A Roman portrait head of Alexander the Great
Lot 83*W
A Roman marble head of Alexander the Great
£60,000 - 80,000
US$ 100,000 - 130,000
Auction Details
A Roman portrait head of Alexander the Great, Antonine, circa 2nd Century A.D. A Roman portrait head of Alexander the Great A Roman portrait head of Alexander the Great, Antonine, circa 2nd Century A.D.
Lot Details
A Roman marble head of Alexander the Great
Antonine, circa A.D. 138-161
Over life-size, depicted with distinctive wavy hair falling at his furrowed brow and the nape of his neck, his brows carved in relief with notched details, the lidded eyes with incised irises and drilled pupils, his shapely lips above a strong chin, 12½in (31.7cm) high

Footnotes

  • Provenance:
    American private collection, San Francisco, since the 1960s.

    Literature:
    Clearly identifying this marble head as a portrait of Alexander the Great (366-323 B.C.) are his characteristic idealised facial features and distinctive "anastolé" hairstyle, with a wavelike formation of locks over the forehead. For the portraiture of Alexander in general, see M. Bieber, Alexander the Great in Greek and Roman Art, Chicago, 1964; J. Carlsen et al. (edd.), Alexander the Great: Reality and Myth, Rome, 1993; A. Stewart, Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics, Berkeley, 1993; P.Moreno, Alessandro Magno: Immagini come storia, Rome, 2004.

    Although a number of images of Alexander were made during his lifetime, most of these Greek originals have not survived. The vast majority of his portraits that have come down to us are Graeco-Roman copies, adaptations, and transformations in all media (bronze and marble sculptures, paintings, mosaics, coins, gemstones) that reflected lost Greek originals. These Graeco-Roman images were produced throughout Rome's empire from about the 2nd Century B.C. until late Roman antiquity, as evidenced in a 4th Century A.D. portrait of Alexander from Aphrodisias (Turkey): See R.R.R. Smith, 'Late Roman Philosopher portraits from Aphrodisias', JRS, 80, 1990, 135-38, pls.VIII-IX.

    A great many of these images were produced in the Roman period because Alexander had captured the imagination of Rome's great military men and statesmen, who wished to emulate Alexander and his deeds in one way or another. Some of Alexander's original portraits were even brought back to Rome to adorn the city. There are many examples of Alexander's image being recalled by Rome's leaders. To celebrate his victory over the Macedonians, the Roman general Metellus Macedonicus set up in a sanctuary in Rome in 148 B.C. a whole group of bronze equestrian figures by Lysippos representing Alexander and his companions that had originally been set up at Dion in Macedonia to commemorate Alexander's defeat of the Persians at the Granikos River in 334 B.C.

    Pompey, who was called Magnus ("the Great") in an implied reference to Alexander the Great, even recalled somewhat in his own hairstyle Alexander's distinctive anastolé hairdo. Julius Caesar brought back from Greece a famous bronzed equestrian statue of Alexander by Lysippos, which was set up in Caesar's forum in Rome, only with Caesar's head replacing that of Alexander to suggest that Caesar was now the "New Alexander." After the fall of Alexandria in 30 B.C., Octavian (Augustus Caesar) visited the Tomb of Alexander and used a signet ring with Alexander's portrait engraved on it. Octavian also brought back paintings of Alexander by Alexander's court painter Apelles that were displayed in his forum in Rome. A Greek inscription from the 2nd Century A.D. from Ephesos in Asia Minor testifies to the continued worship of Alexander along with Augustus' adopted sons and intended successors Gaius and Lucius in the context of the Roman imperial cult. Caligula was said to have worn a breastplate that once belonged to Alexander. Other emperors, too, imitated or emulated Alexander in various ways.

    This portrait of Alexander was also created in the Roman period, most likely at the time of the emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161) based on stylistic considerations, which include the incising of the irises and the large shallow bore-hole in the pupils of the eyes, as well as the deeply undercut long hairlocks. Incising the irises and boring pupils became popular in the late Hadrianic period (circa A.D. 130), while rough or schematic drilling of the hairlocks sometimes with small struts left between the individual drill channels was characteristic at the time of Antoninus' successor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180). In this portrait the hair is still treated plastically rather than schematically.

    Although the structure and form of this Alexander with its strong frontal emphasis recalls Late Classical models like a head of Alexander in the Athens Acropolis Museum, (A. Stewart, Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics, Berkeley, 1993, pp.106-112, fig. 5.), the expressive face with deeply furrowed brow has more in common with such Hellenistic baroque types as the head of Alexander from Pergamon in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum (Stewart, pp.332-33, figs.128-129).

    The artistic style of this Alexander is in keeping with 2nd Century sculptures of the Greek East, especially of Greece. A particularly close stylistic parallel that dates our head to mid-2nd Century A.D. is a portrait of Antoninus Pius from Olympia (Greece): M. Wegner, Die Herrscherbildnisse in antonischer Zeit, 1939, p.136, pl.9b.
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  1. Claudio Corsi
    Specialist - Antiquities
    Bonhams
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