In this painting, artist Jean-Simon Berthélemy (c. 1743–1811) re-creates a famous tale from the life of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE). The scene occurred at Gordium, the capital city of ancient Phrygia, where Alexander passed through around the time of the winter season connecting 334 and 333 BCE. In that city of Gordium, there was an item of legend and prophecy that was too enticing for Alexander the Great to ignore. The object in question was the Gordian knot, a binding that—along with the remnants of the yoke and wagon it was attached to—was said to have dated back to the legendary namesake of the city, Gordius, who fathered the line that produced King Midas. The Greek-Roman historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), described the prophecy that cropped up around the Gordian knot, and Alexander the Great’s actions regarding this artifact upon his entrance into the city:
“There was also another traditional belief about the wagon: according to this, the man who undid the knot which fixed its yoke was destined to be the lord of Asia. The cord was made from the bark of the cornel tree, and so cunningly was the knot tied that no one could see where it began or where it ended…Accounts of what followed differ: some say that Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword and exclaimed, ‘I have undone it!’, but Aristobulus thinks he took out the pin—a sort of wooden peg which was driven right through the shaft of the wagon and held the knot together—and thus pulled the yoke away from the shaft” (Anabasis of Alexander, 2.3).
Jean-Simon Berthélemy opted for the first version of the story in his painting. As depicted in the artwork above, Alexander brandishes his dagger high while he contemplates where to chop the legendary cord. In the background, some of the locals understandably look distressed, for the impending destruction of a much-beloved ancient artifact undoubtedly cause some mixed opinions. Nevertheless, Alexander the Great’s defeat of the formidable Gordian knot was a great PR victory, which helped cultivate his own burgeoning legend.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.