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Lord Over All: Alexander the Great’s Conquered World of Priests and Pagans

Alexander’s Europe emerged from a cataclysm. For many millions of years, North Africa’s Atlas Mountains had reached north across what later became the Strait of Gibraltar and merged with the Spanish Cordillera. The Atlantic Ocean lay to the west of the mountains, and to the east a large lake stretched as far as the undivided lands of Italy and Sicily. A second lake lay farther east, beyond Italy, alongside Asia and Egypt. Then, about five million years ago, the bed of the ocean shuddered, the mountains linking Spain and Africa cracked open, and a torrent moving more than 60 miles an hour flowed through. The lake to the east rose by as much as 10 yards a day for two years. The Greeks thought it took a Titan, Atlas, to steady the land beside the waterway.

Italy became a peninsula; Macedon acquired a coastline. The entire seacoast filled with bays and channels, the short hops for sailing that made sea voyages the best way to travel the Mediterranean. The one great river, the Nile, acquired a new destination. The Arabian and Anatolian peninsulas bumped against the water as if halting an invader. Only Macedon and the neighboring lower Balkans could compare with these two land masses. Greece was an appendage. Greek rivers were creeks, and the biggest Greek lake was little more than a marsh. The Greek version of a big island was Crete. Everything Greek was small, including the communities that spread along the Mediterranean coast like frogs, Socrates said, on the shore of a pond.

Farther east, the Taurus and Antitaurus mountain ranges watched over Anatolia. More mountains, the Caucasus and the Zagros, watched over Mesopotamia. The biggest range of all, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, faced the other direction, eastward, and separated the Indian subcontinent from the rest of Asia. The tops of these ranges were little better than snow­capped deserts, and the plateaus beyond them were dry and hard to cultivate. The biggest plateau, in central Iran, lay farther from the Nile and Mediterranean than any other large part of this region.

Which gods should worshippers bless or blame for this apportionment of soil and water? Egyptian priests said eight or nine creator gods had suspended the world amidst waters, like a disk. Mesopotamians and Indians also conceived of the world as a disk in water; at first, so did Greeks. The Egyptians called the waters surrounding the disk “the great circle.” The Mesopotamians thought that the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf were both part of the encircling ocean, and that another large body of water might be, too—Lake Van in Armenia, or the Caspian. The Greeks thought the encircling ocean was the Atlantic, but perhaps the Caspian flowed into it.

Then, most priests thought, the gods flooded the Earth. Mesopotamian priests explained that the gods had built the world’s first irrigation system but had grown tired of the work of maintaining the canals. They had created mankind to do the work instead, and then the insolent human laborers had raised a ruckus of complaint. The subsequent flood had punished mankind and taught them a lesson: more worship, less complaint.

The Hebrews knew the story but changed the meaning of the events. The great flood had not been an irruption that pitted Europe and Asia against each other. It had been a punishment that pitted Yahweh against mankind. The Greeks knew the story, too, but localized it. God punished mankind by starting the Trojan War, not by sending a flood. The reason for the punishment remained the same: Humans complained too much and made too much noise. Egypt did not tell some version of this story. The gods there had never needed irrigation, so they had never punished a workforce.

History, the ancients thought, began sometime after the flood. One of the two main centers, Egypt, was not unified until around 3,000 BC and did not reach its greatest extent, including Palestine and part of Syria, until 1,500 years later. Even then, the Egyptians knew little about places farther east. They knew almost nothing about Iran. The Mesopotamians knew more about Iran than the Egyptians did, and more about Asia Minor, but they were not mostly unified until around 2,300 BC, and not fully unified until around 750.

The pharaoh, who was one of the two chief kings in the region, would march from his center, Egypt, south past the first cataract to the confluence of the Blue and White Nile. Then the kingdom of Punt came into view. The other chief king, who ruled Assyria or Babylonia, would march from his capital in every direction. He became King of the Four Corners of the World, all linked to neighboring peoples, such as Elam to the east. Instead of the Blue and White Nile, the Mesopotamian ruler referred to the upper and lower seas, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, as well as to the Tigris and Euphrates. The Greeks had to sail, not march, but Jason and the Argonauts sailed as far as Egypt and the Caucasus. They were perhaps the first tourists, visiting the same outer chaos that great kings wished to subdue.

