The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Carolyn Perry
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I really enjoy gazing on this portrait bust of Alexander (the Great). I have a life size replica from the Museum in Thessaloniki that keeps me company in my home and also lots of photographs to remind me of the original, which is in the Archaeological Museum of Pella.
Obviously looking at the original is ideal, but as that is out of the question at the moment having the museum replica helps and reminds me of visiting amazing sites and museums in Greece. I love how an object can trigger so many memories.
When did you first come across this portrait?
I became familiar with photographs of the bust when I was studying portraits of Alexander, but only came face to face with the real thing when I first visited Pella in 1997 (the photo below is a later visit – I can’t keep away). It was in the old museum back then, in the days when a main road went right through the middle of the site and before the wonderful new museum was built, where it now has pride of place. I say ‘new’ museum, but it was actually completed in 2009. Time has flown, but the museum still looks fresh and it recently won a Tripadvisor 2020 Traveller’s Choice Award.
Many people will be familiar with the bust as it was a star object in the 1980 travelling exhibition ‘The Search for Alexander’ and was on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue.
Can you tell me a bit about the bust and its context?
The bust was a chance find by a farmer working in his fields in Giannitsa, near Pella. Can you imagine what that must have been like? To come face to face with Alexander so near to where he was born and to see such an incredible portrait emerge from the soil.
It has been dated to the last quarter of the 4th century BCE, so it was made very close to Alexander’s lifetime and was probably a copy of an ‘official’ portrait.
What is it about this sculpture that appeals to you most?
My favourite thing about this particular sculpture of Alexander is the circumstances under which it was found and the fact that it was discovered so near to his place of birth. Having done quite a bit of archaeology I know how excited I get over finding a diagnostic sherd, so I just cannot imagine what it would be like to find this.
The sculpture is high quality and the surface in good condition (broken nose and chin notwithstanding). It has all the attributes of a typical Alexander portrait: the tilted head, leonine locks with the ‘anastole’ peak, furrowed brow, slightly parted lips, and that look that seems to focus on the middle distance, capturing the subject’s famous sense of ‘pothos’. Plutarch mentions “those distinctive features which many of Alexander’s successors and friends later tried to imitate, namely the poise of the neck turned slightly to the left and the melting glance of the eyes” (Alexander 4.1) which can be seen in this bust.
Whatever one might think of the subject of the portrait, to me it is a very beautiful representation of an important historical figure.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I live in Durrës, ancient Epidamnus/Dyrrachium and my apartment overlooks the Adriatic Sea. I spend far too much time gazing out of the window watching and listening to the sea, seeing the fishermen go out and come back with their catch, and enjoying the sunsets (often with a glass of wine in hand). When I first moved here I worried that I was wasting too much time looking at the view, but I have come to think of it as a form of therapy. I am also lucky that on my walk into town I have to pass through the Late Antique city walls. The lovely Roman brickwork cheers me up every time – I’m a bit of a wall nerd.
I spend quite a lot of time exploring my adopted home country which not only has a lot of really interesting historical and archaeological sites (the photograph below is at Lissus, modern Lezhë) but dramatic mountains and lakes, and some pristine coastline too. If you haven’t visited Albania yet I recommend it!
Carolyn Perry is a freelance lecturer and museum consultant. She taught ancient history in the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Queen Mary University of London and was the Arab World Education Officer at the British Museum and the Manager of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL before becoming Director of the MBI Al Jaber Foundation.
She accompanies cultural heritage tours to Albania, Greece and Iran. Carolyn runs Outreach for the International Association for the Study of Arabia, and is on the Advisory Board of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Her blog is at https://carolynperry.blogspot.com/.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.