Alexander the Great and the opening of the world at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim

Alexander the Great and the opening of the world at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim

October 30, 2009
Alexander the Great continues to be relevant today, more than two thousand years after his death. That his origin is presently so hotly contested is testament to his legacy. Alexander´s campaign changed the culture of Asia. Alexander also became a model for Roman rulers and ultimately had an impact on European ideals. On the 3rd of October the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim opened an exhibition under the title “Alexander the Great and the opening of the world” subtitled: Asia´s cultures in transition. Already by the end of the first week the exhibition had attracted three thousand visitors.

Archaeologist Michael Tellenbach, vice director of the Museum, was very kind to comment extensively on both the exhibition and on Alexander. “The exhibition is not just about Alexander. It starts with his person, his campaign and his conquest of what was then most of the known world. However, it is also about what resulted from it: Eastern Hellenism. His campaign was also an expedition. Alexander brought with him scientists, biologists, engineers, surveyors and geographers. He was going to the end of the world.”

Indeed he was going to change the world. As a result of the influx of scholars and the use of a common Greek language in the new empire, Alexander´s conquests were destined to bring about big changes in Asia. This exhibition also aims to make archaeological discoveries from Hellenistic Asia better known. According to Dr Tellenbach, much of that material is very badly published. Until the end of the Soviet period, finds from the former USSR were not available for study and were rarely published even in Soviet journals. Some of the areas where Alexander went in modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan have been inaccessible. This was an opportunity to display for the first time under one roof an extremely diverse sample of about 400 Hellenistic and related artifacts from the regions of Alexander´s empire.

What were the changes Alexander caused? Some of them were long lasting. There had been a currency in Persia before. However the Greeks brought monetarism. Once Alexander took over the Persian administration, Greek coinage and monetary administration spread throughout the new empire. Indeed even centuries afterwards the Kushan rulers of Central Asia issued Greek-style coins with Greek letters which they had adopted as an alphabet for their own language.

Dr Tellenbach was quick to add that the Greek influence went beyond money. “The exhibition is about the opening of the world. By “opening” we mean communication. The use of Koine Greek as the lingua franca of Eastern Hellenism meant that a lot of cultures could interact. The interaction was in a variety of ways. The exchange of Greek thought and iconography with those of the Orient continued to have a strong effect well beyond the Hellenistic period. In Central Asia, this legacy had repercussions on the religious iconography of India and even China and the whole of East Asia. As an example, before Alexander the Buddha was represented simply with footsteps on the ground. After the influence of the Hellenistic kingdoms, the Buddha started to be represented in statues with human form. In fact gods of Asia became for the first time represented in human form probably after Alexander´s campaign. The influence indeed went beyond the conquered lands. The Buddha statue in Nara, Kyoto, is adorned with vine leaves. Vines cannot be found in Japan or anywhere in that part of Asia, it is a Greek decorative motif.”

There were many other ways in which Asia changed: “For his new empire Alexander is said to have founded over thirty new cities modeled on the Greek polis. In the case of Ai Khanum in Bactria on the upper Oxus, the new Polis incorporated not only a Greek street system, a great agora and palaestra, but even a theatre and an acropolis. Greek theatre became commonplace in the Hellenistic cities. An account by Plutarch of the defeat of Roman general Crassus by the Parthians at Carrhae in 53 BC mentions that Crassus’ severed head was brought to the Parthian and Armenian kings then at a royal wedding. A Greek actor who was in the midst of Euripides’s Bacchae took hold of the head and incorporated it into the play while reciting a verse” – “We bring from the mountain a tendril fresh-cut to the palace, a wonderful prey.” The Greek influence in the form of Greek language and in this case Greek theatre lived on for centuries.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great © Verwaltung der Staatlichen Schlösser und Gärten Hessens, Bad Homburg

The exhibition is organized approximately thematically. It begins with busts and statuettes portraying Alexander, some of them Roman copies of originals. Alexander considered himself a descendant of Heracles from his father´s side and of Achilles from his mother´s side and was a student of one of the greatest Greek philosophers, Aristotle. So next there is an area about Greece with a copy of Aristotle´s head and a backgrounder on Alexander´s mission to find the end of the world based on the geographical beliefs of the time. There is also much Greek armour, an interactive area with replicas of a sarissa and helmets of the Macedonian soldiers as well as maps, dioramas and animations about the campaign of Alexander. The Greek section ends with copies of the famous Alexander mosaic from Pompei.

The rooms that follow contain exhibits from the various conquered regions: Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, Bactria and the Indian subcontinent. Among them is a statuette of Aphrodite from the temple of Artemis at Dura-Europos in Syria (1-2nd C BC). It bears the influence of a lost statue of Aphrodite Uraneia by Pheidias. Below is a sketch of it. The Greek influence is unmistakable.


