New Exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford – ‘Heracles to Alexander the Great’

‘Heracles to Alexander the Great’ is the Ashmolean Museum’s main attraction for the coming summer season.

The exhibition contains treasures and artefacts discovered within the ancient Macedonian royal burial tombs at Aegae (modern Vergina) from the 1950s onwards. These tell the story of the Temenid Kings of Macedon, a dynasty which ran from Perdiccas I in the 7th century BCE and ended with the assassination of Alexander the Great’s heirs roughly four hundred years later. They help show the development of the Kingdom of Macedon, a subject of great historical significance. It was this kingdom that was responsible, through the conquests of Alexander, for the spread of Greek (western) culture and language into the east.

The artefacts are arranged thematically, spanning three rooms: the King’s Room, the Queen’s Room, and the Banquet Room. A visitor entering the King’s Room is greeted by marble sculptures of Heracles and Alexander the Great, defining the scope of the exhibition and its theme (the divine ancestry of Macedonian royalty). The room concentrates on the lives of the kings, princes, and their noble companions. Here we find the heroic and virile spirit of Heracles alive in examples of armour, weaponry, and hunting scenes. Of particular curiosity are the bronze greaves of King Philip II (father of Alexander), evidence of two very muscular royal calves. There is also a recreation of a magnificent fresco commissioned by Alexander the Great to adorn his father’s tomb, which touchingly depicts the two kings hunting a lion together in the forests of Macedonia.

The Queen’s Room focuses on the lives of women at the palace of Aegae. There is a fascinating array of jewellery and pottery, including many small clay figurines (some with the original paint) which were used as offerings to the gods during burial. Alongside is a dozen or so life-size clay heads, also used as part of the burial ritual. They are believed to represent the goddesses Persephone and Demeter, along with others depicting grotesque demons; what they were for, and precisely how they were used, we can only imagine. Above them, covering one entire side of the room, is a painting known as the ‘Abduction of Persephone by Hades’, a very expressive yet informal example of ancient Macedonian art.

It is in the Queen’s Room where we find the real star of the exhibition. Outshining (literally) Heracles and the Macedonian kings is the resplendent ‘Lady of Aegae’. Bedecked head-to-toe for burial in the most exquisite gold jewellery, one wonders if there was ever a more glamorous corpse – even the soles of her shoes are gilded. Close by is another of the exhibition’s highlights, one that reduced Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox to tears: the myrtle wreath of Queen Meda (wife of King Philip II). It consists of over two-hundred leaves and flowers made from paper-thin beaten gold, the beauty and naturalism of which is simply breathtaking.

The Banquet Room ends the exhibition with a glimpse into the communal drinking and dining practices of the royal court. This room doesn’t contain thrilling wonders quite on the level of the previous two, but there is still plenty to savour. The bowls, cups, jars, and jugs presented cover an extended period of time (some dating back to the 11th century BCE), giving a real sense of the development of such objects in their aesthetic and functional qualities. My favourite piece in the room is a perfect silver jug with the head of a satyr on the handle. This demonstrates extraordinary detail and craftsmanship, as do two miniature ivory carvings from the tombs of Philip II and Alexander IV (son of Alexander the Great) respectively.

I have mentioned only a few of the wonders on show. This is a superb exhibition which offers a real sense of connection to an important part of our history. The people who fashioned and used these objects truly believed they were descended from gods. With Alexander, they produced a god-on-earth. His achievements inextricably bound the fortunes of east and west and later inspired the Romans, whose legacy still affects us all.

Accompanying the exhibition is a glossy 270-page catalogue. It includes detailed information about all the objects on show at the exhibition and tells the entire story of the archaeological discoveries and the history behind them, complete with hundreds of high quality photographs. It is, in effect, the definitive work on the subject.

It is on sale at Blackwell’s on Broad Street for £25.00, where there is also a great range of books on Alexander the Great and the history of Macedonia.

~ Daniel Stott, History & Classics, Blackwell’s, Oxford.

‘Heracles to Alexander the Great’ is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from 7 April to 29 August. Tickets £8/Concessions £6

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