God’s Role in Alexander the Great’s Pursuit of Divine Status
Discuss the role of the gods in Alexander’s vision and the construction of his self image. What were the repercussions of the divine relationship on his personal propaganda and for what reasons did Alexander seek divine status?
Scholars have long debated the factors that contributed to Alexander seeking divine status during his reign and if he actually claimed divinity during his lifetime. By analyzing several extracts from varying sources, I intend to illustrate that Alexander’s divine quest was not solely due to his visions of self grandeur and arrogance but rather an outcome impressed upon him by his environments, political situation and achievements. I will also acknowledge that he grew to believe that he was the son of Zeus towards the end of his reign, even though if he personally proclaimed his beliefs remains ambiguous. Taking into consideration the difficulty of this task bearing in mind the dearth of sources that tackle this topic, often offering contradictory views, I aim to prove my thesis by concentrating on the views held by Ian Worthington in Alexander the Great a Reader, W.W. Tarn, Alexander the great 2 vol. and Wilcken’s Alexander der Grosse.
Worthington’s book analyses several ancient source material and contemporary published articles that tackle all the points of Alexander’s quest for divinity. W.W Tarn argues that Alexander’s desire for divinity was a political strategy, but it fails to discuss Alexander’s views on his own origin. Wilcken disclaims the political argument, offering instead the view that Alexander’s desire for divinity was ‘rooted in his psychology’ (i.e. he was simply a very arrogant and self-indulgent leader who, due to amazing military feats, felt he should be recognized as a god. From my study of these materials and others from the source book I feel that Tarn’s view is correct but fails to consider aspects of Wilcken’s theory that should not be ignored; Alexander did seek divinity for political reasons but he also ultimately believed he was divine. A trait I feel was caused by his surroundings and upbringing. My paper is divided into three parts; illustrating the influences that affected Alexander as a youth to seek divinity, describing the events and portraits that track the development of Alexander’s psychology; from viewing himself as a military master to a god, and the repercussions of his view.
It is widely believed that his mother Olympias tried to convince a young, impressionable Alexander of his divine parentage; she claimed that Alexander was the direct son of Zeus. (Margarete Bieber; the Portraits of Alexander the Great) Alexander strived to out do his father in every enterprise and reaching a state of deification would be the best way to prove his superiority over Philip who reached a state of isoqeoς (on a par with the gods though mortal) during his reign. This is evident in the last year of his reign after the expulsion of the Persian Garrison at Ephesus; Phillip erected a portrait statue of himself in the sacred temple of Artemis. His new found status as sunaioς (like a son) of the goddess, along with other similar ‘liberations’ raised Phillip to a status above mortal men which however was not deification. It is rumored that Phillip did try to reach this paramount at his daughters wedding at Aegae. In an attempt to be sunqronoς (enthroned like the thirteenth Olympian) with the gods he introduced his statue in the midst of the twelve Olympians. He was subsequently assassinated.
The final factor that may have influenced Alexander is Homer’s poems. Following his introduction to Homer’s Iliad by his tutor Aristotle, Alexander modeled his character on the Iliad’s heroes, most of whom were direct descendants of the gods, and the heroic code. Although these factors may have influenced Alexander in his self beliefs they were not enough to convince him of his divine status.
This is perhaps most evident in Lysippos’ sculptor of Alexander in 333 BC, three years into his ruler ship. The Azara Herm is currently located in the Louvre. Even in its deteriorated state it perfectly depicts Alexander in the manner in which he intended himself to be discerned. This statement is fortified by Plutarch’s claim; ‘The outward appearance of Alexander is best represented by the statues of him which Lysippos made, and it was by this artist alone that Alexander himself thought it fit that he should be modeled.’ If we believe Plutarch’s statement then we must concur with the view that Alexander either did not wish to advertise his divine status or he didn’t consider himself a divinity during the early part of his reign.
