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Kings, warriors, and costly artefacts

29 June 2011

Nicholas Cranfield on the rich legacy of Macedon

A SPELLBINDING exhibition at the British Museum 35 years ago, “Thracian Treasures”, revealed a span of some 500 years of Bulgarian history in ancient Thrace. At the time, the glories of Macedonia, the neighbouring kingdom in antiquity, remained. The discovery of the tombs of Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) and his family at Aegae (modern day Vergina) in 1977, and their subsequent excavation, have led to a re-evaluation of power structures in older Hellenic societies.

Cities and Thrones and Powers,
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die.

So wrote Rudyard Kipling. Our Queen is descended from a long line of monarchs in unbroken succession since the ninth century. This achievement is unparalleled in recorded European history, and outruns the millennium span of the Byzantine Empire, and the 500 years of the great Macedonian monarchy of the Temenids (650-167 BC), which ended in the year of the revolt of the Maccabees.

The Ashmolean Museum’s current exhibition, “Heracles to Alexander the Great”, brings together some 500 artefacts from the royal capital of Macedon. It covers much of the period when Northern Greeks lived under a stable monarchy. It is, in part, a trick of the history book that when we think of the Ancient Greeks we concentrate on the Athenian democracy, an experimental system of government that significantly changed perceptions in the Mediterranean of how city states might be controlled, but was short-lived.

A measure of what the Romans destroyed in 167 BC in Lower Macedonia is glimpsed in this outstanding show, which gives visitors the chance to be the first to see the latest site discoveries, and rewrites the history of early Greece.

Besides 20 remarkable objects from the UNESCO world heritage site of the museum of the royal tombs at Aegae, more recently uncovered pieces, none shown elsewhere before, together trace the extraordinary history of a dynasty that looked to Argos and Heracles as its foundation.

It is a rare tribute to more than 100 years of Greek archaeology in Oxford that the exhibition is first seen there and not in Greece. I hope that the beleaguered Greek government will find the funds to house the new finds alongside the remarkable wealth of the royal tombs already on display. An interim measure may be to install the material in the spectacular terraced new museum at Pella, the other great site associated with Alexander, or in Thessaloniki.

This is the first exhibition to be staged in the new galleries on the third floor (lift access) of the redesigned Ashmolean. The exhibition has three main features in successive rooms. The first concentrates on the life of the king himself, his status as ruler and as high priest reflected in his relationships and celebrated in elaborate funeral rites.

The second room offers a rich selection of images associated with royal women, including the matchless display of the Lady of Aegae (c.500 BC), found in 1988.

The third aspect of the exhibition concerns the life of the palace and, in particular, the tradition of banqueting (symposia) which was so characteristic of earlier Hellenic societies and celebrated by Homer and Plato. The silver tableware from the tomb of Alexander IV and a silver-gilded wine strainer from that of Philip II are among the highlights, stunningly simple in design, but beautifully crafted.

A picture of the Macedonian élite (one hesitates to call this an aristocracy) is gained from surviving epigraphic, numismatic, and arch­ae-ological remains. Whereas demo­cratic Athenians were all equal in death, so that their grave goods do not yield much variety or in-dicate much splendour, those found across this region suggest an ex­ceptional quality of craftsmanship and wealth.

Over the past decade, I have been fortunate to be driven from Turkey to Albania across northern Greece to visit the sites at Amphipolis and Mieza, Aiani, and Archontiko, and in the region around Thessaloniki which all offer clear evidence of elaborate burials, just as at Aegae. It is this trove that has been brought together for this exhibition by Dr Angeliki Kottaridi. As a student of Dr Manolis Andronikos, who found the tomb of King Philip, she worked at Vergina in 1977, and has, since his death in 1992, continued his work of excavation there.

She is leading the palace dig, which is temporarily part closed, above the theatre where Alexander witnessed his father’s assassination (September 336 BC) during his own nuptials. The palace is in direct alignment with far-off Mount Olympos to the south, as the kings saw themselves in direct descent from the demi-god Heracles.

From the tomb of the murdered Philip II itself comes an adjustable diadem made from silver-gilt, on which lozenges are incised like the markings of a viper; both ends slide into a smaller part on which is represented a knot. This has been clearly designed to be handed on from one generation to the next.

Alexander the Great retains his grip on the Western imagination partly because, during his brief 13-year rule (336-323 BC), he expanded his kingdom’s control to the Indus in the East, to the Danube in the north, and to Egypt itself. But it came at a cost. We know from the writer Arrian (Anabasis 7, 8-9 and 11) that, when his soldiers rebelled against him at Opis in August 323 BC, Alexander tried to settle their nerve by explaining that the expansionist policy was very much due to the reforming achievements of his father, which had irreversibly changed the fortunes of Macedonia.

What sounds like subtle rhetoric — the wily passing of the buck by a headstrong king — we now know from archaeological evidence to have been clearly the case. Macedonia had long enjoyed a civilised culture of wealth and sophistication, from the time of Amyntas I and his wife, the Lady of Aegae now uncovered in all her splendour. It long out-lasted the death of Alexander the Great him­self, aged 33.

The grave goods from the tomb of the so-called Lady of Aegae include a densely worked embossed gold diadem that is nearly 50 cm in length. Eight small plates are em­bossed with scenes that include the return of Hephaistos to Olympos, led by Dionysos, Heracles shooting the centaurs and fighting the lion of Nemea, as well as Stheno and Euryale seeking to avenge their sister Medusa’s death at the hands of Perseus. The queen could claim de­scent from those who had liberated the old lands from evil on behalf of the gods.

More enigmatic, and still not yet fully understood, are the life-size clay heads of wooden statues of men and women which were found (26 in total) in the grave of one of Alex­ander I’s queens (royal polygamy continued at least to the third century). Here, sentinel-like, they flank one wall, looking down with an almost mystical gaze on the in­quisitive visitors of our day.

Twelve tombs have so far been uncovered at Aegae, and more than 500 burials; inhumation was the norm for Macedonians, and crema­tion was reserved for the royal family, whose ashes were then in­terred in richly decorated con-tainers.

The continuing excavations of the palace site have uncovered 16 ban­queting halls with some 224 couches. Since we know from the later Athenaeus in his work on gas­tron-omy (Deipnosophistai, I, 31.6) that it was not customary for a man to recline at dinner until he had speared a boar without the use of a hunting-net, the large number of couches suggests a fearsome society of qualified huntsmen.

It increasingly appears that the square palace structure at Aegae was in turn the model for later Hel­lenistic markets (the agora of Athens and at Ephesus known to St Paul, for instance), and that the kaisareion at Alexandria, as described by Philo, seems to draw from a common model. But, where this might suggest a debasement of values, the Hellenic Kingdom was also one for the pursuit of virtue: Amo probos might have been the motto for any of the kings. After all, Aristotle had been summoned in 343 BC to be the boy Alexander’s tutor.

At the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 29 August. Phone 01865 278000. www.ashmolean.org


At the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 29 August. Phone 01865 278000. www.ashmolean.org


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