article 81: The “Alexander Romance” in Ivory

The high-relief ivory carving pictured below, measuring about 7 x 20 centimeters, is one of four sides of what was probably a jewelry casket. They are kept in an astounding room full of such treasures at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, one of the little-known and hence pleasantly quiet museums run by German federal states. These institutions hold ramshackle collections ranging from castoffs unwanted elsewhere, to a few world-class masterpieces, via items of varying degrees of interest from diverse fields.

The information panel for this particular work offers two widely divergent possibilities as to time and place of its origin: Alexandria, 6th century and Byzantium, 9th century. A friend, vastly more learned in such matters than Naoko and I, concurs with our amateur view that both are off the mark.

The subject of the four panels is the “Alexander Romance”. This mother of all romances consists of tales of Alexander the Great’s life – some true, mostly mythic – which began accumulating even before the miraculous man died. The first extant redaction dates from the 3rd century AD. Ever more fanciful accretions continued for centuries. But the present scene is at least based on historical fact: the murder of the Persian king Darius III by his later successor Bessus and a henchman. Darius was seeking refuge from the victorious Macedonian after the battle of Gaugamela when his lieutenants thought the time ripe to dispose of him. Bessus’ reign was short and ignominious. He was eventually deposed and handed over to Alexander, who had him executed.

Darius is pictured playing an instrument of the lute family, similar to the Chinese pipa, with a plectrum. The oldest images of such instruments date from Central Asia (see Article 42). They evolved into the Arab oud, and thence to the European lute.

This depiction is clearly of an Asiatic type, the hybrid of Greek and Asian elements found over much of Central Asia (especially in the old provinces of Bactria and Gandhara, with elements extending as far as Japan) in the era after Alexander swept over the vast area and planted seeds of Greek culture. It could have been the work of an oriental artist in one of the two locations proposed by the museum, but our friend thought those were just wild guesses.

February 15, 2023

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