What evidence is there that Alexander may have believed that he was of divine descent? And how convincing would this evidence have appeared to one of his followers?
From studying the sources of the ancient world that talk about Alexander The Great, it is clear that many of them present Alexander as being some type of heroic figure or Demi-god. However you could question whether Alexander believed this himself. Only by studying his actions and the actions of those around him can we draw any type of conclusion on this matter. This can be done through the use of sources that exist from the time of and around his death. Most of these sources have been lost or are incomplete however, so I feel that it would be best to mainly consult the sources of Arrian and Plutarch Although both of these were written a couple of hundred years after Alexander’s death they are still the most complete. Plus Arrian would seem to have many sources to consult in his writing, all from Alexander’s time. His main two sources were Ptolemy and Aristobulus, both of whom were on Alexander’s campaigns. Plutarch’s account is more a biography than a history since it is full of stories and anecdotes, however it contains some information that Arrian doesn’t so it is still a worthy source to consult.
In this it would first be prudent to study all those events in Alexander’s life, which would seem to suggest that he did have some belief that he was of divine origin. The primary example of this would appear to be his visit to the shrine of Ammon. While in Egypt, Alexander had an urge to visit the temple since he wanted to consult the oracle there, which had a reputation for infallibility’. Arrian also states that both Perseus and Heracles had consulted it at some point. And since it is clear from Arrian’s account that Alexander longed to duplicate, if not surpass, the feats of both Perseus and Heracles, so surely he must consult this oracle too. Arrian (book 3) claims that the blood of both flowed’ within Alexander, which suggests that Arrian was of the opinion that Alexander did have some divine heritage since Heracles was supposedly the son of Zeus. In any case, Arrian also states that Alexander also visited the temple because he himself felt that he might be descended from Ammon in some way. If this is true then it would certainly seem that Alexander did in some way believe that he was of divine descent. However according to Arrian Ptolemy says that after being enthroned as Pharaoh at Thebes Alexander, like every Pharaoh, automatically became a son of Ammon. So this may be why he visited the temple, not out of any personal belief that he was descended from Ammon, but instead, out of a sense of duty or to appear to be taking the fact that he was made Pharaoh by the Egyptian people as being a great honour. More over by visiting the temple he would be making his Egyptian subjects happy. Arrian further states that other accounts say that Alexander went to the temple so that he could gain Ammon’s approval before founding Alexandria. This would seem plausible since, although there is question whether or not Alexander believed that he was of divine descent, it cannot be doubted that he took worship of the gods very seriously. And he would most certainly want a god of Ammon’s statures approval on something as important as the founding of Alexandria.
Later Arrian states that when Alexander arrived at the temple, the priest answered the question of his divinity by greeting him as son of Ammon’. This is, by Arrian’s wording, what his heart desired’. This would once again indicate that both he and others around him did truly believe that he was of divine descent. Although Arrian is somewhat sceptical as to whether Alexander truly did crave this answer or if that is just what he said because it is what other people wanted to hear.
Plutarch writes that some accounts say that when Alexander entered the temple the priest wished to greet him by saying O, paidion’ meaning O, my son’ as a mark of courtesy. However due to his barbarian origins he pronounced it as O, pai Dios’ meaning O, son of Zeus’. Alexander was delighted at this and this is how the legend that the priest had addressed him as O, son of Zeus’ came about. Plutarch goes on to say that Alexander felt that God is the father of all man-kind and that it is the noblest and best who he makes especially his own. This would seem to suggest that he wanted to be view as the son of a god, if not that he already thought he was one.
Another piece of evidence that seems to suggest that Alexander did believe that he was of divine descent was his wish for people to prostrate themselves in front of him after he was declared king of Persia. This was because at this point, it is believed by many, that he held the notion that his father was not Philip but Ammon. He had already referred to this earlier in his campaign. However Arrian also (in book 7) speculates that his attempt to introduce prostration as a court practice was merely, like his adopting Persian dress, an attempt to put Macedonians and Persians on equal standing, since his conquering of the Persian people would have most likely made it so that they felt they must prostrate themselves in front of him. And in saying that they did not have to do this may have made his rule over them much harder to maintain. So in making both his Macedonian followers and his Persian subjects prostrate themselves in front of him, he kept his rule over the Persians strong whilst still not making them feel too inferior. If true, this was a political masterstroke, although afterwards his Macedonian followers grew to resent that they were on the same level as the people they had fought against and conquered.
It is not only Arrian who presents views contrary to the idea that Alexander believed himself to be divine. Alexander himself also occasionally showed this view.
