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Centum Homines: The Prototype of the Alexander Mosaic and the Military Museum in the Hellenistic World
College Art Association (2007)
  • Peter E. Nulton, Ph.D., Rhode Island School of Design

Although it is generally accepted that the Alexander Mosaic copies a painting of the 4th Century BCE, the attribution of this prototype has never been settled. Numerous attempts have been made to associate it with painters recorded in Pliny's Natural History, notably Philoxenos of Eretria, and Alexander's court painter, Apelles.

If the painting were the work of any artist whose name survives, as strong a case can be made for Aristeides of Thebes as for Apelles or Philoxenos. Since Pliny's comment that Aristeides painted a battle against the Persians follows his treatment of the works of Apelles, he is likely referring to one of Alexander's battles. Mnason, Aristeides's patron, had strong ties to the Macedonian empire, and a painting of Alexander in battle seems a probable commission from him.

The mosaic recalls Pliny's characterization of Aristeides's works, including the depiction of the "anima," "perturbationes," and a harsh color palette. Details of shading and modeling suggest that the original was painted during Aristeides's flourit (late 4th Century BCE). Aristeides's work was "hundred-figured," whereas the mosaic contains considerably fewer figures. We know that the scene depicts a victory for the Macedonians, yet the Persian army has not only numerical superiority, but control of msot of the battlefield. This could well imply that the mosaic replicates only the dramatic central section of a battle frieze. There are parallels for this kind of compositional cropping in other media, including scenes of Alexander's battles, where only the central portion of the painting is reproduced.

Battle friezes are typically used to decorate long, rectangular spaces, such as the well-known Ionic frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike in Athens. Even assuming that the mosaic represents an enlargement in scale of such a prototype, the width of the battle scene raises the question of the original's context. The logical setting for such a large painted battle would be a stoa, one of the most common multifunctional public buildings, often used as a kind of military museum (e.g. Stoa Poikile, Hoplotheke at Delphi).

Style, composition, and patronage may well suggest the hand of Aristeides, if only to demonstrate that the final word on the lost prototype's painter has not yet been spoken. Although the mosaic cannot assist us in naming the painter whose work it emulates, its composition helps to illuminate the original setting of such a fine and noteworthy work of art.

  • Art History,
  • Mosaic,
  • Alexander the Great,
  • Architecture,
  • Stoa,
  • Greek Painting,
  • Roman Art
Publication Date
February 14, 2007
Citation Information
Peter E. Nulton. "Centum Homines: The Prototype of the Alexander Mosaic and the Military Museum in the Hellenistic World" College Art Association (2007)
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