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The introduction of proskynesis


Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). After the death of Darius III (July 330), Alexander was sole ruler of the Achaemenid empire. He introduced the Persian court rituals to his own court, which is called proskynesis. This meant that a visitor, depending on his rank, would have to prostrate himself, bow for, kneel in front of or kiss the king. Greeks and Macedonians could not appreciate this, because they considered these rituals only suitable to the gods. The opposition was led by Callisthenes of Olynthus, who was, like Alexander, a pupil of Aristotle of Stagira. The Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia describes the events in section 4.10.5-12.5 of his Anabasis. The translation was made by M.M. Austin.
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Pharnaces paying honor ('proskynesis') to king Darius the Great. Relief from Persepolis. Archaeological museum of Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins.
Proskynesis; original relief of the northern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis (National Archaeological Museum, Tehran)

Concerning the opposition offered to Alexander by Callisthenes over the question of obeisance, there is also the following story [1]. It had been agreed between Alexander, the sophists and the most distinguished of the Persians and the Medes at his court that the subject should be raised during a drinking party. Anaxarchus launched the topic, saying that Alexander had much better claims to be regarded as a god than Dionysus and Heracles [...]. The Macedonians would have better reason to honor their king with divine honors; there was no doubt that once Alexander departed from men they would honor him as a god. How much more justifiable it would therefore be to honor him in his lifetime rather than wait for his death, when the honor would be of no benefit to the recipient.

After Anaxarchus had spoken to this effect, those who were privy to the plan praised his words and wanted to begin doing obeisance to Alexander, but the majority of Macedonians were displeased and kept quiet. Then Callisthenes intervened with these words: 'Anaxarchus, I declare that there is no honor fitting to man that Alexander does not deserve. But a distinction has been drawn by men between honors fit for mortals and honors fit for gods, for example in the matter of building temples and setting up cult statues and setting apart sacred enclosures for gods, and making sacrifices and libations to them, and offering hymns to the gods but eulogies to men. Most important is the distinction observed in the matter of obeisance. You greet men with a kiss, but since a god is placed higher up and it is sacrilege to touch him, you honor him in this way with obeisance. Dances, too, are held in honor of the gods, and paeans are sung to praise them. No wonder, when one considers that different honors are appropriate to different gods, while heroes receive yet others distinct from divine honors. It is unreasonable, therefore, to obliterate all these distinctions by inflating human beings to excessive proportions through extravagant honors, while inappropriately diminishing gods, as far as is possible, by offering them the same honors as men. Alexander himself would not tolerate for a moment a private individual laying claim to royal honors on the strength of some unjust show of hands or vote. How much more justified would be the displeasure of the gods against men who assume divine honors or allow others to do it for them. Alexander has more than justified the claim that he is and is seen to be the bravest of the brave, the most kingly of kings and the greatest of all generals. More than anyone else, Anaxarchus, you ought to have put forward this point of view and opposed the rival line of argument, because of your position as philosopher and instructor of Alexander. You ought not to have launched this subject. Remember that it is not Cambyses or Xerxes you are associating with and advising, but the son of Philip, descended from Heracles and Aeacus, whose forefathers came from Argos to Macedonia, and have since ruled the Macedonians by law and not by force. Why, not even Heracles received divine honors from the Greeks in his lifetime, nor even after his death until Apollo at Delphi gave an oracle instructing Heracles to be honored as a god. If one must think in foreign ways on the ground that this argument has originated in a foreign land, then do not forget Greece, Alexander. It was for her sake that you launched your whole expedition, to add Asia to Greece. Consider then whether on your return you will exact obeisance from the Greeks, the freest of men, or will you make an exception for the Greeks but inflict this indignity on the Macedonians? Or will you draw a distinction in the matter of honors generally, receiving from Macedonians and Greeks honors fit for men and acceptable to Greeks, and foreign honors only from non-Greeks? It may be said that Cyrus the son of Cambyses was the first man to receive the honor of obeisance, and that it is this which has kept the Persians and Medes submissive as you can see. But you must remember that the great Cyrus was humbled by Scythians, poor but independent men, and Darius by other Scythians, and Xerxes by Athenians and Spartans, and Artaxerxes by Clearchus, Xenophon and the Ten Thousand [2], and lastly our opponent Darius by Alexander - who had not yet been the object of obeisance.'

These and similar words of Callisthenes greatly irritated Alexander, though the Macedonians were pleased to hear them. Alexander realized this and sent instructions to the Macedonians to forget about obeisance for the future. Silence fell after these words, but the eldest of the Persians came forward to perform obeisance one after the other. Leonnatus, one of the Companions, thought that one of the Persians had not bowed properly, and made fun of the Persian's air of submissiveness. Alexander was angry with him at the time, though later he was reconciled.

The following story is also told.[3] Alexander sent round a golden cup, passing it first to those who were privy to the plan about obeisance. The first person would drink from it, stand up and offer obeisance, then receive a kiss from Alexander, and the rest likewise in turn. When it was Callisthenes' turn, he stood up, drank from the cup, and went towards Alexander to kiss him, but without offering obeisance.

Alexander was then engaged in conversation with [his friend] Hephaestion and was not paying attention to whether Callisthenes was going through the act of obeisance or not. But when Callisthenes approached Alexander to kiss him, Demetrius the son of Pythonax, one of the Companions, remarked that he had not made obeisance, whereupon Alexander did not allow himself to be kissed. 'Well then,' exclaimed Callisthenes, 'I shall go away one kiss the poorer.'






Note 1:
This means that Arrian did not find this story in his best sources, Ptolemy and Aristobulus. It has been argued that the story was influenced by Roman discussions over the status of the emperor.

Note 2:
Arrian refers to the campaign of the ten thousand Greek mercenaries who tried to place the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger on the throne (401 BCE). They defeated king Artaxerxes II near Babylon, but their leader died during the battle. Clearchus was the commander of the mercenaries; the Athenian author Xenophon (c.430-c.355) was one of the commanders during the expedition back home through Armenia. He wrote a book about it, the Anabasis.

Note 3:
Plutarch of Chaeronea states in section 54 of his Life of Alexander that the story was told by Alexander's chamberlain Chares of Mytilene.





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