How Alexander Became A God
By Andrew Michael Chugg
One of the best-known anecdotes concerning Alexander the Great is the story of his meeting with Diogenes the Cynic at Corinth in September 335BC. The king and his companions approached the philosopher whilst he was sunbathing in a suburb called Craneion, whereupon Diogenes lifted himself onto his elbows and scowled at the encroaching crowd (Fig 1). Alexander delivered his greetings and enquired whether Diogenes desired anything of him? Yes, indeed, the philosopher replied, Could you stand a little out of my sun? Alexander's friends were deriding Diogenes as they quit the scene, but the king quieted them by confiding quite enigmatically: Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes. (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 14)
Figure 1. Alexander visits Diogenes the Cynic at Corinth in 335BC
It is usually supposed that the king was expressing admiration for the disdain for earthly power and wealth shown by Diogenes. But this is perhaps a little at odds with the fact that Alexander himself never disdained either. Alternatively, the riddle may be answered by the fact that the name of Diogenes had another significance for Alexander. Its literal meaning is Zeus-born or sprung from Zeus. Alexander was a great fan of Homer from his boyhood and in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, diogenes is frequently used as an epithet of various of the Greek heroes, notably Patroclus (e.g. Iliad 1.337), Ajax (e.g. Iliad 7.234) and Odysseus himself (e.g. Iliad 4.358). Therefore we can be confident that Alexander would passionately have coveted such a title inasmuch as he always strove to emulate his Homeric heroes. He especially saw himself as the new Achilles, the hero from whom his mother's family claimed descent.
A subsequent famous episode in Alexander's career was his visit to the Siwa Oasis in the Egyptian desert in early 331BC to consult the Oracle of Ammon. This Egyptian god was considered by the Greeks to be a manifestation of Zeus, so some of our sources simply name Zeus as the god of the oracle. In particular, Plutarch, Curtius, Strabo and others report that the high priest greeted the king as the son of Zeus (Fig 2) and they add that Alexander welcomed this and encouraged its acceptance among his followers. Nor was the priest's salutation surprising, since Alexander had already been acknowledged as pharaoh by the priests at Memphis and part of the formal title of pharaoh was Son of Re. Furthermore, the sun god, Re, had long been fused with Ammon in Egyptian lore.
Figure 2. Alexander greeted as the son of Zeus by the high priest at the Siwa oracle
This poses the question of the exact title that Alexander sought to adopt on the basis of the Siwa salutation? There are some strong strands of evidence that he actually took the opportunity presented by priestly endorsement to lay personal claim to the Homeric epithet of diogenes, considering that its meaning came so very close to son of Zeus.
On his journey back to the Nile from the oracle Alexander founded Alexandria (Fig 3). In this city in Egypt, Alexander was particularly remembered as ktistes, the Founder, but chance has preserved an ancient formula, which gives us a more complete picture of the titles accorded to the king in what became the greatest city of the Hellenistic age. This has come down to us via the most ancient Greek manuscripts of the so-called Alexander Romance, a semi-legendary version of the king's adventures, which was compiled from still older stories in Roman Egypt. The Romance incorporates a vivid description of ancient Alexandria, including the information that the city was divided into five districts labelled according to the first five letters of the Greek alphabet: ΑΒΓΔΕ. It further explains that these letters were taken from the initial characters of the words in the following formula:
Which translates: Alexander the king, the Zeus-born, founded an ever-memorable city. From this it would seem that Alexander was remembered in Alexandria as a king, as the city's founder and also as a diogenes.