The Azara Herm has all the features widely attributed to Alexander. The Long flowing anastolη pays tribute to his youthful beauty and is reminiscent of Achilles’ heroic locks. The slightly leftward contorted neck contrasts with the slight rightward turn of the head which causes the upward look in the figure’s face. The statuette culminates with the customary ‘melting glance’ in Alexander’s eyes. The idealized depiction of a clean shaven youth, with piercing eyes and a regal tilt can easily be interpreted as Alexander striving to appear divine. However this is not Alexander’s intention.
First, the original Herm would have incorporated more specific facial features which were unique to Alexander. More importantly is the phrase Lysippos was believed to have inscribed on the pedestal of the original Herm:
‘The statue seems to look to Zeus and say, take thou Olympus; me, let earth obey’.
This epigram, approved by Alexander, proves my earlier assertion that he initially aspired to conquer the world and did not pay attention to acquiring a divine status. The real question of what eventually influenced Alexander to adopt and believe his mother’s view of him as the son of Zeus can be found by analyzing his conquest into Persia.
Many historians believe that the catalyst for Alexander’s transformation was in Egypt. In the winter of 332 BC Alexander marched into Egypt following several battles and sieges with the Persians. He was immediately accepted by the Egyptian people and was debatably crowned pharaoh in Memphis. The Egyptians viewed all their kings to be direct descendants of the god Ammon-Ra, whom the Greeks affiliated with Zeus. However his divine connection was not fully established until Alexander visited the Oracle at Siwah. Here, he was told of his divine status and the news seemed to confirm his mother’s claims in his youth and his own heroic hopes. Yet, following the news, Alexander was not the one who announced his newly learned divine status. His historian Callisthenes was the first to proclaim the news with no orders from Alexander. His actions led two Ionian cities, Miletus and Erythrae, to send him messages concurring with the oracle. Thus it could be argued that Alexander was a passive bystander in the development of his divine status. However, this does not prove that he didn’t believe in his divinity. There are several contrasting views of Alexander’s reaction to the oracle.
In the same year Alexander received the oracle, at the battle of Gaugamela Callisthenes claims;
‘On this occasion he made a very long speech to the Thessalians and the other Greeks, and when he saw that they encouraged him with shouts to lead them against the barbarians, he shifted his lance into his left hand, and with his right appealed to the gods, praying them, if he was really sprung from Zeus, to defend and strengthen the Greeks.’
Observing that he does not directly refer to himself as son of Zeus, instead posing the question to his men, it is evident that Alexander did not identify with himself as a god. A god would not appeal to another god or question his divinity. It is more likely that he saw himself as isoqeoς (god-like), or similar to ancient heroes such as Hercules and Achilles; a descendant of the gods.
Contrastingly, after Alexander defeated Darius in Gaugamela and was crowned kind of Asia, Ephippus describes Alexander’s change in behavior;
‘Alexander used to wear even the sacred vestments at his entertainments; and sometimes he would wear the purple robe, and cloven sandals, and horns of Ammon, as if he had been the god.’
On examining these two extracts it is difficult to illustrate the progression of Alexander’s psychological standing on his divine status. The first extract proves that, directly following the oracle, he did not proclaim himself as an immortal, but this does not mean he didn’t think he was. The second extracts shows that Alexander grew to believe in his divinity following his unprecedented success towards the end of his life.
Although I feel Alexander’s belief in his divinity was a natural progression for an ambitious young man, caused by his flattering surroundings and illustrious achievements, there are several strong indications following events at Siwah that his belief in his divinity may have been due to a megalomaniac character. In 324 BC, possibly on his return to Babylon following his victory against Porus at the Hydaspes River, the Silver Decadrachm of Alexander was issued.
The decadrachm is the only piece of artistry produced during Alexander’s reign which, approved by Alexander, openly depicts him as a deity. On the obverse is a figure on horseback, most likely a depiction of Alexander, attacking a figure riding an elephant, probably Porus. The reverse is of more interest. It depicts a man, wearing a Macedonian cloak, a Persian helmet and what seems like Greek armor. His contraposto is slightly contorted, reminiscent of Lysippos’ Statuette of Alexander. Thus considering these attributes it is widely acknowledged that the decadrachm is a depiction of Alexander. The aspect of the reverse that is most significant is the thunderbolt held in the figures right hand. If the decadrachm was issued by Alexander then he must have been making claims to divinity during his lifetime.
