The age-old concept of the “divine right of kings” allowed that a country’s ruler received his or her power or authority from God. However, few, if any, were delusional enough to actually believe themselves to be a god. An exception to this was Alexander the Great of Macedon. In 334 BCE at the age of twenty-two, he and his army crossed the Hellespont and embarked on a decade-long journey to conquer the Persian Empire. As a supposed descendant of Achilles, Alexander believed his final victory over King Darius III was his destiny. By the time of his death in 323 BCE, he was convinced that he was not the son of King Philip II but, instead, was the son of the omnipotent Greek god Zeus.
This impression that Alexander was the son of a god actually predates his birth. The future king of Asia was really only half-Macedonian - a fact that would cause many in King Philip’s inner circle to oppose his son’s ascension to the throne. While his “father” was pure Macedonian, his mother, Olympias, was of royal blood from the province of Epirus, southwest of Macedon. Epirus was an old feudal kingdom, and like many of its neighboring kingdoms, the imperial family traced its ancestry to one of the Olympian gods - a temple to Zeus was located in its capital city. The family of Olympias, the Molossians, maintained that they were related to Achilles, who, according to Homer’s Iliad, was the tragic hero of the Trojan War. Her ancestors were descended from Molassas, the son of Andromache and Neoptolemus - a son of Achilles - who had slain King Priam of Troy at the Altar of Zeus Herkeios. This claim made Alexander to be a descendant of heroes, something his mother never discouraged.
There are a number of versions of the unexplained events surrounding the young king’s birth (supposedly) on July 20, 356 BCE. According to one legend, on the day of Alexander’s birth, the Greek goddess of the hunt Artemis was away attending his birth when her temple at Ephesos - one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - burned to the ground. Another says that on the night Alexander was born, Philip II was away in battle when he received three separate pieces of news: his loyal commander Parmenio had defeated the Illyrians, his race horse was victorious at the Olympic games (he was reportedly the happiest at hearing this), and his wife Olympias had given birth to a son. However, the one story that bolstered Alexander’s belief in his own divinity was revealed to him before he left Macedon for Asia. His mother pulled him aside and recounted a series of events occurring the night before her wedding. Supposedly, Olympias was asleep in her bedchamber when a clap of thunder awakened her. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning (evidently this was the god Zeus) shot into her room and struck her in her womb - miraculously without harming her - a flash of light immediately followed. Concerning this version of Alexander’s birth, the historian Plutarch wrote in his Greek Lives, “…when Alexander was setting out on his eastern campaign, Olympias accompanied him during the procession, told him in private the secret of his birth, and urged him to entertain ambitions worthy of his parentage.” (312)
King Philip, who claimed to be a descendant of Zeus’s son Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology), also had a revelation about his son. According to Plutarch, after they were married, “Philip dreamt that he was pressing a seal on his wife’s womb, and that the emblem on the seal was the figure of a lion.” Although there are some who dismiss Philip’s dream, it was interpreted by Aristander of Telmessus as meaning that Olympias was already pregnant and that the son she carried would be both bold and lion-like. As Alexander would find out years later, the temple priests at Siwa would confirm his suspicions about his divine parentage: Zeus, not Philip, was his real father.
Alexander's Religious Beliefs
There are some who do not look upon Alexander as “great.” They dismiss his purported “divinity” and question his ruthless nature, particularly his responsibility for the deaths of thousands. However, whether he actually considered himself a god is overshadowed by how he is remembered in history. Regardless of how is considered by others, he personally believed himself to be a deeply religious individual. To him Zeus was the father (not literally) of all mankind - not just the Greeks and Macedonians but also the Persians, Egyptians and Indians. As he crossed Asia, he remained open-minded about the “barbarians” and their customs - he even made a sacrifice to the Egyptian god Apis at Memphis. Although he may have respected their religion and culture, he still believed in the superiority of the Greek civilization, and to him, Aristotle, his old tutor, was the leading exponent of that Greek culture.
To Alexander the gods of Olympus were present everywhere, and their wishes were revealed to man through oracles and omens - this can be seen in his respect for the oracles at Delphi and Siwa. Alexander respected the rich history of the Greeks, sleeping with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. He believed in both the labors of his forefather Heracles and the exploits of his mother’s ancestor Achilles. He sacrificed daily and even organized festivals as he travelled through Asia. Because his victories were sanctioned by the gods, before and after each battle, he would pray and sacrifice to them.
Before crossing the Hellespont, Alexander visited the oracle at Delphi. Unfortunately, it was closed, and on that day deliveries of the oracle were forbidden, but the king was not one to accept defeat of any kind and called for the priestess Pythia to appear; she abruptly refused. Again, Alexander would not accept her defiance, and dragged her out to the oracle to answer his question: What did the gods say about his expedition to Asia? Realizing it was useless to resist, she simply told him he would be invincible. Plutarch wrote,
…he went up to her residence himself and started to drag her against her will towards the temple, whereupon, apparently overcome by his forcefulness, she said, ‘You are invincible, my son.’ On hearing this, Alexander declared that this was the only prophecy he needed…(323).
