Alexander the Great, Ancient Greece, Ancient Persia, Angelina Jolie, Colin Farrell, Oliver Stone, Olympias, Philip of Macedon
One of the most vexing questions about Alexander the Great is whether he thought he was a god or not, and Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone) certainly digs into that question. In the film, Alexander’s mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie) insists that Zeus appeared to her and had sex with her and fathered Alexander (Colin Farrell). At times she seems to be saying this because of how much she hates her husband Philip (Val Kilmer), but at other times she seems genuinely convinced of it. Alexander becomes increasingly hostile to her and never accepts her story, but later in the film, he’s accused of accepting sacrifices to Zeus and compares himself to the god Heracles. So what really happened?
As I mentioned before, one of the big problems with understanding Alexander is that virtually all of our information about him comes from posthumous sources that themselves only survive as references and quotations in works written centuries later. This means that there is an enormous amount of room for later ideas about Alexander to have crept into the accounts of him, and getting back to the essential Alexander is quite challenging. After his death, Alexander was sometimes worshipped as a god, so it’s quite possible that later historians were reading that back onto his reign. Adding to the problem here is the question has several major pieces.
In the film, the primary assertions of Alexander’s godhood come from Olympias, so let’s tackle her claims first. According to the historian Plutarch, writing about four centuries after Alexander, the night before Olympias and Philip consummated their wedding, Olympias had a dream that her womb was struck by lightning and started a great fire, and Philip dreamed that he had pressed a seal upon Olympias’ womb, leaving an image of a lion. Later, after Alexander’s visit to the oracle of Siwa (which I’ll get to later), she confirmed that Alexander was the son of the god Zeus-Ammon.
But there are two reasons to be skeptical of these stories. First, as I said, they could easily have been invented long after Alexander’s death, with the retroactive knowledge that he had accomplished things no other man had ever done. 400 years is a lot of time for people to embellish Alexander’s story. And ancient historians LOVED stories about portents that occurred at the birth of boys who would become great kings. Birth portents are practically a required element of the biography of important political figures. So right there we have good reason to be skeptical of these stories.
Second, even if the stories aren’t made up after Alexander’s death, it’s pretty easy to see why they might have been made up to please Alexander after he became powerful. So far as we know, Olympias didn’t start claiming she had gotten busy with a god until Alexander raised the issue himself at Siwa. Her story was only a confirmation of his.
The second piece of the problem involves Egypt. When Alexander was conquering the Persian Empire, after his first two major victories, he swung down into Egypt, which had been ruled by the Persians for a couple centuries, and conquered it. During his visit to Egypt, he took a side trip to the western oasis of Siwa, which was home to an oracle. According to the historian Arrian, who was writing about 350 years after Alexander, “Alexander admired the site and consulted the god, and having received, as he put it, the answer which his heart desired he returned to Egypt.”
Notice that Arrian doesn’t tell us what the question was or what the answer actually said, only that it was the answer Alexander wanted to hear. Most historians believe that Alexander asked the oracle some question about whether he was a god. In order to understand this, it’s important to realize that for close to 3,000 years, the Egyptian political tradition maintained that the Pharaoh of Egypt was a living god, and by the end of independent Egypt, the official ideology was that when the current pharaoh fathered children on his wives and concubines, on some night, the pharaoh was either replaced by or inhabited by the god Ammon, who was thus the father of the next pharaoh. The ambiguity about exactly when this happened meant that any successful claimant to the Egyptian throne could be declared the son of Ammon, whom the Greeks identified with their god Zeus as Zeus-Ammon. So regardless of whether the specific question was “Am I the son of a god?” or “Am I the rightful pharaoh of Egypt?”, the answer was basically ‘yes’ to both questions, because each question implied the other.
The question is, why did Alexander go to Siwa in the first place? Was he seeking to find out his true parentage? Probably not. It’s much more likely that his trip to Siwa was a piece of political theater designed to legitimize his military conquest of Egypt by getting a ruling that, like previous pharaohs, he was the son of Ammon. As a military conqueror, he probably worried that unless he did this, the Egyptians would resist him after he had gone back to Persia. And he probably understood that he needed to rule Egypt according to Egyptian customs.
And consider that it was only after Alexander went to Siwa that Olympias began to claim she had done the nasty with Zeus. She was confirming what the oracle said, not asserting her own independent claim. That reinforces the sense that this was political theater, not a personal belief.
Alexander opens in in 331 at the battle of Gaugamela, after Alexander had returned from Egypt. The oracle of Siwa and what it said is never mentioned in the film.
After the death of Shah Darius III in 330, Alexander became the shah of Persia, and he began to introduce a Persian custom called proskynesis that ultimately proved quite perturbing to his Macedonian troops. Persian culture had a complex social hierarchy that was reflected in a greeting ritual known in Greek as proskynesis. The 6th century Greek historian Herodotus describes it this way.
“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.”
