Battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii, c.100 BCE, Mosaic, 272 x 513 cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Bridgeman Images

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Beware of Greeks Bearing Arms

Commentary by

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, it buried the Roman city of Pompeii under ash and pumice. Seventeen centuries later, when a grand house known as ‘The House of the Faun’ was excavated in 1831, workers found an impressive mosaic.  

Measuring 2.72 x 5.13 metres, it depicts the Battle of Issus (333 BCE) in vivid detail. A tangle of Greek and Persian soldiers, horses, spears, and shields, the scene is one that captures the heat of battle, but that also focuses the viewer’s attention on two figures: King Darius III of Persia on the right, and Alexander the Great on the left.

Dated to the late second or early first centuries BCE, the mosaic shows that even centuries after his death, Alexander was captivating the imaginations of Romans, who perhaps by the Republican period were beginning to admire Alexander’s vision of an oikumene—an ordered world bound together by empire. Alexander’s territory famously stretched from his home in Macedonia to the Ganges in the Indian subcontinent, encompassing vast expanses of land and tying them together through language, culture, institutions, and of course imperial strength.

Although Alexander’s empire appeared glorious and valorous in the mosaic in Pompeii, his advance provoked anxiety and fear along his route to India. Assuming Zechariah 9–14 dates to the fourth century BCE (other scholars date it—along with Zechariah 1–8—to the aftermath of the Babylonian exile in the sixth or fifth centuries BCE), Zechariah 9 might preserve some of that anxiety.

Masking fear in bravado, this chapter speaks of the Lord who will protect and conquer, of a king who is to come, and of restoration and plenty. It speaks as a nationalist oracle to a worried people: ‘For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword’ (9:13 NRSV).

The Greeks, led by Alexander, were amassing on the horizon, and the oracles of Zechariah 9 speak to the anxiety they provoked among the people they encountered. One can almost hear the hoofbeats of warhorses behind the words of Zechariah 9:8, at the same time brash and plaintive: ‘No oppressor shall again overrun them’.

 

References

Cohen, Ada. 1997. The Alexander Mosaic: Stories of Victory and Defeat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)