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Macedonia's Riches Before Alexander

A terra cotta figure from the Louvre's collection depicts a dancer wearing the Iranian headdress known as ''the Phrygian Bonnet.'' / RMN/H. Lewandowski

by  Souren Melikian , The New York Times

At distant intervals a major art show leads to a new understanding of events that changed the course of world history.

“In the Kingdom of Alexander the Great, Ancient Macedonia” on view at the Louvre Museum here does so through stunning visual evidence. Discovered mostly within the past four decades, it reveals “the other Greece” — one that does not fit the image cherished by the European cultivated elites since Renaissance times.

Gone is the cliché of Alexander invading an unknown Middle East in retaliation for the “Median Wars” waged by the emperors Darius and Xerxes against Greece. Intercourse between Iran and Macedonia started long before, and it left an imprint on Macedonian art that has yet to be acknowledged.

Better still, the show demonstrates that the supposedly remote Macedonia isolated in the far north of the Hellenic world was influenced at an early date by lands very far to the east. The distant Mecenian civilization fascinated Macedonia, as witness the pottery excavated at Livadia near Aiane. Some two-handled vessels — say “kantharos” if you wish to sound sophisticated — have profiles that call for comparison with artifacts found in the heart of present-day Turkey where the Hittites laid the foundations of one of their Indo-European cultures in the early second millennium B.C.

A bird-shaped pouring vessel, “askos” in Greek, reproduces a type established in Iran as early as the beginning of the second Millennium B.C. By the seventh century B.C., the Iranian connection can be verified in a whole range of Macedonian objects.

Bronze chokers with twisted fluting excavated at Nea Philadelphia are similar to scores of others from Western Iran — of which the authors make no mention in the important exhibition book. A silver, shallow wine bowl, or “phiale,” discovered in the tomb of a young woman excavated by Pavlos Chrysostomou at Arkhontiko looks like dozens of Iranian bronze wine vessels.

These archaeological finds are the only source of information about Macedonia before its inclusion in the Persian Empire at the end of the sixth century B.C. But the moment historical sources appear with Herodotus, the Iranian connection is made explicit.

King Alexander I, who ruled Macedonia from 498 to 454 B.C., fought alongside the Persians when Xerxes invaded Greece in the early fifth century B.C.

The impact of the contacts with Iran is reflected in the Macedonian adoption of Iranian royal motifs as early as the mid-sixth century B.C. The eight-lobed rosette is a solar symbol widespread in Iran by the early first millennium B.C. It appears on the gold leaves worked in repoussé that covered the face of a princely warrior. Inserted in the rectangular opening of his bronze helmet, they give it a quaintly surrealist touch.

The spell that Iranian royal symbols cast over the Macedonian monarchy was fully revealed when the royal tomb of King Philip II was uncovered at Vergina, the site of ancient Aigai. The funerary hoard retrieved by the archaeologist Manolis Andronikos includes silver wares for the royal wine banquet in the Iranian tradition, bronze utensils for the bath, and parade arms and armor.

A bronze tripod stand from the hoard rests on lion-claw feet reminiscent of royal Iranian artifacts of the sixth century B.C. The duck heads at the top resemble those that serve as finials on the bows of the royal guards carved on the walls of the Persepolis palace that would be set on fire by the Greek soldiery when Alexander the Great invaded Iran.

The Macedonian fascination with the Iranian monarchy probably extended beyond art. The conquest of the Persian empire is invariably explained in political terms. Historians cite the Macedonian keenness to free their Greek brethren from foreign oppression. Although Alexander I, the ancestor of Alexander the Great, sided with the Persians, he is said by Herodotus to have secretly informed the Greek commanders of the movements of the Persian Army on the eve of the battle of Platea, where the Persians were defeated.

The portrait of a woman presumed to be Flavia Mysta, who had been made a Roman citizen. / Athens Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism/Archeological Receipts Fund

Tempting as it is to explain past events by invoking motivations relating to modern concepts of nationhood, it can be misleading. The world conquest on which Alexander the Great embarked far exceeds a desire to beat the Persians. It mirrors the ambitions of Middle Eastern monarchies to establish a world empire, from the Semitic Assyrians in the eighth century B.C. to the Indo-European Persians, or, better said, Iranians, in the sixth century B.C.

The foundation of cities called Alexandria, from Egypt where one remains famous, to Central Asia, where its location is uncertain, formed part of Alexander’s attempts to dominate the world. So was the establishment of Greek colonies in far-flung corners of the Iranian world, such as the vast city uncovered by the French archaeologist Paul Bernard at Ai-Khanum in northern Afghanistan.

Greek artistic motifs and intellectual concepts, albeit rapidly transformed, left a profound imprint across the Middle East. In Semitic lands, Greek replaced Aramaic as the language of science and philosophy until the advent of Islam — which is why the last books of the Old Testament are in Greek.

In Macedonia, on the other hand, close contacts with the East set off a process that began in the fifth century B.C., as may be inferred from the funerary abode of an unidentified princess uncovered in 1962 at Derveni.

It reveals two different artistic trends of work, sometimes in the same artifact. A silver wine bowl reproduces a shape found in Achaemenid Iran, and in various Anatolian cultures. The gadroons on the underside look very Iranian but the grinning bearded Silenus mask that takes the place of the boss in comparable Iranian pieces is strictly Greek.

A silver phiale discovered in another tomb is so close to Achaemenid models that it seems to be an intentional creation in the Achaemenid manner.

Jewelry likewise betrays diverging trends. A gold pendant found in the unknown princess’s tomb represents the head of a man wearing a lion skin, the Herculean headdress. Identified in the catalog as Herakles — Hercules in the Latin form of the name — the man is more likely to be a ruler wearing the Herculean headdress, as Alexander and his successors do on their coinage. But, intriguingly, the hieratic frontal rendition of a mustachioed man is un-Greek. If any comparison can be ventured, it curiously anticipates Parthian figures from Iran two centuries later.

In total contrast, an enormous wine urn, or krater, which was excavated in the same tomb, is a typical Greek model that displays a surprising Baroque tendency. Dionysos cast in the round is seen precariously perched on the shoulder of the krater. Head bent forward, he is apparently sleeping off his drunkenness while an alluring Menad beckons. Regrettably, the monumental vessel, 90 centimeters high, about 35 inches, is reproduced in the book but did not make it to the show.

The Baroque strain in Macedonia later comes out in some of the most dazzling sculpture of the Greek world. A terra cotta figure from the Louvre’s collection depicts a dancer wearing the Iranian head dress known as “the Phrygian Bonnet.” She is performing an Ancient Persian dance, which was described by the Greek writer Pollux and is still performed in the Caucasus.

We do not know how the transition was made from the Baroque phase to the realism of the first century and the question is not even raised in the exhibition book. Macedonia was annexed by Rome in 148 A.D., but what recent discoveries reveal is that Macedonian realism greatly surpassed the Roman version for the subtlety of its psychological probe. The portrait of a woman presumed to be Flavia Mysta, who had been made a Roman citizen, the ultimate status in Roman-occupied lands, conveys an unforgettable mix of bittersweet resignation and satisfaction.

By the third century, Macedonia had shifted to a sculptural style full of laughing irony, as a collective family portrait dug up at Kozani reveals. The head of a woman scrutinizing the viewer, her eyes full of shining intelligence and her lips half open as if about to utter an ironical repartee, is on its own worth a visit to the show. And, with that, we know that the Roman imperialist juggernaut failed to wipe out the Macedonian cultural identity.

Via The New York Times
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