Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Question of Proskynesis

There are many varying accounts and interpretations, both historical and modern, as to the reasoning behind Alexander the Great trying to introduce the Persian method of proskynesis into his court.  Some argue that it was strictly a political maneuver; an attempt to bridge the gap between Macedonian, Persian, and Greek and establish common ground and practices, thus strengthening the empire under Alexander[1].  There are others that say that it was another example of Alexander’s self-obsession and an attempt at progressing his own deification[2]. 

Proskynesis (προσκύνησις) is a Greek word derived from the combining of the words πρός pros and κυνέω kuneo and means “to kiss towards”[3].   This act when performed by the Greeks and the Romans was one of worship reserved for the gods[4].  The Persians, however, used proskynesis as a way of honouring, not worshipping, their king[5], as has been the custom in the East from before Alexander until today.  This slight difference in usage and understanding of proskynesis could be part of the reason that Alexander was unsuccessful in implementing the act into his court among the Greeks and the Macedonians. 

According to one account[6] of Alexander attempting to introduce proskynesis, the topic was broached at a party by one of Alexander’s courtesans, Anaxarchus.  Anaxarchus was among a group of people loyal to Alexander who were privy to the information that Alexander was trying to introduce proskynesis and were going to try and help persuade the Greeks and the Macedonians to go along with this practice.  The recounting of this event by Arrian[7] explains that Anaxarchus began trying to convince the court of Alexander that offering him proskynesis was not only a good thing, but also that Alexander had a divine right to being honoured in this way.  Referring to the claim that Alexander was descended from Hercules, and that Hercules was only related to them[8] by Alexander anyway, Anaxarchus proffered that Alexander was more deserving of the honours of a god.  The issue of relationship to the people was also used to put Alexander’s claims at a more legitimate angle than that of Dionysus, as she was just a Theban[9]. 

Anaxarchus also continued his speech by illuminating the fact that once Alexander was dead, he would be honoured and regarded as a god[10].  Using this line of reasoning, Anaxarchus tried to explain that since Alexander would be recognised as a god and honoured as such when dead, that it would be perfectly justified to honour him and recognise him through proskynesis while he is alive and better able to enjoy and benefit from it[11].  It is at this point that Callisthenes interjects and begins a speech wherein he lauds Alexander and his conquests and accomplishments, but at the same time marks a delineation between the honours that are appropriate to give a god and those a living man[12].  

Callisthenes’ pointed speech is quite well received by the older Macedonians and Greeks in the court, as it reflects their own feelings on the matter of proskynesis[13].  While the elder Persians in the court continued to give Alexander proskynesis at this point, Alexander also realises that if he presses the matter on initiating the practice in his court, he could drive a wedge between himself and the Macedonians and Greeks.  It is then that Alexander decides to rescind his request that proskynesis be practiced in his court by those that are uncomfortable doing so, but allows the Persians and others that do not have an issue with it being offered to a man, offer it.  This could reflect that Alexander was not as interested in his own deification through instituting the act of proskynesis as he was in keeping his court, and subsequently his empire, in a semblance of harmony. 

There is also a second account of Alexander trying to instigate proskynesis in his court through a ‘set up’ by his close friends[14].  This account could be a retelling of the same event from another persons’ perspective, or of another instance where it was attempted to initiate proskynesis; however there is much debate on this topic and a clear answer is not agreed on by all historians.  What is agreed concerning this account is that it is more credible than the first account due to the source being Chares, the court chamberlain of Alexander[15].  In this account, there is another gathering of Alexander’s court, but the introduction of the proskynesis was through what appears to be a mixture of the Greek tradition of a toast and the Persian honouring of the king’s daimon[16].  Through the course of the dinner, Alexander offered a drink from his cup, to which the courtier would accept, then perform proskynesis, and then receive[17] a kiss from Alexander.  When it came time for Callisthenes to take part, Alexander was distracted talking to Hephaestion and did not notice that Callisthenes did not perform the proskynesis.  When this was brought to Alexander’s attention publicly, Alexander had to act, and refused the kiss with Callisthenes, whom then declared that he was going away only missing a kiss[18]. 

This account also seems to lend itself to the idea that Alexander was using proskynesis as a tool to try to unify the different people in his empire and not just as a tool for his own self-absorbed notions of deification.  The fact that Alexander was distracted during the ceremony and that he did not notice the lack of proskynesis from Callisthenes seem to indicate that he did not have a great deal of importance placed on the entire affair.  This can be interpreted to mean that proskynesis was just being used in the Persian fashion, as a way of paying a great respect and honour to the king, who is just a man, as opposed to the Greek and Macedonia understanding of proskynesis, which is reserved for the gods and the gods alone.  The successful implementation of the Persian form of proskynesis would have been able to be used by Alexander to give Greek, Macedonian, and Persian courtiers all common ground in his court, thus unifying them to a greater extent. 


Austin, M. M.  (2006).  The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest 2nd Ed..  Cambridge University Press, New York.

Badian, E. (1981).  "The deification of Alexander the Great" in Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honor of Charles F. Edson , Dell, Harry J., pg. 27-71

Heckel, W. (1978).  "Leonnatos, Polyperchon and the introduction of 'Proskynesis'" American Journal of Philology, 99:4, pg. 459-461

Taylor, Lily Ross. (1927).  "The 'Proskynesis' and the Hellenistic ruler cult" Journal of Hellenic Studies, 47:  pg. 53-62

[1] Heckel, Leonnatos…, p. 459-461
[2] Badian, Ancient Macedonian Studies, p. 52
[3] Taylor, Proskynesis, p. 53
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Austin, Hellenistic World, p. 40
[7] Austin citing Arrian, Ibid
[8] The people of Greece and Macedonia
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid
[15] Ibid
[16] Badian, Deification, p. 49-50
[17] Or give, it is unclear which party was to instigate the kiss
[18] Ibid

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