After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the ensuing power vacuum between his rival generals, known as the Diadochi (‘successors’), led to the emergence of three kingdoms within the bounds of Alexander’s extensive empire: Ptolemaic (Egypt), Antigonid (the Levant and parts of Greece), and Seleucid, a vast Hellenistic kingdom established in 312 BC by Seleucus I Nicator (circa 358-281 BC). Seleucus was a close friend of Alexander and important member of his military; he accompanied Alexander into Asia in the spring of 334 BC, and by the time of the campaigns in India, in 327 BC, had progressed to the command of the elite infantry wing of the Macedonian army, known as the hypaspistai (‘Shield-Bearers’). Initially in charge of Babylonia in the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death, he soon expanded his domain to include large parts of modern western and central Asia. He also founded a number of new cities during his reign, including Antioch in 300 BC, and Seleucia, on the Tigris, in 305 BC, which became the new capital of the Seleucid Empire. At its height, the Empire was the largest and most powerful of the successor states; as the Greek historian Appian commented, ‘the boundaries of his empire were the most extensive in Asia after that of Alexander. The whole region from Phrygia to the Indus was subject to Seleucus’. The Seleucid dynasty lasted for almost two and a half centuries, until 64 BC, when it was gradually disintegrated and succumbed to Roman rule under Pompey.
The present portrait depicts a Hellenistic ruler, identified as Seleucus I Nicator due to its marked resemblance to the Roman marble portrait of this ruler in the Louvre Museum, Paris (inv. no. Ma 3597, first to second century AD, after a Greek bronze original of circa 280 BC). He wears a royal Macedonian helmet adorned on either side with ram’s horns. It is likely that ram’s horns also featured over both ears, and, judging from similar portraits, the helmet would have originally featured a crest. The ribbons of his royal diadem would have fallen around his shoulders and he would probably have worn a military cuirass. The deeply recessed eyes suggest that they may once have been inlaid. The ram’s horns on the helmet are an overt reference to Zeus Ammon, the major Greco-Egyptian god, and to Alexander the Great, who declared himself the son of the deity upon his death. Not only does this deliberate use of a widely-recognized iconography link Seleucus to divine lineage, but, by presenting himself in the likeness of Alexander, he reinforces that he is his just and natural successor, bolstering his claims to dynastic legitimacy.
Several other herms of this type are known, although not all can be securely identified – suggested attributions include Mars, Alexander the Great, Mithridates VI of Pontus, and Pyrrhos of Epirus. Most were executed in the early Roman Imperial period, probably after lost Hellenistic originals, and it is likely that they were intended as decorative sculpture for the homes of wealthy citizens, who aspired to own and imitate the visual arts of this revered culture of the past. Marble examples are known, but a favourite medium for this type of portrait seems to have been, specifically, Giallo Antico, also known as Numidian marble, from north Africa. The desire for pieces of sculpture in colourful marbles, imported from exotic locations is again indicative of the taste for luxury among Roman patrons. A Giallo Antico example of an unidentified Hellenistic ruler is in the collection of the Fitzwiliam Museum, Cambridge (inv. no. GR.S.3, first century AD).
For the historical reference to the extent of the Seleucid empire, Appian, Roman History, Volume II (book XI, chapter IX), edited and translated by B. McGing. Loeb Classical Library 3 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1912).
For the example in Cambridge, L. Budde and R. Nicholls, A Catalogue of the Greek and Roman Sculpture in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 55-58, pl. 30, no. 88.
For more on the ruler himself, J.D. Grainger, Seleukos Nikator: Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom (New York, 1990).
For a summary of the various identifications suggested for this type of bust, C. Rückert, ‘Miniaturhermen aus Stein. Eine Vernachlässigte Gattung kleinformatiger Skulptur der römischen Villegiatur’, Madrider Mitteilungen, vol. 39 (1998), pp. 177-178.
Ex. F. M. Collection, London UK, late 1960s.
T. S. Collection, London UK late 1960s -2015.