The Imitatio Alexandri in the Late Roman Empire and the Middle Ages

The image of Alexander the Great will constitute during all of Late Antiquity and, even during the Middle Ages, an archetypal model of the ideal sovereign, which will be appropriated in very different ways by all kinds of characters in search of legitimizing their position of power. Although the Hellenistic kings already defined their position from the model of Alexander, it would be the Roman emperors of Late Antiquity who would bequeath to the West an iconographic and symbolic language of the imitation of Alexander as a discourse of power. This appropriation of the figure of Alexander begins with the dynasty of the Severos and, especially, during the reign of Caracalla. This emperor will systematically begin to make use of it as an important vehicle to legitimize himself in power. However, it is during the reign of Constantine that a new Christian imperial iconography is defined that will exert a wide influence in the following centuries. It is strongly influenced by the model of Alexander the Great. Suffice it to mention, as an example, the introduction of the diadem as a symbol of royalty. The imitation Alexandri on the part of Caracalla, Constantine and the latter’s successors is recognized both in numerous manifestations of the official iconographic discourse, and in the staging of the emperor’s appearances before the inhabitants of the Empire, of which the literary sources of the period.In the present work is intended, through the analysis of various literary, numismatic and artistic sources from the III to V AD, determine how the image of Alexander the Great was reused in the symbolic discourse of power during the Late Roman Empire and point out some projections of those uses towards the early medieval world.

The impact that Alexander the Great had in the ancient world has allowed the approach in different ways. Already during his life, his propagandists defined him as «authentic and of Homer’s heroes». Historians and archaeologists have studied various facets of the Macedonian conqueror, and how his legacy has influenced historical memory. With the arrival of the Roman Empire, there will be an appropriation of the figure of Alexander. This one begins with the dynasty of the Severos, especially, during the reign of Caracalla. This emperor systematically launch to make use of it as an important vehicle to legitimize himself in power. However, during the reign of Constantine it is defined as a new Christian imperial iconography that produces a wide influence in the next generations. It is very influenced by the model of Alexander the Great. The Middle Ages is also a recipient of the values ​​and virtues that the image of the Macedonian conqueror possesses.

In the year 195d.C., the eldest son of Septimius Severus, Lucius Septimius Basian, changed his name to that of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, in a clear attempt to seek legitimacy in the recent past, hence the need to evoke the name Antoninus as synonymous with government law, but will become better known by the historiography with the pseudonym of Caracalla, due to the use of certain clothing, including a mantle called caracallus. As of the year 196, Caracalla is promoted by his father to César, transcendental because he began to decide thus the dynastic government of the Severos. A year later, Caracalla has been named imperator destinatus, finally in the year 198, Caracalla is designated by his father as co-emperor, from that moment on he begins to have influence over the whole empire due to his new degree. His younger brother, Geta, who since 1984 held the title of Caesar, is incorporated into the empire as the third co-emperor. Unfortunately this paternal desire to see their children carry out harmoniously the properties of the empire is impossible, because in the last years of Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Geta began to give symptoms of a hatred that would end in tragedy. Caracalla is the only Emperor who develops an admiration and a personal veneration for the figure of Alexander the Great, constantly showing it in his ways of acting. The sources contain several references to this event, the Augusta Story although, it only refers to this on one occasion, if it affirms that this obsession begins in caracalla being a young person:

After he passed his childhood, either because of the cunning of his character, or because he considered that he should be equated with Alexander the Great of Macedonia, he became more reserved, more severe and even more atrocious, to the point that many did not believe that It was the same they had known as a child. He always had on his lips Alexander the Great and the deeds that he had performed. (Historia Augusta 1989: 287)
Dion Casio transmits many anecdotes of the passion that Caracalla professed to Alexander:

«He was so enthusiastic about Alexander that he used certain weapons and cups that he thought had belonged to him, both in the camp and in Rome itself … He organized a phalanx composed of 16,000 soldiers, all of them Macedonians, called it the phalanx of Alexander. The armament of these soldiers was the same used by the troops of Alexander (…) demanded to be called the August of the East «(Dio 1955: 293)

It is certainly probable that the historical background of this Caracalla imitation of Alexander was the military situation of the Roman Empire on its eastern border, due to the constant hostilities against the Parthian empire. Septimius Severus had previously faced this empire during the years 197 and 198. In the same way, Caracalla marched towards that frontier to fight against these enemies, which historically were related to the Persian Empire against which Alexander fought. It is possible that this feeling of admiration for Alexander has been instilled in Caracalla by his father Septimio Severo, who during the fight for the imperial title, faced in 194 against Pescenio Niger. The decisive battle takes place in the area of ​​Issos in Cilicia, the same place where Alexander gets his victory against the Persian king Darius in 333 BC, it is possible that this has awakened a first feeling of admiration in Caracalla still being a child . Caracalla sought, like Alexander the Great, the universality of the empire, we see this reflected in the constant campaigns against childbirth, as well as the alleged wedding that Caracalla intended with the daughter of King Parto, which would mean not only the expansion, but also the consummation of the idea of ​​universalization of the empire. To realize this enterprise and become the sovereign that reigns over the world, the figure of Alexander the Great was the best vehicle for Caracalla to legitimize his actions.

