Aristotle & the Apotheosis of Alexander the Great

Aristotle & the Apotheosis of Alexander the Great

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. ~Anon

 

Synopsis

Numerous scholars have suggested that Alexander the Great believed himself to have been more than human.[1]  But did Alexander truly believe he was akin to Heracles and Perseus, or a kin to Heracles and Perseus?  Did he really believe he was the divine ‘son of Zeus-Ammon’ or was his Homeric-styled demiurge status projected to the public for political purposes?  The two notions are not mutually exclusive, for he may have both believed he was divine and at the same time taken advantage of that belief.  Absent an ancient-Greek-speaking psychiatrist and a time machine, there is no reliable way of assessing the psyche of Alexander, however, giving due caution to the historical problems associated with the textual conventions of the ancient world, conventions that made it a norm to posthumously transform great mortals into gods and sons of gods, and making the necessary allowances for the historical problems associated with both the ‘good’ (Court) and ‘bad’ (Vulgate) biographical traditions that record the life of Alexander the Great, we may, very cautiously, posit a number of possible pragmatic purposes for Alexander’s attempts to establish himself as the head of a ruler cult.

Alexander’s childhood tutor was the great philosopher Aristotle, and it is within one of Aristotle’s most famous works, Politics, that we may locate a possible connection between a particular philosophy of Aristotle’s and Alexander’s aim in publically presenting himself as a divine ruler.

This essay will examine the primary and secondary historical sources for Alexander’s projected divinity, as well as Alexander’s possible motivations for doing so – namely – to protect his throne and his life from those who may have wished to conspire against him and affirm and secure his authority and the political stability across the culturally diverse regions he conquered.  It will be cautiously concluded that Aristotle may have inspired the expedient apotheosis of Alexander the Great.

 

Alexander the God

 The so-called Court sources which are alleged to have originated largely from the pen of the court historian Callisthenes,[2] whom Alexander eventually had executed for protesting Alexander’s attempt to establish himself as the head of a ruler cult via the Persian custom of proskynesis,[3] are a veritable treasure trove of accounts that testify to the divinity of Alexander.[4]  Such flagrant flattery might be expected of a historian writing at sword’s length from one of the most powerful (and paranoid?) kings of the ancient Greek world.

Some scholars reject the idea that Alexander accepted divine honours because there is no evidence for any such formal decree made by Alexander in the main literary sources,[5] which include the tertiary accounts of Arrian of Nicomedia, Diodorus Siculus, Curtius Rufus and Plutarch, however, Curtius Rufus does allege that Alexander ordered people to call him the son of Jupiter.[6]

Notably, W.W. Tarn, who was possessed by a post-World War I feverish admiration for Alexander [7] – who viewed Alexander as the great unifier, strongly rejected the notion that Alexander either believed or propagated the notion that he was divine, writing:

‘Fortunately there is no reason for attributing to him any such idea…There is no trace of any common official cult of himself in his Empire’.[8]

Taking the contrary position, Ernst Badian, whose portrayal of Alexander is, at many turns, less than flattering, argues:

‘It is not the purpose of this study to speculate on Alexander’s psychology: to argue about why he wanted people to worship him as a god or why he considered himself a god. However, we must conclude by stressing that he did so’.[9]

In opposition to the opinions of scholars who reject this notion, it can be argued that the absence of such a decree may not necessarily be indicative of Alexander’s refusal to accept divine honours, and that such an absence may be accounted for by numerous explanations.  One possible explanation for the absence rests within two factors: Firstly, from the sources that do exist, it is apparent that Alexander was just as shrewd a politician as he was a great military strategist.  On the battle field, amongst other ingenious and unorthodox military tactics, like using the cavalry as a weapon to seize upon gaps created in the front line of the opposing force, [10] it is reported that he would position himself in front rank of the phalanx, as was a noted practice for Greek generals,[11] thereby placing his own life in danger and acquiring the love, loyalty and affection of his men.[12]  Records also indicate that he would rule conquered regions with a light hand, leaving the local people to govern themselves, and when he finally conquered a city to the north of Babylon, before entering it he declared; ‘I shall not enter your houses’,[13] which was a brilliant political strategy given that prior conquers had raided the houses of the inhabitants and executed those in possession of weapons.[14] This tactic is alleged to have helped him win over the people of that city with relative ease.[15] Another example of Alexander’s political genius comes down to us in an inscription of a letter that Alexander sent the conquered people of Chios in approximately 332 BCE, a portion of which reads:

