This painting, created by the French artist Lionel Royer (1852-1926), depicts a meeting between two storied figures from history. Standing in the center, draped in red, is Octavian—soon to be named Augustus—who used a combination of politics and war to wrest for himself control of the Roman Empire in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination. He stands over the mummified remains of a much older, long-dead conqueror. The incredibly preserved body, dressed in white clothing, outfitted with armor, and encircled by flowers, is that of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE), whose remains were brought by Ptolemy I Soter for entombment in Alexandria, Egypt. Refocusing on Octavian, his war against Marc Antony and Cleopatra brought him to Egypt, where the latter two took their own lives while under siege in 30 BCE. After Octavian’s victory over his two deceased rivals, he stayed behind in Egypt to shore up his control over the region, and to do some sightseeing—including, as seen above, a visit to the tomb of Alexander the Great.
Roman historians, such as Suetonius (c. 70-130+) and Cassius Dio (c. 163-235) made mention of the event. Suetonius wrote, “About this time he had the sarcophagus containing Alexander the Great’s mummy removed from the mausoleum at Alexandria and, after a long look at its features, showed his veneration by crowning the head with a golden diadem and strewing flowers on the trunk” (The Twelve Caesars, Divus Augustus, 18). According to Cassius Dio’s account, however, Augustus’ visit was much more awkward and destructive than Suetonius let on. The second report also better hints at the brittleness of the centuries-old mummy. Cassius Dio wrote, “Later Octavian viewed the body of Alexander, and actually touched it, with the result that a piece of the nose was broken off, so the story goes” (The Roman History, book 51, section 16). Augustus was not the only Roman emperor to visit the tomb of Alexander the Great. Caracalla is thought to have been the last emperor to make the trip, doing so in the year 215.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Roman History (Book 51, chapter 16) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.