home   :    index    :    ancient Persia    :    ancient Greece    :    Alexander    :    article by Jona Lendering ©

Alexander the god

Bust of Alexander the Great; München
Alexander, Glyptothek
The young Macedonian king Alexander (336-323) defeated his Persian colleague Darius III Codomannus and conquered his empire. During his campaigns, Alexander visited a.o. Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Media, Bactria and the valley of the Indus. In the second half of his reign, he had to find a way to rule his newly conquered countries; therefore, he made Babylon his capital and introduced the oriental court ceremonial, which caused great tensions with his Macedonian and Greek officers. One of the most shocking innovations was the demand to be venerated like a god.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Portrait of Philip, from Welschbillig. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Portrait of Philip, from Welschbillig (Germany). Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier.

Alexander's Example: Philip

The ancient Greeks and Romans made a distinction between humans and the immortals, with a kind of in-between class of (almost) divine men. The heroes described by Homer, from which Alexander claimed to descend, belonged to this category, but also sages like Pythagoras and the founders of cities. After their death, these people could receive a small shrine and sacrifices; it was a kind of cult of the dead, not similar to the cult of the eternal, deathless gods.

The first to receive worship during his life was Lysander, the Spartan admiral who defeated the Athenians in 405 and brought back many exiles to their home countries. No man had ever enjoyed a similar power, and this entitled him to divine honors.

In the fourth century, the rulers of Syracuse, the largest and most powerful state in the Greek world, demanded worship as if they were gods. The beginnings were modest, however. Dionysius I (405-367) only wore Persian vestments, in the mistaken belief that the Persian king was considered divine. He was succeeded by his son Dionysius II, but the Sicilians rebelled against him in 357 and accepted his brother-in-law Dion as their leader and voted heroic honors to him. In 354, Dionysius II returned and had his statue erected on which one could read that he was the son of Apollo.

When Alexander's father Philip became king of Macedonia in 360, the idea that a powerful king was something of a god among men would not have surprised anybody. The people of Eresus (a town on the island Lesbos) erected an altar to Zeus Philippios and those of Ephesus placed his statue of in the sanctuary of Artemis. This must have happened in 337, when Philip's general Parmenion led an army into Asia, preparing the road for the king's liberation of the Greek towns in the Achaemenid empire. Now that Philip's statue was placed next to that of Artemis (synnaos), he was certainly raised to a state higher than ordinary men and probably even called equal of the gods (isotheos).

Alexander as kosmokrator, ruler of the universe. Bust from Amisos, now in the Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel (Belgium). Photo Marco Prins.
Alexander as kosmokrator, ruler of the universe. Bust from Amisos, now in the Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel

The Christian author Clement of Alexandria (early third century CE) states that Philip received similar honors in the shrine of Heracles at Athens, which may -although this is a very late source- be correct. After all, the Athenians were defeated by the king at Chaeronea (338) and in the months after this battle, they did everything to prevent the siege of their own city. 

In October 336, Philip celebrated the marriage of his daughter Cleopatra to the king of Molossis, Alexander, and his own departure to the war against Persia. The visitors who were present at the ceremony in the theater of Aegae, saw that twelve statues had been placed on the stage, and that Philip wanted to sit on a throne between them (synthronos). In other words, he claimed to be the thirteenth Olympian god. When he was murdered during the celebration (by a bodyguard, for personal reasons), most Greeks and Macedonians knew that this was the punishment of the blasphemer.

Coin, showing Apollo with the features of a young Alexander (coin of Philip). Photo Marco Prins. Coin of Philip showing Apollo with the features of Alexander

Son of Zeus Ammon

Alexander must have been used to his father's pretensions. Moreover, he had been portrayed on Philip's coins as if he was the god Apollo. However, the young king could never call himself synthronos or isotheos as long as he had not equaled his father's deeds. He laid heavy emphasis on his descent from the Homeric heroes; being deeply convinced of the truth of these ancient tales, he wished to emulate them whenever possible. Therefore, he went to Siwah in the Libyan desert: it did not make any military sense, but his ancestors Perseus and Heracles had done the same.
Alexander as Pan. Museum of Pella (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.
Alexander as Pan (Museum of Pella)

It is possible that the idea that he had a divine father was already in Alexander's mind before he visited the oracle at Siwa. His court historian Callisthenes of Olynthus mentioned in his Deeds of Alexander that in the first months of 333, Alexander had to pass along the coast of Pamphylia and that the sea receded, doing obeisance to the conqueror. That the Macedonian king was already thinking that he was more than an ordinary human, can even be proven beyond reasonable doubt, as we will see in an instant. It is therefore likely that, after the dazzling successes of the preceding year, Alexander thought that he had -like his ancestor Heracles- a human and a divine father.

When Alexander entered Egypt, he received the typical fivefold title of the pharaoh: from now on, he was the Horus, the protector of Egypt; king of Upper and Lower Egypt; beloved by Amun; the chosen one of Ra; the son of Ra, Alexander. The last element, 'son of Ra', is of course the most important. As ruler of Egypt, Alexander was the son of the sun.