‘In the term of office of Deisitheos, from King Alexander to the people of Chios, greetings.  All the exiles from Chios should return and the constitutional body on Chios should be the people.  Law draughtsmen should be chosen who will write and revise the laws so that there may be no impediment to democracy or the return of the exiles….’[16]

It is apparent from the available evidence that Alexander was sensitive to the idea that people are more easily ruled when they are granted a degree autonomy and it appears Alexander was cunning enough to realize that overt tyrannies are breeding grounds for revolt.

Secondly, there are anecdotal pieces of evidence, albeit within late sources, that suggest votes were taken at both Sparta and Athens, at the request of Alexander, to bestow divine honours upon him and that such a request caused many to criticise the arrogance of Alexander.

The second-century Grecian-born Roman historian Aelianus Tacticus, alleges:

‘Alexander, when he had vanquished Darius, and was possessed of the Persian Empire, being high-conceited of himself, and puffed up with his success, writ to the Grecians, that they should decree him to be a God: Ridiculously, what he had not by nature, he thought to obtain by requiring it of men.  Hereupon several people made several decrees; the Lacedaemonians, this; “Forasmuch as Alexander would be a God, let him be a God”. Thus with laconick brevity, according to the manner of their country, the Lacedaemonians reprehended the pride of Alexander.’[17]

Plutarch corroborates Aelianus’ assertion regarding the Spartan vote to deify Alexander in his account of the testimony of the influential Spartan Damis, writing:

‘We concede to Alexander that, if he so wishes, he may be called a god’.[18]

Being cognisant of the disfavour that such a decree from Alexander himself would have produced,[19] Alexander may have employed his political prowess to ingeniously intimate, rather than boldly decree, his divinity.  According to a scholarly appraisal of the sources cited above, it was sometime in 324 BCE that Alexander made it known to his friends in the Greek world that he would be more than willing to accept divine honours.[20]

The dramatic success of Alexander’s campaigns, having doubled the landmass of Greece in just two years and on account of only two battles, would have certainly given rise to the implication of Alexander’s divinity throughout the superstitious ancient Greek world, but it also created a situation that seems to have necessitated the propagation of Alexander’s divinity – namely – this was the first time in history that a ruler, a Greek/Macedonian ruler, had had to produce a political strategy for governing over the combined cultural territories of Persia and Greece.  By propagating the idea that he was divine, Alexander could rule outside of the traditional Greek Poleis [21] and simultaneously appeal to the Persians who had formerly worshiped their kings as divine and semi-divine beings.[22]  This ruler cult established by Alexander would continue with his successors to become a common characteristic of Hellenistic kingship.[23]

As was the case in Persia, in Egypt the pharaohs were considered divine [24] so when Alexander conquered Egypt he automatically assumed the title of pharaoh, as well as the perceived divinity that accompanied that title.[25]  Alexander’s divine status was further bolstered by the Oracle at Siwah, who, if both the flagrantly fawning Court sources and Alexander’s own alleged testimony can be trusted, greeted him as the ‘son of Zeus-Ammon’.[26]

Arrian says that Alexander was ‘seized by an ardent desire to visit Ammon’, as if divine forces were guiding him, partly because of the renowned accuracy of the oracle but also because it was alleged that Herakles and Perseus both visited the Oracle at Siwah, and Alexander was intent on emulating these divine heroes.[27] It’s also likely that Alexander had read about the miraculous Oracle at Siwah in the works of Herodotus, who alleged that the Persian king Cambyses had once tried and failed to destroy the Oracle, and in so attempting lost fifty thousand men in a sandstorm.[28]

Alexander’s emulation of the heroes of old continued and in 325 BCE he is alleged to have celebrated his crossing of the Gedrosian Desert as a Dionysiac triumph.[29]

Arrian, Plutarch and Rufus all commented on the pragmatic applications of Alexander’s projected divinity, and Plutarch was particularly sceptical of Alexander’s belief in his own divinity, writing:

