Alexander the Great, who ruled 336-323 B.C., is rightly famous as a military genius. He was equally important, however, for his role in the development of ancient ideas of divine kingship.
Ancient kings have often claimed a unique relationship with the gods. Frequently, they claimed to be sons of the gods, descendants of the gods or even incarnations of gods. Variations on this theme appear in royal ideologies of China, India, Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and the New World. The Dalai Lama of Tibet is perhaps the last remaining god-king from what was once a nearly universal tradition.
Among the Greeks in the fourth century, kings might be described as descended from heroic semi-divine ancestors, or as “god-like” in power or brilliance. But Greeks distrust of all forms of kingship, and coupled with their democratic ideals, prevented widespread claims of divine kingship among the early Greeks.
Although Alexander traced his legendary linage to Hercules and Dionysus, and as such could claim to be a descendant of the gods, so could most other noble families of Greece. The seeds of belief in his unique divine status seem to have been planted in Alexander’s mind by his mother, Olympias. When Alexander was still a young teenager, his mother had come to despise her adulterous husband Philip. She is said to have secretly told Alexander that he was not the son of Philip but, rather, of Zeus.
Alexander seems initially not to have taken his mother’s claims very seriously. But after his conquest of Egypt in 330 B.C., Alexander was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptian high priest, who declared him the son of the great god Amon. In so doing, the Egyptians were simply following their millennia-old theological tradition: the king of Egypt, whoever he might be, was always considered the incarnation of God.
For Alexander, however, Amon was the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus. Seeking revelatory confirmation of his newly proclaimed divine parentage, Alexander took nearly two months out of his ordinary schedule in order to visit the desert oasis of Siwah, home to one of the most renowned oracles in the ancient world. There, in secret consultation with the oracle, Alexander “was told what his heart desired.” He was confirmed as son of Zeus and divinely invested with kingship of the world.
The ruins of the Siwah temple still stand, and a shrine to the god Alexander can be found in the holy of holies of the Luxor temple.
There can be little doubt that Alexander accepted the veracity of this oracle, sincerely believing himself to be the son of Zeus and a god incarnate. Psychologically, he was transformed. His incipient megalomania was fed by his newfound divine status.
Increasingly, he pressured his soldiers and followers to give him divine honors and perform the “proskynesis” — a ritual act of prostration reserved in Greek culture for the gods. (In the New Testament, “proskynesis” is usually translated as “worship,” and it’s the word used in the Greek version of Exodus 20:5: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to (idols).”) In this he was strongly resisted by many of the independent-minded Greeks, who saw Alexander’s new divine claims as “hubris” — blasphemous pride sure to bring condemnation from the gods.
Although he never officially insisted that all Greeks afford him divine honors, Alexander encouraged his divine cult in many ways. At banquets, he appeared wearing the purple robes of Amon and the crown with the ram’s horns of Amon, with which he appears in his coins. Various cult statues of Alexander were erected in Asia and Greece.
While many of the Greeks were horrified at the blasphemy, others viewed the situation with wry irony; as the Spartan Damis remarked, “Since Alexander wishes to be a god, let him be a god!”
Alexander’s divine claims became a model that many subsequent Greek and Roman rulers attempted to imitate. After Alexander’s death, his empire fragmented into a number of feuding successor states led by his generals. Wishing to bolster their legitimacy, many of these successors also claimed divine honors, which thus eventually became commonplace in Hellenistic kingdoms.
Julius Caesar and many subsequent Roman rulers were likewise given divine honors. Most notably, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (“the manifestation” of Zeus) attempted to force the Jews to worship him as a god in their temple in Jerusalem, leading to the rebellion of the Hasmoneans (or Maccabees) and the eventual liberation of Judea from Greek rule that is described in 1 Maccabees.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.