The Alexander Sarcophagus

Alexander the Great conquered the known world, but who was this monument for and what does it symbolize?

The Alexander Sarcophagus, c. 312 B.C.E., Pentelic marble and polychromy, found in Sidon, 195 x 318 x 167 cm (İstanbul Archaeological Museums)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in Istanbul, at the Archaeological Museum, looking at one of their great treasures, the Alexander Sarcophagus.

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis: [0:12] Now, a sarcophagus is a thing in which you bury a body.

Dr. Steven: [0:17] A really big stone coffin. This stone happens to be the marble that the Greeks loved to use.

Dr. Elizabeth: [0:24] This is Pentelic marble, one of the highest-quality marbles, valued for its clarity, its strength, and its ability to carve up very well.

Dr. Steven: [0:32] It’s a soft stone, so you can really get fine details. One of the most incredible things about this sarcophagus is just how crisp it is. It’s in incredible condition.

Dr. Elizabeth: [0:41] It was found quite late, in Sidon, in a royal necropolis. A necropolis is basically a city of the dead, and a royal necropolis is a city of dead kings and their families.

Dr. Steven: [0:50] This city, the city of Sidon, which is in present-day Lebanon, had been a major Phoenician city. It was a major trading port. It had been very wealthy. The Phoenician city-states had controlled much of the eastern and southern Mediterranean.

Dr. Elizabeth: [1:04] The Phoenicians, they may not sound familiar to you, but one of their most famous colonies will, and that’s the colony of Carthage in modern day Tunisia.

Dr. Steven: [1:11] Which we know because of their famous war against the Romans.

Dr. Elizabeth: [1:14] The Punic Wars, particularly the Second Punic War with Hannibal, who crossed the Alps with his elephants.

Dr. Steven: [1:19] Archaeologists have tried to figure out whose tomb this was. There is some consensus that this tomb belonged to the king of Sidon. It’s just a spectacularly large and expensive and beautiful tomb.

Dr. Elizabeth: [1:32] Quality of workmanship is extraordinary.

Dr. Steven: [1:35] It’s interesting that this sarcophagus is actually in the shape of a Greek temple.

Dr. Elizabeth: [1:39] Greek temple or a Greek treasury. One can think about the massive temple structures across Asia Minor, Greece during the Classical period, one can think of the Siphnian Treasury in Delphi. It has a lot of architectural details.

[1:51] We can see the egg-and-dart motif. We can see meanders and akroteria — those are the decorative elements on the ridge of a temple we normally get. Someone’s taken a lot of care to make this look very architectural. It’s highly intricate and detailed before you even get to the friezes.

Dr. Steven: [2:05] Let’s get to the friezes because those are the stars.

Dr. Elizabeth: [2:08] The friezes are remarkable. They’re outstanding relief carving and they have two stories. One is a battle scene.

Dr. Steven: [2:15] Let’s start there. What we see is this incredibly complicated interlacing of figures that are carved with a tremendous naturalism.

Dr. Elizabeth: [2:23] Incredible emotion and pathos. One figure that immediately jumps out is the man on horseback, and his head is covered with a lion’s skin, which makes him almost immediately identifiable to us.

Dr. Steven: [2:33] This is Alexander the Great. The man who conquered pretty much all of the known world. Alexander the Great starts off by conquering the Greeks, consolidating his power, and then turning that combined force against the Persians in the east.

Dr. Elizabeth: [2:47] The Persians were still this remarkable empire, despite the defeats that they had suffered at the hands of the Greeks in the 5th century [B.C.E.]. They were still this empire that controlled large parts of Asia. They were a force to be reckoned with. Alexander, against all odds, took on the empire and attempted to conquer it, which he did.

Dr. Steven: [3:03] Art historians have speculated that the scene that’s being represented in this frieze is the Battle of Issus, which was one of the most decisive battles, where Alexander routed a much larger army of the Persians.