‘From what I have said upon this subject, it is apparent that Alexander in himself was not foolishly affected, or had the vanity to think himself really a god, but merely used his claims to divinity as a means of maintaining among other people the sense of his superiority’.[30]

Arrian wasn’t as forthright as Plutarch, but in his account of Alexander’s expedition to the Oracle at Siwah, he did say:

‘Accordingly he made the expedition to Ammon with the design of learning his own [divine] origin more certainly, or at least that he might be able to say that he had learned it’.[31]

 

Aristotle and the Expedient Apotheosis of Alexander

  Aside from the reasons stated above, what possible outcomes might Alexander have sought to achieve by asserting, however diplomatically, his own divinity?

Balsdon examines the possible influence that Alexander’s childhood tutor had upon his alleged attempts to claim divine status, namely, to legitimate his authority as king [32] – but there may be more to it than this.

In Book 5 of Aristotle’s Politics, Alexander’s tutor lays out an interesting and relevant teaching for aspiring rulers/tyrants, instructing:

‘Also he [the tyrant] should appear to be particularly earnest in the service of the Gods; for if men think that a ruler is religious and has a reverence for the Gods, they are less afraid of suffering injustice at his hands, and they are less disposed to conspire against him, because they believe him to have the very Gods fighting on his side.’[33]

As Balsdon expressed, there is no way of knowing whether or not Alexander read Politics, or if Aristotle had instructed his thirteen-year-old pupil in this regard,[34] however, it has been alleged that when Alexander discovered that his tutor had been publishing treatises on the topics taught to him, he became upset and wrote to Aristotle in protest.[35]

Further, if we examine the conduct of Alexander, from his constant offerings made publically to the gods after each success,[36] his response to the mutiny on Hyphasis, which was to piously make offerings to the gods,[37] and if we are to comb through the less flattering Vulgate tradition for examples of his paranoia, as well as the numerous conspiracies either made, or believed by Alexander to have been made against him,[38] we may cautiously intimate that Alexander’s publicly expressed piety toward the gods, and more significantly, his attempts to be seen as a god, were, in accordance with his tutor’s teachings, done so to quell conspiracies and rule over superstitious populations who, out of fear of his supernatural status, would have been more likely to acquiesce beneath the yoke of his ‘divine’ kingship.

If, as Aristotle claimed, subjects were more prone to quietly suffer under the leadership of kings who displayed a reverence for the gods, and if men were less disposed to conspire against such rulers, how much more influence could a ruler exert if the people believed him to be a god?

 

Conclusion

Notwithstanding the soft nature of the historical evidence for the biographical details of Alexander the Great – from the discrepancies that exist between the Court and Vulgate traditions to the biases of modern historians like Tarn, for example; it seems as though Alexander may have deliberately propagated the idea that he was divine.  Whether or not he actually believed he was divine is impossible to establish, but armed with the knowledge that his tutor expounded upon the advantages of a ruler’s public reverence for the gods, and with the various examples of Alexander’s political genius, as well as the numerous reports of conspiracies made against him, both real and imagined, it may be cautiously concluded that Alexander ingeniously expanded upon the philosophy of his childhood tutor to establish a very pragmatic precedent.  This precedent, i.e., the creation of a living ruler cult, which became a staple for Hellenistic kingship, afforded Alexander the ability to rule combined cultural regions without the interference of traditional Greek poleis, and at the same time it helped him to acquire the loyalty of both his soldiers and his culturally diverse subjects.

 

 

 

