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Art in the Era of Alexander the Great: Paradigms of Manhood and Their Cultural Traditions

Art in the Era of Alexander the Great: Paradigms of Manhood and Their Cultural Traditions

By Ada Cohen. Pp. xxiii + 398, figs. 134, pls. 10. Cambridge University Press, New York 2010. $95. ISBN 978-0-521-76904-4 (cloth).

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I read Cohen’s new book with great profit and enjoyment—the author writes well, brings together a wealth of information, and synthesizes a great deal of new scholarship, much of it in modern Greek and published in hard-to-obtain journals. For these reasons alone, the book should be of substantial interest to both art historians and historians of the Hellenistic period. The book also deals with material and a time period that appeal to a broader audience; and while there have been many books published recently on Alexander the Great, few have dealt specifically with art in the age of Alexander. The book is organized thematically around the in-depth analysis of images of hunt, war, abduction, and rape, and the links between them. These themes are well chosen, not only for their importance in the art of Macedonia but also because they are perennial themes in ancient art, as Cohen demonstrates exceedingly well. I found the organization and conceptualization of the book refreshing; the thematic organization allows for a much more interesting discussion of artistic and historical context than one that is focused on traditional concerns of identification and dating or that deals with the material by genre or medium. So while many of the objects of interest—the mosaics from Pella and the paintings from Vergina—are well known, they have yet to be looked at in this new and interesting way. Cohen also incorporates material and theoretical approaches from the broader discipline of art history, which has the potential to make the book of interest to scholars who study art of later periods. Indeed, Cohen is one of the few historians of ancient art who consistently and fruitfully incorporate post-Antique art into the study of ancient material remains—this is one of the original contributions of her work.

Chapter 1, which introduces the themes and issues of the study, is important as a theoretical argument for the book as a whole, and it demonstrates the author’s deep engagement with the theories that have informed her approach to the material. Chapter 2 focuses on the figural mosaics in the House of the Abduction of Helen at Pella, chosen because the subjects of the mosaics represent the author’s three themes of hunt, war, and abduction. The chapter argues for and seeks to demonstrate the strong thematic, programmatic, and metaphorical links between these subjects in a single context. The remainder of the chapters (chs. 3–8) represent the heart of the study; their complexity and richness are indeed impressive and show the author’s command of a wide range of evidence from a variety of cultures and periods. I focus here on Cohen’s discussion and analysis of a few well-known monuments to give some idea of the author’s approach.

The Alexander sarcophagus in Istanbul, with its scenes of hunting and warfare, is the centerpiece of a series of examples the author uses in chapter 4 to explore the various connections—analogic, metaphoric, and programmatic—between war and hunting, hunting and war. Cohen acknowledges up front that the relationship between these two themes has long been recognized, but she seeks to uncover the full range of complexity in this relationship and how it might work in practice. The need to demonstrate or perform continually one’s masculinity within the homosocial world of hunting and warfare is an overarching theme of the chapter and the monuments discussed within it. Neither theme is given primacy in the visual representations; indeed, there seems to have been a great deal of conceptual overlap and equivalency between the two, shown not only by the frequent combination of the themes on the same monument but also by the widespread notion that hunting is a useful and appropriate training exercise for warfare. Indeed, sometimes the themes are conflated or combined, as in the interesting hunt mosaic from Piazza della Vitoria in Palermo, in which a Persian archer appears to be fleeing from the action. Hunting one’s enemies as animals has a long and deep history.

The theme of rape and abduction, and its metaphorical and programmatic linkages, are explored across three chapters (chs. 5–7) through monuments that pair images of rape or abduction with scenes of either hunting or warfare. Here, too, the link between these subjects has a long history that continues to the present day. Recent history shows us quite graphically that the connection between rape and warfare is much more than metaphorical; it is a real weapon with dramatic consequences for real women. Cohen is sensitive both to this recent history and to the regular occurrence in antiquity of wartime rape. While there is ample visual (and textual) evidence for male sexual aggression against women, particularly in representations of war in antiquity, Cohen is hesitant to suggest that military victory was itself conceptualized as rape. I am not so sure. While Stewart’s recent analysis of the Alexander Mosaic (Faces of Power: Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics [Berkeley, Calif. 1993] 143) and the sexual dynamics between Alexander and Darius may be the result of overinterpretation (although I must admit I find it compelling from an iconographical point of view), the piercing of Alexander’s spear into the land of feminized Asia (“spear-won land”) as a gesture signifying military victory strikes me as it did Cartledge: “as erect male spear penetration yielding female earth” (“The Machismo of the Athenian Empire—Or the Reign of the Phaulus?” in L. Foxhall and J.B. Salmon, eds., When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power and Identity in Classical Antiquity [London, 1998] 56). Aggressive male sexuality—real and metaphorical—is an integral part of warfare, both ancient and modern.

Cohen returns to the hunt and masculinity in chapter 8, which focuses on the hunt painting from Tomb II at Vergina and the way it visually expresses attitudes toward, or ideas about, maleness and the male body through the actions of the figures and their setting in the landscape. Cohen bravely wades into the sea of scholarly opinion surrounding the identification of the tomb’s occupant(s) and its date. She clearly and carefully goes through the various arguments for and against Philip II, although I was under the impression that, in Anglophone scholarship at least, the matter had mostly been settled in favor of Philip III Arrhidaeus. Cohen, however, does not seek interpretive closure either on the issue of to whom the tomb belongs or on the identification of various figures in the hunt painting. For the latter, in particular, she suggests that multiple readings were possible, some more specific, others more generic, and that the purpose of the hunt painting was in any case didactic rather than documentary: it constructs “an ideal image of manhood, aristocracy, and kingship” (282) and through its combination of nude and clothed figures, visualizes and therefore instantiates the dual nature of fourth-century Macedonian self-definition as both Greek and Macedonian.

Finally, this book includes so much more visual and written material from both before and after the time of Alexander that I am not entirely sure the narrow focus implied by the title actually does the study justice. As the author so clearly demonstrates, the themes she analyzes—hunt, war, abduction, and rape—are pervasive in the art and literature of the ancient world, and indeed continue to have resonance well beyond antiquity. There is, in fact, much more here than art in the era of Alexander the Great.

Sheila Dillon
Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina 27708-0964

Book Review of Art in the Era of Alexander the Great: Paradigms of Manhood and Their Cultural Traditions, by Ada Cohen

Reviewed by Sheila Dillon

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Dillon

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