Heracles to Alexander the Great, Oxford

The Ashmolean’s new show is the most stunning loan exhibition ever to have come from Greece to Britain. It consists of objects from ancient Aigai, the modern Vergina – the ceremonial centre of the ancient Macedonian kingdom and the cradle of King Philip and his son Alexander. Almost all the 500 items have been excavated since 1977 and one of the most spectacular, a gold wreath, was found only in 2008.

The exhibition is beautifully shown in three big rooms and contains items that will require histories of Greek art to be rewritten. The effect is overwhelming, the most emotional exhibition experience of my lifetime.

For some 500 years Macedon was ruled by kings who traced their ancestry back to the hero Heracles, whose image appears on Alexander’s many coins; from about 330BC Alexander and his heirs ruled an area stretching from Egypt as far as north-west India. Even 150 years after Alexander’s death, kings in Bactria (modern Afghanistan) were showing their Macedonian features and armour on their fine coins and alluding still to Alexander himself. The Ptolemies in Egypt, including Cleopatra, spoke Greek in the Macedonian dialect. In Oxford we can look in for the first time at the previous history of the royal society that produced the most famous conquerors in ancient history.

The exhibition strikes an admirable balance between treasure and scholarship. Nobody could fail to be impressed by the gold myrtle wreath adorned with 112 gold flowers that belonged to one of Philip’s seven wives and was found in the front chamber of his tomb in 1977. It is the most beautiful piece of ancient Greek jewellery known to us. A line of tall modelled clay heads from about 480BC are also star turns. They were found with the earlier female burial of a queen of Macedon: are they heads of the goddess Persephone and some unknown divinities or are some of them portrait heads, even at this unimaginably early date?

A brilliantly staged group of the dresses and jewellery of the ladies of ancient Aigai centres on the incredible gold decorations of the queen herself. For the first time they let us see how women actually wore these bulky precious items.

High points of a room devoted to the Macedonian court’s dining and partying are silver cups from the tombs of Philip and of a prince who is almost certainly Alexander’s short-lived son from his wife Roxane. These exquisite items remind us of the elegance among the wilder side of Macedonian nightlife. Roxane surely touched some of these silver pieces, Philip the others.

It pays to look closely at the detailed decoration on so many of the smaller items in this show. The queen’s headband, from perhaps as early as 500BC, is decorated with scenes of Greek myth, including the Minotaur. The handles on the silver vessels are adorned with Dionysiac faces and the samples of carved ivory figures have superb skill: the Greek patronage, taste and language of the Macedonian court-society are plainly visible.

The show includes reproductions of the tomb-paintings found under ancient Aigai’s great mound. These are the high spots of the most spectacular discoveries in Greek archaeology in my lifetime. If only the great Italian Renaissance artists could have seen the Aigai paintings: the history of Western art might have been different if Botticelli or Leonardo had been able to study these breathtaking depictions of human emotion, interrelated action, schematic landscape and rhythmic movement.

The exhibition is right to devote a lot of space to the ground plans and images of Aigai’s huge, 12,500 sq m palace: recent revelations about the site have changed our entire understanding of architecture in and after Alexander’s lifetime. It is the most important classical Greek structure after the Parthenon and shows us the increasing grandeur of the court in which young Alexander grew up. The building was formerly dated to the generation after Alexander, as if it had been the result of his grand conquest in Asia. But it is now known, through renewed excavation since 2007, to be nothing less than Philip’s own palace.

In 2008 I was taken round the new excavations by their presiding genius, Angeliki Kottaridi, to whose generosity this loan exhibition is due. I remember telling her that she must survey the palace in front of us and use technology to work out where Philip’s earlier palace lay beneath it.

“I have done that, Robin,” she replied, “and there is no earlier palace underneath.”

I realised that she knew, as I now did, that we were standing in Philip’s own vast palace, the place where he, Olympias and the young Alexander walked and maybe quarrelled. As the moon came up we sat in the recently found theatre below the palace, only feet away from the very spot where Philip was murdered. It was clear that our understanding of Philip’s vision as king had changed for ever; only now do we realise the scale of his vision and ambition.

Alexander was a Macedonian and the more we know about his homeland the more we know about the context in which to assess his career and the generation he brought to fame. This fabulous show makes us aware of a world whose secrets we have only recently begun to unlock.

Until August 29, ashmolean.org

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