Notes

  1. Philip Freeman, Alexander the Great, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011, pp. 153-154; Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, Lecture 2: Alexander the Divine? And Lecture 4: Alexander – Myth and Reality, The Teaching Company, 2000; Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great – A Reader, London: Routledge, 2003, pp. 236-237.
  2. Ibid. p. 7.
  3. Arrian, Anabasis IV, 12, 3-5 and Plutarch, Alexander, 54, 4-6, cited in: J.P.V.D Balsdon, The ‘Divinity’ of Alexander, cited in: Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 1, H. 3, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1950, p. 372.
  4. Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, Lecture 4: Alexander – Myth and Reality, The Teaching Company, 2000.
  5. Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire, Lecture 25: Deification and Succession, The Teaching Company, 2010.
  6. Ibid; Quintus Curtius, Quintus Curtius Vol. 1, Books I – V, (trans. John C. Rolfe), Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 157.
  7. Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, Lecture 4: Alexander – Myth and Reality, The Teaching Company, 2000.
  8. W. Tarn, Alexander the Great: Volume 1, Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948, p. 140.
  9. Ernst Badian, Collected Papers on Alexander the Great, London: Routledge, 2012, p. 267.
  10. Ruth Sheppard, Alexander the Great at War: His Armies, His Battles, His Enemies, New York: Osprey Publishing, 2008, p. 91.
  11. Ibid. p. 23.
  12. Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, Lecture 2: Alexander the Divine? The Teaching Company, 2000.
  13. J. Geller, Babylonian Diaries and Corrections of Diodorus, ‘Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 53, No. 1’ (1990), Cambridge University Press, cited at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/618964?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, accessed on 01 Dec. 2015;Babylonian Astronomical Diaries, cited at: http://repository.topoi.org/BAAP/BAAP0010/PT-330A.txt, accessed on 01 Dec. 2015; Note: The Sumerian word ‘e’ means both house and temple, so some scholars argue that Alexander was making a vow to respect the local religion. Either way, the point regarding Alexander’s political prowess remains intact: T Boiy, Late Achaemenid and Hellenistic Babylon: Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta -136, Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2004, p. 105.
  14. Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, ** The Teaching Company, 2000.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Alexander the Great, Letter to the Chians, cited in: John Muir, Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 91.
  17. Claudius Aelianus, Various Histories, (trans. Thomas Stanley), London: Printed for Thomas Basset, 1670, Book II, Chapter 19, pp. 42-43.
  18. Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. 3, (trans. Frank Cole Babbitt), London: Harvard University Press, 1961, P. 219.
  19. Plutarch reports: ‘So Pytheas the orator, who declaimed against the honors decreed to Alexander, when one said to him, Dare you, being so young, discourse of so great matters’? made this answer, And yet Alexander, whom you decree to be a God, is younger than I am’, cited in: Plutarch, Morals, Vol. 5, (trans. William W. Godwin), Boston: Little Brown, and Company, 1883, p. 110.
  20. Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire, Lecture 25: Deification and Succession, The Teaching Company, 2010.
  21. Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great – A Reader, London: Routledge, 2003, p. 87.
  22. Pseudo-Aristotle (De Mundo), ‘Protoi, autourgoi and kurtas: ethnic, genealogical and social ‘stratification’ in Achaemenid Persis’, cited in: Josef Wiesehofer, Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD (trans. Azizeh Azodi), London: I.B. Taurus Publishers, 2006, p. 34.
  23. Peter Green, Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990, p. 396; Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, Lecture 15: Kingship and Legitimacy, The Teaching Company, 2000.
  24. Elizabeth Payne, The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, New York: Landmark Books, 1964, pp. 30, 168; Kathryn A. Bard, Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, London: Routledge, 1999, p. 62.
  25. Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great – A Reader, London: Routledge, 2003, p. 344.
  26. p. 64; Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives & the “Dryden Plutarch” Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, Vol. II, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1920, p. 487.
  27. Arrian, The Anabasis of Arrian, (trans. E.J. Chinnock), London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, pp. 144-145.
  28. Herodotus, Histories, Book III, cited at: http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.3.iii.html, accessed on 02 Dec. 2015; Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives & the “Dryden Plutarch” Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, Vol. II, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1920, p. 486; Philip Freeman, Alexander the Great, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011, p. 144.
  29. Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great – A Reader, London: Routledge, 2003, p. 205; W.W. Tarn, Alexander the Great, Vol. II: Sources and Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948, pp. 85, 104; Keyne Cheshire, Alexander the Great, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 152.
  30. Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives & the “Dryden Plutarch” Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, Vol. II, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1920, p. 488.
  31. Arrian, The Anabasis of Arrian, (trans. E.J. Chinnock), London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, p. 145.
  32. P.V.D Balsdon, The ‘Divinity’ of Alexander, cited in: Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 1, H. 3, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1950, pp. 368 – 371.
  33. Aristotle, Politics, (trans. Benjamin Jowett), Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books, 1999, p. 136.
  34. P.V.D Balsdon, The ‘Divinity’ of Alexander, cited in: Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 1, H. 3, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1950, p. 370.
  35. Plutarch, Plutarch Lives & the “Dryden Plutarch” Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, Vol. II, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1920, p. 468; Note: Plutarch remarked: ‘It would appear that Alexander received from him not only his doctrines of Morals and of Politics, but also something of those more abstruse and profound theories which these philosophers, by the very names they gave them, professed to reserve for oral communication to the initiated, and did not allow many to become acquainted with’: Ibid; Also, Quintus Curtius Rufus cites Plutarch in this regard: Quintus Curtius, Quintus Curtius Vol. 1, Books I – V, (trans. John C. Rolfe), Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 9.
  36. Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great – A Reader, London: Routledge, 2003, p. 337.
  37. Arrian, The Anabasis of Arrian, (trans. E.J. Chinnock), London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, pp. 314-315.
  38. Ernst Badian, Collected Papers on Alexander the Great, London: Routledge, 2012, pp. 421-422.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Primary Sources

