I think that our painting represents Alexander the Great destroying a town that belonged to the Persian empire. Together with Caesar and Scipio Africanus he is one of the most famous generals of Antiquity. Our painting represents the fall of Tyre. The famous former Phoenician trade centre was the last major harbour still in Persian hands when Alexander decided to besiege it. After its destruction its place was taken by Alexandria in Egypt as the major harbour in the eastern Mediterranean.
At the centre of this painting the pose of the figure of Alexander on horseback is copied after the iconic engraving by Hendrick Goltzius of Marcus Curtius. Behind Alexander people are hiding under the major temple of Tyre, while their king (or a priest) stands praying to the towns major god, Melqart.
About Alexander the Great and the Siege of Tyre
Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) must have been one of the greatest generals and conquerors the world has ever seen. Form the small kingdom of Macedon in Northern Greece he invaded and conquered the huge Persian empire of the Achaemenids in eight years time (334 – 326 BC). In 326 BC he successfully started the invasion of India but, at his soldiers’ request, he returned westwards, to Babylon, the city he wanted to turn into his capital. Alexander died there in 323 BC, not even 33 years old. His empire that had stretched form the Adriatic Sea to the Indus valley soon fell apart.
The best source for the campaigns of Alexander the Great is Arrian’s “Anabasis of Alexander”. Arrian of Nicomedia (Arrianus) wrote it in the first half of the 2nd century AD. He had access to all contemporary sources, which are now lost: for example the biography of Alexander written by his general Ptolomaeus I Soter or the books written by Kallisthenes.
Alexander’s Hellenic League won three crucial battles in Persia:
- in the Battle of the Granicus River, near the site of Troy, in May 334 BC, Alexander defeated Persian satraps (governors) and Greek mercenaries;
- in the Battle of Issus in November 333, Alexander beat the Persian emperor Darius III himself and made his family (mother, wife and two daughters) prisoner;
- in the Battle of Arbela (Gaugamela), near the river Tigris, in 331 BC Alexander beat Darius again. The emperor fled and was later killed by the satrap of Bactria, Bessus.
After the Battle of Issus Alexander and his army crossed Syria and followed the Mediterranean coast of ancient Phoenicia in present-day Lebanon on their way to Egypt.
Alexander decided to attack Tyre (Tyrus), which was the last Mediterranean harbour in Persian hands. The town was built on an island, 1 km off shore, it had two harbours and it was heavily fortified with huge walls. Alexander blockaded and besieged the town during seven months (January to July 332 BC). He was able to take it only after he had taken command of the sea and after he had laid a causeway from the mainland to the island. Only then he was able to breach its fortifications with naval battering rams and take the town.
Alexander was exceptionally harsh to Tyre: he razed it partly, executed a fair number of its leading citizens and sold many of its inhabitants as slaves.
Alexander pardoned the citizens and Carthaginian pilgrims who had fled to the temple of Melqart, including King Azimilik, whom he maintained in power. Melqart was the patron god of Tyre, the Greek identified him with Herakles. The Macedonian kings traced their line back to Karanos, the great-great-great grandson of Herakles, whom they saw as the greatest of all Greek heroes.
About our painting
At the centre of our painting one sees Alexander the Great on horseback overseeing the destruction of Tyre.
Behind him a person (the king of Tyre?) is praying to a deity (Melqart) on the terrace in front of a temple. Underneath it partly nude figures are hiding from the fire, a man is carrying a bag.
At the right side there is a harbour. Tyre was indeed built on an island close to the shore. On the mainland there was a less important settlement of suburbs, named Ushu.
The destruction of the town is not described by Arrian, but by other ancient sources. Some say it was only partial. But Tyre would never revive to its former status: a few years later Alexander founded Alexandria in Egypt as her substitute. Maritime commerce within the Eastern Mediterranean now went that way.
The pose of the figure of Alexander the Great is copied from a famous and popular engraving by the Dutchman Hendrick Goltzius (1558 -1617), who was active in Haarlem. It originally represented Marcus Curtius, the early Roman hero who in 362 BC by driving his horse into a strange hole that had appeared on the Forum, offered himself for his nation to the god of the underworld, Hades. An augur had told the Romans they had to sacrifice their most precious possession. The young soldier Marcus Curtius told the Romans that were arms and courage. After his leap the deep pit closed over him.
Many 17th century artists have been lending this equestrian pose from the engraving, even Bernini for a large equestrian marble statue of King Louis XIV.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is such a rare, but interesting subject from Antiquity.