Heracles to Alexander the Great – a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – tells the story of the Kings and Queens of Aegae, the royal capital of ancient Macedon. It shows their treasures, which you can admire in isolation, simply for their intrinsic loveliness, and sets them in a wider context, using them to explain and explore aspects of the life and society of the Temenids: a dynasty that ruled from the mid-7th to the 4th century BC, tracing its origins to Heracles, allegedly the son of the god Zeus, and culminating in the empire-building glory of Alexander.
Jill Glenn went to the exhibition’s opening…
It is astonishing to be in the presence of so many marvellous artefacts; still more astonishing that we are the first people, other than the discoverers and the academics, to see most of them since the graves were closed, the palace burnt and buried in a landslide, two thousand years ago. Some of these items were unearthed only within the last couple of years. They are “hot news…”, in the words of Dr Christopher Brown, Director of the Ashmolean, “…a very important exhibition”. As a tribute to the Oxford University connections of the late Professor Manolis Andronikos – who began the excavations at Aegae, in the 1970s – and an acknowledgment that Oxford is at the centre of Greek archaeology, ancient history and culture, the Ashmolean has pulled off the impressive coup of being the venue to introduce the Aegae treasures to the world. And treasures they are indeed, quite literally: valued in fact, for the purposes of insurance, at some 17 million euros. There are around 500 of them.
The exhibition has been curated by Dr Angeliki Kottaridi, who has inherited Andronikos’s mission to excavate the Aegae tombs and protect the site – and who speaks movingly of a duty to keep Greece’s past alive, and the need for its people to have their pride restored to them again. It is a mammoth task. “We need the dead heroes to help us,” she confides.
Housed in the Ashmolean’s still relatively new special exhibition galleries – all light and white and perfectly formed – Heracles to Alexander the Great is designed to inspire new research, and to appeal to scholars, visitors and general historians. It begins – in an appropriate but surprisingly low key way – with a statue of Heracles, and a bust of Alexander, the most famous of the Temenid family: a man whose political and military acumen defeated the Persians, spread Greek culture into central Asia and genuinely changed the course of history.
There are discoveries shown here that rewrite our understanding of that history. No-one knew, for example, that palaces of such scale existed before Alexander’s time. “It turns our entire understanding of Philip II on its head,” enthuses Robin Lane Fox – Reader in Ancient History at New College, Oxford, author of Alexander the Great and consultant on the epic movie Alexander – whose own tearful verdict on the show was: “the greatest day of classical exhibitions in my lifetime.”
© The Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aegae
Heracles to AtG succeeds in being both educational in a broad, exciting way, and aesthetically pleasing. The jewellery, in particular, is beautiful: “More beautiful,” says Lane Fox, “than anything you will ever have.”
The wreath of Meda, wife of Philip II, is one of the most precious objects to have been found in the antechamber of his tomb. Made of gold, with around 80 leaves and over 100 flowers surviving, it is a thing of almost unimagineable delicacy: surprisingly modern, exquisitely crafted and, as the display caption suggests, ‘capturing the essence of spring’.
High on the wall in Room Two – the World of the Queen – is a stunning free-style painting that depicts the abduction of Persephone by Hades. It’s remarkable, not only for its distorted perspective (used so that the scene would fit onto a long tomb-wall) but for the delicacy and power of the colour. This is a replica, of course, but given all the care that has evidently been taken with the other elements of this exhibition, there’s no reason to suppose that this is anything but accurate. It’s breath-taking, and sets the tone for a room that brings important aspects of Aegae society to life.
Some of the tombs had been vandalised, unsurprisingly, over time, but even these yielded magnificent items: ritual objects, personal goods, jewellery. They are more evidence of the power and importance of woman in the Macedonian kingdom.
These goods demonstrate that women had, according to Angeliki Kottaridi, both self-confidence, and the right to appear in public. They could, unlike in Athens, own things – and it is notable that the most beautiful, most elaborate, items discovered were owned exclusively by women: they were the ones with the most important sacred function, who could intercede with the gods on behalf of their people. They served in religious ceremonies alongside their menfolk; they were fully aware of their role and their value, and some even exercised it on the political stage, taking power into their own hands when occasion demanded. They were also, however, domestic in outlook and pursuit, and took their spindles to their graves with them. It wasn’t all feminism and feasting.
The nameless ‘Lady of Aegae’ (an early queen, who died around 500BC aged in her thirties) has been, if you will, recreated: her jewellery, which was sewn on to her grave clothes has been laid out in a woman’s shape, so that, as Lane Fox puts it (far more romantically than your average academic) she walks forward towards you from the mists of time…
…straight from the vast necropolis at Aegae, where 540 burial mounds relating to the Temenid family and their kin are crammed into an area of roughly two square kilometres.
The conclusions that can be drawn from the excavations of the last few years show that Macedon was never isolated from the mainstream of Greek culture. Philip II, for example, was a very educated person, who gathered about him the creme de la creme of Greek and Macedonian intelligentsia. The royal palace was the grandest, most elaborately built architectural complex of classical Greece, with an area of 12,500 square metres, making it only slightly smaller than Buckingham Palace.
“This was a bigger kingdom than any of us had imagined,” explains Robin Lane Fox, “and demonstrates that world conquerors don’t come from nowhere.” The life led by the young Alexander, including the gardens he walked through, the ceremonial regalia worn by his mother, the eating and drinking vessesls he used, is now easier to perceive and relate to. This is an old world, brought newly alive.
The exhibition’s third section focuses on the banquet, and its role in Macedonian life: social, religious, even political. You could be sarcastic, and subtitle this room ‘banqueting vessels through the ages’ – but it certainly highlights the importance of the banquet (known, tellingly, as the symposium) to the monarchs and their subjects. I particularly liked the replica here of the frieze from the tomb of Aylos Athanasios, from around 325-300BC: a courtyard filled with tables, men reclining, musicians playing, wine being replenished and a dresser groaning with serving dishes… if you half close your eyes it could be any contemporary party in a sunny Mediterranean country.
The silver vessels have spare clean lines, but elegant detail; they are both of their time, and timeless. I’d be happy to have any of them on my table. The older clay vessels, dating from the early Iron Age are naturally more simple, but have clearly been made with care: form and function are neatly, pleasingly integrated – like the exhibition itself, in fact.
Heracles to Alexander the Great has been, apparently, very complex to arrange, but it is well-supported by sponsors, and offers a wide range of associated events – from workshops and lectures to films (Zorba the Greek, Shirley Valentine) and even a special menu in the Ashmolean Dining Room.
The exhibition is a tribute not only to its contemporary organisers, but also to the patrons of Aegae culture who originally commissioned these pieces. They had a sharp eye, and good taste, and money. We are still in their debt.
Those in the know say that this is the most extraordinary exhibition on Greek art and architecture ever seen. They may well be right.
Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy continues at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford, until 29 August
For more information and advanced booking, see www.ashmolean.museum or call 01865 278002.