The Alexander Sarcophagus

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Submitted: April 20, 2011

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Submitted: April 20, 2011





In 1887 the archaeologist, historian and painter Osman Hamdi Bey discovered the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus while excavating the underground royal necropolis in the ancient city of Sidon located in modern Lebanon today. Before I examine the sarcophagus itself, I want to offer a brief overview of the city where the Alexander Sarcophagus was found.

The Phoenicians founded their capital city Sidon in a defendable position on a promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean. The Phoenician name was Zidon, pronounced by the Greeks as Sidon and Tsidon in Hebrew. The name implies fishing or fishery. Other variations are Siduna and the modern name, Saida. To the east of Sidon are highlands with altitudes from 2000 to 2600 feet, but with enough passes to allow travel to the east, to Damascus. The Sidonian Depression, a geological line of weakness, strikes to the southeast, ending the Lebanon Mountain range and providing usable routes inland. The hills are for the most part limestone and chalk. The city is sited on the north slope of the promontory, overlooking the harbor. A wall separates the city from attack by land. The same location has been used down through the years to modern times, and thus the city as a whole has not been excavated. Small fragments of the defensive wall have been located, and the old castle on the islet in the harbor has been studied. Beyond that, little else is known about the actual plan of the Phoenician city of Sidon. We can get an idea of the defenses from coins and relief carvings, but little remains of the Phoenician, Roman, and Byzantine city.

Sidon was the mother of all Phoenician cities, directly founding Tyre, or indirectly founding Carthage. The inhabitants of Sidon were noted for their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, envied for their success in trade and industry, and sought out for their knowledge of the sea. Sidon is mentioned even by Homer with a large dose of praise.(Odyssey 13.285) The famous Phoenician purple dye was produced at Sidon, and the textile industry was the basis for its early success. Textiles were produced using the dye and were traded in all parts of the ancient world. The textile industry flourished. It was later found that the sands from the area produced a transparent glass, and this glass was a valued commodity throughout the Near East. The nearby hills, composed mostly of limestone, did not boast the thick cedar forests that were found farther north. However, fruit trees, (such as oranges and lemons), were planted in the hills to the east of Sidon. The city traded as far west as Spain and grew wealthy. However, over time, the Phoenician center of power moved north to one of its first colonies, Tyre.

The discovery of the Royal Necropolis has an interesting history as well. The owner of a plot of land in Sidon/Saisa one day discovered a deep well. He notified the governor, who informed the proper authorities in Istanbul. The Director of Museums, Osman Bey came in person to supervise the excavations, and discovered in this area a necropolis and two caves. The first cave was 10 meters in depth and 3.70 meters wide, and at the far end of it were 4 rooms. Near to these rooms, three further rooms containing a tomb were found. The tomb had been plundered, most likely in antiquity. The second cave was 4 meters wide and 7.50 meters deep. At its end, two chambers were discovered. In one of them (3.30 meters down, in a cavity) concealed beneath a heap of stones, the sarcophagus of King Tabnit was discovered,. The estimated date for this tomb is the 5th century B.C. Along with the tomb of king Tabnit, three other funeral monuments, including the Alexander Sarcophagus were found. It is believed that all must have been placed there towards the end of the 4th century B. C. (Fig 1)

The Alexander Sarcophagus is the most elaborately carved and colored of the examples of the complex. This great marble monument with its exquisitely carved and painted friezes is called the Alexander Sarcophagus not because it belonged to Alexander the Great, whose tomb has never been found, but because he is represented in the battle scenes along the side relief carvings. The relief sculpture on the sarcophagus is regarded as among the finest examples of Hellenistic art ever discovered. But it is in its way a hybrid work representing Greek architectural carving, Macedonian narrative, and Phoenician patronage.