 

Alexander the Great, Letter to the Chians, cited in: John Muir, Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, New York: Routledge, 2009.

 

Babylonian Astronomical Diaries, cited at: http://repository.topoi.org/BAAP/BAAP0010/PT-330A.txt, accessed on 01 Dec. 2015.

 

Geller, M.J., Babylonian Diaries and Corrections of Diodorus, ‘Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 53, No. 1’ (1990), Cambridge University Press, cited at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/618964?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, accessed on 01 Dec. 2015.

 

 

Secondary Sources

 

Aelianus, Claudius, Various Histories, (trans. Thomas Stanley), London: Printed for Thomas Basset, 1670.

 

Aristotle, Politics, (trans. Benjamin Jowett), Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books, 1999.

 

Arrian, The Anabasis of Arrian, (trans. E.J. Chinnock), London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884.

 

Arrian, Anabasis IV, cited in: J.P.V.D Balsdon, The ‘Divinity’ of Alexander, cited in: Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 1, H. 3, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1950.

 

Badian, Ernst, Collected Papers on Alexander the Great, London: Routledge, 2012.

 

Balsdon, J.P.V.D., The ‘Divinity’ of Alexander, cited in: Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 1, H. 3, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1950.

 

Bard, Kathryn A., Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, London: Routledge, 1999.

 

Boiy, T, Late Achaemenid and Hellenistic Babylon: Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta -136, Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2004.

 

Cheshire, Keyne, Alexander the Great, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

 

Curtius, Quintus, Quintus Curtius Vol. 1, Books I – V, (trans. John C. Rolfe), Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971.

 

Freeman, Philip, Alexander the Great, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.

 

Green, Peter, Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

 

Harl, Kenneth W., Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire, The Teaching Company, 2010.

 

Herodotus, Histories, Book III, cited at: http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.3.iii.html, accessed on 02 Dec. 2015.

 

McInerney, Jeremy, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, The Teaching Company, 2000.

 

Payne, Elizabeth, The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, New York: Landmark Books, Routledge, 1999.

 

Plutarch, Alexander, cited in: J.P.V.D Balsdon, The ‘Divinity’ of Alexander, cited in: Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 1, H. 3, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1950.

 

Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives & the “Dryden Plutarch” Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, Vol. II, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1920.

 

Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. 3, (trans. Frank Cole Babbitt), London: Harvard University Press, 1961.

 

Plutarch, Morals, Vol. 5, (trans. William W. Godwin), Boston: Little Brown, and Company, 1883.

 

Pseudo-Aristotle (De Mundo), ‘Protoi, autourgoi and kurtas: ethnic, genealogical and social ‘stratification’ in Achaemenid Persis’, cited in: Josef Wiesehofer, Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD (trans. Azizeh Azodi), London: I.B. Taurus Publishers, 2006.

 

Sheppard, Ruth, Alexander the Great at War: His Armies, His Battles, His Enemies, New York: Osprey Publishing, 2008.

 

Tarn, W.W., Alexander the Great: Volume 1, Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

 

Tarn, W.W., Alexander the Great, Vol. II: Sources and Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

 

Worthington, Ian, Alexander the Great – A Reader, London: Routledge, 2003.

 

 

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