The legacy of Alexander the Great

As the Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasure exhibition gets set to sail to Australia, we take a look at the myths and realities surrounding this prodigious leader

Brilliant tactician, drunken barbarian, commanding general, compassionate man – all these have been used to describe Alexander the Great. The enigma that surrounds Alexander is as great as his epithet. The intrigue associated with him, his influence and his status, is evident even today.

Although he died at the tender age of 32, the impact he had on spreading Hellenism throughout the world was astounding. All of this and more is about to be explored in the latest exhibition for the Australian Museum in Sydney.

“No ruler in history appeals to the imagination as much as Alexander the Great,” says the media release to accompany the exhibition Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures. The exhibition is exclusive to the Australian Museum in Sydney and will showcase over 400 objects from classical antiquity through to the modern age from both Western and non-Western origins.

Two years ago, Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum, travelled to St Petersberg Russia, to meet with the director of the State Hermitage Museum, Professor Mikhail B. Piotrovskjy, to begin negotiations to secure one of the largest exhibitions of the State Hermitage. He was told of the exhibition through an antiquities expert from Macquarie University, with whom the museum works closely with.

At that stage, the museum was looking at exhibiting something on the Mediterranean, looking specifically at Alexandria. With Alexander being instrumental in the creation of Alexandria, this exhibition coming to Australia was almost meant to be.

“We have a history at the Australian museum of mounting exhibitions about aspects of the world’s great cultures,” Mr Howarth told Neos Kosmos.
“It is an interest of ours in talking to the Australian communities about these amazing cultures that shaped the modern world in various ways – that we learnt from or had direct influence,” he said of how exhibitions are selected for the Australian Museum.

The legacy of Alexander the Great through the treasures of the State Hermitage, which begins on 24 November, not only concentrates on Alexander the Great in the particular time of 323 BC, it’s encompasses the whole story, the legend and influence of this conqueror.
The exhibition takes place in four definite parts to showcase all the intrigue that surrounds one of the most famous generals in history and starts with examples of how the Alexander the Great ‘myth’ has been represented in art and culture over the centuries.

“He’s had enormous influence and it comes out in art, culture, engravings, tapestries; all sorts of things even up until the 18th and 19th centuries,” explains Mr Howarth, “and one of the most beautiful of those is the image of Alexander’s head, which is actually from a clock from the 18th century.”

The second part of the exhibition delves into the story behind the man; who he really was; who influenced him; the people that taught him; and the heroes he looked up to, particularly Achilles and Heracles. It’s about understanding the man.

“The third part looks at what he actually did,” explains Mr Howarth, “his conquests in his very brief life, how he united the various groups the league of Corinth, Macedon and other parts of what is now Greece into a unified country, and how he then spread Hellenism East and took over the Persian Empire.”
The final segment of this four part exhibition is a review of the legacy of Alexander the Great itself.

“It’s more about the Hellenistic traditions, not long after he was around, up until about the 8th century AD, when Hellenism really influenced a great deal of the modern world, the Romans and subsequently other societies,” Mr Howarth says.
“What is important is that he spread Hellenistic ideas around the world,” says Mr Howarth of the legend’s living legacy.
Even though the director himself hasn’t actually seen the physical exhibition, he says staff of the museum who have seen the exhibition have boasted about the amazing objects that will soon reach Australian soil.

“It’s one thing to read a catalogue to see the image to say it’s that big, that tall, that heavy, but to actually see it in real life I am really looking forward to it,” he says with anticipation.
One of the historical figures Alexander the Great influenced was Catherine the Great, 18th century Empress of Russia and founder of the State Hermitage. She was fascinated by the leader and like many other European rulers of the time, wore images of him. It was this fascination that spawned the collection at the State Hermitage that is unsurpassed in terms of its breath and the extent of its treasures.

“I really like the stories where there was or is a modern influence,” explains Mr Howarth of his own fascination with the general.

“His influence on Catherine the Great and why she was motivated to create firstly the State Hermitage museum and why she added the Great to her name – it was like a homage to Alexander the Great, a number of people wanted to emulate him.”
Mr Howarth explains that his influence on art, culture and design was at the Baroque end of classical Greece.

“It added a layer of flamboyance and exuberance to the more traditional end of Greek society and design and in that way he influenced design, particularly the eras of the great empires. Hero figures were looked up to and Alexander the Great was at the top of that, so people like Catherine the Great who embodied heroism and heroes in design, Alexander embraced that.”

But among it all stands the debate of the nationality of Alexander the Great, in particular the debate that rages between Greece and FYROM over his nationalism. In light of this, we asked the director how does one display an exhibition but keep it culturally sensitive to all parties involved?
Mr Howarth said that although he is aware of the debates surrounding his nationality – and that the museum will remain sensitive to the range of issues surrounding Alexander the Great – there are facts that can’t be argued with.

“There are historical facts that are clear enough and accepted by all parties that he came from a province called Macedon, and the word Macedonia came a bit later. The part of Macedon where he came from is now part of Modern Greece.

Along with the debate surrounding nationality, Mr Howarth brings other issues surrounding his legacy to our attention.
“I have seen one article that said he was a drunken barbarian, and I’ve seen another article that said while he enjoyed a drink and he was violent, he was a brilliant tactician and a brilliant general, and other times he was very compassionate, which in a way is what makes him so interesting.
“He was an incredibly flawed, brilliant man.”

‘Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasure’ the exhibition will be featured exclusively to the Australian Museum in Sydney from 24 November. Pre-register for exhibition information at alexandersydney.com.au