The ritual has three forms, depending on how far apart the two men are in social status. The third form, reflecting a sharp difference in social rank, involves the lower-status man prostrating himself on the ground in front of the higher-status man. But notice that Herodotus describes this as “worshipping him.” In Greek culture, prostration was a gesture reserved for a statue of a god. This is not what the Persians understood by the ritual; for them it was purely a statement of social status. But Greeks found the ritual loaded with religious meaning. Imagine how a Christian American might understand a social custom in which some people kneel, bow their heads, and fold their hands together.
The Persian shah was the highest figure in Persian society, far above any other man. Consequently, the proper form of proskynesis when meeting him, at least on ceremonial occasions, was full prostration. When Alexander ordered this ritual to be continued, he appears to have been embracing a Persian political tradition, much the way he seems to have done in Egypt.
But his soldiers didn’t view it that way, at least not according to Arrian. They, like Herodotus, assumed that Alexander was demanding to be worshipped as a god. Arrian refers to proskynesis as “obesience”, and offers a story about it. Normally, when Arrian tells us something, he tells us what his source for the story is, but here he only says “there is also the following story.” This seems to be his way of telling us that he’s not really sure this story happened, but that he knows it’s a famous story, so he feels compelled to tell it. As Arrian tells the story,
“It had been agreed between Alexander, the sophists and the most distinguished of the Persians and the Medes at his court that the subject should be raised during a drinking party. Anaxarchus launched the topic, saying that Alexander had much better claims to be regarded as a god than Dionysus and Heracles […]. The Macedonians would have better reason to honor their king with divine honors; there was no doubt that once Alexander departed from men they would honor him as a god. How much more justifiable it would therefore be to honor him in his lifetime rather than wait for his death, when the honor would be of no benefit to the recipient.”
As Arrian tells the story, this ‘debate’ was staged by Alexander at the instigation of the Persians, which would seem to confirm that the issue here is that the Persians felt a need to continue this political gesture. (At least, if the story is actually true.) As the story continues, once Anaxarchus said this, those who had arranged the incident began to offer proskynesis, but the Macedonians were upset about this and one of them, Callisthenes, stood up and offered a long argument against the points Anaxarchus had made. This irritated Alexander but pleased the Macedonians, so Alexander said that the Macedonians didn’t have to perform proskynesis. Everyone was quiet for a moment, but then the Persians came forward and began to perform proskynesis.
So in this story, the Persians appear, from the Macedonian perspective, to be corrupting Alexander, offering him an honor only the gods ought to be granted. The Macedonians dislike this, either because they find the idea of worshipping a living man offensive or because they feel Alexander is being misled by non-Greeks.
As I noted, Arrian seems to find the story dubious, but there is nothing inherently implausible about the central idea that the Persians wanted a ritual that the Macedonians found offensive. This sort of cultural clash happens a lot when two cultures interact, and the Greeks already considered the Persians culturally inferior. The real question, assuming the story is based in fact, is what Alexander intended. Was he looking at proskynesis simply as a political ritual, or was he, as a Greek, seeing it as having religious implications? Was the oracle of Siwa’s statement that he was a living god beginning to go to Alexander’s head? Was he beginning to suffer from megalomania?
In Alexander, the debate over proskynesis is conflated with another incident that happened in 328 BC. In that incident, at a drinking party, Alexander’s courtiers were flattering him, calling him the son of Zeus-Ammon and belittling Philip. This offended one of Alexander’s generals, Cleitus, who started praising Philip. Furious over this, the drunken Alexander jumped up, grabbed a spear and stabbed Cleitus to death. In the film, Callesthenes is collapsed into Cleitus. The quarrel begins with Cleitus (Gary Stretch) accusing Alexander of accepting sacrifices to Zeus, and Alexander compares himself to Heracles. Things spiral out of control and Cleitus winds up with a spear in his belly. Given the enormous number of incidents that Oliver Stone was trying to include in the film, collapsing these two incidents into one is perhaps forgivable.
Here’s the whole scene, if you want to watch it. It’s a good scene.
A fourth piece of the puzzle is the revolt at Opis. According to Arrian, at Opis, an unidentified site somewhere near the Tigris river, Alexander declared that he was sending his Macedonian troops back home. He intended to please his war-weary men with this gesture, but his troops became offended, thinking that he was replacing them with Persian troops because he despised the Macedonians and had embraced Persian culture. As Arrian puts it, “They could not keep quiet any longer, but all shouted to Alexander to discharge them from service and take his father on the expedition (by this insult they meant Ammon).”
Furious at this taunt, Alexander launched into a long diatribe about how his father Philip had found the Macedonians crude hill people and had turned them into a great fighting force, and he accused them of being ungrateful for having made them so wealthy and powerful. Then he rounded up the ring-leaders and had them executed.
This incident suggests that the Macedonians disliked Alexander’s claim that he was the son of a god. It also shows that they didn’t take it seriously, because they mocked him for it, daring him to try to continue conquering using Ammon’s support instead of theirs.
