Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 6

Alexander coin rams horn

How religious was Alexander the Great?

PAUL CARTLEDGE Jamie, it's very hard indeed to penetrate the psychology of any prominent ancient (Greek or Roman) figure, I find, apart perhaps from Cicero and Augustine, because we usually lack the right sort of intimate auto/biographical sources – but in the case of Alexander I wonder whether you agree that one way in from the outside as it were is by considering his religious attitudes and practice. I'm not thinking here of the vexed question of whether he thought of himself as in some sense divine – or at any rate possibly ordered others to behave towards him as if he were! I mean, rather, do you agree that he seems to have been quite exceptionally pious, even superstitious – especially in the offering of animal sacrifice to various gods and heroes, and in his constant recourse to divination? The index entries in The Landmark Arrian under 'Aristandros of Telmessos' (Alexander's favourite soothsayer) and 'sacrifices offered by Alexander' are I think a good point of departure.

JAMES ROMM Yes I would agree (and thank you for noting the utility of that index!). I must say I have not made a study of the sacrifices and prayers you mention, but I know that Alexander gave thought and consideration to each one — choosing the particular god or gods to address based on the territory he was on, the culture that surrounded him, or the tactical demands of the situation at hand. If we trust Arrian's evidence, he believed in the efficacy of sacrifice and the predictive power of omens (though he ignored an omen that told him not to cross the Jaxartes when he badly wanted to — an interesting case of pothos trumping piety). What's also interesting is the range of beings he sacrificed to — not just the Greek gods and heroes, but to Bel-Marduk (in Babylon), the Apis  bull (in Egypt) and Ammon (in India), among others. Of course, some of this heterodoxy was good politics — showing new subjects that he embraced their religious traditions — but my sense is that Alexander felt a personal attachment to these foreign divinities. After all, he wanted to be buried next to the shrine of Ammon in the desert west of Egypt, or so Quintus Curtius tells us.

PC You're absolutely right about the 'catholicity' (if I may use that word…) of Alexander's tastes and attachments in the matter of foreign 
religions. Of course, Greeks were well used to identifying or assimilating foreign gods to their own, e.g. most relevantly Egyptian Amun (in Greek Ammon) became thought of as similar or identical to Greek Zeus. But Alexander interestingly went further than the average Greek in this: for him, I think, Ammon remained importantly Egyptian Amun, and as you say one tradition has it that Alexander wished to be buried at the oracular shrine of Ammon/Amun at Siwah oasis in the western desert, while Arrian says that it was specifically Ammon that Alexander consulted as to what type of posthumous religious honours should be paid to Hephaistion (Alexander was rumoured to have desired them to be divine honours, but Ammon firmly said they should be a hero's honours and Alexander complied). Becoming sort of Pharaoh in Memphis and the chief god's elect in Babylon went in the same direction – and surely were designed to secure the favour of the respective priesthoods who'd led the resistance to Persian domination in the past. But how do you think this impacts on the issue of whether Alexander was trying 
to make himself into a new kind of Graeco-Oriental monarch? And what do you think the average Greek subject of Alexander's empire might have thought of their ruler's religiosity?

JR Paul, those are such big questions that I suggest we take them up in the next segment of our discussion. We have also deferred the question you alluded to at the outset, whether Alexander thought he himself was divine.  That's a big one indeed, and a tough one!  But to conclude the current discussion: I want to note in connection with your last remark that Alexander was commonly depicted by his Successors with ram's horns curling from the sides of his head, an image that may have perplexed some of our readers.  The ram was associated with Ammon in the ancient world, since that god had once taken the form of a ram, so the horns are intended to show kinship with Ammon — not Zeus, as one might have expected (though Alexander seems to have depicted himself wielding Zeus' thunderbolt on the so-called elephant medallion).  The coins with the ram's-horn image circulated all across what is now the Middle East, so when we later find Alexander referred to in the Koran as "Dhul Quarnain" — The two-horned one — it's likely that those Hellenistic coins are the reason!

20. January 2011 by calanus2
Categories: Arrian-Alexander, Lecture | Comments Off on Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 6