Figure 3. Alexander founding Alexandria in about February 331BC
Sadly, in common with all the first generation accounts, Callisthenes history is largely lost. Nevertheless, a few fragments have been preserved through quotations in surviving ancient books. We are fortunate that two of these fragments mention Alexander's relationship with Zeus and the first of them from Strabo (17.1.43) actually outlines the king's visit to Siwa. Here Callisthenes writes of Alexander having sprung from Zeus (ek Dios genesios tou Alexandrou). Then in a fragment from Plutarch (Life of Alexander 33) describing Alexander's speech to his Thessalian troops before the Battle of Gaugamela, the king asks whether he is really sprung from Zeus (Diothen esti gegonos). Clearly, the language used by Callisthenes portrays Alexander as having sprung from Zeus instead of explicitly as the son of Zeus, which is consistent with Alexander having officially adopted diogenes as an epithet.
In 327BC Alexander began his momentous invasion of India. Curtius (8.10.1) launches into the action with an account of how the local potentates welcomed the king as the third diogenes to pass through their territories:
When Alexander entered within the bounds of India, he was met by the minor kings of the local nations, who acceded to his governance, recalling that he was the third diogeneswho had reached their lands. They knew of reputed visits firstly of Dionysusand secondly of Heracles, but Alexander had actually manifested himself before their gaze.
The actual Latinof Curtiusstates that Alexander was greeted by the local Indian kings as the third Iove genitum to visit their land, but it is virtually inescapable that this is a quite literal translation of third Diogenes in the Greekof Curtius' source. Furthermore Plutarch in his Moralia (331E-332C) provides a discussion of Alexander's remark at Corinth about being Diogenes, if he were not Alexander. In this passage Plutarch makes the king apologise that he actually behaves like the sort of diogenes that his ancestor Heracles had been:
But as things are, forgive me, that I imitate diogenes-Heracles, and Perseus, and follow in the footsteps of Dionysus, the divine author and progenitor of my family, and desire that victorious Greeksshould dance again in Indiaand revive the memory of the Bacchicrevels among the savage mountain tribes beyond the Caucasus.
Clearly Plutarch has in mind the same account of Alexander's invasion of India as given by Curtius, which suggested that Alexander was advancing in the footsteps of Heracles and Dionysus (Fig 4). However, Plutarch wrote in Greek, so diogenes is the actual word in his manuscript.
Figure 4. Dionysus on his progress through India
It is likely that the original source was Cleitarchus, because the same story is also given in the Metz Epitome and the only likely common source of Curtius, Plutarch and the Metz Epitome would be Cleitarchus. It therefore appears that Cleitarchus lost history of Alexander explicitly used diogenes as a title for Alexander in drawing a parallel between Alexander's entry into India and the legendary Indian travels of Heracles and Dionysus.
A remarkable confirmation that Alexander was actually called Diogenesin his lifetime can be discerned in an almost incredible coincidence that is reported by a couple of classical writers. In his Moralia717C, Plutarchmentions that Alexander the King and Diogenes the Cynicdied on the very same day and the identical story is given by Diogenes Laertiusin his short biography of Diogenes the Cynic:
Demetriusin his work On Men of the Same Name asserts that on the same day on which Alexander died in BabylonDiogenesdied in Corinth. He was an old man in the 113th Olympiad [328-325BC].
However, other evidence on the date of the death of Diogenes is at odds with this coincidence. In particular, Diogenes Laertiusalso records that Diogenes the Cynicdied aged nearly 90, but the Sudastates that he was born under the thirty tyrants (404BC), so he would only have been 81 in 323BC, when Alexander died.
An alternative explanation of the seeming coincidence needs to be considered. If Alexander was also formally called Diogenes after his expedition to Siwa, then Demetrius(or his source) could have heard or read that Diogenes (meaning Alexander) died on 10th June 323BC and wrongly assumed that Diogenes the Cynicwas meant, whilst correctly noticing that this was the date of Alexander's death. It is not an objection to this that Diogenes Laertius names Babylon and Corinth as the locations of their respective deathbeds, because it was common knowledge that Alexander died in Babylon and Diogenes the Cynic was based at Corinth, so Demetrius (or his source) could easily have appended these details. In short, there was enormous scope for confusion about which Diogenes was meant. But there is only a small chance (one in many thousands) that Diogenes the Cynic really did die on the same day as Alexander.
