Found in the House of the Faun in Pompeii, where she decorated the floor of a small room, the mosaic of the battle of Issos is now kept in the Naples Museum. A magnificent work, it has also become a classic in the teaching of art history for the Sixths, as part of the study of Alexander the Great, because it features the King of Macedonia and his more famous enemy, Darius, while showing the weapons employed by the Greek, and which led to his victory.
The Battle of Issos
Even if, according to some interpretations, the mosaic could represent the battle of Gaugamela, the majority of specialists believe that it is rather that of Issos. In 333 BC. J-C, Alexander set out for a year in the conquest of Asia dominated by the Persians. Hearing of the arrival of the Persian king, Darius, in Cilicia, the Macedonian goes to meet him and forces him to confront him near Issos. The battle pits nearly 40,000 Greeks against more than 100,000 Persians and allies (including Greek mercenaries). These certainly impressive figures seem to have a relatively consensus among historians, and they are especially well below ancient sources, which evoke between 400,000 and 600,000 Persian fighters, which is obviously a desire to amplify the triumph of Alexander.
The battle is initially an infantry clash, with the Macedonian side of the famous phalanx and its 6-meter sarissas. It would then appear that Alexander wanted to face Darius in single combat. But the Persian king preferred to flee the battlefield when he saw his army break up; he even abandoned his royal insignia. The Macedonian pursues him for a while before turning back.
With this victory, Alexander opened the gates of Egypt. Two years later, he faced Darius one last time at Gaugamela, for a definitive victory over the Persian Empire.
The mosaic of the battle of Issos
Dating from the 2nd century BC. J-C, the mosaic was found in a wealthy house in Pompeii, where it decorated the floor. Its author remains anonymous. It is said to be based on a painting by Philoxenos of Eretria, dating from around 300 BC. J-C. Of substantial size (5.12 m by 2.71 m), made up of more than two million "tesserae", it stages Darius' debacle against Alexander.
The overall impression given by the work is one of tragedy, a sense of tumult and panic, especially in the way in which Darius is portrayed. The Persian king is indeed on the run in his chariot, but turned towards his men whose ranks were broken by Alexander's army. There was an expression of fear and helplessness on his face.
Conversely, Alexander is portrayed as a calm and impassive fighter, standing on his horse Bucephalus, and charging the Persians, going so far as to stab a soldier with his lance. We notice that he wears an armor decorated with the effigy of Medusa, a mythological figure who petrified his victims. The Macedonian king is thus well in the line of heroes from whom he was inspired, such as Achilles.
The mosaic also tells us about the equipment of the armies of the time. We see the weapons, armor, chariots and cavalry horses of both camps, but especially the great Macedonian spears (sarisses), the main weapon of the phalanges which made the success of Alexander throughout Asia.
Finally, the work bears witness to the posterity of the epic of Alexander. Characteristic of Hellenistic art in its realism, it decorated a Roman house two centuries after the events it relates.