There is no doubt that the necropolis where the Alexander Sarcophagus was found belonged to royalty. Apart from the sarcophagus of King Tabnit, which has been identified with certainty, the identity of the occupants remains doubtful. Most scholars agree that the Alexander Sarcophagus was made for the king of Sidon, Abdalonymos, who owed his reign(beginning in 332 B.C). to Alexander. Abdalonymos belonged to the royal house of Sidon, although we do not know his exact position in the genealogy. Sidon belonged to the Persian Empire,: as such, the Sidonian king was expected to pay tribute to the most powerful monarch of the ancient world. However, during Abdalonymos' youth, his relative king Tennes (Phoenician Tabnit), revolted. The Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II supported the rebellion and sent 4,000 Greek mercenaries commanded by one of the most capable commanders of that age, Mentor of Rhodes. However, Tennes and his allies stood no chance against the army of the great king, and when Artaxerxes III Ochus arrived in 346, they surrendered. Tennes was executed by the Persians and the desperate Sidonians set fire to their own city. The destruction cannot have been complete, because thirteen years later, Sidon was a wealthy town again. By that time, its king was Abdastart, a name that the Greeks rendered as Straton. It is possible that he may have been a nephew of Tennes. When the war between Macedonia and Persia broke out in 334, Straton supported his Persian superior with ships, which operated under Memnon of Rhodes and Pharnabazus in the Aegean Sea. However, in November 333, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius III Codomannus near Issus, and marched to the south to Phoenicia. Several local kings surrendered, and Straton was one of them.

Abdalonymos, although of royal lineage, was working as a gardener when the Macedonian army gained Sidon from the Persian forces. In 333 B.C. the resident Persian satrap was deposed and Abdalonymos was appointed in his place. The Roman historian Curtius Rufus relates that “Alexander, after taking possession of the city, charged his boyhood companion Hephaestion with the task of choosing a new king for the native population. The story continues that Hephaestion chose the humble gardener Abdalonymos to be king over the other contenders of royal blood because he had no political ambition and would care for his people as well as he had cared for his garden.”1 It is widely agreed upon by most scholars that the sarcophagus was made in honor of this Abdalonymos. He is even portrayed in the relief scenes.

The sarcophagus was carved out of two blocks of pentelic marble and most likely was sculpted around the years 313-311 B.C.. It is generally agreed that Near Eastern kings customarily commissioned their tombs during their own lifetime. The year of Abdalonymos’ death is unknown, so it is impossible to say for sure when exactly the sarcophagus was made.2 Most scholars agree that 311 is the latest date that it could have been carved, since that is the usual date that they give for the year of Abdalonymos’ death.3 Some scholars believe that it was sculpted by Greek sculptors from the Lysippan school, others by a possibly related Rhodian workshop.4 Studies by the German scholar Volkmar von Graeve highlight the idea of it having been sculpted and painted by Ionian craftsmen living in Phoenicia and influenced by oriental styles. 5 The style of the sarcophagus is at any rate eclectic, so that, according to A. Stewart, its greatest debts are to Attic sculpture and the Parian master Skopas,6 while Ridgway claims that the economic and iconographic considerations appear to demand manufacture by a local workshop whose master may have come from Attica or Macedonia.7 Moreover, Boardman suggests that “There were no major Greek settlements on the coast of Syria or Phoenicia until after the arrival of Alexander the Great, so examples of Greek sculpture are the work of guest-artists. Of the Phoenician cities Sidon was the one whose rulers were most engaged in the employment of Greek sculptures, but the first manifestations are unusual and exercised on objects of foreign form.”8 Marble coffins were almost never employed by Greeks before.

Sarcophagi start to appear in Sidon around 500 in the form of Egyptian anthropoids, which were roughly shaped to the human body with a frontal human head in relief. These were usually reused in the royal cemetery. In the Early Classical period sarcophagi appear in Greek marble with Greek-style heads upon them, and most likely were sculpted by Greeks themselves.9 These types continued to be made until the fourth century; they even gained currency throughout the Phoenician world, in Carthange, Sicily and Spain. During the late fifth century, the marble relief sarcophagus begins to take form, although there are occasional Greek examples as early as the Archaic period.10 These sarcophagi begin to take on an architectural form similar to small buildings or chests. The earliest example is the so-called Satrap Sarcophagus dated towards the end of the fifth century. The relief depicts the rulers life, hunting, inspecting cavalry, etc. From the fourth century we have the so-called Lycian Sarcophagus, done with a hunting motif in Greek style and dress. 11 Next is the Mourner’s Sarcophagus, dated near the mid century, which depicts women mourners in an air of quiet dignity, similar to Attic gravestones. According to Boardman , “The last of the sarcophagi, the Alexander Sarcophagus takes us to the end of our period and is stylistically the finest. Its form is wholly architectural with its roof-lid, but the sides have relief panels, introducing Alexander hunting and the battles of Macedonians and Persians. It heralds the true Hellenistic mood and execution.”12