If the king failed to protect his frontiers, chaos encroached. In Egypt, chaos roamed the deserts that lay outside the Nile valley. In Mesopotamia, it lurked outside the city gates, bringing disease and ruin. By the time of Herodotus, chaos lay beyond the Black Sea, or in the farthest reaches of the Sahara, home to invincible monsters. Macedonians located chaos to the north, in the Balkans, or a ways to the east, whence hordes of Persians one day came marching down the coastal road.

All these stories—Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, and also Macedonian—originated in leading shrines. Egypt had two, at Memphis and Thebes, or perhaps three, if the priests at Heliopolis were to be believed. Mesopotamia had one pre­eminent shrine, in Babylon, and others, such as the temple of Eanna at Uruk. All were hives of priests, kings, citizens, subjects, and slaves. They were the tallest buildings on Earth—far taller than any royal palace, dozens of times as large as any palace in Macedon or house in Greece. Only the dead were better housed, and only a very few of those, in Egypt’s pyramids. Sacrifices in these shrines were the biggest events a worshipper could conceive, the axis of human communion with god—Amon­Re in Egypt, Marduk in Babylon, Zeus in Greece and Macedon. The celebrant was a cross between a priest and a king.

Offerings kept the priest­king victorious, and they kept the Nile or the canals flowing. If they did not, he had failed, and a new priest­king replaced him. If the king prospered, the lowly begged him for help. Just as sacrifice suited him, supplication suited them. In both rites, the weak beseeched the strong. The shrine and the city around it lived under a double hierarchy, one for sacrifice in the shrine and one for supplication in the city or palace. Only the priest­king fully understood. He ranked below the god and above everybody else, a son to one and a father to all others, an indispensable self­contradiction. He was always partly divine, but tradition and personal success determined how much. Tradition also determined the importance of other priests. They might serve as substitutes for the king, as guardians, or as acolytes.

The priests assisting the king were more diverse than the word “priesthood” implies. In Greece and Macedon, amateurs did much of a priest’s work. Every chieftain, magistrate, and householder performed rituals, including animal sacrifices to learn the future. A favorite method, reading sheep’s livers, came from Babylonia. The most sought­after Greek priests, the diviners, specialized in reading livers for the petty kings and magistrates of Greek cities. If the king or magistrate killed a sheep with a shapely liver, he could prosper. Or, if the king did not have an expert, or did not want to consult one, he could watch the tail of a sacrificial animal and see whether it curled in the right way once he threw it on the fire.

In Greece or Egypt, gods also gave oracles, and demanded sacrifice as a payment (always made in advance). Then the priest or sometimes the priestess delivered the oracle to the worshipper. In Egypt, a pharaoh could receive oracles privately, but in Greece oracles were public knowledge.

For starting a war, a favorable oracle was almost indispensable. After that, the king needed sacrifices to get a divine blessing. Sacrifices also fed his priests, and in Greece they provided feasts for his men. Then came an offering to get divine permission to march. Another came at every river. The king or his priest must know the river’s name, its taste in sacrificial animals, its biography. Which river would do what for whom, and at what price? The same went for every lake, marsh, strait, or sea.

Just before battle, the king would sacrifice again. The Greeks, among the poorest nations, often used the cheapest animal, a goat. They seldom splurged on a cow, let alone a bull. (And they did not use wild animals. Worshippers seldom did, and kings never did. A domesticated animal made a much better impression. The worshipper was giving up something of his own—something tasty, perhaps something hefty.) After a battle, victorious troops gave thanks and feasted again. If an army lost, the priests might declare the king’s sacrifices unacceptable. The god had rejected them, and the proof was not just defeat but a bad liver or a tail that curled the wrong way.

After combat came supplication. The defeated supplicated on the battlefield, prostrating themselves or waving palm fronds. In Greece and Syria, but not Egypt or Babylonia, they might retreat to a shrine, where the conqueror would find it hard to refuse to listen to them. Others in distress took refuge in shrines, too.

Zeus had laid down the rules for this practice. Spoils belonged to the victor, and that included human spoils. The duty to hear and evaluate a suppliant also belonged to the victor. While begging for mercy or just for help, the suppliant, like a worshipper, would besiege the superior being with gestures and pleas. Babylonians kissed the king’s feet. Greeks clasped knees. Kissing the royal hand was the height of temerity, but sometimes it helped. If the king decided to aid the suppliant, he would offer him a right hand and raise him up. In the Near East, the king acquired new subjects this way, and in Greece a city could acquire new residents, allies, or trading partners. Or the king might decide not to help. That suited Zeus. The lord of Olympus was a god of due process but not of mercy.

