Achilles, Alexander, and Arthur: Contemporary Imaginings

by Owain Williams

Upon a recent visit to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, I saw Albrecht Altdorfer’s painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus from 1529. The painting is intricately detailed, with hundreds, if not thousands, of charging cavalry and pike-wielding infantry battling before the walls of the city of Issus under a sky of swirling cloud. Yet, despite its intricacy, none of the figures of the painting look remotely close to what we know ancient Macedonians, Greeks, and Persians would have looked like. Of course, Albrecht Altdorfer could not have known what we do today about the ancient world, archaeology had simply not developed significantly then. However, it seems that Albrecht Altdorfer made no attempt to show that the battle happened nearly two thousand years before his time. The cavalry are clad in plate armour, the banners bear Medieval heraldry, and the city looks like one from a fairy-tale. Indeed, the whole scene looks more suited to Pavia than Persia.

Painting of the Battle of Alexander at Issus, by Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 1529)

The decision to depict historical events using contemporary iconography or material culture is not unique to Albrecht Altdorfer’s paintings. Jan Brueghel the Elder’s similar painting The Battle of the Issus does very much the same thing. In fact, it has been a common trend in art for millennia. Arguably, the most famous example from modern media is the depiction of King Arthur, who was likely a Romano-British warlord (see Wargames, Soldiers and Strategy 121), as a knight, a trend that goes back to the High Medieval period.

Painting of King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey de Bouillon, by Jacques Iverny (ca. 1411)

The most famous, and most misunderstood, instance of such contemporary imaginings is the Homeric epics. For the ancient Greeks, for example, Herodotus (2.53) and Thucydides (1.3), the Trojan War was a real event, one that happened in the distant past. There are even hints within the text of the Iliad that suggest the audience listening to the poem would have imagined the events of the poem happening in the past, such as when the narrator tells the audience that no men from their time could lift the same stone as Aeneas (Il. 20.286-7). Despite, to the Greeks, the clear historical setting of the Trojan War, the material culture depicted within the poems closely resembles that of mid-seventh century BC, with some elements possibly coming from earlier, such as Meriones’ boars’ tusk helmet. A notable example is Agamemnon’s gorgon-faced shield (Il. 11.36), a design which does not appear before the seventh century, but is rather common thereafter (although, it is important to note that simply because there are no older finds, this does not mean that such finds were non-existent before these earliest finds).

Further reading:

  • Crielaard, Jan Paul. “Homer, History and Archaeology: Some Remarks on the Date of the Homeric World.” In Homeric Questions. Essays in philology, ancient history and archaeology, edited by Jan Paul Crielaard, 201-288. Leiden: Faculteit der Letteren, 1995 []

  • Morris, Ian. “The Use and Abuse of Homer.” In Classical Antiquity, vol. 5, 81-138. 1986 []

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