The Constitutio Antoniniana became the necessary legal element to aspire to that unity and universality that Alexander achieved, and which Caracalla wanted. The Constitutio, is an edict dating from the year 212 by which all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire acquired Roman citizenship. This document was received as one of many enacted provisions, and according to the lack of archaeological evidence that mentioned it, the constitution, there was very little publicity, which means that it would not necessarily constitute an exceptional transformation. Beyond the aims that Caracalla moved to the creation of this edict, it can not be argued that the granting of citizenship is still a revolutionary decision, that against a very old policy of granting citizenship outside the city limits of Rome a small and reserved number of people, who used to be members of the ruling elites. Under this measure, the figure of Alexander the Great arose, which was used not only as a symbol of strength and military success but also as a model for the search for union between East and West under the command of the Roman Emperor.

During the year 306, the emperor Constancio Chlorus dies in the city of York, leaving as his heir his son Constantine. Constantino obtained a Mamluk with the form of government inaugurated by Diocleciano, the Tetrarquía, imposing again the unique government under a single Augusto. This rupture with the previous form of government will be represented, among other means, in monetary coinage, which will no longer represent serious effigies, with stereotyped features, that try to find equality among tetrarchs, to be seen as an additional element, in addition to elements that can relate directly to Alexander the Great, the incorporation of the diadem and the look to the sky. The term diadema, from Greek, diademo, meaning «I am» or «I bind», can be applied to strips of metal or fabric that are adjusted to the head by a loop. The first diadem was used in the monetary representations of Constantine, dates from the year 324.Subsequently, these diadems were represented with the ornaments of metals and precious stones, this change was due to the need to differentiate from the heavens, which had a use improper. smooth diadem, without ornaments. As mentioned, it should not be doubted that through the adoption of the diadem and the look to the heavens, Constantino is graphically describing the end that propitiated the political scheme proposed by the Tetrarchy, remaining as the undisputed ruler of the whole empire Why? So, what is it that is needed? «Jonathan Bardill, following Patrick Bruun, says that the use of the diadem is a new emblem of power and infers that points to a new concept of sovereignty.The change of image could have been sufficient – the modification of the iconographic image in the imperial effigy – but it was not so, since the incorporation of the diadem was transcendental, because this was not an attribute common to the imperial predecessors of Constantine.It is necessary to understand what it means to use the diadem for Constantine and, understanding Its origins, why it was rejected by the previous emperors In his short life, Alexander the Great, managed to extend his power from Macedonia to all of Greece, on the territories of the Persian Empire and India.As a symbol of government, perhaps imitating the Persian monarchs , of his land, Alexander was now the owner, it was also done by the fact that the use of a ribbon tied to the head, was always used by victorious athletes, it is possible that Alexander adopted the diadem as a symbol of military victory.

While the authors can not date exactly when Alexander’s use of the diadem began, after his death in 323 BC, the use of the diadem began to be intimately associated with his conquests in life, as well as his dominion over Asia, this can be identified in the monetary coinage made by his successors, as for example, the reverse of the Lysimachus coins. The attitude towards the use of the diadem was totally different during the Roman Empire. The Regnum was feared by Roman citizens, equating it with usurpation, tyranny and being contrary to the law. After the fall of the last Roman king, the citizens swore that the city would never again be ruled by a monarch. Therefore, a symbol so ingrained to the monarchical power to which they did not want to return, as well as to the monarchies of the East, was not well received. Possibly, the use of the diadem by Constantine, like Alexander the Great, will mean the culmination of a process of domination of a significant portion of territory, established by military triumph. The appearance of the diadem in the monetary coinage from 324 must be related to the victory of this one onLicinio, by means of which, Constantino is constituted in the unique governor of the empire. In the year 325, in addition to celebrating the twenty years of Constantine’s reign, the Council of Nicaea was held, through which the Arian controversy was solved. Both the politico-military achievements of unification of the empire under his command, as well as the unification of the Christian Church, and therefore the only official religion, were sufficient to justify the comparison of Constantine with Alexander the Great and, therefore, justify the adoption of a symbol as related to a monarchical figure. The second important iconographic element is the gaze raised to the heavens. Many historians suggested that the elevated look in the portraits of Constantine represented the introduction of Christianity into the new imperial art. This is extremely questionable, given that many pagan iconography – prior to Christianity and especially Hellenistic, also representation. It is clear that the look towards the sky of Constantine is inspired by Hellenistic antecedents. From the first statue of Alexander passing through all the others, the Macedonian conqueror was represented with his gaze directed upwards, and his face pointing towards the heavens. This expression on Alexander’s face suggests the emotion caused by the communication between him and the divine. Constantine will take this idea to represent his image on the coins, thus assimilating his image with that of Alexander the Great, as well as leaving the interpretation of his gaze to God.

