Few people changed the world like Alexander the Great, with an empire that spread the Greek language and culture all the way to India. But considering this vast empire, what religion was he?
It seems that Alexander the Great would have believed in the ancient Greek pantheon while sometimes respecting the religious movements he found through his conquests and using them to his advantage. He also seems to have come to consider himself to be something of a god himself.
To find out more about Alexander the Great and his religion, read on.
Ancient Greek Religion
At the time of Alexander the Great, being from the Greek Kingdom of Macedonia, most Greeks would have believed in many gods.
The Olympian pantheon of 12 major Greek gods and goddesses was widely worshipped throughout the Greek world and went on to influence the Etruscans and later the Romans, with equivalent gods in the Roman pantheon. There were also religious philosophies that regarded all the gods almost as metaphors, as part of the universe as a singular whole, like in the rise of Stoicism shortly after Alexander the Great’s death.
Considering the amount of territory the Greek world covered, it is unsurprising that there were often local deities and stories that would merge with the Greek pantheon, with there being a vast number of gods and philosophies in ancient Greece. This would perhaps be somewhat similar to the veneration of saints in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity.
As Alexander the Great grew up in the ancient Greek cultural sphere, venerating the Greek gods would have been part of the culture. However, he was taught by the likes of Aristotle, who believed in a single force that was intertwined with nature and the universe, exposing Alexander to different worldviews.
As Alexander the Great’s empire expanded, he encountered other religions and seems to have at times respected them, other times hated them, and other times turned himself into a deity.
Religious Tolerance and Intolerance
Although Alexander the Great conquered a huge amount of land and was renowned for his bellicose personality, he was at times tolerant and interested in the religions in his new lands.
At the time of his conquest of Israel, for example, Jewish people were surprised by the respect he paid to the community, allowing them to have a great deal of autonomy and religious freedom that they had not enjoyed under the Persians.
Similarly, in Egypt, Alexander the Great embraced the religion and was even named by a high priest after visiting the Oracle at Siwa in Egypt to be the new pharaoh and the son of the god Ammon. While the Egyptians had been persecuted in their religious practices under the Persian Empire, under Alexander, they were offered more religious freedom.
A Living God
He regarded himself to be the son of Zeus-Ammon, which was a fusion of Zeus, the Greek king of the gods, and Ammon, the Egyptian king of the gods. Even in conquered Persia, the empire that had been the enemy of the Greeks for so long, Alexander the Great soon started dressing in Persian royal clothing and introduced more Persian cultural elements into his leadership.
Alexander the Great had now shown that he regarded himself as a deity. However, many Greeks clashed with the Egyptians and Persians and found this worship of Alexander as a living divine figure to be outrageous and blasphemous.
There were also instances of religious persecution in the vast Greek empire, with the persecution of the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism and the execution of its priests being the most notable.
After Alexander the Great’s death, subsequent Greek rulers of ancient Egypt were regarded as living gods, a once laughable concept for the ancient Greeks, while Alexander continued to be worshipped as a deity around his empire, especially in the city of Alexandria in Egypt.
Even if he was not worshipped as a deity by others in the future, he was often highly regarded, such as by the Romans. He had an undeniable impact on world history and there is also a theory that Alexander the Great is the Dhul-Qarnayn named in the Quran, who built the wall to hold back Gog and Magog.
In short, Alexander the Great’s religious identity seems to have been flexible and he should not be regarded by modern religious standards. He was influenced by the Olympian pantheon and Greek philosophy, but also adopted Egyptian and Persian practices, perhaps coming to even see himself as a god.