One thing was his constant need to sacrifice to the gods. This is present throughout his campaigns; whenever he could he would try to get blessings from the gods by offering sacrifices to them and praying at their temples. Even when he was near to death he would get up to offer sacrifice to the gods. This would seem to suggest that he felt inferior to the gods, since he needed to ask them for help. It is not likely that, if he truly believed that he was of divine birth, he would have looked to other gods for help, apart from Ammon, his father as some thought. However it could be said that he did this to show honour to the gods that he believed he descended from, and to encourage his subjects to do the same. And also when it came to the time that he was near death, it could be the case that he was simply asking his father Ammon for help since he knew that he was dying and he did not want to. This idea that he constantly sacrificed to the gods shows how faithful Alexander was to them. When you see this you can argue for his belief in his own divine descent by saying that he himself would not have wanted some of the things he did if he did not see himself on a par with, or equal to the gods, since he would be dishonouring them if he did not. For example he would not have tried to out do the feats of Heracles, who he claimed was his ancestor, or of Dionysus, an actual god if he did not believe this because his piety would have stopped him. And he states this desire to surpass them in the speech he gives to his troops when they want to turn back.
At another point in his life Alexander did certainly show signs of his disbelief that he was truly of divine descent. This was when he was wounded in battle and when he looked at the wound he proclaimed that it was blood and not ichor that ran through his veins. As this is what he would have consisted of if he truly were a god. On the other hand, in saying this he may only have been declaring that he was not an actual god. He could still have believed that he was of divine descent since Heracles, who he idolised was human but of divine descent. Also the hero of the Iliad, Achilleus, the book, which Alexander treasured and carried with him wherever he went, was mortal and bled, although he to was of divine descent. So his cry may have been more a proclamation of his mortality, rather than a denunciation of his divine heritage. Since it was more than likely that he was aware that descendants of the gods could still die mortal deaths and that they still bled rather than leaking ichor.
The last piece of evidence for Alexander’s disbelief of his own divinity comes when he requests for his long-term friend, Hephaestion, to be honoured as a Demi-god. This shows the lack of belief that Alexander had in his own divinity in two ways; the first is that he had to ask Ammon if he would permit this. It can be claimed that if Alexander truly believed that he was divine that he would not feel the need to consult any other god, even Ammon, as to whether or not he could make his deceased friend a Demi-god. Once again though this only seems to suggest that Alexander did not believe that he was an actual god. He still could believe that he was the descendant of Ammon, in which case it is still plausible that he would need to ask for his father’s approval to deify a mere mortal in his death.
From this it would seem that you could simply make anyone you wanted into a Demi-god after his or her death. And so the whole idea of divinity is pretty pointless since anyone could become divine if they achieved something or knew the right people. Then again looking at it from a different perspective, you could say that if Hephaestion was able to become a Demi-god then Alexander’s claim to divinity would seem far more valid, at least within Ancient Greek society, since he is seen in history as a far greater man. Also if he believed that Hephaestion was worthy of this status then it was likely that he also felt that he to was worthy of it.
From this evidence it seems likely that Alexander did believe in his own claims of being divine, or at least for being of divine birth. There is however room for speculation since we can never completely know what Alexander’s motives were.
The only real way to try to clear up this speculation is to look at what the sources that wrote about Alexander thought about how genuine his claims were. The main source that I have consulted, Arrian states throughout his writing that he believes that Alexander was using his claim to divine birth as a political tool. Although he also mentions many times that he has no doubt whatever that he had divine assistance of some kind’ throughout his campaigns. Which presents the idea that Arrian believed that Alexander was connected to the gods in at least some way. And he mentions that Alexander has the blood of Heracles running through his veins’ on numerous occasions, like in book three of The campaigns of Alexander’, where he says that Alexander has the blood of both Heracles and Perseus running through his veins, whilst he is chronicling his trip to the temple of Ammon. His conclusions are contradictory however, since in the closing pages of his book he states that; his divine birth’ was just a matter of policy’. But he also says that he cannot but feel that some power more than human was concerned in his birth’. So it is not clear as to whether Arrian truly believed that Alexander’s claim to having a divine birth was true or if it was just policy. It is possible that Arrian did believe in Alexander’s divine descent but that at the same time that Alexander’s claim that Ammon was his father was just policy so that it would be easier for him to rule over the Persians and the Egyptians.
My other main source, Plutarch, would seem to have a much more clear view that Alexander was of divine descent. He says things like he is descended from Herculesaccepted without question’. More over he tells two stories about Alexander’s conception and how the divine had some hand in it. One is that the night before Philip and Alexander’s mother Olympias’ marriage was consummated her womb was struck by a thunderbolt. Suggesting that Zeus had a hand in his birth. The other is that she was seen lying with the god in the form of a snake, and this is how Alexander was conceived. So it would seem that Plutarch, like many other people in and around that time, whole-heartedly believed that Alexander was of divine ancestry if not divine parentage.