Alexander’s response can be read two ways. First, perhaps he was offended simply because his men were being disrespectful to him. His speech about his father seems to confirm that he didn’t really believe his claims to divinity and knew that his men were just poking fun at the tools he was using to legitimize his rule. But on the other hand, his furious reaction might suggest that he was becoming mentally imbalanced by the combination of his military success and the constant flattery he was receiving and felt that the taunts were a denial of his divinity.
Stone’s film conflates the incident at Opis, which happened after Alexander returned from India, with the mutiny at Beas, which happened in India and which forced Alexander to return home. In that scene, the troops don’t mention Alexander’s claims to divinity, but he executes the ring-leaders, basically because he’s trying to force them to continue into India. Stone presents the mutiny as the lead-up to the battle of the Hydaspes River, so he’s really jumbling the facts here.
So Did Alexander Think He was a God?
I don’t think we can definitively answer the question one way or the other. Given the problematic nature of the sources, we can’t actually prove that Alexander ever made a claim to divinity at all, only that four centuries later, reliable historians like Plutarch and Arrian believed that claims to divinity were part of his campaign. But even if we accept their stories as being basically true, we’re left to two possible scenarios.
In one scenario, Alexander recognizes that he needs to claim divinity in order to rule Egypt. He does so, and has his mother confirm the claim. In Persia, he applies the same logic and maintains the Persian tradition of proskynesis for purely political reasons. But his men grow increasingly uncomfortable with these gestures because they violate Greek sensibilities, and they don’t understand that these are purely political gestures that Alexander doesn’t actually believe himself. His anger at Opis stems from the fact that his men are being disrespectful, not because he actually thinks he’s a living god.
This is a totally plausible scenario. But Alexander was deeply steeped in Greek culture, and knew how to manipulate its symbols to build support from his troops. Why was he able to view proskynesis from the Persian perspective when his troops weren’t? Why didn’t he find receiving proskynesis as uncomfortable as his men found performing it, and why didn’t he understand that the gesture was offensive to them?
The alternative scenario is that what started out as political gestures gradually turned into personal belief. Alexander’s truly remarkable military and political accomplishments led him to conclude that he really was a living god. The oracle said so, his mother said so, the Persians were basically worshipping him, and he was doing what no man in history had ever done. Constant Persian flattery and what was probably growing alcoholism were making him mentally unstable, and he reached a point where he could not bear to hear resistance to his claims of divinity, leading to the deaths of Cleitus and the ring-leaders at Opis.
Many of the ancient sources certainly seem to point this way. Arrian repeatedly suggests that the Persians were drawing Alexander away from Greek culture and that this had a corrosive effect on Alexander’s personality. But Greek culture loved stories about hubris, in which a remarkable person becomes arrogant and loses respect for the gods and the limits of humanity; their arrogance eventually forces the gods to punish them. The original sources for Alexander are all Greek, so it’s very plausible that his first biographers saw Alexander through this traditional lens of hubris and shaped their narratives to reflect that idea.
The second scenario is more satisfying, because it offers us a tidy moral of pride being a great man’s downfall. We like that idea almost as much as the Greeks did. We want to apply it to later historical conquerors like Napoleon and Hitler, both of whom we tend to associate with insanity, just as we like the idea of Alexander as a megalomanic.
And the seductive nature of the second scenario is why I find the first scenario more likely. The second scenario is simply too pat, too easy, for my taste. The first scenario, with its complex story about the intersection of three different cultures and their religious and political traditions, feels much more real to me, much more like the way history actually plays out.
Alexander tries to straddle these two scenarios. It presents Olympias as making her first claims for Alexander being a demi-god when he is a young boy, and constantly repeating the claim at nearly every turn. Alexander seems to hate these claims, and yet as a successful conqueror he begins to accept them, comparing himself to Heracles. Farrell’s Alexander is a man haunted by his tortured relationship with his semi-deranged parents, who are a violent, abusive drunkard and a snake-obsessed man-eating nightmare version of Mama Rose. He flees his parents but finds himself unable to escape their legacy, repeating their mistakes and falling prey to their delusions. However, he never goes to Siwa, never demands proskyness, and never actually says he’s a god. Stone is much more interested in Alexander as a human being than Alexander as a politician, and so he avoids the whole question of just what Alexander was doing with his claims to divinity.
While it’s not a very satisfying answer to the question of whether Alexander thought he was a god, it’s not a bad portrait of who the great conqueror might have been as a human being.
Want to Know More?
Amazon doesn’t carry the Ultimate Cut, but does carry Alexander, Revisited: The Final Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition). Stone based his film on Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great. Fox is a well-regarded ancient historian, but at almost 600 pages, reading it is a serious commitment. If you want something a bit shorter (and more recent), I liked Ian Worthington’s Alexander the Great: Man and God. If you want to dig a bit deeper into Alexander, you might start with Alexander the Great: A Reader. And if you want to read one of the original sources, start with Arrian’s account, available as The Campaigns of Alexander (Classics).