To What Extent Does Arrian (Books 2, 3 and 7) Suggest Alexander the Great Believed in His Own Divinity and Manipulated Religion and His Alleged ‘Divinity’ for His Own Gain?

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Throughout the life of Alexander of Macedon as portrayed in works such as Arrian, Plutarch and Curtius the question of Alexander’s divinity has always been a prominent debate. Alexander believed that he may have been descended from the Greek warrior Achilles on hid father side and Heracles on his Mother’s. It has been argued by historians that Alexander used his alleged divinity to his advantage in both politics and warfare. However, Alexander’s belief in his own divinity did not arise out of an ideological vacuum and in his age and area there was a religious climate that fostered such ideas. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that by Alexander believing and promoting his divinity that he was granted great respect by both his friends and his enemies. The Persian army quickly became very demoralised and fearful when they learned that they were facing an army led by a God, if this were a part of Alexander’s tactics it was definitely an extremely beneficial tactic. Arrian is at times sceptical of Alexander’s belief in his own divinity but has no doubt that even if Alexander never intended to promote his own Legend it was a pivotal reason for Alexander’s successes in Persia.

The primary source used to investigate this will be Books 2, 3 and 7 in Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander. By looking at events such as Alexander’s journey to the shrine of Ammon, the untying of the Gordian knot, the visits to the tombs of his alleged ancestors Heracles and Achilles, his military victories and finally the legend he leaves behind in Book 7 after he dies.

Plutarch, Curtius and books 1, 4, 5 and 6 of Arrian are available secondary sources that contain relevant information which will be useful, albeit to a lesser extent. Robin Lane-Fox’s Alexander the Great provides a more modern historical view on Alexander which gives both comparisons and contrasts to Arrian.

The untying of the Gordian knot is one of Alexander’s most famous acts of intelligence, or intolerance depending on which commentator you look at. It was said that that whoever undid the knot would become the Lord of Asia. However, being a student of Aristotle, Alexander was no stranger to puzzles and he knew that if he did not untie the knot it would make him look weak. Arrian explains that he does not wish to dogmatize the issue and states:

“The general feeling was that the oracle about the untying of the knot had been fulfilled.”

Arrian and Plutarch explain that most authors note that Alexander was unable to untie the knot and cut it with his sword to avoid embarrassment. Whether Alexander used logic or force to undo the knot it is clear that Alexander cared much about his public appearance and how people perceived him. Throughout his campaign It could be argued that Alexander would manipulate a situation to keep up his image, like the Gordian knot. Despite Alexander not manipulating his alleged divinity, it is clear that he influenced those around him in different ways in his campaign.

Alexander’s journey to the shrine of Ammon is of particular interest as it demonstrates Alexander’s believe in his own divinity and alleged divine heritage to Hercules who had made the same journey to see the Oracle of the Siwa Oasis. To meet the oracle, Alexander had to travel over 1000 kilometres off course through the Libyan Desert. Throughout their journey through the desert Arrian notes a conflict in Ptolemy and Aristobulos’s accounts:

“According to Ptolemy, son of Lagus, two snakes led the army, hissing as they went, and Alexander told his guides to trust in providence and follow them” (Arrian.III.152)

“Alexander’s Guides were two crows which flew along in front of the army; in any case I have no doubt whatever that he had divine assistance of some kind.” (Arrian.III.152)

Arrian clearly indicates that he believes that Alexander is being helped by the Gods, this is key to understanding Arrian’s perception of Alexander and whether or not Alexander did manipulate his...
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