This mosaic is perhaps the most famous ancient image of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE), the king of Macedon who led his army on a series of conquests from Greece all the way to the borderlands of India. Although the mosaic, constructed from over a million tesserae tiles, now hangs upright like a painting in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, it actually spent most of its existence on the ground as a floor mosaic in Pompeii’s House of the Faun, one of the city’s largest and richest private homes. The construction of the mosaic has been dated to around the turn of the 2nd and 1st century BCE, and it survived long enough to be preserved by the ashes of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 CE.
Depicted in the mosaic are the opposing forces of Alexander the Great and the Persian ruler, Darius III. Time played an ironic role-reversal on the participants of the battle in the mosaic. On the left, Alexander’s side (the army that won the battle) has become quite damaged over the thousands of years—yet the torso and head of Alexander thankfully survived. Contrastingly, the tiles that make up Darius’ defeated army remain remarkably intact.
As for the precise event shown in the mosaic, most observers and scholars interpret the scene as a rendition of the Battle of Issus (c. 333 BCE). In that particular fight, Alexander inflicted a decisive defeat on the Persian forces, causing Darius III to mount such a chaotic retreat that his own family was captured by Alexander’s troops. Arrian (c. 90-173+), a Greek-Roman biographer of Alexander, described the last moments of the Battle of Issus, a description that can also be used to understand what it occurring in the mosaic:
“The moment the Persian left went to pieces under Alexander’s attack and Darius, in his war chariot, saw that it was cut off, he incontinently fled—indeed, he led the race for safety. Keeping his chariot as long as there was smooth ground to travel on, he was forced to abandon it when ravines and other obstructions barred his way” (Anabasis of Alexander, 2.11).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.