The Alexander sarcophagus measures 3.18 meters long, 1.60 meters wide and 1.95 meters high. The figures in the relief are about 58 centimeters high.13 There are four scenes on the sarcophagus carved in a late Classical or early Hellenistic style. The top is apparently carved in a late or early style.14 Traces of paint show that the sarcophagus was once richly painted in bright colors. The lid (which some believe is later than the sarcophagus itself) is in the form of a pitched roof covered with tiles resembling fish scales, and there are small carved friezes in the triangular pediments at either end. Beneath the cornice, and along the base and edge of the lid are bands of egg and dart moulding, and below these on the base is a band of stylized vine leaves. On either side of the lid are gargoyles in the form of lion-griffins.

Some interesting concepts about the sarcophagus are : the content is funerary while the iconography is historical, the style and format are Hellenistic but the patron and context were Phoenician. R. Smith adds: “The medium is Greek, but rarely used for such subjects – paintings and statue groups were the usual media for celebrating historical events.”15 The Sarcophagus is full of contradictions; its style is pure Greek, its iconography mixes east and West, history and genre, and real and ideal in a most uneasy fashion.

The relief figures complete all four sides of the chest and both pediments of the lid. The carving is done in high relief, and projecting beyond the panel frame. The reliefs are usually interpreted as displaying the most important events of the reign of Abdalonymos, and his relationship to Alexander.16 However, the Sarcophagus is a highly conflicted monument. It presents no unified program, and offers no obvious message. However, one cannot doubt that it is an outstanding piece of sculptured marble. One has only to look at the delicate carving of the horses, lion, boar and other animals in the friezes, and the way in which the taut muscles, distended veins and other anatomical details are depicted, to appreciate the overwhelming and rare power of this spectacular work of art.

Even though there are no columns surrounding the sarcophagus, Ridgway claims that its overall appearance is of an Ionic temple, due to the “dentil course under the eaves of the roof.”17 She perceives the figures carved out in high relief to correspond to a continuous freize articulated in two themes: the battle and the hunt. Ridgway sees the high relief sculptures as depicting typical virtues of the eastern rulers – bravery in war and in hunting.18 Ridgway believes that the scenes are made historical by the presence of Alexander the Great, (which provides the misnomer for the sarcophagus), but she also states that the scenes do not depict a particular battle in history. Rather it depicts powerful yet generic symbols of war and of hunting.

While the style of the carvings, the subjects of the narratives scenes, and the syntax of the decoration all connect the sarcophagus with Greek work and inspiration, Persian and Egyptian elements are present as well. For example, the apotropaic horned lion-headed griffins follow an Imperial Persian form, and are legendary guardians of gold or of anything valuable – in this case the body of the King Abdalonymos. By the Hellenistic period, the lion-headed griffin takes on an additional meaning, through its association with Dionysos and Apollo. Due to the presence of grape or vine leaves on the continuous band, the importance of resurrection and eternal life, associated with Dionysos is emphasized.19 Other signifiers of eternal life or immortality are the foliate heads, both in their single and double form. They have been interpreted as symbols of the Syrian goddess Atargatis, Isis, or sirens. The eagles with their wings opened according to Ridgway, symbolize Zeus, and thus allude to the status, power and rank of the deceased.20

All four sides and both pediments contain scenes in relief: battles between Macedonians and/or Greeks and Persians occupy one long and one short side(A,C), and hunts cover the other long and short sides (B, D). The lion and deer hunt scene displays Greeks/Macedonians and Persians collaborating, whereas the panther hunt is done by Persians alone. In one of the pediments, armed Macedonians or Greeks kill an unarmed man, who appears to be Macedonian or Greek, and in the other pediment Persians again fight against Macedonians or Greeks. There are two long friezes on either side. One is of a battle scene and the other a hunting scene. R. Smith interprets the battle scene as historical and dates it before 300 B.C.21

