The organizers of the exhibit Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy could not have possibly chosen a more perfect day to inaugurate this very important event. Sunny and warm, without a single cloud in the sky – a rare event in England – the neoclassical Ashmolean Museum shone in beautiful daylight, the posters for the exhibit depicting the famous gold Medusa head from the tomb of Philip II plastered everywhere and gleaming. One felt as if transported in time to the Mediterranean world, and more specifically, to ancient Macedon.

The exhibitionis the first major event to be held in the newly redesigned Ashmolean Museum. It is composed of over 500 items, many of which are on display outside of Greece for the first time. The event has been organized under the aegis of the Prime Minister of Greece George A. Papandreou in collaboration with the Ashmolean Museum and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The George Economou Collection, The Hellenic Foundation, The A.G Leventis Foundation, the Friends of the Ashmolean, the Onassis Foundation, and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation are among the lead sponsors and supporters of the exhibit. It was curated by Dr. Angeliki Kottaridi, director of excavations and of the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aegea (Vergina), Dr. Susan Walker, Keeper of the Department of Antiquities of the Ashmolean Museum, and Dr. Yannis Galanakis, a special exhibition curator for the Ashmolean Museum. Robin Lane Fox, a renowned expert on Alexander the Great and Reader in Ancient History at the University of Oxford as well as a noted philhellene, provided guidance in all aspects of the exhibition.  It will run for five months and will coincide with a series of events and workshops that will highlight ancient and modern Greek culture in Oxford, including lectures by renowned scholars, film screenings, plays,musical performances, and classes in ancient jewelry techniques. Even the Ashmolean Museum’s dining room will have a “Greek season” where guests can choose from a wide array of Greek dishes. It is not too much to say, then, that the Greeks, led by the Macedonians, will conquer Oxford with their history and culture for the next five months!

The main question that is certainly on many people’s minds is “Why Oxford”? Why have the organisers chosen to display such marvelous finds in the Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford? Its director,Dr. Christopher Brown,emphasized that the museum is “the perfect place to hold this exhibit”.

Oxford is a pioneer in the study of Classical Greece and the Ashmolean, a museum with fine collections of Greek art from all periods of antiquity, is situated right next to the Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies as well as the School of Archaeology, both leading centers for the study of Greek history, art, and archaeology. Lane Fox also highlighted the university’s connection to Manolis Andronikos, the excavator of Aegae, who studied classical archaeology at Trinity College, Oxford in 1954 under the supervision of Sir John Beazley and received an Honorary Doctorate from the University in 1986 after his discovery of the tomb of Philip II at Aegae in 1977 and his subsequent work on the site made him famous around the world.  Thus, Oxford is the perfect place to hold this exhibit because it possesses the closest educational links not only with the subject of the exhibit but also with the famous archaeologist. 

During his speech, a very emotional Lane Fox declared that the exhibition reduced him to tears: “ I have never seen anything like this and I will try to describe it without breaking down”, he told the press.  He emphasized that the key to understanding Alexander and his people lies in the ground of Macedon and that the course of western art would have been very different if the treasures displayed in this exhibit had been discovered during the time of the Renaissance and studied by the great artists of the period. He also exclaimed, rather humorously, that Buckingham Palace looks like a cottage compared to the palace of Philip II at Aegae which he considers to be the most important building in Greece since the Parthenon. 

The exhibit spans a period of roughly 1000 years. The earliest finds date from c. 1300 BC and the latest to the end of the 4th century BC during the time of Alexander IV, son of Alexander the Great and the Bactrian princess Roxana. Upon entering the third floor of the museum where the exhibit is hosted, the visitor arrives in the first of three large rooms where he is introduced to images of the two characters that form the heart of this exhibit, a bust of Alexander the Great from Pella and a statuette dubbed the Ashmolean Heracles, a Roman copy of a Greek original, which depicts the hero with the slain Erymathean boar. At this point, one may ask, how exactly are these two characters linked and why are they central to the exhibit? The answer is supplied by the famous historians Herodotus and Thucydides who state that the Temenid dynasty to which Philip II and Alexander belonged claimed descent from Temenos of Argos, a grandson of Heracles, and thus the mythical hero was believed to be the ancestor of the royal house of Macedon.

