This painting, by the Neapolitan artist Francesco de Mura (c. 1696 – 1782), purports to show Alexander the Great—ruler of Macedonia (r. 336-322) and conqueror of an empire stretching from Greece to the borderlands of India—in the act of condemning false praise. It is an ironic artwork, for while it is not inconceivable that Alexander might have rejected sycophancy and baseless groveling at rare times when he was in a foul mood, this was definitely not his normal behavior. Quite the opposite, an insatiable desire for praise and glorification was a key component of Alexander the Great’s character and strategy. He claimed his father was the high-god, Zeus, and he wanted to be elevated to the status of a heroic demigod, an equal to figures such as Achilles and Heracles. Similarly, he took every chance he could during his travels to name after himself random settlements and potential future cities, labeling them with titles such as Alexandria. Instead of rejecting false praise, Alexander was said to have indulged in it too much, causing annoyance among some of the officers who knew all too well that Alexander was a fallible and mortal human. The ancient Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-12), wrote the following assessment after perusing through the histories, memoirs and letters from the age of Alexander that were at his disposal:
“Although at other times his society was more delightful and his manner more full of charm than any king, yet when he was drinking he would sometimes become offensively arrogant and descend to the level of a common soldier, and on these occasions he would allow himself not only to give way to boasting but also to be ridden by his flatterers. These men were an irritation to the more refined members of Alexander’s entourage, who had no desire to compete with them in their sycophancy, but were unwilling to be outdone in praising Alexander. The one course they thought shameful, but the other was dangerous” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Alexander, chapter 23).
It was, indeed, dangerous to undermine Alexander’s sense of self, as the king’s friend, Cleitus the Black, learned all too well. In 328 BCE, Cleitus reminded the king that Philip II of Macedonia, not Zeus, was Alexander the Great’s real father. Cleitus also reminded the king that, his military genius aside, Alexander was not a one-man wrecking ball; his achievements had been won through the blood and sweat of the army, and warriors such as Cleitus, himself, had needed to rescue reckless Alexander from time to time in battle. This speech from Cleitus the Black outraged Alexander, and in response the king skewered him with a spear. Therefore, while Francesco de Mura shows a scene of Alexander the Great condemning false praise, this was not the normal behavior of the megalomaniac king.
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.