The main battle relief (A) is comprised of six horses and 18 human figures out of these, thirteen are alive and five are dead. Five of the living are Macedonian and eight are Persian. Of the dead, one is Macedonian and four are Persian. The imbalance of numbers of Persians to Macedonians is interpreted by some scholars as representing the superior number of Persian forces that Alexander had to contend with, as well as the massive number of Persian casualties that he inflicted in battle.22 The battle scene is symmetrically framed with two mounted figures on each end: Alexander and Parmenio. Both ride on horses that are rearing and turned towards the center of the relief to face the mounted figure of Hephaestion. The horse Alexander is riding, having received an arrow in the breast, is rearing up. Alexander, a lance in his hand, is pursuing a Persian. On the right, at the end of the sarcophagus, a wounded Macedonian kills a Persian. The Persian, his throat cut, dies in the arms of a friend who has run to his aid. Between these two groups is the Persian Alexander is chasing, soldiers fighting sword in hand, and animals killing one another; the whole forms a superb picture.

Alexander is shown wearing a “lion’s head helmet”, which is similar to the lion’s head helmet worn by Herakles on the east pediment of the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina (480 B.C.) The similarity of helmets possibly allude to Alexander’s Macedonian royal descent from Herakles.23 The helmet also emphasizes that Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire was a heroic deed worthy of comparison with Herakles’ feats. Further allusions to Alexander’s heroization can be seen in his vestments, a chiton and calmys, and by the fact that he is barefoot. Being unarmored is a conventional manner to showing one’s elevated status. Being barefoot also alludes to his heroic status, since dead heroes are normally shown shoeless.24 Stewart, however does not agree but rather interprets Alexander as wearing a Macedonian high-laced sandal or krepides, which he believes was rendered in paint, along with a sleeved and double-girdled chitoniskos, and purple cloak.25 Kasner, however, suggests that both Alexander and Hephaestaion are not dressed in realistic battle dress, thus he suggests that their vestiments “allude to the cult of Hephaestaion as an official hero which was instituted by Alexander after Hephaestion’s death.26

The figures are all densely located near one another creating a the very Hellenistic effect of “realistic confusion.” Thus the “Hellenistic trend towards pictorial realism has been fully exercised, and the artistic neatness of earlier Greek combat relief sculptures has been completely avoided.”27 The battle scene is vigorous and compact in its composition, and has a strong resemblance to the pictorial tradition of Alexander. It is specially similar to the Alexander Mosaic in Pompei; which is based on a later 4th century painting. Some scholars believe that the battle scene on the sarcophagus is an excellent example of the battle of Alexander against the Persians at Gaugamela, or at Issos in 333 B.C. The battle of Issos was fought just to the north of Sidon, and it may be significant that after the battle of Issos, Abdalonymos received his throne.

The theme of oriental valor is also depicted in the battle relief. The Persian who is facing Alexander is brandishing a sword, glaring straight at Alexander with hostile intentions. The sculptor deliberately focused on the Persian defiance. According to Stewart “His (the sculptor’s) Persian is no craven enemy, but a valiant fighter, as are his companions, even though their cause is irretrievably lost.”28 Other scenes of oriental valor are developed in the side panel and pediment battle scenes. On the side panel the central rider is in the same pose as Alexander in the main battle scene, setting up an equivalence between them. Most agree the rider is Abdalonymos himself. While Abdalonymos is shown towering over the fallen enemy, the other Persian is on the defensive, and the other on the right is clearly doomed, thus balancing the victorious stance of Abdalonymos. One Greek wears a cloak, but otherwise all are nude except for their Phrygian helmets. According to Stewart “This scene is intended to be exemplary, not historical: since battle is the testing ground of kings, and Abdalonymos must fight and win.”29

The “Battle Relief” exemplifies a Greek artistic genre that dates back to the seventh century B.C.; that of the battles of the gods or Greeks against bestial or barbaric forces. These types of battles also tend to signify the Greeks’ concept of the struggle between civilized order and chaos.30 The concept of man over nature, on the other hand, is depicted in the lion hunt relief , carved on the long side of the sarcophagus.