The exhibits from Egypt include a golden medallion of Alexander from Aboukir, c. 220-240 BC (Berlin Muenkabinett SMB PK Obj Nr 100016) The reverse is in some respects more interesting: Winged Nike gives a shield to Eros. Next to them a tropaion with two prisoners. The inscription says in Greek BASILEOS ALEXANDROU (King Alexander´s). Through Alexander, the Greek civilisation was being spread to the far corners of the world.

There were several interesting, curious small items with Greek writing: coins, pottery sherds (ostraka) that had been used for writing notes and a royal seal. Even sling projectiles have been recovered from the battlefields. One had been signed by the shooter: ΑΣΣΚΛΗΠΙΟΔΩ(ΡΟΥ). There is a touch of humour in the misspelled soldier´s signature: “a present from ssssclepius”. Allegedly some projectiles were taunting their enemies and entertaining their friends with inscriptions such as ΔΕΞΑ (take this!) inscribed on them. The declension is neither Attic (ΔΕΞΩ) nor Koine (ΔΕΞΟΥ) but Doric (ΔΕΞΑ). Spartans, a Dorian people, did not join Alexander´s campaign. The peltast who fired this slingshot was possibly a Macedonian. According to Herodotus and some archaeological evidence the Macedonian dialect was Doric.

After their victory at Gaugamela the Macedonians arrived in Babylon. Herodotus had described it as the biggest city in the world.

Reconstruction of Babylon at teh time of Alexander

Babylon © CES für rem/ FaberCourtial

Alexander´s men must have been greatly impressed, some by the size and splendour of Babylon but others by the civilization. The Greeks apparently became interested in the astronomical and astrological texts they found. The ancient religious, literary and scientific traditions, in particular astronomy and its interpretation, made a big impression on Alexander and his successors. Cuneiform clay tablets with texts on astronomy, geometry and mathematics are among the exhibits in this section. Cultural influences became bidirectional. Hellenistic art spread to Mesopotamia. A small statue of Heracles Epitrapezios from Nineveh is included in the exhibition. There is a votive inscription in Greek at the base: ΔΙΟΓΕΝΗΣ ΕΠΟΙΕΙ ΣΑΡΑΠΙΟΔΩΡΟΣ ΑΡΤΕΜΙΔΩΡΟΥ ΚΑΤ ΕΥΧΗΝ –”made by Diogenes Sarapiodoros upon the wish of Artemidoros”.

From the ruins and sherds of Babylon and Persepolis the exhibition moves to novel territory. Indeed the high point of the exhibition is Hellenistic Central Asia. According to Dr Tellenbach, an awareness of its historical significance is only now emerging. In Seleukos´s kingdom, which extended from Syria to the Indus, the Central Asian lands had been of great importance, but around 250 BC, the Graeco-Bactrian realm in the East had been split off. With the expansion of the Parthians, who drove a wedge between the two entities, it increasingly turned into a Hellenistic enclave isolated from the rest of the Hellenistic world.

Graeco-Bactrian gold coins are splendid. They show ruler portraits and – on the reverse – their divine dynastic patrons, such as Apollo, Zeus, Heracles, patrons of the Seleucids and Graeco-Bactrians. King Demetrios I presents himself as the conqueror of India by wearing an elephant helmet. Only in the last 50 years – due to the archaeological excavation of French and Russian archaeologists on the Oxus in Afghanistan, in Ai Khanum and at the Oxus temple Takht-I Sangin in Tajikistan – has it been realized that the Graeco-Bactrian Empire was not a phantasy. Today we know that it included Soghdia, Bactria and areas all around the Hindukush as well as expanding all the way into Central India and to the banks of the River Ganges.

Archaeological evidence that charts the beginning of the Greeks in Bactria was provided by German-Uzbek excavations ahead of the Alexander exhibition. These were supported by the German Archaeological Institute and the Curt Engelhorn Foundation, which is also responsible for this exhibition. Bactria was a large and populous region conquered by Alexander. In Kurgansol near Baysun in Transoxania, the archaeologists unearthed one of the first fortresses Alexander built for his campaign beyond the Oxus towards the northern steppes of Central Asia, Maracanda (Samarkand) and Ferghana. The fort of Kurgansol was built in the late 4th C BC and was guarded until the 2nd C BC. It is situated on a ridge above the Oxus valley through which an ancient road leads to the pass known as Alexander´s Gates, the Iron Gates at Derbent. Six bastions protect the fortress on the side of the high plateau. Among the simple remains a fired-clay bath tub was found connected to water pipes and a drainage system. Fired clay bath tubs were a traditional element of Greek civilization. The existence of a bath tub at this location in Central Asia can be best explained by the presence of bearers of Greek culture. Further finds included a set of drinking vessels, a wine strainer, a distillation set and a variety of ceramic vessels of Persian and Hellenistic style.