Gallery 1 (The King’s Gallery) contains the earliest dated material of this exhibit. The first case displays weapons and alabastra of the Mycenean period from the area around Aegae, tentatively dated to the 14th century BC. Next are various finds from a necropolis of the early Iron Age followed by displays of jewelry of the archaic and classical periods. Of particular interest is a large case covered with hundreds of nails and metal fragments from the wooden house built to be purposely burned in the funeral pyre of Queen Eurydice, mother of Philip II, dated to 344/343 BC. The following display shows intricate finds from the tombs of the Temenids, including a sword and two spears belonging to Philip II, gold discs decorated with the star that became the symbol of the royal house of Macedon, and a gold Medusa head which once decorated a cuirass. The next case shows the golden oak and acorn wreath found in the area of the sanctuary of Eukleia in 2008, the most recent spectacular find in the exhibit.Another showcase in Gallery 1 is composedof hunting scenes and includes marble statues from the gymnasium at Aegae which depict a hunter killing a boar. The final display is composed of two grave steles of noble Macedonians.

Gallery 2 (The Queen’s Gallery) is dedicated to the lives of aristocratic women. One of the major highlights of this exhibit is “The Lady of Aegae”, the burial of the wife of Amyntas I (c. 500 BC). The woman is adorned with 72 pieces of gold and accompanied by silver, bronze, clay, and glass vessels in addition to other precious objects. Kottaridi has jokingly likened the appearance of the queen with her golden coil-shaped hair ornaments and heavy adornments to Pocahontas! In the same case are displayed four other female burials with various adornments bearing bronze scepters with triple rows of double axes, a symbol of authority in Macedon which shows links with southern Greece and with Crete in particular. Next is a display of artifacts from the tombs of a queen, including items for libations and clay figurines. A case with the gold myrtle wreath of Queen Meda, one of Philip II’s seven wives and a Thracian by birth, is one of the well-known items on loan from the Museum of Aegae. The following displays show jewels of the royal court, Attic white-groundlekythoi, and toiletry items of aristocratic women. There are also two cases displaying items from the Sanctuary of the Double Axes and clay figurines of Persephone, Hades, Pan and other dieties found in the burial of a queen. Another highlight is a section with eight  life-sized male and female clay heads with realistic and expressive faces found in one of the burials in the “queens” cluster at Aegae and dating to c. 480 BC. Lane Fox stated that these heads possibly represent known individuals or, less likely, demons. They are the forerunners of the Roman “veristic” portraits.

Gallery 3 (The Banquet Gallery) shows items used by noble Macedonians in their banquets, elements of interior decoration, and architectural parts of the palace at Aegae. The highlight is a case displaying silver banquet vessels from the tomb of Philip II, noteworthy for their intricate designs and fine workmanship. Also in this case are five silver banquet items from the tomb of Alexander IV. The next case contains two ivory miniature figurines of exquisite workmanship, one depicting a boar and the other a bearded man with outstretched arms. Both pieces, which are on display for the first time, decorated gold and ivory couches and were found in the tombs of Philip II and Alexander IV respectively. The following displays contain items of banqueting such as kantharoi and calyxes, many of which were imported from Corinth and the Aegean islands. The final section lays emphasis on the architectural components of the palace at Aegae, showing examples of intricately designed antefixes, a marble Ionic semi-column attached to a pillar, as well as ground plans and photos of the most important elements of the palace of Philip II at Aegae. This last section of the exhibit is perhaps the most incomplete and would have been greatly enhanced by the presence of more architectural elements, but transporting such architectural features long distance is both very difficult and risky. All in all, this room shows that the kings of Macedon were great patrons of Greek culture and sponsored the work of the best artists, architects, as well as dramatists of the period. It is important to note that Euripides’ Bacchae was first performed in Macedon, probably in the theater at Aegae.

In an age of globalization such as ours, important lessons can be learned from the first ecumenical civilization created by Alexander and his successors. Thanks to his campaigns and his remarkable vision, Greek culture was able to penetrate and blend with the indigenous cultures of the East. Yet, the origins of this venture that shaped much of later history lie in the soil of northern Greece and in several centuries of a monarchical system that paved the way for Alexander’s conquests. It is for the first time outside of Greece proper that the world gets to glimpse at such a large number of exquisite artifacts that belonged to the royal dynasty of the Temenids.

The Hellenistic world created by Alexander the Great is experiencing a resurgence of both academic and non-academic interest lately and it is very fortunate that the British Museum is hosting the exhibit Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World showcasing finds from Ai-Khanoum and Tillya Tepe at the same time as the Ashmolean exhibit on Alexander’s homeland. Some of the material featured in Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracywill be on display in the Louvre in the near future. In the meantime, however, it looks like the Macedonians and the world they created have found a very welcoming home in England and will remain here for some time.

Anna Kouremenos
DPhil candidate in archaeology, University of Oxford