For the ancients, these ceremonies were not a fraud or a formality. If they were a kind of theater, the gods wrote the script. Worshippers might read this script by studying the stars. Belief in a heavenly script led kings and their armies to regard the most violent events in the heavens, eclipses, as signs of whether a king should risk war. Eclipses did not cause victories or defeats: The script was far more subtle than that. Celestial events sent messages. The king who got them wrong came to the end of his own story.

The gods remained aloof, like cops in a crime­ridden neighborhood. They were too few, came too late, and were too unpredictable to be relied on. Sometimes they brought order, sometimes disorder. Could they be bribed or begged? What would it take to become a being like that?

* * *

By the standards of the Near East, or even Greece, Macedon was a small and modest kingdom. The original cantons were Lyncestis, meaning “land of lynxes”; Orestis, “mountain men”; Elimaea, “tribe of millet”; and Emathia, “beachcombers.” When the kingdom grew, it added Pieria, “grassland,” Eordaea, “land toward the dawn,” and Bottiaea, “clods of earth,” also to the east. Towns were few, and none of them governed themselves like Greek poleis. As late as the time of Philip, Alexander’s father, the one good road swung around Mount Olympus, which divided the country from Greece.

The Macedonians, in a word, were “barbarians,” Greek for “babblers.” Although the Greek and Macedonian languages were similar, no Macedonian name sounded right to a Greek ear. The Greeks pronounced “Philip” as “Philippos,” whereas Macedonians said “Bilippo.” The Macedonians ate too much meat, drank too much milk, and did not dilute their wine. They were a Balkan people, foresters and cowboys, not cultivators.

The Macedonians believed in the same gods that the Greeks did, especially Zeus, whom they worshipped under several epithets, including one for suppliants, another for guests, and yet another for kings. Perhaps the Macedonians worshipped Zeus more vigorously than the Greeks did. At the shrine of Dium, they sacrificed as many as 100 victims at a time, each one tied to an iron ring. From this place, the peak of Mount Olympus, the gods’ home, was visible in the distance on any clear day. This sight conveyed what any mountaintop will—icy indifference, unbridgeable distance, and latent power.

In some places, the Macedonians worshipped Zeus in combination with the supreme god of Egypt, Amon. The oracle of Zeus at Dodona, in the mountains of Epirus west of Greece, instructed them to. All things Egyptian were prestigious, and so the Macedonians obeyed the oracle and worshipped Zeus and Amon together. Later, when Alexander came to the throne, this local idiosyncrasy would provide him an introduction to Egyptian religion.

The Zeus of the Macedonians let the king keep any land he conquered, provided that he plunged his spear into land to be invaded and then captured it. The Macedonians who helped him also got some part of it. This custom differed from the military practices of the Greeks and the Macedonians’ other neighbors. Conquering another community was deemed risky, for the local gods might resent it. The worshippers of Zeus should be warlike but not rapacious.

The Macedonians worshipped other leading Greek gods, but with a military bent. In the palace at Aegae, the royal family worshipped the warlike Heracles as an ancestor. Outside the palace, commoners worshipped Heracles, too, along with Zeus and the primeval Mother of the Gods. Athena ranked as a war goddess more than as a goddess of crafts and knowledge. Dionysus presided over many cults promising a good afterlife, yet the Macedonians also worshipped this god as the “phony man” of a military incident: One day, some young women worshipping Dionysus by running around outdoors with sticks encountered some enemy soldiers. These men thought the Bacchants were fighting for the Macedonians, and fled.

The Macedonians followed the oldest Greek methods of sacrificing. They paraded a domesticated animal to an outdoor altar and slaughtered it, burning enough of the carcass to send smoke up to the god. The fat of the animal made the fire flare, and so did libations of wine. Then the king, or whoever else was in charge, said a prayer of his own choosing. He nibbled the liver and other innards, assuring himself that the victim was good enough for the god and also good enough to eat, and then he distributed the rest of the meat to the royal entourage, or just to a family gathering.