The figure of Alexander the Great transcends Roman kings and emperors and is also revalued by medieval culture. Its famous history a subject of high value during the Middle Ages. The image of Alexander and his prowess told in numerous chronicles, poems and songs. Although by antonomasia, the figure of Alexander is a model to be imitated by the courtly culture, and above all by the knights who came to Alexander as a warrior hero, and to whom, his image, represented the values ​​of the military law, also he was considered in the terms of a Christian knight. Alexander’s memory was the inspiration for a great amount of chivalric literature, which was noted for his qualities as a warrior and will serve as inspiration to the great mass of existing knights. The culmination of Alexander’s ideal was embodied in the book «The Book of Alexander» that dated from the thirteenth century. This work is the result of a careful study and analysis of texts with the intention of creating a global and accurate vision of Alexander the Great. It is important to emphasize that the first years of the Middle Ages, the medieval man, the interpretation of past events with a certain contemporaneity, that is, without understanding a rupture between the facts of the past and his present. However, this does not mean that it is out of the ordinary, that is to say that there was no awareness that certain events preceded others, as for example they understood that men were not Christians. This perception of contemporaneity of historical events influences the different forms of art, that is why the historical histories of antiquity are imbued with a clear medieval sense.

Therefore, the medievalization that takes place with the image of Alexander the Great in the book The Book of Alexandre demonstrates this mode of continuous historical perception and without differences between the past and the present. The life of Alexander was adapted to the social and cultural conceptions of the medieval man of the XIII century. The character of Alexander will be described wearing medieval armor and his actions will unfold
in an «Antiquity» full of medieval values ​​and resonances. As for his as the ruler, this will be presented to an image and likeness of a medieval king, possessing a concept of virtue associated with kings during the thirteenth century, Alexander is the continuator of the royal lineage, is possessor of the virtues expected in a monarch, temperance and strength, is a noble and magnanimous being, in short, the Alexander of the work The Book of Alexander is the prototype of the medieval monarch. It is interesting to find the parallels made by the author of the work between the figure of Alexander and the then Castilian monarch Fernando III. At the beginning of the work, Alexander demonstrates his desire to liberate his land from the Persian king Darius. This situation is comparable to the ideal of reconquest that prevailed during the thirteenth century in the Christian kingdoms that by that time had advanced over the territories in which the Muslims were in the poem. Alexander found his end due to his greed, that is his unstoppable desire for conquest contradicting God’s designs. This idea of ​​coding in its image makes it an imperfect, which is perfected with the arrival of Fernando III, who possesses all the virtues of Alexander except coding. You can think then that the author of the work seeks to demonstrate the perfection of the monarchy in the image of Fernando III.

The figure of Alexander the Great will constitute during all of Late Antiquity and, even during the Middle Ages, an archetypal model of the ideal sovereign, which will be appropriate in very different ways by all kinds of characters in search of legitimizing their position of power. Although the hellenistic kings already defined their position from the model of
Alexander, it would be the Roman emperors of Late Antiquity who would bequeath to the West an iconographic and symbolic language of the imitation of Alexander as a discourse of power. During the third century, the emperor Caracalla will make his own the image of Alexander seeking to merge his with that of the conqueror. With the arrival of Emperor Constantine, Alexander’s memory will be used to define a new imperial iconography not only in monetary coinage but also in artistic representations in general. Constantine will be the new Alexander, who not only gave continuity to the empire, in the new city – Constantinople – but managed to unify it under one religion, Christianity. During the Middle Ages the ideal of Alexander will be adapted into chivalric literature. The memory of Alexander will be medievalized to be able to form an image according to the kings of the time. , we see then how the constant evocation of Alexander allows his figure to occupy an eminently significant place in history, and finally become a legend.

Deja una respuesta

Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Salir /  Cambiar )

Google photo

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Google. Salir /  Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Salir /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Salir /  Cambiar )

Conectando a %s

Crea un sitio web o blog en

Subir ↑

A %d blogueros les gusta esto: