Questions concerning Alexander’s Divinity


Twice, I asked my pupils:

●   Was Alexander a god? 
They smirked.  'No', they replied.  But they hadn't been listening carefully enough.  I hadn't given 'god' a capital 'G'; I hadn't asked if Alexander was God.  I had asked if Alexander was a god, and that rather begs the question: 'What is a god?' – What made Zeus a god ... or, to take one of a number of human examples, what made Dion, the ruler of Syracuse (who was hailed as a living god in the 4th century bc) a god? 
If your answer is that it was because people thought they were gods, or because they worshipped them as gods, then Alexander was without possible contradiction a 'god' too.  The island of Thasos and the Greeks of the Ionian cities worshipped Alexander as a god, as did the Egyptians who – when he became their Pharoah – believed he was the incarnation of Horus and accorded their ruler divine status.


So this is a question where you have to watch very carefully what the question is.

●   Did Alexander believe he was the son of Zeus-Ammon?

●   Did Alexander believe he was a god?

●   Did Alexander demand to be worshipped as a god?

are all very different questions, and might have different answers.



Laying some misconceptions

All the following issues are vitally important if you are correctly to address the question of Alexander's divinity:

1. Heroes were not gods – remember when Alexander asked the oracle at Siwah to make Hephaestion a god, and the message came back that he could not; Hephaestion should be worshipped as a hero.  Achilles was a hero, not a god.  So when you are reading the sources, it is worthwhile asking yourself whether they are showing Alexander claiming to be a god, or a hero.

2. There were many ruler cults in Ancient Greece – Philip II, remember, had set up a 13th statue when he was assassinated – by which rulers were worshipped like a god.  But there is a difference between 'like a god' and 'as a god'.  So when you are reading the sources, it is worthwhile asking yourself whether they are showing Alexander demanding veneration (as his father had) 'like a god', or whether he went further and demanded to be worshipped as a god?

3. The Persians did NOT worship their ruler; Zoroastrianism was monotheistic (believed in one God) and thus – whilst they acknowledged that their rulers were 'from God' – they could never acknowledge them as 'a god'.  The Greek did not know this, and thought the Persians worshipped their rulers, but they were wrong.  Proskynesis, therefore,was not (as the Greeks thought) a mark of worship, but a mark of respect, and a greeting for a superior.



The Primary Record

The set sources have plenty on this, as you will find out for yourself, but historians who debate this issue regularly refer to other sources which you will not have seen.


Athenaeus, a writer from the 2nd century ad records what was said by Ephippus of Olynthus (a writer hostile to Alexander):

Ephippus tells us that Alexander used to wear even the scared vestments at his entertainments; and sometimes he would wear the purple robe, and cloven sandals, and horns of Ammon, as if he had been the god.


When Hyperides, an Athenian politician from the time of Alexander (and opponent of Alexander), wrote an attack on his rival Demosthenes, one of the accusations he made was that Demonsthenes:

... conceded in the Assembly that Alexander might be the son of Zeus and Poseidon too if he wished [and offered] to set up a statue of Alexander, the king and god invincible.


This passage from Plutarch 27, also, is seen as significant, since it is from Siwah that many historians date Alexander's belief that he was truly divine.  In the passage, you will see how Plutarch tried, not wholly successfully, to explain away this arrogance:

When Alexander had passed through the desert and was come to the place of the oracle, the prophet of Ammon gave him salutation from the god as from a father ... and some say that the prophet, wishing to show his friendliness by addressing him with "O paidion," or O my son, in his foreign pronunciation ended the words with "s" instead of "n," and said, "O paidios," and that Alexander was pleased at the slip in pronunciation, and a story became current that the god had addressed him with "O pai Dios," or O son of Zeus...

In general, [Alexander] bore himself haughtily towards the Barbarians, and like one fully persuaded of his divine birth and parentage, but with the Greeks it was within limits and somewhat rarely that he assumed his own divinity.


This coin of c.300bc, issued by the successor of Alexander Lysimachus (who took control of Thrace in Northern Greece).  It shows Alexander with the horns of Ammon, and is dsigned to associate Lysimachus with the cult of Alexander:



Secondary Historians

William Tarn believed that Alexander issued the deification decree, but only to give himself the authority to impose the Exiles Decree on the Greek cities; there is no evidence for this belief, and it is now generally discredited.


AB Bosworth – citing Ephippus – believed that Alexander believed he was the living embodiment of Zeus Ammon (is this really justified by the source?)


Most historians today accept that Alexander:

1. believed he was a god, but

2. did NOT issue a deification decree (after GL Cawkwell, 1994), yet nevertheless

3. 'came to long for the genuine article, at least in the Greek world, even if not in the Persian' (E Badian, 1996).




The following websites will help you complete the task:

There is a summary of some of the main claims regarding Alexander's divinity here.

This document contains the relevant section of the set
OCR Textbook.

You will also need to mention the Deification Decree.




On a large sheet of paper, write the three questions:

●   Did Alexander believe he was the son of Zeus-Ammon?

●   Did Alexander believe he was a god?

●   Did Alexander demand to be worshipped as a god?


Go through the EVENTS of Alexander's life, selecting key illustrative moments which might help to answer each or all of the questions.
Make sure you include details and minor events, as well as just the 'big things'.


Go through the SOURCES of Alexander's life, selecting key illustrative passages which might help to answer each or all of the questions.
Remember to evaluate their validity – a single valid source will outweigh a dozen passages which are all imaginary or full of errors.

In your opinion:
●  Did Alexander believe he was the son of a god?
●  Did Alexander believe he was a god?
●  Did Alexander seek to be worshipped as a god?