This painting, by the Dutch artist Nicolaes Knupfer (c. 17th century), was inspired by a legend connected to the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Knupfer’s artwork is set around late 333 BCE, at the time when Alexander was marching down upon the Phoenician cities along the Mediterranean coastline in the Middle East. For context, this was just after his victories over the Persians in the Battles of the Granicus River (334 BCE) and Issus (333 BCE). Due to Alexander’s growing reputation after these battles, many Phoenician cities decided to surrender to the Macedonian king without a fight. The historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), one of the most trusted sources on the reign of Alexander, briefly summarized these surrenders, saying that many rulers from Cyprus and Phoenicia met with Alexander, “yielding him the sovereignty of the island of Aradus together with the large and prosperous town of Marathus on the mainland opposite, and Sigon, Mariamme, and everything else…Alexander now resumed his march from Marathus. Byblus and Sidon both surrendered to him—the people of Sidon, who hated Darius and the Persians, actually invited him to enter the town” (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 2.14-16). After mentioning these surrenders, Arrian’s narrative did not dwell on what was happening in Sidon and other surrendered cities, but instead moved on immediately to Alexander the Great’s harrowing siege of Tyre. Therefore, to get an account of the story presented in the painting, we must move to one of the more literarily colorful (but historically dubious) sources about Alexander the Great. In this instance, the text in question is that of the Roman historian, Curtius Rufus (c. 1st century CE). While Arrian’s account quickly moved on to events around Tyre, Curtius’ narrative remained in Sidon, where Alexander reportedly orchestrated a regime change after the city surrendered.
As Curtius Rufus told the story, Alexander the Great deputized his friend Hephaestion to depose the ruler of Sidon—who, despite surrendering to Alexander, had a reputation for being in favor of the Persians. This removal of power was done with ease, and Hephaestion next had to decide who would succeed the deposed ruler on the throne of Sidon. After consulting with local men of power and influence, Hephaestion decided to raise an obscure figure from the lower rungs of Sidon’s royal family tree and put this man on the throne. The man in question was Abdalonymus, who, despite his ties to the royal family, was until that time an impoverished physical laborer who was employed at a nearby market garden. Curtius Rufus wrote the following about the scene of Hephaestion and his aides meeting Abdalonymus and bringing him the garb of kingship:
“[N]one had a better claim than one Abdalonymus who, though distantly related to the royal family, was now reduced by poverty to tending a market garden in the suburbs, from which he derived a meagre income. As often happens, the cause of his reduced circumstances was his honesty, and now he was so preoccupied with his daily work that he failed to hear the clash of arms that had shaken the whole of Asia. So these two noblemen came without notice into his garden, which Abdalonymus happened to be clearing of weeds, carrying the robe with its royal insignia. They saluted him as king.” (Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander, 4.3.4).
It is this scene of surprised Abdalonymus being tracked down in his garden and presented with the regal wardrobe and symbols of kingly authority that Nicolaes Knupfer depicts in his painting. Alexander the Great soon met with the newly chosen king, and after interviewing him and taking measure of the man’s character, Alexander reportedly endorsed the pick and gave Abdalonymus a gift of looted Persian treasure as a congratulatory gift.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- The History of Alexander by Curtius Rufus, translated by John Yardley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1984, 2001, 2004.