A Dedication by Diogenes
The most remarkable clue of all comes in the form of an early Hellenistic votive relief found at Pella in Macedon (Fig 5). Most significantly, the relief bears the following Greek inscription in its lower margin:
which translates: To the heroHephaistionfrom Diogenes. This makes it quite unique insofar as it is the only ancient inscription known that names Alexander's deputy, Hephaistion. There can be little doubt that it is Alexander's deputy who is meant, because he is described as a hero and Alexander famously received permission from the Siwa oracle that Hephaistion should be honored as a hero immediately after his deputy's death in 324BC. Furthermore, stylistically the relief dates to the last quarter of the 4th century BC.
Figure 5. Votive relief dedicated by Diogenes to the hero Hephaistion who stands beside his horse (now in the Archaeological Museum at Thessalonike)
The block is of modest proportions (0.53m x 0.61m x 0.06m). The depiction is of a libation scene. A young beardless man, evidently Hephaistion himself, stands restraining his horse, for he has reached the end of a journey. He proffers a bowl into which a young woman, who greets him, is about to pour the wine of the libation (from her oinochoewhich she holds in her right hand). Her left hand holds a small cylindrical vessel, a libanotris(censer), but their gazes do not meet. The man deliberately looks away from the woman, perhaps signifying the isolation of a dead soul.
Up until now, it has been assumed that this was the dedication of an ordinary individual named Diogenes, who had some unknown reason to be grateful to Hephaistion. However, it is recorded by a range of our sources that Alexander arranged for shrines dedicated To the Hero Hephaistion to be erected throughout the empire after his deputy's death. For example, Arrian mentions Alexander's orders for the construction of a shrine to Hephaistion in Alexandria in Egypt:
Now arrived [at Babylon] the special envoys whom Alexander had dispatched to Ammon to inquire how it was lawful for him to honour Hephaistion. They told him that Ammon said it was lawful to offer sacrifice to him as to a hero. Rejoicing at the response of the oracle, he paid respect to him as a hero from that time. He also dispatched a letter to Cleomenes, who was a bad man and had committed many acts of injustice in Egypt. For my own part I do not blame him for his friendship to Hephaistion, even when dead, and for his recollection of him; but I do blame him for many other acts. For the letter commanded Cleomenes to prepare a shrine for the hero Hephaistion in the Egyptian Alexandria, not just in the city itself but actually upon the island of Pharos, where the tower is situated. The shrine was to be huge and to be built at lavish expense. The letter also directed that Cleomenes should take care that it should customarily be named after Hephaistion; and moreover that his name should be engraved on all the legal documents with which the merchants entered into bargains. These things I cannot censure, except that he made so much ado about matters of trifling moment. But the following I must censure severely: If I find, said the letter, the sacred rites and temples of the hero Hephaistion in Egypt well completed, I will not only pardon you any crimes you have committed in the past, but in the future you shall suffer no ill treatment from me, however great may be the crimes you may commit.
Arrian, Anabasis Alexandrou 7.23.6-8
In addition, we have fragments of a speech delivered in Athens by Hypereides a year after Alexander's death in 322BC, in which he rails against the Athenians having been compelled to build shrines to servants of Alexander and to honour them as heroes - obviously, it is the hero Hephaistion in particular who is meant:
The practices that even now we have to countenance are proof enough: sacrifices being made to men; images, altars and temples carefully perfected in their honour, while those of the gods are neglected, and we ourselves are forced to honour as heroes the servants of these people. If reverence for the gods has been removed by Macedonian insolence, what fate must we conclude would have befallen the rules of conduct towards man?
Hypereides (Athenian orator), Epitaphios col. 8.21-22
This is good evidence for Alexander having ordered the construction of shrines dedicated to Hephaistion in many places. As the chief city of Macedon, Pellawas a very likely location for one of these memorials to the king�s deputy.
