This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (c. 1609 – 1664), was inspired by the historical event of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) visiting the tomb of Cyrus the Great (r. 550-529 BCE) at Pasargadae. Alexander reportedly visited the tomb in the winter season that linked 325 to 324 BCE, after returning westward from his campaigns along the Indian borderlands. When Alexander and his companions arrived at the site of the tomb, they were reportedly shocked to find that it had been vandalized and plundered. As Alexander was an admirer of Cyrus, he decided to rebuild and refurbish the tomb. An official named Aristobulus was tasked with overseeing this project. Aristobulus left a written record, which was cited by the Greek-Roman historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), who wrote, “Aristobulus relates that Alexander found the tomb of Cyrus, son of Cambyses, broken into and robbed, and that this act of profanation caused him much distress” (Anabasis of Alexander, 6.29). Aristobulus also evidently made a list of what needed to be repaired or replaced in the damaged tomb. Arrian again summarized Aristobulus’ account:
“He was to restore to the coffin what was still preserved of the body and replace the lid; to put right all damage to the coffin itself, fit the divan with new strapping, and to replace with exact replicas of the originals every single object with which it had previously been adorned; and, finally, to do away with the door into the chamber by building it in with stone, covered by a coat of plaster, on which was to be set the royal seal” (Anabasis of Alexander, 6.29).
Such is the tale that inspired Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s artwork. Besides Alexander, seen standing in his armor, the identities of the other figures are vague, and the state of the tomb (whether it is still damaged or has been restored) is also unclear. Whatever the case, the painting shows a scene of Alexander the Great at the tomb of Cyrus the Great.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.