A Classical Education to Treasure

By Paul Levy

OXFORD—”Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy” is as crowded with objects as its title is with ideas. The Ashmolean manages to cram in about 500 objects, discovered in the royal tombs and palaces of Aegae (modern-day Vergina in the north of Greece), most of which are being displayed for the very first time.

While the gold bling-quotient is pretty high—the “Lady of Aegae,” an early queen, is entirely outlined in gold from her headdress to the thinly beaten gold sole of her sandal (and her next stop is the Paris Louvre)—it’s not the real interest of this show. Its buzz is really created by its connection with Alexander the Great, who traced his lineage back to the god Heracles, and how it slightly rewrites the history of early Greece. The very successful Temenid royal house (which included Alexander and his father Philip II) ruled from the mid-7th to the 4th century B.C.—during the very period we think of as the golden age of Greek democracy.

There is much to interest the lover of ancient art here, from the odd sculpture to some remarkable wall paintings, and, along with a load of jewelry, two gold wreaths, one of oak leaves, the other of myrtle, some breathtaking carved ivory, and an extraordinary collection of stylized clay heads. But even more interesting, I thought, was the plethora of everyday objects—a set of silver jugs and bowls for a princely banquet, next to a case of similar ceramic objects used for classical symposiums from 550-300 B.C. These included the kraters in which wine was diluted with water by the host, who could thereby determine the pace and degree of inebriation at these drinking parties.

This is the first—and only—international exhibition of the results of the excavations of the royal tombs 30 years ago. About two dozen of these pieces are permanently displayed in the local museum at Vergina, and a few are going on to the Louvre for temporary exhibition. Lack of space at Vergina means the rest of the Ashmolean show must go back into storage when it finishes. This might well be your only chance to see it.

Until Aug. 29


Source: Wall Street Journal

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