The lion hunt scene is a superb example of valor carved in stone. It is symmetrical in its composition and involves four pairs of figures. Abdalonymos himself dominates the scene by being placed in the center, while Alexander appears to be coming to his aid against the lion.31 The ultimate origin of this image of Abdalonymos is according to A. Stewart a combination of two scenes from the north palace of Assurbanipal at Nineveh.32 (Fig ) In any case, the relief depicts a Persian swinging at the lion with an axe, while two Macedonians, one of which is identified as Alexander ride in to help. (A. Stewart does not believe that this is Alexander but most likely Demetrios Poliorketes.33) Two more figures frame the central group. One pair enters from the left to aid against the lion, while another pair runs in from the right to kill the deer. Alexander’s policy of syncretism is evident in the hunting scene by the participation of both Persians/Phoenicians and Greeks. There was, in fact, a famous royal hunting park at Sidon where many believe this scene took place.34 Furthermore, the reliefs of Ashurbanipal show that not only lions were in such parks but other animals as well.35

The hunting relief, although full of figures wearing what seems to be Persian attire, may also indicate the Sidonians of Abdalonymos, since many Sidonians dressed in Persian attire.36 The pendant to this scene, the panther hunt on the short side, includes only Persian dressed men. Abdalonymos has been “recognized in the impressive spear-bearer with the round shield at the center.”37 Thus the pendant displays Persian dressed men alone, and is a prelude to the lion hunt, which shows both Persian and Greek attired men fighting the beast, alluding to an “alliance against the savagery of the beasts.”38

Next, in the pediment scene above, we see two fully armed Macedonians who kill an unarmed man dressed in an exomis or light tunic. A spear is on the ground behind him, suggesting that it fell once he was seized, or that he failed to grasp it in time. Both of his guards lie dead on the floor. On the left a frightened slave or page props one of the guards up, while on the right a strong bearded man in a muscle cuirass is about to kill the second as he tries to crawl away to the corner in vain. The “victor’s purple chiton and the cutting for a fillet in his hair seem to single him out as royal.”39 According to Stewart, this scene is “clearly a historical event, characterized as emphatically as Greek artistic convention would allow.”40 Stewart claims that the candidate that best fits this scene is Perdikkas, who in 320 was murdered in his attempt to cross the Nile and take Memphis.41

The traces of color that remain are still bright after 2,300 years, allowing us to imagine exactly what the sarcophagus looked like before most of the vegetable and mineral pigments wore away. Originally the added bronze weapons held by the soldiers and hunters, such as spears, axes and swords were plated in gold or silver, but grave robbers stripped all this metal ornamentation away except for one of the axes which is now preserved in the Istanbul Museum.42

On its discovery, the polychromy of the Alexander Sarcophagus was almost intact on the figures of the relief and surrounding frame. However, exposure to light and other elements removed much of the surface paint. Still, some traces of paint can be seen even today. “A major change in ancient polychromy is generally said to have taken place at the time of the Alexander Sarcophagus. It consisted in leaving all backgrounds plain and in painting all figures with an array of colors no longer flat and vivid, but pastel and highlighted or shaded with violet/purple and yellow playing a major role.”43 Alexander’s horse was painted yellow/brown, while all others, even the lion in the hunting scene were left the color of the marble. The blood out of the pierced wound of the lion was painted red, and stood out against the bare background marble.

