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Sometime around 310 BCE an artist by the name of Philoxenus of Eretria created a mosaic (creating images with an assemblage of small pieces of colored material) of the Battle of Issus that has long been considered one of the greatest artworks of antiquity. Found at the House of the Faun in Pompeii in 1831 the mosaic is composed of about one and a half million tiny individual colored tiles called tesserae.
The artwork illustrates the battle in which invading troops led by Alexander of Macedonia defeated the army led by King Darius III of Persia.
When looking at the piece the viewer cannot help but be impressed by the psychological intensity of the drama taking place. On the Persian side of the piece the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the prominent figure of Darius shown in his chariot. A look of pure desperation, and perhaps even fear, is etched in Darius’ face as victory slips through his hands.
As his steely eyed charioteer turns to rein his horses for a fast retreat to safety Darius stretches out his hand toward Alexander either in disbelief that Alexander has beaten him, or perhaps in grief over the death of one of his “immortals”.
Around him are his Persian soldiers who mill in confusion in the background, their faces filled with fear and determination. On the same side, there are two other figures that are quite notable and demonstrate the artist’s technical mastery. The first is the artist’s depiction of the rearing horse right below Darius which is seen in a three-quarter rear view.
The rider, his terror evident upon his face, glances back at the battle as he attempts to control his horse. This kind of depiction is very impressive and is much more accomplished then other similar attempts such as the shading in the Pella mosaic or the Vergina mural (Kleiner 142). The second, perhaps even more impressive, is the artist’s portrayal of the Persian in the foreground who has fallen onto the ground and raises a small shield in a pathetic attempt to prevent being trampled. The man’s terrified face is reflected on the polished surface of the shield moments before the chariot crushes him under its ornate wheels.
On the Macedonian side of things the viewer’s eye is of course drawn to Alexander. This portrait of Alexander is one of his most famous. His breastplate depicts Medusa the Gorgon. He leads the charge into battle on his horse Bucephalus, without even a helmet to protect him, and maintains an aura of unshaken confidence in direct contrast to Darius. As Alexander surges forward in a supreme effort he drives his spear straight through one of Darius’s trusted “immortals” who puts himself between him and the King of Persia. As the impaled Persian collapses to the ground, Alexander fixes his gaze upon Darius in utter hatred.
Although the deteriorated condition of the mosaic makes it difficult to distinguish much on the Macedonian side a cavalryman wearing a Boeotian helmet with a golden wreath can been seen behind Alexander. Looking at the mosaic as a whole there are a few important details that grab ones attention. First is the fact that the landscape is very minimal, only one gnarled tree trunk appearing in the background and a few discarded weapons and rocks in the foreground. Secondly, everywhere in the scene men, animals, and weapons cast shadows on the ground.
This unusual attention to detail is what enhances the intensity of the piece and gives it an aspect of realism that truly shows the horror and confusion of battle. The viewer cannot help but be drawn into the conflict and become a part of the drama as it unfolds. To me this mosaic is not only a truly great piece of art but also has furthered my understanding of Roman artwork, Macedonian warfare and the emotion in Hellenistic-styled mosaics. It is easy to understand how Roman author and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder concluded that Philoxenus’ depiction of the Battle of Issus was “inferior to none” (Kleiner 142).
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