The historical background therefore suggests the possibility that this votive relief was part of the decoration of a shrine to the hero Hephaistion at Pella. If so, then it may be suspected that the particular Diogenes who dedicated the piece was in fact Alexander himself as the commissioner of the shrine.
There are obvious objections. Why would the king not be straightforwardly referred to as Alexander in the inscription? The answer could be because Hephaistion was assigned the title of Hero awarded to him by the Oracleof Ammon, so it could have seemed appropriate for the dedicator to refer to himself by the title awarded to him by the same Oracle.
Why was the piece executed on a relatively modest scale, if it was commissioned by so wealthy and powerful a king? The answer could be, firstly, because Alexander only received permission from the oracle�at Siwafor Hephaistionto be honoured as a Hero, rather than as a full deity. Therefore it would have been disrespectful to the gods themselves for the individual shrines to Hephaistion to be grander than the shrines dedicated to fully-fledged deities. Secondly, our sources record that Alexander only ordered the heroic honours for Hephaistion at his deputy's funeral just a month or so before the king's own death. The news of the king�s death must have arrived in Macedoniawhilst the memorials were still in preparation. There would have been scant political incentive to expend more than token resources upon their completion and decoration. Indeed it is often supposed that few if any were ever completed, although the very existence of this votive relief strongly suggests that one of them was established at Pellaat least.
If Alexander was formally referred to as Diogenes during his lifetime, why is the evidence of this not even more widespread than the items discussed in this article? There is an inscription from Delphi recording honours for Archon of Pella that was carved a few years after Alexander's death, in which the king is accorded the epithet dios meaning divine. It is the epithet that Homer grants to Achilles in the Iliad (famously in line 1.7) and it could be considered a higher rank of godhead than a mere diogenes. A decade or two later, the coins of his successors depict Alexander with divine attributes, such as the rams horns of Zeus-Ammon on the tetradrachms of Lysimachus (Fig 6). Most of our source material on Alexander was first written down in the generation after the king's death when he had already become acknowledged as a fully-fledged deity and the diogenes epithet was consequently redundant.
Figure 6. Alexander deified with the rams horns of Zeus-Ammon on a coin minted ~290BC
Alexander appears to have been inspired by his passion for Homer's Iliad to covet the epithets of its heroes. His family claimed ultimate descent from Zeus, so to earn the title of diogenes through outstanding deeds must have seemed particularly fitting. Therefore when the priest at Siwa greeted him with the salutation due to a pharaoh, the opportunity to legitimize his claim to the diogenes epithet evidently proved irresistible.
It has proven easy to misconstrue Alexander's motives in accepting the paternity of Zeus. It has led many to tarnish him with accusations of megalomania. Some have even suggested that the king rejected Philip as his biological father, but there is really no evidence for this. Neither in general do the other heroes called diogenes in Greek myth and legend disavow their earthly fathers. Heracles, for example, enjoyed a kind of dual paternity: he recognized Amphitryon as his biological father, but Zeus was his heavenly father.
Actually, Alexander seems to have been pursuing ambitious religious ideals in a world where practically everyone believed in the validity and worth of those religious ideals. It parallels the aspirations of devout Christians towards sainthood, except that Greek theology extolled chivalrous warfare and superhuman deeds whereas Christianity extols humility.
And one final thought: is it necessarily sacrilegious to consider a god to be your heavenly father?
Andrew Chugg is the author of The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great and Alexander's Lovers. His academic articles on Alexander have been published in Greece & Rome, The Ancient History Bulletin and the American Journal of Ancient History. He has also appeared as an Alexander expert in three TV documentaries on Alexander shown on the National Geographic channel and Channel 5: Alexander the Great The Man Behind the Legend (2004); Egypt Unwrapped Alexander the Great's Lost Tomb (2008); Mystery Files Alexander the Great (2011).