The historical figure of Alexander the Great (.336-323 BC) is one surrounded by many questions concerning notions of his personal divinity, and his association with religion. There has been debate, throughout history, whether Alexander truly believed in his own divinity, or if he was just using this concept as a political propaganda tool. The point being made in this paper is the latter. Alexander used his skills as a military and political tactician to excerpt a smooth transition period from the previous rulers to himself; he knew it would be easier to gain the trust of the people if he chose to adapt his traditions.

Alexander was the son of king Philip of Macedon and his Molossian wife, queen Olympias. He was always aware of a lineage that apparently went back to Achilles on his mother’s side and Heracles on his father’s, certainly a heady genetic mix. This predisposition combined with the influence of the east might have tempted Alexander to think he really was divine. Although it is more likely he pretended he was for purely political purposes, it was a useful tool to maintain control.

King Philip who himself had a formidable reputation as a great ruler, but was seen as being an uneducated and uncultured bastard due to his barbarian blood; was determined that his son would not only become a strong and powerful general; but that he would also be educated. He employed Leonidas, a kinsman of queen Olympias, to oversee a rigorous physical training regime and when Alexander was 14, he employed a relatively unknown philosopher by the name of Aristotle. Under Aristotle’s keen guidance, Alexander began his instruction in philosophy; poetry; Homer (it is said that he always carried a copy of the Iliad); Euripides, politics and medicine. Alexander excelled at all things, and he proved very early in his life that he was going to have a “great” career.

When taking young women captive after raiding a city, he would protect them from his troops, and treat them as if they were his daughters. Often, when addressing older queens, Alexander would refer to them as mother, showing his respect to them as if being a part of his close family. One of his finest acts was when he took his enemy Darius’ mother captive; Darius was much relieved to find that Alexander treated them royally and with respect as guests of his kingdom. Again, this was surely a political move; if news got out that captured women were being treated well i.e. not raped; there would be less resistance to Macedonian rule.

King Philip was assassinated when Alexander was only 20 and although he had already proven his potential as a commander; (at age 18 he led the cavalry at Chaeronea ); he needed to make his mark. He immediately marched an army South to the leading Greek cities of Athens and Thebes to force them to accept his as the leader of the League of Corinth in place of his dead father. He then proceeded to defeat the Thracians and the Illyrians in decidedly brilliant campaigns and then, the Thebans who had begun to revolt.

Alexander went on to conquer other cities after having crossed the Hellespont at the same place as Xerxes, in his invasion of Greece in 480. The Phoenician cities welcomed Alexander, however, the city of Tyre was not quite as pleased to welcome him. Alexander demanded to enter the shrine of Melqart, whom he equated to his own ‘ancestor’ Heracles. This request was refused and in anger he took the city under siege. This siege suggested that Alexander was somewhat unbalanced; Alexander was perhaps beginning to see himself as more elite than other humans as he journeyed south. The events at Tyre also suggest that he had a very short fuse and was not a fool to be trifled with. At Gordium, he cut the famous knot, a stunt and challenge he had to accept, though against the familiar story that world domination was promised to the one who should untie it. News travels fast and such a feat as untying the Gordium Knot would cause a great amount of hysteria.

Living through so many battles was an amazing feat in itself since Alexander always rode in the front line of his army. He was pierced in the lung by an arrow, had a splintered rib, an arrow split his leg bone making it impossible for him to ride – the cavalry and the infantry became jealous over the role of carrying their great leader and Alexander decided to let each unit take turns. He lived through other injuries from a bird dropping a stone on his head to getting a mild case of hypothermia whilst crossing the Cydnus. To survive such injuries in ancient times, not only implied luck, but also incredible resilience and strength. Alexander’s rivals on hearing of his survival (which was most likely embellished) would think long and hard before challenging him.

During his journeys, Alexander founded many cities and colonies the most famous of course, being Alexandria in Egypt. When Alexander reached Egypt the Egyptians viewed him as their deliverer from the deeply resented Persian rule, and was crowned as their Pharaoh, King of Upper and Lower Egypt and the Son of the sun god Ra. Alexander did not necessarily accept these titles because he believed he was ‘divine’, it could be said that he was merely trying to make a smooth transition from Persian to Macedonian rule. By adopting the role of Pharaoh, Alexander was maintaining Egyptian traditions, which in turn gained the trust of the people and guaranteed their loyalty. It is easier for one man to adopt new customs than an entire race; he was merely playing the public relations game to a ‘tee’.

In 331 BC he made a dangerous journey across the desert to a holy place called Siwah to visit with the oracle of Zeus Ammon. This famous journey became biblical in its telling. They endured a sandstorm, crossed an area infested with snakes and became lost; and their water supply was almost depleted. The travelling historian, Callisthenes, was to claim that gods rescued them: two crows that flew in front of them to guide the way. There is another account claiming they were led by gods in the form of two talking snakes. Once there, Alexander was welcomed by the local high priest as pai dios, ‘Son of Zeus’. Alexander welcomed this proclamation of divinity and news of the encounter spread, it was exactly the type of story that would create awe and fear among his many friends and foes.

When Alexander finally became king of Persia his tactic of adopting local customs caused some problems. He began to wear Persian clothes and introduced proskynesis:

When the Persians meet one another in the roads, you can see whether those who meet are of equal rank. For instead of greeting by words, they kiss each other on the mouth; but if one of them is inferior to the other, they kiss one another on the cheeks, and if one is of much less noble rank than the other, he falls down before him and worships him.
[Herodotus, Histories 1.134]

To the Greeks, proskynesis or prostrating oneself was unacceptable. In their view, these acts were only allowed in front of a god. There was much opposition and Callisthenes (Alexander’s historian) made a famous speech in which he denounced the practice, which ‘vexed Alexander profoundly’. Proskynesis also offended the Greeks because they had a strong dislike of tyranny and it was around this same time that Alexander began behaving like a tyrant by killing some of his ex-friends and opponents. This perhaps, indicates he was beginning to feel his power waning and was merely reminding the people who was in control.

The Greeks did not believe that human beings could be gods and in ancient Greece their hatred of tyranny meant that they were likely not to show respect to those who dared to suppose they were divine. Therefore, it is hard to say whether or not Alexander truly believed in his own divinity. He had an excellent military mind, he was ingenuous with warfare and logistics; he was a political tactician and encouraged political alliances such as intermarriage; and he spread Greek culture (Hellenistic) across Asia Minor. But he was also somewhat unstable and greedy when it came to conquering the world; perhaps he was merely trying to be greater than his father and didn’t know where to stop. Alexander did not believe he was truly divine, he was enthusiastic and unafraid of blowing his ‘own horn in’ order to maintain peace and control.