Dr. Elizabeth: [3:15] First of all, you have Alexander in a very prominent location. You have him fighting Persians, but it’s also the central figure that’s led many art historians towards this interpretation.

Dr. Steven: [3:24] That central figure would be the king of Sidon. He was appointed to that position by Alexander after that battle.

Dr. Elizabeth: [3:32] Also, we clearly have Persians here.

Dr. Steven: [3:34] How do we know they’re Persians?

Dr. Elizabeth: [3:35] Oh, that’s always a good question because, yes, we have to play “Name That Barbarian,” or “How Do You Identify the Barbarian?” Greeks, or Macedonians who are also dressed like Greeks, they look very particular.

[3:44] They generally have a lot of drapery, but they have exposed legs. Anyone who’s wearing trousers is generally a good tip-off. If you’ve got trousers on, you’re a barbarian.

Dr. Steven: [3:53] The other hint is their headwear. They’re wearing Phrygian hats.

Dr. Elizabeth: [3:57] Exactly, these Phrygian caps, which are floppy, are very well-known. We’ll see them throughout all of ancient art. Also, you notice their arms are covered. They’re wearing much more clothes. They also even seem to have identifiable shoes.

Dr. Steven: [4:09] The other issue is, of course, they’re losing. Before we go any further, let’s go back to Alexander and figure out how it is that we can recognize that this is him. He’s wearing a lion’s head. That’s a reference back to claims that he had descended from Herakles.

Dr. Elizabeth: [4:22] The other reason why people often identify this figure as Alexander is because of the “Alexander Mosaic.”

Dr. Steven: [4:27] Art historians believe that that mosaic and possibly this frieze had a common source. That is, a famous painting that is now lost to us.

Dr. Elizabeth: [4:35] That has allowed scholars to feel quite comfortable in identifying this figure as Alexander.

Dr. Steven: [4:41] The other issue is simply the nobility with which Alexander is represented and with which the victors are represented here. If you look closely at Alexander, he is large on his horse. The horse is rearing back. He holds his hand back. Clearly, he had originally held a spear.

[4:58] That spear was probably made out of bronze. It, like all of the horses’ bridles and other weapons, have been removed. We can see that that spear would have been slaying the man who is desperately trying to get off his horse, which has fallen. Alexander’s forces are not always in the dominant position. Look at the nude figure that is coming up against an enemy on horseback.

Dr. Elizabeth: [5:20] He’s got his right arm thrown back over his forehead. His left arm is reaching up. We can see his enemy, the Persian, on the horse, his right arm back, ready to strike. You almost feel it’s inevitable that this Greek is not going to survive this battle.

Dr. Steven: [5:33] His bravery is extraordinary. I can just make out a shadow in between his fingers. I think he must have originally been holding a sword of some sort.

Dr. Elizabeth: [5:41] The Greeks who’ve fallen are also remembered in a heroic manner.

Dr. Steven: [5:45] Look at the figure that’s just below him. That’s an archer. You can see him drawing back a bow, pointing with his left hand. He’s taking aim.

[5:53] What’s really remarkable is, if you look at his leggings, there are clear traces of the original paint. This is such a great reminder that the pristine white marble that we take for granted as being Greek is absolutely inaccurate in a lot of cases. These sculptures were painted.

Dr. Elizabeth: [6:11] We know that there was yellow, red, purples, and blues, and a bit of violet, and variations within those major colors. What you can see here is this pattern almost of a harlequin design on his trousers. His shield also has a red tint to it.

[6:25] We can start to visualize colors back in. That would have made the composition even more dynamic [and] the strife, the struggle in the battle, even more real to the viewer.

Dr. Steven: [6:35] If you look at the dead body to the right of the archer, you can see the wound in his side and red paint that has been used to express the blood.

Dr. Elizabeth: [6:43] That’s something we also see on the other side in the hunt scene where the lion is being pierced. We can see red, also his blood pouring down.

Dr. Steven: [6:51] Let’s go look. On the reverse side, we see, instead of a battle, a hunt.

