Ancient writers tell us that Alexander the Great issued an edict that only Lysippos should cast his image in bronze, only Apelles should paint his portrait, and only Pyrgoteles should engrave his image on gems (see D. Pandermalis, Alexander the Great, Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism, p. 15). Several portraits in bronze were commissioned, including the most famous, a standing figure of the Macedonian king holding a lance. While the original does not survive, Plutarch (de Alexandri Fortuna, 2.2) informs that his head had an upward tilt, giving him a sharp and penetrating look. His portraits portray him with leonine hair arranged with the characteristic anastole at the center of his forehead. Another famous image shows Alexander on horseback in a composition with twenty-five of his soldiers, which was erected at the sanctuary of Zeus at Dion at the base of Mount Olympus. Alexander's statue was looted by the Roman general Q. Caecilius Metellus and brought to Rome in 146 B.C. Its composition is echoed in a small statuette from Herculaneum, now in Naples (see no. 4, op. cit.).
The Roman love of important historical characters, coupled with their insatiable demand for ancient works of art, meant that portraits of Alexander the Great continued to be popular well into the Roman Imperial period. Lifesized copies were created in bronze and marble, as well as small-scale images, like the bronze head presented here, which may have been inserted into a separately-made torso.