The ways in which Hellenistic rulers used sculpture to represent themselves


published on 19 July 2012


  • Sculpture as visual Media to promote kingly qualities.
  • Kings could place statues in prominent places.
  • Disembodied originals, or Roman copies? The portrait bust was a later Roman invention, therefore statuettes and the few surviving bronzes help to show what the full figure may have looked like, or the ideal that they were hoping to create.
  • Armoured statues had a militaristic meaning not favoured by the divinising kings; however, equestrian statues were quite common, mainly in the earlier periods of the Hellenistic period.
  • Nude statues might have an “elevating air” since kings weren’t accustomed to being seen naked, unlike athletes, especially when they took heroic or divine poses and muscles and height could be emphasised so as to create a sense of power. Statues that had the figure leaning on a spear with one arm held up tended to derive from Alexander statues, and as such promoted and symbolic meaning of 'king', and later 'ruler', with the spear referring in some way to military aspects of kingship: "spear-won-lands".

Alexander’s representation in Sculpture and its influence on those who followed him

  • The statues, being publicly visible, would have an important influence on all, for example, the Statues of Ptolemy II and Arisone I at Olympia and the Sacred Way at Delphi.
  • Alexander provided the basic model for Hellenistic kingship, his followers wanted to imitate his success by imitating his imagery.
  • Beardlessness was a new style introduced by Alexander, again, it was imitated, since it invoked the memory of alexander's youthful appearance at the time of some of his greatest victories, it also drew on images of young gods and heroes, such as Achilles, further to this the style was uniquely his own.
  • Dynamism, this could be achieved through the tilt of the head:

It is the statues of Lysippos which best convey alexander’s physical appearance (and he himself felt it proper that he should be modelled only by Lysippos). For it was this artist who captured exactly 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
(Plutarch, Alexander 4.1)

  • Thick ‘royal’ hair with the off-centre parting; the anastole, which again, was a very Alexandrian trait. For example, the Erbach Alexander draws on images of a young Heracles, but it is the anastole which defines it as an Alexander.
  • The representations themselves could vary between actual images of the actual alexander, a deified image of the actual alexander, or an 'Alexanderised' image of an actual deity. After Alexander's death subsequent sculptures tended to focus more on idealism than on realism.
  • The statues all had  variable degree of divinization, some times subtle, at others times very conspicuous
  • Alexander even influenced non-Hellenic ‘rulers’, see Plutarch, Pompey 2.1, who is described as having "a slight anastole in his hair", and with "a fluidity around the eyes"

When Lysippos first modelled a portrait of Alexander with his face turned upward toward the sky, just as Alexander himself was accustomed to gaze, turning his neck gently to one side, someone inscribed, not inappropriately, the following epigram:

The Bronze statue seems to proclaim, looking at
Zeus: I place the earth under my sway; you,
O Zeus, keep Olympos.

For this reason, Alexander decreed that only Lysippos should make his portrait. For only Lysippos, it seems, brought out his real character in the bronze and gave form to his essential excellence. For others, in their eagerness to imitate the turn of his neck and the expressive, liquid glance of his eyes, failed to preserve his manly leonine quality.
(Plutarch, De Alexandri Magni Fortuna aut Virtute 2.2.3)

Distinctive or unusual features and the reasons for them

  • Tilted head- dynamic, and with a meaning that could be interpreted as above
  • Contrapposto stance (where the statue's weight is shifted more onto one leg/ foot that the other): promoted a sense of tension and strength
  • Equestrian: militaristic, symbolic, a common feature in the early period of Hellenistic rulers
  • Hunter rulers: symbolic of a ruler's authority, power, and dominance over nature
  • Shaven: youthfulness, with allusions to Achilles or Alexander

  Realism over idealism?

  • Diadem: the sign of a king, a ribbon tied around the back of the hair (the Hellenistic equivalent of a crown)
  • Horns: of goats and of Zeus Ammon (bull's)
  • Oak wreath of Zeus of Dodona: there was a prophetic oracle and sacred oak at Dodona
  • Elephant scalp: representative of African campaigns
  • Lion scalp: Heraclean

Statuette of Ptolemy II, bearing a club (Heraclean), Dionysian boots, and an elephant scalp which is also Dionysian but also reminiscent of his eastern campaigns in India and his success over the elephant wielding armies of King Poros, which is why the later kings of Bactria and India used it. the elephant scalp also connections to Africa too, Egypt being the home of the Ptolemaic Kings; part of their wealth came from African ivory,  they also attempted to use African elephants for war.

Statuette of an equestrian king wearing an elephant skin

Variations in the style of sculpture

  • One reason for similarities is the actual copying of previous works, as such a general progression is not overly obvious: but certain changes can be seen

Tisicrates, also a native of Sicyon, was a pupil of Euthycrates [son of Lysippos], but more nearly approaching the style of Lysippus; so much so, that several of his statues can scarcely be distinguished from those of Lysippus; his aged Theban, for example, his King Demetrius, and his Peucestes, who saved the life of Alexander the Great, and so rendered himself deserving of this honour. 
(Pliny N.H. 34.19.67)

  • Different leaders at different times had different images that they wished to promote because of the different circumstances in which they were in, for example, Mithrades VI, against Rome, was promoting Alexander’s image by using the lion-skin cap of Alexander Herakles.
  • Statuettes in the Athena sanctuary on the north stoa of the Acropolis of Pergamon show Herakles liberating Prometheus from the Eagle and are perhaps symbolic of Mithradates VI’s attempts at liberating the OldHellenistic World from Rome, whereby the sloping forehead on the Herakles figure identifies him as Mithradates.


Hellenistic rulers used sculpture as political propaganda; to influence the way in which they were seen. This could be achieved with subtlety, but sometimes was glaringly obvious.

About the Author

James Lloyd
James' main area of research is ancient Greek music, but he has general interests in mythology, religion, and art & archaeology. A self-confessed philhellene, James keeps at least one eye on the Roman pie.

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