This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
Of all the mosaics from the ancient world that have survived until the present day, none is perhaps as well known as the “Alexander Mosaic” from Pompeii. If you’ve ever opened a book on Alexander the Great, you’ve no doubt seen the mosaic. Indeed, it’s also graced the cover of numerous books that deal with Alexander, the Hellenistic age, or even Greek warfare.
Nothing quite prepares you for seeing it in real life, though. The mosaic, which once decorated a floor, is mounted like a painting on a wall in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. It’s absolutely huge: it measures 2.7 × 5.2 metres (Nancy H. Ramage and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art (second edition, 1995), p. 85).
From a distance, it even looks like a painting, but get up close and you’ll be able to make out the individual tesserae, the small coloured tiles that were painstakingly arranged to create the image of Alexander’s forces engaging the troops of Persian king Darius III. About one and half million of these tiles were used to create the final image.
Alexander versus Darius III
The scene is interpreted as depicting the Battle of Issus (333 BC), during which Alexander’s forces managed to rout the Persian army. Alexander himself is shown to the left, riding into battle on his horse Bucephalus. His eyes are trained on those of his counterpart, Darius III. The Persian King is shown fleeing on his chariot, his forces in disarray.
Large parts of the mosaic have been damaged, but enough remains to impress. The artists have captured the chaos of battle well: Alexander’s forces move inexorably from left to right, while the Persian troops attempt to seek safe haven. A horse has stumbled; a Persian warrior is crushed underneath the king’s chariot. Persian troops raise their hands and seek refuge, while Alexander’s icy stare is fixed on Darius III.
The mosaic was discovered in 1831 in Pompeii, where it decorated the floor of one of the rooms in the House of the Faun, one of the largest and wealthiest houses in the ancient city. It dates to ca. 100 BC or perhaps even a little earlier.
Mosaics were originally made of natural river pebbles, usually coloured either white or black. But in the early third century BC, small squares (tesserae) cut from stones of different colours began to be used to create more detailed mosaics for the super rich. The Alexander Mosaic would have been impossible to create without this technological innovation.
This mosaic is without parallel: first of all, it’s huge, and secondly, it features an uncharacteristically complex composition, with foreshortening and shading effects. It’s therefore thought that it was made after a Hellenistic painting of the late fourth century BC, perhaps even a specific painting described by Pliny and attributed to Philoxenus of Eretria.
In his The Archaeology of Greece (1996; second edition), William R. Biers notes: “The quality of the work and the astonishing use of light, foreshortening, and details brings home to us again how much of major Greek painting must have been lost” (pp. 319-320).