In this painting, the Bolognese artist Donato Creti (c. 1671 – 1749) re-creates a tale of courtly drama between King Philip II of Macedonia (r. 359-336 BCE) and his famous son and heir, Alexander the Great (r. 336-322 BCE). The historical event that inspired this scene can be dated to around 338 or 337 BCE, when Philip II married a Macedonian noblewoman named Cleopatra, adding her to his preexisting harem of wives. Polygamy was an accepted practice for Macedonian kings, but this did not stop teenage Alexander and his mother, Olympias, from feeling slighted. And any further children that Philip fathered could pose a problem to Alexander’s claim to the throne. As the wedding date neared, the marriage became a powder-keg of emotion for all involved, and the volatile situation finally erupted once Alexander, Philip, and the father of the bride were brought together for the alcohol-inundated wedding banquet. The Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120) described the awkward scene that unfolded during the festivities:
“Their quarrel was brought to a head on the occasion of the wedding of Cleopatra, a girl 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).
Plutarch’s quote describes what is occurring in Donato Creti’s painting. The artwork features the precise moment when King Philip drew his sword against his own son. Yet, as was written above, Philip was too drunk to do any real harm that night, and therefore Alexander escaped unharmed. 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.
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.