Alexander the Great (born 356 BC) was king of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and one of the most successful military commanders in history. He succeeded his father, Philip II, at the age of just twenty, and spent most of his ruling years on a military campaign that took him through Asia and north-east Africa, until by the age of thirty he had built one of the largest empires in the ancient world. In his short life, Alexander achieved more than any Greek had hitherto known and it would not be unreasonable to assume that a large percentage of his subjects believed this grand, mystical figure to be more than a mere man. But does that mean they saw him as a god?
In 331BC, Alexander conquered the Persian Empire. This was a hierarchical empire built on personal relationships, which were nurtured by respect, flattery and generosity. It was custom, for example, to lower oneself onto the ground when approaching someone of a higher social status – and thus mandatory for anyone who met with the Persian King (now, Alexander the Great). This custom was not practiced by the Greeks or the Macedonians, for whom it was at best comical and, at worst, blasphemous – meant only for the gods. Thus Alexander was faced with a dilemma: abolish this custom and give the Persian people reason to think there was something wrong with him (and that he wasn’t a real king), or demand that all his subjects – Greeks and Macedonians included – adopt it, and risk them turning against him.
For the most part (and it does vary depending on whose account you read), it seems that Alexander handled the whole thing with subtlety and cunning. He allowed the Persians to continue the custom (let’s be honest, a man as arrogant as Alexander was never going to stop them from showing their devotion in this way), and he encouraged members of his court to suggest the idea to the Greeks and Macedonians – rather than having it come from him. In fact, there seems to have only been one occasion where Alexander himself suggested universal proskynesis (the name for prostrating yourself in front of the king and, effectively, ‘blowing a kiss’), but ancient sources on the event are so contradictory and confused that it’s difficult to say for certain whether it even happened. Ultimately, the Greeks never adopted the custom, in part because Alexander had bigger concerns (such as conquering India), and likely also because he died before he could ever fully devote his attention to it.
Regardless of what Alexander himself wanted, it is evident that he was not seen as a ‘divine mortal’ by his subjects at this time – for the Persians, proskynesis was a social custom, carried out in front of their King, not in front of a god. For the Greeks and Macedonians, it did have heavy religious undertones – hence why they did not want to bow down and blow a kiss to their mortal leader, Alexander.
In the last few years of his life, however, ‘cults’ did start to appear for Alexander, especially in the Asiatic Greek cities – but, contrary to how it sounds, these still aren’t evidence that Alexander was believed to be divine. You see, the Greeks were painfully aware of the physical absence of their gods – they could not be everywhere at once and so had to be persuaded with sacrifice and supplication. At a more mortal level, this thinking could also be applied to the Greek city-states and their supreme leader, Alexander. Indeed, at this time, a common phrase in the Greek world was that benevolent kings should receive ‘isotheoi timai’ – honours similar to those bestowed upon the gods. Thus the Asiatic Greek cities, whom Alexander had recently liberated from Persian oppression, honoured him with these cults as a way of expressing their gratitude, and likely also in an attempt to encourage greater magnanimity in the future. They were honouring him in a similar fashion to the gods, not as a god.
While appreciating that this short piece merely scrapes the surface of what is a complex and fascinating topic, ultimately it seems that Alexander was not believed by his subjects to be divine. They undoubtedly saw him for the incredible military commander that he was, and thus far superior to your average Joe, but not a god. It was only really in death that Alexander achieved a god-like status, and even then that was largely the result of how his Successors manipulated his memory in order to prove their legitimacy in their epic and bloody fight over his kingdom.
“Holly Hewlett is a London-based Ancient and Modern History graduate from Oxford University, with a particular passion for the history of gender and emotion. She can often be found drinking tea, watching films, or crying over love letters from the Great War. Head to www.myhistorycafe.com and her twitter : my history cafe for all things history – from bitesize facts to longer pieces perfect to fill your lunch hour with.”