This painting, by the Flemish artist Jan Thomas (c. 1617 – 1678), was inspired by a legendary meeting between the famous king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great (r. 336 to 323 BCE), and the endlessly entertaining character of Diogenes “the Cynic,” one of the most interesting minimalist and ascetic philosophers ever to have lived on this earth. Before leaving Greece on his renowned campaign to conquer the Persian Achaemenid Empire and parts of India, Alexander—an admirer of Diogenes and his witty philosophy—reportedly tracked down the philosopher at Athens or Corinth and tried to strike up a conversation with the man. Although Diogenes was evidently rather disinterested in chatting it up with the king, Alexander the Great continued the dialogue and went on to offer the philosopher anything he might desire. Diogenes’ dismissive response to the king’s enticing offer became legendary. The scene was recorded by Arrian (c. 90-173+), a Roman general and scholar who wrote a biography of Alexander’s life:
“[Alexander] was marching somewhere in the Isthmus with a contingent of Guards and infantry Companions, and chancing to see Diogenes lying in the sun, he stopped and asked him if there was anything he wanted. ‘Nothing,’ replied the philosopher; ‘though I should be grateful if you and your friends would move to one side, and not keep the sun off me’ (Anabasis, 7.2).
Such is the scene that inspired the painting. It shows Alexander the Great and his entourage crowding around Diogenes and offering him anything he might wish. The artwork likely captures the moment in which Diogenes responded that all he wanted was for Alexander to stop blocking the sunlight.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.