The only other question that really still needs to be answered is if Alexander’s claim to have a divine heritage, policy or not, convinced the very people that followed him. Obviously the fact that his subjects did all begin to prostrate themselves in front of him would seem to suggest that they did believe that he was in some way divine. However this only truly began after his conquering of Persia, so it could be argued that they were doing it more because of his achievements and less because they actually thought he was divine. A good way to settle the dispute as to whether or not the followers of Alexander believed that he was of divine birth is to look at the discussion between Anaxarchus and Callisthenes that Arrian writes about in book four. In this Anaxarchus says that there is no doubt that the followers of Alexander would honour him as a god once he was dead, so was it not better to offer him this tribute now’. Many agreed with this view, which shows that many felt that Alexander was in some way divine.
However a lot of Macedonians agreed with Callisthenes, who raised the point that he would hold Alexander in the highest regards and that he was fit for any honour a man could receive. But he also made the point that there is a large difference between honouring a man and worshipping a god. And in this it is clear that prostration is an act of worshipping a god since Men greet each other with a kiss; but a god, far above usit is not lawful for us to touch – and that is why we proffer him the homage of bowing to the earth before him’. And he said that it would be wrong to pay this homage to Alexander since although he was the best among men, he was still a man and it would degrade the gods to put them at the same level as men. This was the view held by many Macedonians, but even though they expressed these views. And even though they felt that they did not have to prostrate themselves in front of him, they still believed in Alexander’s divine heritage. It is clear that this is true when even Callisthenes says in his speech that he has the blood of Heracles in his veins, although when saying this he calls Alexander Philip’s son, which suggests that he did not believe that Alexander truly was the son of Ammon.
This is not necessarily the view of Alexander’s other followers, who had followed Alexander to the temple of Ammon across a treacherous desert. Surely in doing this they must have held some belief that Alexander was descended from Ammon since it was a hazardous journey and if Alexander was doing it simply out of a matter of policy, then he was doing it more for the Egyptian people and not for his own troops. It appears that in acts such as this the Macedonian troops showed their belief in Alexander’s divine birth, since why else would they have followed him.
Then again it can be argued that if they truly believed in Alexander’s divine ancestry then they would have followed him to the ends of the earth. This was not the case however since after the defeat of Hyphasis Alexander wanted to go on but his troops refused. Even one of Alexander’s amazing speeches could not sway them. But this could have been due more to the fact that all of his men were tired and had not been home for years, rather than their lack of faith in him as a ruler and his claims to having a divine birth.
Either way it must be known that Alexander was deified by his troops in death. This should act as a testimony to their belief that he was of divine birth. However you must also be aware of the Ancient Greek, and Macedonians tendency for deifying heroes and rulers of the time. As stated earlier, even Alexander wished for his friend Hephaestion to be worshipped as a Demi-god upon his death. With this there is also the idea that they had a tendency to suggest that any great hero or leader had divine parentage. In this it could be argued that maybe Alexander’s divine heritage was more an idea presented by the sources that wrote about Alexander, rather than that of Alexander himself. Although in a letter that Alexander wrote to his opponent Darius he says in no small words that he is the son of Ammon and not Philip. However whether this was his true belief or simply a form of intimidation towards Darius is unclear.
After considering all the evidence that I have found within the pages of Arrian I feel that Alexander did truly consider himself to be of divine birth. Since, due to his piety, I do not believe that he would try to surpass an actual god, in the form of Dionysus, if he did not think himself to be at least in some way equal to them. I also think however that he exploited this idea politically so that he would get more support from his troops, generate fear in his enemies and find it easier to rule over the countries that he defeated. Alexander, being the great tactician that he was must have realised the benefits of people believing that he was more than just a great ruler and actually connected to the gods themselves.
As far as the beliefs of his followers go, I believe that the willingness of the Persians to prostrate themselves in front of him and his Macedonian troops loyalty were important indicators. This is seen when they followed him across the vast desert in which the temple of Ammon was situated, just to answer the question of whether or not he did descend from the Egyptian god; this suggests that they too believed in his claim to being of divine descent. And it can be seen that there are not many men that were as revered and honoured by the people of the time as Alexander was. Leaving no doubt in my mind that both Alexander and his followers were convinced that he was of divine descent and that they felt that he was worthy of all the tribute that was paid to him after he died.
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