GREECE: Macedonian king's conquests depicted in fresco

The magnificent fresco decorating the façade of Philip II's grave, discovered in Vergina in north-east Greece near Thessaloniki, shows the Macedonian king accompanied by his eldest son Alexander and other courtiers during a hunting expedition.

The subject of the fresco is a hunting scene depicting a number of hunters, some mounted, others on foot, chasing a variety of game in a plain landscape with rocky rugged areas on either side of the painting. The fresco is about 5.5 metres wide covering the whole width of the royal grave's façade and one metre high, with multiple religious, geographical and political connotations as well as symbolic meanings.

The mature figure on horseback has been identified as Philip II about to throw his spear at a lion, symbolising his preparations against the king of Persia whose emblem was the lion; with young Alexander, also on horseback, who completed the expedition after his father's death, ready to throw his spear.

The identification was made by a professor of astronomy, John Saridakis, and a doctor of astrology, Despina Ignatiadou, who presented their findings at the 21st annual archaeological conference last month under the auspices of the Culture Ministry, the Ministry of Macedonia-Thrace, and the Archaeological Fund at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

The setting of the hunting scene, the rocky area on the right hand-side of the fresco, has been identified as the site of an ancient sun observatory in Thrace, now part of present-day central Bulgaria. Philip and the painter in all probability had visited the observatory where the sun's movement was observed so that agricultural and other activities could be planned.

The wounded bear emerging from the rocky area was interpreted as symbolic of Thrace and by extension a reference to Philip's victorious Scythian expedition in 342 BC; while the killing of the boar on the left hand-side of the fresco symbolises Philip's destruction of Stagyra whose city emblem stamped on its coins bore the figure of a boar. Stagyra was the home of Aristotle, tutor of Alexander.

The fresco also shows the four points of the compass with Macedonia in the centre symbolising Philip's conquests and his domination over the then known world. The royal grave in Vergina was excavated by professor Manolis Andronikos (1919-1992), who discovered it in 1977 and identified the figures in the fresco. He dated it to 336 BC when Philip was 46 years old and Alexander just 20.