocks on top of him to ensure that he was dead.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), Timocleia Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great (1659), media and dimensions not known, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

This incident is shown in Elisabetta Sirani’s Timocleia Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great from 1659. The other Thracians took her to Alexander, who on hearing her story freed her at once.

Alexander may have been a monarch with absolute authority, but Plutarch tells several anecdotes which demonstrate that he respected others of strong will. For example, after Alexander had been proclaimed leader of the alliance of Greek states and its expedition against the Persians, the king expected Diogenes of Sinope, the famous philosopher, to come and congratulate him. When he failed to, Alexander sought him out, and found him lying in the sun. Alexander greeted him, and asked Diogenes if there was anything that he wanted, to which the philosopher asked him to stand out of the way of the sun!

Before he set off to war against the Persians, Alexander went and consulted the oracle at Delphi, who told him “Thou art invincible, my son”.

Alexander’s huge army travelled north-east, crossed the Dardanelles, and made their way into Asia Minor. They first faced the army of Dareius the Persian when crossing the river Granicus. Alexander led thirteen troops of horsemen across that river against the hail of enemy missiles. He wore a great helmet with two large white plumes, and a conspicuous buckler, which made him stand out as an easy target for his enemy.

He survived a joint attack by two of the Persian commanders, killing one of them himself with his sword. The Greeks routed their enemy, who lost over twenty thousand troops, at a cost of just thirty-four dead Macedonians and Greeks. As a result, the city of Sardis submitted to Alexander, and the king went on to storm the cities of Halicarnassus and Miletus. His forces then swept along the coast of Pamphylia as far as Phoenicia.

Alexander’s huge army had yet to the meet the main Persian force under the command of Dareius, which totalled 600,000, and was now on its way towards him. There was a delay when Alexander fell ill in Cilicia, but once he had recovered, the two armies resumed their collision course. During that delay, Alexander was warned in a letter that Philip the Arcanian intended to kill him. When Philip came in bearing him a cup of medicine, Alexander took the cup and passed Philip the letter to read. As Alexander drank his medicine, the two men stared at one another wondering who to trust.

Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902), Alexander the Great Putting Trust in his Physician Philip (1870), oil on canvas, 245 x 346.5 cm, Belarusian National Arts Museum Нацыянальны мастацкі музей Рэспублікі Беларусь, Minsk, Belarus. Wikimedia Commons.

Henryk Siemiradzki’s painting of Alexander the Great Putting Trust in his Physician Philip of 1870 shows this scene wonderfully. Philip, with black hair and beard, stands reading the letter which the king had received to warn him of Philip’s intention to kill him. Alexander lies on his sickbed, the cup of medicine in his right hand, deciding whether to drink it, or to believe the warning. The old man behind Alexander leans forward, as if to reinforce the warning in the letter, and advise his monarch not to touch the medicine in the cup.

Once Alexander’s army was on the march again, he and Dareius narrowly missed one another: the Macedonians marched into Syria, but as they did that, Dareius marched into Cilicia which they had just vacated. Eventually the huge armies met at the Battle of Issus (at the southern edge of what is now Turkey), where Alexander’s men killed over 110,000 of Dareius’ troops. The two kings even fought hand to hand, and Alexander was wounded in the thigh. But to his frustration, Alexander failed to capture Dareius himself.

Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), The Battle of Issus (1529), colour on lime, 158.4 x 120.3 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most famous of the many paintings showing the Battle of Issus is Albrecht Altdorfer’s spectacular elevated ‘world view’ completed in 1529, which shows the whole world locked in battle, by the light of the setting sun. Alexander is most probably shown riding a black horse just to the left of the centre foreground.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), The Battle of Issus (1602), oil on canvas, 86.5 x 135.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s rather more conventional view of The Battle of Issus from 1602 is another fine account, which places Alexander on his black horse Bucephalus in the centre of its foreground.