Reconstruction of Kurgansol fort

Kurgansol fort © CES für rem/ FaberCourtial

Another group of Graeco-Bactrian artifacts displayed in the exhibition were found in a temple on the river Oxus in modern southern Tadjikistan:

They include various statuettes with a Hellenistic influence, an Ionic style decorative pillar capital and other items. An inscription on a 2nd C BC mould for casting contains a Graeco-Bactrian reading in Greek letters: ΕΣΟΞΟΝ ΚΑΤΑΦΡΑΖΥΜΕΝΑ ΑΝΕΘΕΣΕ ΙΡΩΜΟΙΟΙ ΝΕΜΙΣΚΟΥ ΜΟΛΡΠΑΛΡΗΣ ΧΑΛΚΙΟΝ ΕΓ ΤΑΛΑΝΤΩΝ ΕΠΤΑ: Esoxon Kataphrazymena (or Esoxon the son of Kataphrazymenas – a Hellenised Bactrian name) dedicated this copper vessel valued at seven talents to “Iromoios Nemiskou Molrpalres” (possibly the Hellenised name of a local deity or hero).

The Graecobactrian Hellenistic kingdom lasted until about 150 BC. It was eventually replaced by the Kushan kingdom. The Kushan rulers continued to issue Greek style coinage with Greek letters adapted to the Kushan language. The kings issued coins with their names Hellenised. One reads: ΒΑCΙΛΕΥC ΚΑΔΦΙCΗC – Basileus Kadphises. Hellenistic influence did not end there. A palace-like building at Khalchayan was built by Kadphises and was filled with a great number of statues not only of Kushan rulers and warriors but also of Greek mythological figures including Athena, Heracles, satyrs, representations of Eros and while also showing the influence of Gandhara art from India. The Kushans indeed ruled over part of India and controlled trade routes with China. Finds from the Kushan sites at Begram and Hadda in Afghanistan included beautiful ivory ornaments from India and China, glassware and Hellenistic or Roman items of very high quality.

The Hellenistic influence touched also the north Indian regions between Gandhara and the Ganges. Here, for decades to come, Greek rule continued under King Menander, celebrated in Buddhist literature as a patron of Buddhism and an ideal ruler. In his realm, Graeco-Bactrian culture came into close contact with Indian religion and art. The exchange between Bactria and both, Gandhara in northwest India as well as Mathura on the Ganges led to a groundbreaking change in the iconography of Buddhism during the first centuries AD. Originally, the person of the Buddha was symbolized by footprints or evoked by the empty space under a Bodhi tree. In Gandhara art we see a new phenomenon of life-size statues and smaller statuettes of Buddha and of Bodhisatvas, the saints of Buddhism. The fact that he was now represented in human form would not be conceivable without the artistic discourse with the Graeco-Bactrian tradition.

It is evident that many different cultures and peoples had been brought into closer contact with each other through Alexander´s conquests and the new common language. What was the problem in communication until then? Were there no written languages? Dr Tellenbach explained that there was the cuneiform script of the Babylonians in Iraq, Phoenician, Aramaic (Persian), Sumerian, the Karoshti of India, the scripts of Asia Minor such as Lycian, Phrygian, etc. The problem was rather too many different alphabets and languages. Babel was perhaps not just a myth.

There are also languages that seemed not to be represented in the ancient world. Was there for example some evidence in any of these various scripts and alphabets of a Slavic-like language? Did the Slavs leave something behind in one of those alphabets, did they write something in Greek perhaps, using the Greek alphabet? Could one say Slavs lived somewhere in this vast empire? In Dr Tellenbach´s view “It is difficult to say what the Slavs, the Germans, the Scandinavians were at that time. Their ancestors must have existed but as a people they cannot be easily identified. The Russians would say the Skythians were Slavs. Some scholars take that view. There are, however, no known examples of Slavic in the languages, texts or scripts of the Hellenistic empires.”

Apart from the geographical spread of Alexander´s influence, his reputation remained alive through the Middle Ages and up to our own time. Illustrated manuscripts from Persia and the West contain references to Alexander the Great, portrayed as a warrior and an emperor. The Alexander of these legends – a glamorous young conqueror of an empire, a ruler who died at the height of his fame, a hero in myths and fairy tales – changed the course of the history of intellect and culture in Europe and the Orient.

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