From the oracle, he crossed the Hellespont to Asia Minor, but before touching Asian soil, he threw a spear into the ground, claiming Asia as a reward from the gods. From there Alexander travelled northward to visit the ruins of Troy where he made a sacrifice to Athena and placed garlands on Achilles grave.
From his father (Philip not Zeus), Alexander inherited a highly disciplined army, and like his father, the Macedonian king was a great military commander. He was both a brilliant strategist and tactician. History tells us that he never lost a battle. His admirers claim he had the uncanny ability to quickly evaluate his enemy and make a decision. Even at the young age of 18 he demonstrated this remarkable talent when he joined his father in 338 BCE against the Athenians at Chaeronea. During the height of the battle, he was even able to surround and defeat the famed Sacred Band of Thebes. After Philip’s death in 336 BCE, Alexander realized at the age of 20 that before he could cross into Asia Minor to fulfill his father’s vision of conquering Persia, he had to win the support of the army. Standing alongside Philip’s trusted commander Antipater, he faced an assembly of Macedonian troops. Many of these veterans were tired of war, and Philip’s death meant that the possibility of war had ended. As he stood before them and cried, Alexander promised each of them glory (arête) and riches. To a man they swore their loyalty.
Throughout the long days and months marching across the deserts of Asia, Alexander continually earned the respect of his men. They saw a commander who withstood the hardships and dangers alongside them, fighting beside them, eating when and what they ate, and refusing water if there wasn’t enough for everyone. Unlike his counterpart King Darius, he led his men from the front. This sometimes careless concern for his own well-being would cause him to be wounded eight times. Over the next few years, Alexander and his army would be victorious at Granicus, Issus and Tyre. An incident occurred after Issus that demonstrated his extreme confidence, even at a young age. Darius had sent a messenger to Alexander with terms - basically to split Asia. The old commander Parmenio suggested accepting the terms, but the king replied (accounts vary), “So would I, if I were Parmenio, but I am Alexander, I cannot.” In 332 BCE he crossed into Egypt, and it would be in Egypt that he received validation that he was truly the son of Zeus.
The people of Egypt were over-joyed to see Alexander; they had hated the conquering Persians who showed little respect for their religion and customs. Alexander, on the other hand, respected their religious traditions, even making sacrifices at their temples. However, before embarking on his final meeting with King Darius at Gaugamela, he wanted to visit one place in particular, the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon at Siwa (Siwah) located at an oasis between Egypt and Libya. The Greeks had long known of the oracle amd identified the Egyptian god Ammon with their own Zeus. The king knew of its reputation for infallibility - both the Greek heroes Heracles and Perseus had consulted it. Among the questions he wished to ask the temple priest were: Was Philip his true father or was he the son of Zeus and, lastly, was he invincible?
Crossing the Libyan Desert would not be easy, and despite being told the dangers, Alexander still chose to go. Of course, as he had been warned, he and his men soon got lost. However, according to legend, two ravens (Ptolemy later wrote that it was snakes) directed them to safety. According to myth, Alexander sensed the ravens had been sent by the gods - divine intervention - and ordered his men to follow them; the ravens flew slowly, leading the men to Siwa. Plutarch wrote that Zeus had even provided them with rain to “relieve them of the fear of thirst.” He added,
…the travelers were wandering aimlessly around and getting separated from one another in their ignorance of which way to go, some crows appeared and took on the role of expedition leaders: they would fly swiftly on ahead as long as the party stayed with them, and would wait for them if the others fell behind and slowed down (337).
Upon arriving at the temple, Alexander was met by the priest who greeted him in rather poor Greek, stating “O, paidios” meaning “Oh, son of god.” Some believe he meant to say “O, paidion” or “Oh, my son.” Apparently, Alexander seemed pleased with the mispronunciation. The visit would completely change Alexander, for the priest confirmed what he had already been told: he was the son of Zeus and had been given the rule of the world. Alexander now honestly knew whose blood ran through his veins; he was truly the son of Zeus. Upon his return to Memphis, he made a sacrifice to Zeus. While there he received two delegations - one from Miletus and another from Erythrae - and both told him that their city’s oracle confirmed him to be the son of Zeus. Although he believed they may only have been saying that to win favor, he hoped they would still spread the word. The always unruly Greek cities of Athens, Sparta and Thebes might think twice before causing the son of a god trouble. Plutarch wrote,
He generally behaved haughtily towards non-Greeks and made it seem as though he was fully convinced of his divine birth and parentage, but he kept his assumption of divinity within reasonable bounds and did not overdo it when he was dealing with Greeks (338).