Dr. Elizabeth: [6:56] Hunting scenes are very well known in the ancient Near East. You can think of major Assyrian reliefs from Nineveh, things that are in the British Museum.

Dr. Steven: [7:03] At the center of the hunt is this massive lion that is attacking a horse.

Dr. Elizabeth: [7:07] Lion hunts were very significant parts of kingship. Including a hunting scene would be very typical of a monument that was created for a king. There’s something else that’s very striking. We have Greeks and Persians, but they don’t seem to be fighting each other.

Dr. Steven: [7:18] No. They’re working together.

Dr. Elizabeth: [7:20] That’s rather odd, isn’t it, considering what we’ve just seen?

Dr. Steven: [7:23] It is so central to the political aim of Alexander’s enormous empire.

Dr. Elizabeth: [7:27] Alexander does aim for something that’s very different from many kingdoms in the past in this part of the world. He wanted to create an empire where the Greek soldiers in his army, the Macedonian soldiers, would intermarry with local women along the way to solidify the base of the empire.

Dr. Steven: [7:42] This must have been important to the Phoenicians, who wanted to be on an equal status with the Greeks.

Dr. Elizabeth: [7:47] It also shows that people who are not specifically Greek use Greek iconography, Greek motifs, clearly, the sculptural traditions of the Greeks. What we often see to be clear ethnic boundaries or political or cultural boundaries are a bit more fuzzy.

Dr. Steven: [8:02] This sculpture is not fuzzy at all. There is a clarity that reminds us that this is not long after the high point of Greek classicism in the 5th century [B.C.E.]. There is a drama, there is a energy that is new. We know with hindsight that this is moving towards what we will call the Hellenistic style.

Dr. Elizabeth: [8:20] You really see the movement, particularly by looking at the cloaks and the capes. We have a Greek figure here on a horse. You can see the yellow paint would have been there, but the cape is waving back. It adds this phenomenal movement.

Dr. Steven: [8:32] Look at the way that the Persian’s sleeves are rising up. I can get a sense of the movement of his body and the way in which the cloth is responding a moment later.

Dr. Elizabeth: [8:42] Exactly. He also has his arms pulled back. You can reimagine the bow and arrow, which would have been made of metal. You can see that tension that’s being created in his arms, to almost send the arrow out towards the lion to help in this great hunt to kill this amazing beast.

Dr. Steven: [8:56] One of the details that I find most compelling in terms of energizing the scene and giving a sense of time and movement is the rider of that central horse. The horse is moving up and down quickly. You can see that his shirt is wafting up because his body has moved down very quickly.

Dr. Elizabeth: [9:13] That continues all the way across the relief, even to this final figure at the end. We have this isolated group of a Greek and a Persian fighting a stag. The Greek is pulling back on the stag’s massive horns.

[9:24] You feel the movement coming less from the Greek figure, who almost looks a little bit static with his arm and his upper body, but in fact through the Persian figure. He has an axe. He’s about to swing it down and hit the stag right in the chest.

[9:36] That movement helps your eye come all the way back in. It also conveys the dynamic nature that permeates this entire side. We can see how these two sides are related in terms of their organization, but also the two stories that they’re telling. We see the Persians going from the enemy to being allies to being incorporated into a larger world.

Dr. Steven: [9:54] This larger narrative is important because it may give us insight into Alexander’s larger political aims, but the sarcophagus itself is also a treasure. It is so rare that we have early 4th century [B.C.E.] Greek carving at this level that is in this kind of pristine condition.

Dr. Elizabeth: [10:12] Often, art historians have held up 5th century [B.C.E.] Athens as the pinnacle of artistic creation in the Greek world, but I think in looking at something like this, you can see that there is no element of what art historians might have traditionally termed decline.

[10:24] What you have here is a changing ethos, a changing aesthetic, which will come to be fully developed and defined during the Hellenistic period.

[10:30] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Alexander Sarcophagus," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed June 10, 2024,