Stewart states that the reading of the sarcophagus should be done in terms of a bifurcated address to “Asians” and “Greeks”. He sees addressed to two different audiences, and states that its contradictions shed some light on the preoccupations of Abdalonymos and the world he was trying to reach.44 To Abdalonymos and to the Phoenician aristocracy, the Sarcophagus was an emblem of pride and most likely promoted the dynamis of Asia.45 The Sidonians had not fought at Issos, and thus they would not necessarily associate themselves with Darius’ defeat. The manner in which the sculptures repeatedly emphasize Asian valor, even in defeat, as well as Asian primacy in the hunt, and the right of Asians to stand at the side of Macedonians, indicates that Abdalonymos took Alexander’s policies of syncretism seriously, and perhaps even more than Alexander did himself. Stewart claims that “Whereas at Opis Alexander had seated the revelers in three circles –first Macedonians, then Persians, and finally “the others” – the Sarcophagus conflates the three people in two, “Greek” and “Asian.”46 Thus its message in antiquity would have emphasized Alexander’s own style as “king of Asia”, and the realities of the Age of Successors, while the diminishing pool of Macedonian manpower decreased the distinctions between Macedonians and Greeks.

However, for some Sidonians, the sarcophagus could have had a different interpretation. Though many welcomed the Macedonians in 333, their enthusiasm was undoubtedly dampened when Alexander abolished their autonomous coinage. This was a powerful commercial change for Sidon, since it not only deprived its elite of fiscal control but made their finances subordinate to the Macedonian treasury. Two years after the fact, they were subjugated to the Syrian satrapy47 Thus, according to A. Stewart, the image of Alexander could just have easily been a reminder of Nikostratos in his brutal attack of 345.48

Today’s Hellenist or Greek audience views the Sarcophagus as a biographical relief account. It begins with the battle of Issos on the long frieze, and continues with Alexander’s hunt in the Sidonian game park in 332 on the other long frieze, the murder of Perdikkas in 320 in one pediment, an unidentified fight involving Abdalonymos in the other pediment, and Abdalonymos’ last moments in battle, most likely in Gaza in 312, on the short frieze. The panther hunt is the only “generic” scene. Today’s “Asian” interpretations, on the other hand, read the entire program as Abdalonymos’s expression of nostalgia for the Achaemenid empire, of his belief in Alexander’s “syncretism” or “fusion” policy, or as a grand gesture of self-glorification which was common in the Near Eastern artistic tradition.49

There is no doubt between both schools of thought, that through the beautiful and magnificent carvings of the sarcophagus, Alexander and those after him left a legacy in history and in stone. The Alexander Sarcophagus exemplifies both exceptional artistic technique combined with a story line which follows a historical narrative. The marble embodies the intense and dramatic movements of the figures while simultaneously pointing to a new age in art – the Hellenistic period.



Christina Perdue


1 Rufus, Quintus Curtius(1956) The History of Alexander 15-23

2 Stewart, A.(1993) Faces of Power p. 297

3 Kasner, M. p. 3(1983) A Proposed Reconstruction of the Weaponry of the Alex. Sarcophagus p.3

4 ibidp.3

5 of Alexander the Great.

6 Stewart, Andrew, Faces of Power p. 295

7 Ridgway, B. p. 44

8 Boardman, John.(1995) Greek Sculpture. P. 214

9 ibid. p.214

10 B.J. 215

11 ibid p. 215

12 ibid. p.215

13 Schefold, Der Alexander Sarkophag, p. 45

14 Ridgway, B(1990).Hellenistic Sculpture p.40

15 ibid 190

16 ibid 191

17 Ridgway, Brunilda(1999) Prayers in Stone. P.37

18 ibid,p.37

19 Ridgway, B. p.38

20 ibid 38

21 Smith, R.(1991) Hellenistic Sculpture p.190

22 Kasner, Michael p.11

23 Beiber, Alexander the Great p.48

24 Kasner, M. p. 20

25 Stewart, A. 304

26 Kasner, M. p.21

27 ibid p.13

28 Stewart,A. p. 300

29 Stewart, A. p.300

30 Kasner, Michael p13

31 Bierber, Margarete(1964). Alexander the Great p.52

32 Stewart, A. p.300

33 Stewartp.306

34 Smith, R. 191

35 Stewart, A. p. 300

36 Rudgway, Hellenistic Sculpture p. 40

37 Stewart, A. p.300

38 ibid 300

39 ibid 301

40 Stewart. A, p.301

41 ibid p. 301


43 Ridgway, B. p 122

44 Stewart, A. 302

45 Stewart, A. 302

46 ibid 302

47 ibid 303

48 ibid 303

49 Stewart, A. 298

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