This painting, by the Italian artist Sebastiano Conca (c. 1676-1764), features King Philip II of Macedonia (r. 359-336 BCE) and his heir, the famed Alexander the Great (r. 336-322 BCE). There is little context as to which event this scene is meant to represent. Based on the age of Alexander and the courtly setting of the painting, it might be depicting events around 338 or 337 BCE, when father and son had a dramatic family dispute. That year, Philip II married a Macedonian noblewoman named Cleopatra. Polygamy was an accepted practice for Macedonian kings, but this did not stop teenage Alexander and his mother, Olympias, from feeling slighted. Heated sparks flew as early as the wedding banquet. The Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120) described the awkward celebration:
“Their quarrel was brought to a head on the occasion of the wedding of Cleopatra, a girl who with whom Philip had fallen in love and whom he had decided to marry, although she was far too young for him. Cleopatra’s uncle Attalus, who had drunk too much at the banquet, called upon the Macedonians to pray to the gods that the union of Philip and Cleopatra might bring forth a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander flew into a rage at these words, shouted at him, ‘Villain, do you take me for a bastard, then?’ and hurled a drinking-cup at his head. At this Philip lurched to his feet, and drew his sword against his son, but fortunately for them both he was so overcome with drink and with rage that he tripped and fell headlong” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Alexander, chapter 9).
In protest and self-preservation, Alexander and his mother, Olympias, withdrew from Macedonia. To King Philip’s credit, he did regret threatening his son once the anger and drunken haze subsided. Alexander soon returned to Philip’s court and a working relationship resumed between the strained father and son. Due to the cordial atmosphere in Sebastiano Conca’s painting, it is likely the reconciliation that he depicts in his artwork.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Plutarch’s Life of Alexander in The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. London: Penguin Classics, 1973, 2011.