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Review: The Birth of Portraiture: Alexander the Great and His Successors  

By Lauren Brough, April 26 2023

Curated by Marina Fischer, the Nickle Galleries is currently holding an exhibit on the early days of portraiture dating back to 356 BCE. The distinctive portraiture we see today extends back to ancient Egypt starting with Alexander the Great. 

The exhibit displays the numerous ancient coins holding the most realistic representations of human likeness at the time. When many images of distinguished men and women of the time started to appear on coins.

This type of Hellenistic art had motives of depicting the god-like status of Alexander the Great and the other influential people at that time. 

Quite extensive, the exhibit displays not only Alexander the Great throughout his lifetime and after his death but also other Hellenistic kingdoms including Indo-Bactrian and  Indo-Greek Kingdoms, Central and South Asia, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Antigonid Dynasty and more. 

The well-renowned king is known for his mighty empire covering around two million square miles across Western Asia and Europe. 

The extensive sequence of coins gave a clear picture of the influence of the king and the power the monarch held. At each display, you can read a short descriptive summary of the portrait on each coin and see maps of the areas of each empire or dynasty. 

One of the key highlights from the exhibit included the display of the first historical portraits of women — all of which are displayed on ancient coins. With one of the most well-known goddesses of all time, Cleopatra Thea, at the forefront. 

The coins moulded to her portrait would have been used as propaganda to perpetuate the dominance of the monarch. Many powerful female figures were also depicted on these coins — including Berenice I and her eldest daughter Arinoe II to signify their power and authority. 

Another display to note is the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, where Ptolemy I Soter, a childhood friend of Alexander and one of his greatest generals, who later reigned as king of Egypt. He had portrait coins ranging from silver, gold and bronze. 

One of the most eye-catching pieces was Hercules’ lion headdress with coins of both Hercules and Alexander wearing the headdress. 

A large map is laid out where you’re able to follow the trail of Alexander the Great’s significant empire across Egypt and parts of Asia. Overall, the well thought out structure, and in depth detail made it a great exhibit with a lot to see and full of the history of ancient Egypt. 

The exhibit is free and open to the public, so if you’re a lover of ancient Greek history or just interested in the story of Alexander the Great then you’ll want to come check it out. It will be open until April 30. 

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