Despite this evidence I do not feel Alexander can justly be accused of blasphemy. I have already mentioned the ambiguity about the issuer of the coin. It should also be considered that there is no inscription of ‘Alecandrou’ (of Alexander) on this coin (an inscription found on most numismatic depictions of Alexander intended to confirm the issuer, the portrait on the coin or both), nor is there any other proof of whom the coin depicts. This still does not answer why, when approaching the end of his reign, he requested to be defied in 324 BC.
I feel that Alexander’s actual request for divinity was a political endeavor. Since He received the news from a highly revered oracle and only shared the news with his mother in private letters (Plutarch the Age of Alexander), I see no psychological reason for him to request mortal confirmation. Instead it is believed that Alexander wished to assimilate the exiled democrats from the old Greece into his new empire unfortunately the cities involved were part of the League of Corinth. Alexander had no authority over these cities. The only way he could gain this authority was through deification. The fact that his deification was limited to the Greek cities of the League of Corinth counters claims by notable historians, such as Wilcken, that Alexander’s reasoning had ‘its roots in Alexander’s psychology’ alone. As W.W. Tarn states; ‘His request for deification was a limited political measure for a purely political purpose and nothing else’. However, Tarn’s argument is flawed as it ignores later incidents and behavior in Alexander’s reign that suggest otherwise, but it does add a further incentive for him to seek divinity.
For whatever reason Alexander did seek divinity the repercussions are not debatable. Following the events at Siwah and the proclamations of his divinity the Macedonian troops who had battled with him through his campaign grew more and more discontent with Alexander’s behavior. They mistook his attempts to unify western and eastern customs as an insult to their own ways; they were particularly offended by Alexander’s introduction of proskynesis, an act which was only associated with divinity in Macedonia but considered as a sign of respect towards their king by Persians. This led to situations of paranoia and conspiracy. Alexander executed his close friend and leader of the companion cavalry, Philotas, for conspiracy against the king after he voiced his disapproval of Alexander calling himself a god. A similar incident occurred with the murder of Clitus who disapproved of the errant flattery given to Alexander during his India campaign. The scene is well illustrated in the latest movie of Alexander. Alexander grows angry when Clitus mocks other’s flattery that he is son of Zeus and reminds Alexander of his father; a better man in his eyes. These drunken accusations lead Alexander to murder his friend in a drunken rage and subsequently lose the faith and trust of his entire army. Thus during his reign his quest for divinity resulted in no positive outcome for Alexander. The fact remains that if he had not been encouraged by a wayward mother, persuaded by an oracle, surrounded by flatterers and driven by a desperate desire to outstrip a great father; Alexander the great would not have believed his political claim to divinity.
There may have been few positive results to Alexander’s divine status during his reign, but there were after it. The Silver Tetradrachm of Lysimachus is a perfect example of the political power the deified Alexander obtained. Lysimachus was a relatively obscure former officer under Alexander. Following his death Lysimachus took advantage of the political turmoil that enveloped Alexander’s empire by gaining ruler ship of Thrace. He based his campaign on his association with Alexander, which he embodied by issuing the Silver Tetradrachm in 305BC
The obverse is the more significant of the two sides. It depicts Alexander’s portrait with his customary flowing anastolη. His eyes are set in a stern gaze that represents a forceful and decisive personality. His mouth is contorted in a familiar authoritative pose. The most significant aspect of the coin is the horns crowning his hair. The horns of Ammon-Ra announce his divinity and crown both the portrait and the power of the coin; a power so great that it was used by Lysimachus, those before him (Ptolemy), and some after him through their successful reigns.
Edited by Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great a reader (London/ New York Routledge 2003)
W.W. Tarn, Alexander the Great 2 (Cambridge: 1948)
Wilcken, Alexander der Grosse (1931)
Directed by Oliver Stone, Alexander the Great movie (2004)
Plutarch, the Age of Alexander, penguin (1973)