If no animal could be spared, or if no man was at hand to slaughter it (a task not given to women and children), Macedonians sacrificed cereals or tiny bits of costly incense imported from the Near East. Anyone might do it, and many people did it every day. At dawn, the sun received a burnt offering. At every ford, a river received one. Macedon hosted hundreds of gods, some local, some familiar Olympians under local names. What a Greek would have found odd about these customs was not the plenitude of gods but the paucity of written rules. The Macedonians mostly practiced a folk religion, different both from the regulated religion of a Greek city­state and the hieratic religion of a Near Eastern kingdom.

The poverty of Macedon made incense rarer than in Greece or the Near East, and it also made offerings rarer. A Macedonian was more likely than other people to be reduced to making a prayer without an offering, or a prayer with a vow promising an offering in the future. This poverty made the king all the more important. His sacrifices on behalf of his people far surpassed anything they could do for themselves. This contrast would not have surprised a Greek or an Egyptian, but in Macedon the king had fewer religious rivals. In Macedon, the king was the only famous priest.

Sacrifices, offerings, and prayers let Macedonians not just talk to gods but also celebrate them. As in Greece, song and dance accompanied sacrifices and offerings, but comparison between Greece and Macedon was always more or less misleading, because the Greeks did their fanciest celebrating in shrines, and the Macedonians and their kings did theirs at home or in the open. The biggest Macedonian rite we know of, the annual purification of the army, took place in some open field big enough for thousands of men to assemble and then walk, one by one, between the severed limbs of a slaughtered sheep. The sheep’s blood washed away the army’s sins without multiple animals having to be killed. Then the troops fought a mock battle that showed the gods blessed them, and that also let them practice maneuvers.

Any god might send an omen, and the kings of Macedon were especially alert in detecting them. If the king had a dream, he would summon a priest to interpret it. Then he would doubt whether this priest was right, and summon another. Birds worried rulers most. Gods were aerial creatures, and so birds were ominous. They might swoop down and spoil a sacrificial ceremony. An eagle, representing Zeus, might fly away from the king rather than toward him. If no omens came the king’s way, he could manufacture some. He would kill a sheep and use the Babylonian technique of reading livers, or let an expert try it. Sacrifice of this kind kept omens flowing, and so they kept the king in touch with the gods.

This was the religion and the world Alexander began with. His seven-year campaign of conquest took him to others, some pagan, but some Christian, Jewish, and Moslem. This king, who wanted to be a Homeric demigod, regarded as the son of Zeus and the half-brother of Heracles, ended up as a religious figure of several other kinds. The 18th Book of the Koran presents him as a Moslem prophet called “the two-horned man.”

In the verses quoted below, God addresses Muhammad. God is the upper-case “We.” “He” is Alexander.

We granted him power in the land and gave him paths leading to all things. He took one of these paths, and when he reached the limit where the sun goes down, he found it setting in a pool of murky water, and he found a people. We said, “Dhul Qarnayn, you may either punish them or treat them with kindness.”

He said, “If a man does wrong, we will punish him. Then he will be remanded to his Lord and the Lord will punish him terribly. If a man has faith and acts righteously, he will have the best reward, and we will rule him gently.”

He then followed another path, and when he reached the limit where the sun rises, he found a people to whom We gave no shelter against the sun’s rays…

He followed yet another path, and reached a place that lay between two barriers. The people scarcely understood a word, but said to him, “Gog and Magog are despoiling the country. Should we pay you tribute to build a bulwark to protect us?”

He said, “The path my Lord has shown me is better than your tribute. Help me, and I will make a bulwark for you. Bring me sheets of iron.” When he had filled the gap between the two barriers, he said, “Blow!” When they had set it aflame, he said, “Bring me molten copper to pour over it.” Gog and Magog could not scale it or make a hole in it.

He said, “This is an act of mercy from my Lord. But when my Lord’s promise is fulfilled, my Lord will make this bulwark crumble.”

The Lord makes a “promise” to summon mankind before Him on the Day of Judgment. On that day, Alexander predicts, the wall he has made will collapse, and Allah will divide mankind anew between heaven and hell. In all of the Koran, only Muhammad, Abraham, and Alexander speak in their own words of this consummation of man’s time on Earth.

 

Excerpted, with permission, from Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great, by F.S. Naiden. Copyright © 2020 by F.S. Naiden and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Featured image: mosaic believed to depict Alexander the Great meeting a Jewish high priest, uncovered in 2015 in a fifth-century archeological site in Huqoq, Israel.