Crossing into Asia
From Egypt Alexander and his army crossed into Asia and through Mesopotamia where, although outnumbered, they defeated for the second time the forces of King Darius. Alexander was now the king of all Asia. Unfortunately, the defeat would bring an end to Darius at the hands of his commander Bessus. From Gaugamela the new king paraded triumphantly into the capital city of Babylon. From there he conquered Bactria where he met and married Roxanne, the mother of his son Alexander IV. Next, he marched into India defeating King Porus at Hydaspes. Months later he returned to Babylon. The victories over Darius and Porus had drained him. His men were tired; they wanted to return home to Greece and Macedon. There had been rumors of a mutiny or conspiracy to assassinate him, but most importantly his demeanor and attitude had been affected. He began to adopt Persian customs such as donning the traditional Persian purple and white tunic and wearing a diadem. He sat on an elevated, gold throne surrounded by guards. He began to require people to prostrate themselves before him (proskynesis). While the Persians concurred becuase it was their custom, the Greeks refused. To them Alexander was mortal: he was not a god.
This attitude can best be seen in an incident that occurred shortly before his death. After being called to Babylon to answer a number of accusations, the Macedon regent Antipater refused to appear; instead, he sent his young son Cassander to make an appeal on his behalf. Unfortunately, Cassander made a serious mistake by laughing after seeing a number of Persians prostrating themselves before the king. Seeing his laugh as a sign of disrespect, Alexander grew enraged and slammed Cassander’s head against a nearby wall. The incident would haunt Cassander for the remainder of his life. Years later, whenever he saw a statue or painting of Alexander, he would faint. After Alexander’s death, Antipater and Cassander were both accused of poisoning him.
Death & Legacy
On June 10, 323 BCE Alexander the Great died. Regrettably, Alexander had not named a successor or heir. With little alternative, his vast empire became divided among his commanders in a plan that resulted in three decades of conflict. While the commanders may have argued over their small pieces of territory, people reacted very differently throughout the empire. After hearing of his death, Macedonians cried and went running through the streets. Persians, as per their custom, shaved their heads. Darius’s mother supposedly starved herself to death. Without anyone capable of making a decision, the commander Perdiccus assumed control of the king’s body, planning to return to Macedon where a tomb was being prepared.
In 322 BCE the body began its long journey home. From Babylon to Damascus people gathered along the roads. A team of 64 mules and a military guard accompanied the funeral cart. Alexander's gold coffin was adorned with sculptures and paintings as well as jewels. Unfortunately, the king would never reach Macedon. Ptolemy, the regent of Egypt, kidnapped it and took it to Memphis. This theft was one of many incidents that brought Ptolemy and Perdiccus to war, but after three failed attempts to invade Egypt, Perdiccus was killed by his own troops. The Wars of the Diadochi would continue, and Alexander’s vast empire would never be reunited. In 316 BCE, his mother, wife, and son would ultimately die at the orders of Cassander, the regent of his homeland Macedon.
While his empire did not flourish after him, Alexander's memory certainly did. Although many consider him an icon, there are others who see him as both a hero and a villain. To those who admire him he changed the world. He brought Greek culture and the Hellenistic Age to Asia, and in some minds laid the foundations for Christianity. The great empire he built spread Greek philosophy, art and literature. Decades later, after invading and defeating Greece in the Macedonian Wars, the Romans benefitted from Alexander and the Greeks as educated Romans learnt Greek; they hired Greek tutors for their children; many of the more affluent Romans sent their sons to study in Athens. Even the Roman religion was heavily influenced by the gods of Olympus. To those great commnaders who followed him such as Hannibal and Julius Caesar Alexander was the yardstick against whom they measured their own victories. Hannibal called him the greatest general of all time while Caesar wept at the sight of Alexander’s statue.
However, admired he may have been by those of his own era as well as those later, the question still exists as to Alexander’s belief in his own destiny. History validates that he was a highly perceptive commander who led a well-disciplined army across a hostile terrain to victory. To many he was “a visionary.” He was gifted with both intelligence and courage, often fighting against armies which vastly outnumbered him. He has been described as audacious, ambitious, a risk-taker and lastly, a fearsome opponent. From the time of his father’s death, he continually proved himself a capable leader, leading by example. His deeply religious conviction together with validation from his mother, the oracles and his victories over the Persians convinced him that he was a man of destiny.
How can one assess Alexander? Before he turned 23, he led an army across the Hellespont and into Asia. He guided this army from the front, not the rear. He was loyal, a trait that inspired his men. However, there are those who do not see him as Alexander the Great. To them he is a mass murderer, responsible for the countless deaths of Greeks, Macedonians, and Persians. To others he died too soon, so one cannot determine his place in history. However, whether he truly considered himself a god is overshadowed by how he has been remembered. In his The Campaigns of Alexander the historian Arrian wrote of his admiration,
It is my belief that there was in those days no nation, no city, no single individual beyond the reach of Alexander’s name; never in all the world was there another like him, and therefore I cannot but feel that some power more than human was concerned in his birth…(398).
Whether or not Alexander was a god or if he believed himself to be one, his accomplishments have stood the test of time and he is still admired by students of history more than two millennia after his passing.