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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:54

Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, Pompeii

Video transcript

in baseball in soccer sometimes sports announcers will look for the turning point of the game and the scene that we're looking at a battle not sport in fact were the most important battles in ancient history is at that particular turning point the moment when the great ruler of Persia turns and flees under the onslaught of the great Greek general Alexander Darius the king of the Persians has just ordered his troops to retreat so this tremendous tension at this moment because we have this reversal of momentum we can feel still the momentum that that's moving in from the right because we can still see the Persian guard Spears facing towards the Greeks but just at that moment one of the largest objects in this mosaic the chariot is being spun around and the tension and the torsion that's required for that is creating this tremendous sense of dynamism on the ground we see the wounded and the dying one of my favorite details is the reflection of one of the Persian soldiers in his own shield he's looking at himself fallen in battle perhaps about to die I think my favorite part is the horse that's part of the team leading Darius's chariot almost all four hooves are off the ground as it's being pulled toward the left its head turns to the right there is this all the frenetic quality to this image and you have a sense of confidence when you look at Alexander's face as he heads toward darius darius looks fearful as he gestures toward alexander it looks to me as though darius is almost pleading for the lives of his soldiers well there is a look both of surprised and worried and of seeking compassion I think that that's exactly right Alexander is known ultimately for his compassion at least towards Darius his family and Alexander you the great Greek general the founder of an enormous Empire well that's right he not only unifies Greece but he will then move south into Egypt he moves east into Persia and he gets at to the Indus Valley itself so he puts under Greece's control an enormous area of the known world and all of these details are rendered in tiny pieces of stone and glass so we're looking at a mosaic that we think is based on an ancient Greek painting we hope it's based on an ancient Greek painting because almost nothing of ancient Greek painting survives and lennie talked about how amazing Greek painting was well it's true when we think of Greek art we think of Greek sculpture we might think of Greek architecture perhaps we think of Greek vase painting but you're absolutely right and the ancient world literature tells us that what the Greeks did better than anything was wall painting we just don't have any so maybe this gives us some idea but I do find it really interesting that the mosaic is almost empty at the top and is so much weighted down towards the bottom especially when we remember that this was based on a painting that would have been on a wall and so this was intended to be seen vertically at least initially at least that's our best guess art historians linked this mosaic to a literary description of an ancient Greek painting by an artist named Phil Laak Sinise and in this literary source by Pliny flocks and uses said to have created a painting of the Battle of Alexander and Darius but here's the problem there were probably lots of paintings of that subject and we know for certain that there for example was a woman artist who painted this subject in ancient Greece as well this was an incredibly important confrontation between these two generals between these two civilizations I'm sure there were many more but this is what we have and this is what was found and we have it because of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 which preserved under a layer of volcanic ash the city of Pompeii including this mosaic this found on the floor between two paris tiles that is between two open courtyards that were surrounded by columns in the largest and most elaborately decorated mansion in pompeii often called the house of the faun after a bronze sculpture of a faun that was found there in the mosaic itself is of extraordinary quality and so it's not surprising that we find it in such a lavish environment as the house of the faun there are apparently a million and a half pieces of stone and glass that make up this mosaic and the quality is not just in the fineness of the materials but in the incredible naturalism of what we see here which is what the AG Greeks are known for we have forms that even with these tiny pieces of stone we have a sense of modeling of the use of light and dark to create a sense of three-dimensional forms if we look at the horses or the faces of the figures we see the turn of the face the anatomy of the body and look at the foreshortening of the animals for instance of the horses that ancient Greek knowledge of the human body of how it moves through space is so clear here and of course all of this speaks to the Romans regard for the achievement of ancient Greek art sometimes it seems as though everyone in Pompeii wanted to imitate the ancient Greeks to own copies of ancient Greek sculptures ancient Greek paintings there is a real mania as in Rome itself for ancient Greek culture