Coin from Cyrene showing Zeus Ammon. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien (Austria). Photo Jona Lendering.
Coin from Cyrene showing Zeus Ammon (Kunsthistorisches Museum,

In February 331, Alexander arrived at the oasis of Siwa, where he wanted to visit the oracle of Zeus Ammon. It is not known what was discussed, but it is certain that after the visit, Alexander started to worship Ammon and wanted to be called 'son of Zeus' or 'son of Ammon', which amounts to the same. Already in Antiquity, people have thought that the oracle told Alexander that he was Zeus' son, but this hypothesis is unnecessary. After all, Alexander was already regarded as the son of the supreme god, Ra.

When Alexander returned to Memphis in April, envoys from Greece were waiting for him, saying that the oracles at Didyma and Erythrae, which had been silent for a long time, had suddenly spoken and confirmed that Alexander was the son of Zeus. The timing proves that Alexander was already thinking that he was of a more than human nature when he entered Greece: after all, the people of Didyma and Erythrae can never have known that Alexander was recognized as the son of Ra and wanted to be called 'son of Zeus'.

Alexander with horns. Coin by Lysimachus.
Alexander with a horned diadem. Coin by Lysimachus (©!!)

If Alexander entertained any doubts about the titles he had received and accepted in Egypt, the Greek ambassadors will have taken these doubts away. Moreover, it should be noted that the Macedonian king had by now surpassed the achievements of even the greatest Greek or Macedonian. According to an admittedly hostile source, Ephippus of Olynthus, Alexander sometimes wore the horns of his divine father Ammon on public occasions. We can not establish the truth of this story, but it is certain that immediately after his death, he was depicted in this fashion.

Soon, Alexander's claim to have a divine father was well-known. Alexander publicly sacrificed to Zeus as his father before the battle of Gaugamela (1 October 331); resenting officers and soldiers made jokes about the divine descent of their commander; one Gorgus of Iasus offered Alexander as the 'son of Ammon' a golden crown; and the Athenian orator Demosthenes could joke that as far as he was concerned, 'Alexander could be the son of Zeus - and of Poseidon as well'.

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)

Persian court ritual

The introduction of Persian court ritual is quite another matter. The Persians had the custom to greet people in a way that resembled their rank in society. For example, when one had to meet the king, the visitor had to prostrate himself for, kneel in front of, bow for or blow a kiss to the king. The Greeks called this proskynesis, and did not understand it. To them, prostration was a cult act that was only to be performed before the immortal gods.

Like Dionysius I before him, Alexander had already started to wear elements from the Persian royal dress (diadem, girdle and striped tunic) in 330. The response from the Macedonians and Greeks had been luke-warm, but the Persians had appreciated the gesture. In the summer of 327 the 'king of Asia' tried to introduce proskynesis at his court, and this time it caused a storm of protests (text).

Many European courtiers thought that Alexander's outrageous act meant that he wanted to be venerated as a god. However, they were wrong, because the Persian custom was not intended as such. On the other hand, it is possible that Alexander was looking for a way in which his subjects could venerate their new god. If this is correct, the introduction of the Persian court ritual was meant as a first step toward the cult of Alexander, precisely as the Macedonians and Greeks understood it.

Alexander as Zeus. Coin, minted after the Indian campaign.
Alexander as Zeus. Coin, minted after the Indian campaign (©*)

Alexander the god

Receiving divine honors and being considered the son of a god was one thing, being called a god was something else. However, Heracles and Polydeuces -sons of Zeus but mortal men- had shown that it was possible that a hero like Alexander could become a god. This was called apotheosis and was what Alexander wanted to happen. The example of Philip, who had presented himself as an Olympian god and had been murdered, showed that this was not without risks.

But the world was ready for it. The painter Apelles had already depicted Alexander with a thunderbolt (the attribute of Zeus) in his hand. This object can also be seen on the coins that Alexander minted in Babylon in the last years of his reign. According to the hostile Ephippus, incense was burnt in front of the king.

Statue of Alexander in the Louvre, Paris (France). Believed to be a copy of the cult statue in Alexandria. Photo Jona Lendering.
Alexander; believed to be a copy of the cult statue in Alexandria (Louvre)

After the death of his friend Hephaestion, Alexander's demand to be venerated as a god was promoted more vigorously. Heroic honors for Hephaestion -and, by implication, Alexander- were required. At Athens in March 323, a debate took place whether the Macedonian king should receive divine honors; the precise details are unclear, but seem to presuppose an order. The existence of this request can not be proven, but it is in any case certain that these honors were much to the king's desire. We have no positive evidence that the divine honors were actually awarded, but it is significant that even a city that was hostile to Alexander debated the question. The same can be said about Sparta.

The island Thasos seems to have decreed the worship of Alexander, and the Ionian towns venerated Alexander at Teos. Although the evidence is not unequivocal, it seems that these cults belong to the reign of Alexander. After all, apotheosis was not popular among the Greeks, and it is not likely that the divine honors were voted when the new god was no longer there to enforce them.



 home   :    index    :     ancient Persia    :    ancient Greece    :    Alexander