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c. 328 BC / Zariaspa

Democratic Protocol

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It is widely believed that Alexander wished people to prostrate themselves in his presence. This was due partly to the notion that his father was not Philip but Amon, and partly to his growing admiration, expressed also by the change in his dress and in the general etiquette of his court, of Median and Persian extravagance. There were plenty of people, moreover, who, to flatter him, submitted to this servile behavior: Anaxarchus the sophist was one of the worst—and the Argive poet Agis.

There was one man, however, who did not approve of these innovations. This was the historian Callisthenes of Olynthus, a pupil of Aristotle. Thus far I agree with Callisthenes, but he was a somewhat tactless man, and his remark (if it has been rightly reported) that, without the history he was writing, Alexander and his work would be forgotten, was, I feel, most unfortunate. He used to declare that he had come not in the hope of honor for himself but merely to spread Alexander’s fame throughout the world.

I will now relate a widely accepted story about Callisthenes’ opposition to Alexander in this matter of prostration. Alexander had arranged with the sophists and the Persian and Median noblemen at his court that the subject should be brought up one day at a party. The discussion was begun by Anaxarchus, who declared that Alexander had a better claim upon them to be considered divine than Dionysus or Hercules. The reason for this was not merely his brilliant and successful career but also the fact that neither Dionysus nor Hercules were connected with Macedonia: Dionysus belonged to Thebes and Hercules to Argos—the latter’s only connection with Macedonia was through Alexander, who had his blood in his veins. This being so, there would be greater propriety in the Macedonians paying divine honors to their own king. In any case there was no doubt that they would honor him as a god after he had left this world; would it not, therefore, be in every way better to offer him this tribute now, while he was alive, and not wait until he was dead and could get no good of it?

Those who were, so to put it, “in the know” expressed their approval of what Anaxarchus said and were only too willing to begin prostrating themselves forthwith, but the Macedonians—or most of them—who were present strongly dissented, and said nothing. Suddenly Callisthenes intervened. “For my part,” he said, “I hold Alexander fit for any mark of honor that a man may earn, but do not forget that there is a difference between honoring a man and worshipping a god. The distinction between the two has been marked in many ways: for instance, by the building of temples, the erection of statues, the dedication of sacred ground—all these are for gods; again, for gods sacrifice is offered and libations are poured; hymns are composed for the worship of gods, while panegyrics are written for the praise of men. Yet of all these things not one is so important as this very custom of prostration. Men greet each other with a kiss, but a god, far above us on his mysterious throne, it is not lawful for us to touch—and that is why we proffer him the homage of bowing to the earth before him.

“Again, for the worship of gods we perform the ceremonial dance and sing the song of praise. There is nothing surprising in this, for even the gods are worshipped by varying forms of ceremonial, and heroes and demigods, remember, have, again, their own peculiar, and quite different, rites.

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About the Author

Arrian, from The Anabasis of Alexander. Alexander ascended the throne around the age of twenty upon the assassination of his father, Philip II of Macedonia, in 336 BC. He soon began minting coinage with his portrait on one side and Hercules, from whom he claimed descent, on the other. Writing some four hundred years later, Arrian stated that Alexander at Troy laid a wreath “on the tomb of Achilles, calling him a lucky man, in that he had Homer to proclaim his deeds and preserve his memory.” Alexander took ill and died in Babylon in 323 BC; his body was buried in a golden coffin in Alexandria, the city in Egypt founded by and named after him.

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