Dareius fled the battlefield to avoid capture, leaving behind his mother, wife, and two unmarried daughters, who feared that he had been killed. When Alexander became aware of the fact that he now held the Persian royal family, he told his men to inform them that Dareius was still alive, and accorded the women protection and the respect which they merited.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565-67), oil on canvas, 236.2 x 474.9 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Veronese’s masterpiece showing The Family of Darius before Alexander from 1565-67 shows the four women kneeling before Alexander, who is dressed in red. At the right edge, the head of a horse must be Alexander’s mount Bucephalus, although like Degas, Veronese prefers him to be brown rather than black.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), The Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander, or The Tent of Darius (date not known), oil on canvas, 298 x 453 cm, Château de Versailles, Versailles, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Le Brun’s account in his undated painting of The Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander, also called The Tent of Darius, is perhaps more faithful to the story told by Plutarch, in placing this event in Dareius’ abandoned tent. The women still look fearful of the fate that awaits them, not knowing how Alexander would treat them. At the time, the most likely outcome would have been death or slavery as ‘courtesans’.

After the Battle of Issus, Alexander decided that he needed mastery of the coast in the eastern Mediterranean. Although he achieved that relatively quickly along much of its length, the city of Tyre proved more resistant. To conquer that, he had to put the city under siege for seven months. He had thus gained control over the whole of the coastline from Egypt north to the Black Sea.

Dareius then sent Alexander an offer of ten thousand talents ransom for his womenfolk, together with all the land to the west of the River Euphrates, to bring the two empires into an alliance. Alexander responded that Dareius must come to him, or he would march at once against him.

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1725–1805), The Death of Darius’ Wife (1785), oil on canvas, 327 x 424 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

When the Persian king’s wife died in childbirth, Alexander gave her a sumptuous funeral. This is shown in Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée’s The Death of Darius’ Wife from 1785.

This tragic news reached Dareius as he was marching to confront Alexander with an army of a million men. The two came together at Gaugamela (in what is now northern Iraq or Kurdistan), where Alexander launched a direct attack on the Persian army, driving most of its troops to turn and flee. This time, Alexander pressed harder on Dareius’ centre, carving his way through the most steadfast of the Persians until he approached their commander and king.

Dareius was in a chariot at the time, and had no opportunity to turn round, so he stripped off his armour and rode away on a horse. Alexander was the clear victor, and had become the king of ‘Asia’, but Dareius himself had once again proved elusive.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), Alexander Entering Babylon (1665), oil on canvas, 450 x 707 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander roamed with his forces through his new territory of Babylonia. Charles Le Brun’s Alexander Entering Babylon from 1665 shows the Macedonian king riding in a large golden chariot hauled by a small elephant, as the great spoils of war were being shown around them. Plutarch gives a fascinating account of their visiting a chasm of fire, where ‘naphtha’ (petroleum oils) welled up through fissures in the earth’s surface and burned freely: the origin of Iraq’s modern oilfields.

Alexander’s pursuit of Dareius continued, taking him across desert where many of his troops had to turn back because of the shortage of water. When he finally approached Dareius’ camp, he had only sixty of his soldiers with him.

The once-great Persian king had been captured by Bessus, who had left him amid great riches, lying in a waggon, pierced by javelins and on the brink of death. Alexander gave him water, and when he died covered his body with his cloak.

Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675–1741), Alexander at the Corpse of the Dead Darius (1708), oil on canvas, 86 x 105.5 cm, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

This scene is shown in Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini’s painting of Alexander at the Corpse of the Dead Darius from 1708: the conqueror looks tenderly at the conquered. The body of Dareius was then handed over to his mother, and laid in state for his funeral.

Alexander was incensed at the way that Bessus had treated Dareius, so hunted him down. When he found him, Alexander showed no pity, but had him tied to two bent-back trees so that when they were released, his body was torn apart.

The young Alexander then pressed on to the north, to the shores of the Caspian Sea.


Alexander, whole text in English translation at Penelope.