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The Alexander Sarcophagus

An interesting, if perhaps not highly informative ancient object, is the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

The Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered in the late nineteenth century during excavations in Lebanon, close to the Phoenician city of Sidon. It dates to the late fourth century BC. This makes it a near-contemporary work of art and thus a subject of particular interest for anyone who wants to learn more about Alexander the Great and the sociopolitical situation shortly after his death.

The sarcophagus was almost certainly made by Greeks, perhaps even Rhodians. In place, the marble still retains some traces of paint. It was made for the King of Sidon, Abdalonymus, who died in 312 BC. It is a heroizing relief that depicts Alexander and others in combat and during the hunt. The sarcophagus is currently on display in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, Turkey.

Detail of one of the long sides of the sarcophagus. Source: Wikipedia.

The photo above, shows a detail of the relief on one of the long side of the sarcophagus. We see Alexander, at left, at the Battle of Issus (333 BC). During this battle, fought near the town of Issus in southern Anatolia, the Persian king Darius III personally took command of his forces.

Alexander can be identified by the lion-shaped helmet that he wears. This is a reference to Heracles, the hero who defeated the Nemean Lion. Alexander’s family were descendants of the Argead clan, who traced their origins back to Heracles. (With thanks to Dr Linda Medwid for pointing out the connection with Heracles, and how this positively identifies this figure as Alexander.)

The other Macedonians on horseback in this composition (not visible in the picture above) have been variously identified as Hephaestion and Perdiccas, but this is no more than a supposition.

Another detail of the sacrophagus, showing men about to kill a deer. Photo: Wikipedia.

The other long side of the sarcophagus depicts Abdalonymus hunting lions. Abdalonymus was appointed king of Sidon by Alexander, and the fact that the sarcophagus depicts both him and Alexander was no doubt intended to strengthen the bonds between them, and to emphasize that Abdalonymus was rightly appointed (thus securing his dynasty).

At the far right of this scene, there are two men – one a Macedonian, the other a Persian – hunting deer; this detail is depicted above. Another hunting scene is also depicted on the other short side, where Abdalonymus is shown hunting a panther (in iconographic studies, any large feline lacking manes is often identified as a “panther”).

Colour reconstruction of what this detail of the sarcophagus might have looked like. Most sculpture from the ancient world was originally brightly painted. Photo: Wikipedia.

The other short end of the sarcophagus again depicts a battle, perhaps the Battle of Gaza (312 BC), fought during the wars of the Successors after Alexander’s demise. The picture above is from a painted reconstruction that gives some idea of what the sarcophagus originally looked like.

The sarcophagus itself has the shape of a Greek temple and features some decoration in the “pediments”, including perhaps the murder of Perdiccas and yet another scene depicting Abdalonymus in battle.