Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 17a Alexander (the Great) 2

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Triumph of Alexander the Great (c 1873-90), oil on canvas, 155 x 155 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In my previous account of Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great, he had finally defeated the great king of Persia, Dareius, who had later been abandoned to die from wounds inflicted by Bessus, one of the Persian satraps. Alexander then took possession of his territories, which took him north to the shore of the Caspian Sea.

At one stage, barbarians captured his horse Bucephalus, but it was returned unharmed. Alexander marched into Parthia, where he adopted local dress, married Roxana, and met the Queen of the Amazons. The Amazons’ territory was far to the north of Alexander’s expanding empire, and Plutarch doubts that this meeting ever happened. However, it has proved a popular theme for painters.

Pierre Mignard (1612–1695) (attr), The Meeting Between Alexander and the Queen of the Amazons (c 1660), oil on canvas, 248 x 249 cm, Musée Calvet d’Avignon, Avignon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre Mignard’s The Meeting Between Alexander and the Queen of the Amazons (c 1660) shows Queen Thalestris being attended to by her maids, with Alexander holding her hand. In the air above them, Cupid is poised with an arrow which is about to strike Alexander. But most telling of all is the wry smile on a nurse’s face at the right edge, with her index finger held to her lips.

Johann Georg Platzer (1704–1761), The Amazon Queen, Thalestris, in the Camp of Alexander the Great (date not known), oil on copper, 56.9 × 82.4 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Georg Platzer’s magnificent Rococo The Amazon Queen, Thalestris, in the Camp of Alexander the Great, was painted on copper towards the middle of the eighteenth century.

At its centre are the figures of a monarch who could be Thalestris, wearing her crown, waving with her right hand to the arriving Amazons, and showing a fine pair of legs. Next to her is Alexander, who seems to be talking to or about the horse to the right of him (on his left), who could be Bucephalus.

Behind Alexander are older courtiers and advisors, and his generals. In the centre of the painting is an Amazon who is not wearing a crown, but a warrior’s helmet, and a golden girdle, who could also be Thalestris. She has a long blue train which is borne by two Amazons, and several other attendants. Behind her are mounted Amazons, who form a dense queue stretching along a twisting and rocky path into the distance.

Weapons – axes, spears, bows, quivers, and shields – are piled in the foreground, and brandished by Alexander’s men and the arriving Amazons.

At this time, some of Alexander’s court started to plot against him. The king received secret reports from other loyal followers, but in the end had one, named Philotas, tortured to death, and one of his oldest friends, Parmenio, put to death too. On another occasion, the drunken Cleitus brawled with Alexander at dinner, and the king lost his temper, eventually running the man through with a spear.

With his friends becoming more fearful of these changes in Alexander, the time came for him to lead his army through the mountains to India. They first had to lighten their loads of booty, much of which was burned. When a site was being dug for his tent on the bank of the River Oxus, a clear oil similar to olive oil was found coming from a spring.

Alexander reached the kingdom of Taxiles, which was as large as Egypt; the two kings met, and reached agreement without going to war. Alexander was delighted with Taxiles’ thoughtful approach, and welcomed his generous gifts. However, his encounter with the great King Porus was more demanding.

Alexander’s army camped on the opposite side of the River Hydaspes from that occupied by the army of Porus. The latter kept a watch on the river crossing with his war elephants. One dark and stormy night, Alexander took some of his best infantry and cavalry over to a small island, where they were pinned down by a thunderstorm and torrential rain, with many of them being struck by lightning.

When Alexander’s small force attacked the much larger army of Porus, the latter believed that the entire Macedonian/Greek army had crossed the river, and after an eight hour battle Alexander achieved victory, with Porus himself taken prisoner.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), Alexander and Porus (1665), oil on canvas, 470 x 1264 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Le Brun’s vast painting of the battle between Alexander and Porus (1665) shows Alexander, to the right of centre with the exuberant plumes on his helmet, conversing with the captive Porus, who is being carried by Macedonian soldiers. Around and beyond is the aftermath of the great battle, with corpses of dead elephants, and the remains of Porus’ camp.

Even as a prisoner Porus was not to be cowed: when Alexander asked him how he should be treated, Porus told him “like a king”. And that was exactly how he was treated, being allowed to govern his former kingdom as a ‘subdued territory’. Sadly for Alexander, his faithful old horse Bucephalus died after that battle.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Triumph of Alexander the Great (c 1873-90), oil on canvas, 155 x 155 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau’s Triumph of Alexander the Great, which he painted over the period 1873-90, shows Alexander, dressed in white, sat high on his throne in the foreground. Around him is an extraordinary imagined landscape with imposing buildings forming a gorge, and a stack of grand buildings, towers, and other monumental structures further back. These are set at the foot of a massive rock pinnacle.

Moreau drew on a wide variety of sources for this most elaborate of Indian fantasy cityscapes: miniature paintings of south India, photographs by English travellers, several illustrated books, and Le Magasin Pittoresque, a contemporary illustrated magazine.

Alexander’s army had now reached the River Ganges, marking the boundary between the eastern edge of India and the start of South-East Asia. He was warned that beyond were huge armies of the Ganderites and Praesii waiting to engage them in battle, but still he wanted to cross, and to press on into those lands. His army now mutinied, its officers telling their leader that this was far and long enough, and refusing to cross.

At first, Alexander was furious, and shut himself up in his tent, but gradually came to accept the decision to halt there. He engaged in some skirmishing, in which he was almost killed when trying to quell a small rebellion. Plutarch also tells of his capture of ten Gymnosophist philosophers, whose resistance reminded Alexander of the need to keep a watchful eye over this edge of his far-flung empire.

Alexander then undertook exploration by sea of the eastern coastline of the sub-continent. He dreamed of sailing around Africa to re-enter the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. But his remaining force had been ravaged by disease as well as by battle, and they returned to Persia.

When back in Persia, Alexander discovered the tomb of the great king Cyrus, one of the few who had built an empire of comparable size to that of Alexander. This tomb, restored and protected by Alexander’s command, still stands in Pasargadae in Iran (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and has appeared in a few paintings.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great (1796), oil on canvas, 42 x 91.1 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

The great French landscape artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes shows Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great in this painting from 1796.

Alexander’s friend Calanus died when they had returned to Persia. The king attended a wake after his funeral, following which forty-one died as a result of the wine which they had drunk. Alexander married one of the daughters of Dareius when they were at Susa.

When they reached the great city of Babylon, Alexander was warned not to enter, because of inauspicious signs, but he ignored that advice. He fell ill after a long bout of drinking, developed a raging fever, and died. At the time, there was no suspicion that he had been poisoned, but five years later several were killed because of the claim that they had poisoned Alexander.

We will never know whether he died from disease, or at the hand of his enemies. He was only 32.


Alexander, whole text in English translation at Penelope.