Originally created 12/13/04

Macedonian relics depict life and times of world conqueror

NEW YORK - Don't expect titillating revelations about Alexander the Great from a collection of ancient relics showing life and times in his Macedonian kingdom.

Comparisons are inevitable with the new Hollywood film about Alexander, with its hints of bisexuality, but this show is all about the "real" Alexander, the historical personage from scholarly research and archaeological digs, the Greek organizers say.

"Alexander the Great: Treasures From an Epic Era of Hellenism," opening Friday at the Onassis Cultural Center, presents some 200 artifacts gathered from museums in Greece, Italy, France and the United States. The one-time exhibit lasts through April 16 and admission is free.

Alexander, 356-323 B.C., is depicted as an epic hero, shrewd self-publicist and bearer of Hellenic civilization. The emphasis is on his dynamic personality, mastery of warfare, bravery in battle and Grecian convictions that motivated his conquests before his death in Babylon at age 33.

"I have nothing against a film telling a story about Alexander's life," said curator Dimitrios Pandermalis of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. "It's the way the details are presented, the context."

Regarding male friendships and nudity on the training fields of ancient Greece, Pandermalis said, "They had a different attitude about such things."

Ancient Greece was a perpetual battlefield, and Alexander was able to perfect the arts of fighting. "Warfare was seen as the supreme good, the utmost virtue, through which every brave citizen willingly honored his country with his life and in return was rewarded with the highest honors for his sacrifice," the catalog notes.

The artifacts include images of Alexander in marble heads, bronze statuettes, medallions and ancient coins. Sections are devoted to the role of symposia, or wine-fueled social gatherings, and the influential role of women in ancient Macedonia, as shown by exquisitely crafted jewelry worn by aristocrats.

It includes the first public showing of the astonishing gold ornaments from the burial costume of a queen buried around 500 B.C. in Aigai, Macedonia, artifacts painstakingly excavated over a decade by archaeologist Angeliki Kottaridi.

Of the Alexander relics, the most famous is a marble portrait head, dating from 340-330 B.C., believed to be the work of sculptor Leohares, unearthed near the Erectheion on the Acropolis in Athens. Once part of a full-length statue, the life-size head, marred only by chipped nose, depicts the youthful king with full mane of thick hair and deep-set eyes emphasizing his intense expression. Traces of coloring on the head suggest his hair was depicted in the natural blond color.

"These characteristics combined to emphasize the leonine appearance of Alexander, frequently referred to in ancient texts," the catalog notes.

Another marble head of Alexander, in similar pose but slightly more eroded, dates from the third century B.C. It was found near Pella, the capital of ancient Macedonia and Alexander's birthplace. A bronze statuette depicts Alexander on his famed horse, Bucephalus, delivering a blow with a sword. Found near ancient Herculaneum, it is believed to be a first century B.C. copy of a work by Lysippos, reputedly Alexander's favorite artist.

Alexander was the first leader to immortalize himself on coins, setting a precedent for rulers who followed him. Before, the faces of coins were reserved for gods. Some 30 gold and silver coins and medallions are shown.

The show explains why Alexander's war machine was so efficient. The catalog notes that men began an exercise and practice warfare regimen at a young age, and trained and hunted every day.

Weapons include iron swords and javelin points, bronze greaves or leg armor and a shield, lead sling shells, and an iron sarissa, "the terrible Macedonian pike whose invention had a decisive effect on the art of warfare" when wielded by the closed ranks of Alexander's phalanx formations.

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