Great Drunk Alexander Gets Louvre Exhibit of Treasures: Review

Alexander the Great
Marble head of Alexander the Great (3rd century BC), excavated at Pella, Greece. It is at the Louvre through Jan. 16, 2012. Source: Musee du Louvre via Bloomberg

Napoleon admired him. Oliver Stone portrayed him as a sexually confused dreamer. Dante banished him to the Seventh Circle of Hell, reserved for violent thugs.

Opinions are still divided about Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), the king of Macedonia who conquered Persia and led his army into India, before he died, aged 33, in Babylon.

Not only historians and archaeologists, entire countries quarrel about him.

Last month, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia unveiled a giant bronze statue in the central square of Skopje, its capital, claiming that Alexander was a Slav and a forerunner of the present government.

Athens strongly disagrees. It has blocked its neighbor’s bid to join NATO because it considers Macedonia a Greek name and Alexander one of its national heroes.

Greece may be about to go bankrupt, yet here it has the better argument. It also owns the more important archaeological treasures.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Louvre organized its new show, “In the Kingdom of Alexander the Great --Ancient Macedonia,” with the help of Greek curators.

In 1977, three royal tombs were unearthed, virtually intact, in Vergina, the site of ancient Aigai, the first Macedonian capital. One of them may be the tomb of Alexander’s father, Philip II, murdered in 336 B.C.

Several objects found at that site are on view in the Louvre show -- jewelry, golden garlands, a bronze tripod with lion-claw feet and silver vessels for the royal wine banquets.

Drunken Dance

Philip was, like his son, a serious drinker. After the decisive battle at Chaeronea, in 338, which made him master of Greece, he danced, blind drunk, over the bodies of slain Athenians, declining the name of the great orator who had whipped up public opinion against him: “Demosthenes, Demosthenou, Demosthene….”

The show starts with the Bronze Age. The most fascinating among the early pieces is a bronze helmet pulled over a golden mask that once covered the face of a dead warrior.

Many of the 400 or so items demonstrate that the Macedonians were outstanding goldsmiths. The diadems, earrings, bracelets and necklaces are of the highest quality.

You also find another type of burial object -- terra cotta figurines representing gods or goddesses. They were supposed to accompany the deceased into the realm of the dead.

White Tombs

The interiors of these tombs were painted, reminding us that our image of a snow-white antiquity has more to do with the ravages of time than the original state.

The largest pieces in the exhibition -- sarcophagi, stelae, porticoes -- come from a later period when Macedonia was a Roman province.

After they had annexed it in 168 B.C., the Romans were eager to find a precursor of their own “civilizing mission” in Asia. The myth of Alexander, who appears on coins, in marble and bronze, was born.

Whatever the basis of that myth, it’s undeniable that Alexander extended Greek civilization to the Orient, with the well documented consequence “that God,” as Nietzsche condescendingly put it, “learned Greek when he wanted to become a writer -- and that he didn’t learn it better.”

“Au Royaume d’Alexandre le Grand -- La Macedoine Antique,” which is supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Fondation Total, Lusis and Chateau Margaux, runs through Jan. 16, 2012. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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