Ptolemaic cult of Alexander the Great

The Ptolemaic cult of Alexander the Great was an imperial cult in ancient Egypt in the Hellenistic period (third–first centuries BCE), promoted by the Ptolemaic dynasty. The core of the cult was the worship of the deified conqueror-king Alexander the Great, which eventually formed the basis for the ruler cult of the Ptolemies themselves. The head priest of the cult was the chief priest in the Ptolemaic Kingdom, and years were dated after the incumbents (eponymous priests).

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his empire fell apart in the wars of the Diadochi (his generals, the Diadochi or «Successors»). One of them, Ptolemy, son of Lagos, secured rule of Egypt and made it the base for his own imperial ambitions. To legitimize his rule as Ptolemy I Soter, he relied, like the other Diadochi, not only on the right of conquest, but also on the supposed legitimate succession of Alexander. Not only did Ptolemy portray himself as Alexander’s closest friend in his historical work, but in 321 BCE, seized his body while Alexander’s funeral procession was on its way to Macedon from Babylon, and brought it to the Egyptian capital at Memphis. This claim was particularly useful in Egypt, where Alexander had been greeted as liberator from the Achaemenid Empire (the so-called «Twenty-seventh Dynasty») and had been enthroned as Pharaoh and son of the deity Ammon-Ra, receiving divine honours. During his stay in Egypt, Alexander had also laid the foundations for the city of Alexandria, which became the main Greek colony and capital of the country.

In the new Ptolemaic Kingdom, the Hellenic element (Macedonians and people from Greek city-states), to which the Ptolemaic dynasty itself belonged, formed the ruling class which succeeded the native Egyptian Pharaohs. While sacred kingship had long been practised in Egypt and other eastern nations, it was almost unheard-of in the Greek world. Driven by his unprecedented conquests, in the last year of his life Alexander had demanded even from his Greek subjects to be treated as a living god (apotheosis). This was accepted only reluctantly, and often rejected outright, by the Greek cities, but Alexander’s prolific founding of cities alone secured for him a divine status there, since Greek cities traditionally rendered their founder (Koine Greek: κτίστης) divine honours. When Ptolemy took over Egypt, he incorporated the heritage of Alexander into his own propaganda to support the claims of his own dynasty. As part of this effort, Alexander was elevated from a simple patron god of Alexandria to the status of a state god for the Hellenistic populations of the entire Ptolemaic empire, even beyond the confines of Egypt.

During the early Ptolemaic dynasty (ca. 290 BC), Ptolemy began the construction of the Tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria (the Sēmaσῆμα), and appointed a priest (ἱερεύς) to conduct religious rites there. This office quickly advanced to become the highest priesthood in the Ptolemaic Kingdom, its prominence underscored by its eponymous character, i.e., each regnal year was named after the incumbent priest, and documents, whether in Koine Greek or Demotic Egyptian, where dated after him. The first priest of Alexander was no less a figure than Ptolemy’s brother Menelaos. The tenure lasted one year, but under Ptolemy I, the priests apparently held the post for longer tenures, while under his successors. This became an exception under the later Ptolemies.

Under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 282–246 BC), Alexander’s body was brought to the Sēma, and, in contrast to the usual Greek custom of cremation, was entombed in a magnificent golden sarcophagus, which was eventually replaced by a transparent glass coffin to display his mellified body. Not only did the presence of Alexander’s body in the Ptolemaic capital enhance the dynasty’s prestige but it also became one of the main attractions and pilgrimage sites in the ancient Mediterranean. Even Roman emperors made the journey to Alexandria to visit the great conqueror’s tomb.

The Ptolemies assigned the deified Alexander a prominent place in the Greek pantheon, associating him with the Twelve Olympians like Zeus and Apollo. Accordingly, in documents Alexander was referred to simply by his name, as the epithet theos («god») was regarded as superfluous.

While Ptolemy I Soter founded the imperial cult of Alexander, his son and successor Ptolemy II completed its connection to the ruler cult around the reigning dynasty itself. The cult of the Ptolemies began in 283/2 BCE, when the deceased parents of Ptolemy II were deified as the Theoi Sōtēres «Saviour Gods». Statues of the deified couple were installed in the Temple of Alexander, and the priest of the Alexander cult took over the rites for the deified Ptolemies as well. With this gesture, the Ptolemies underlined the superior position of Alexander, and their own subordination to him as «temple-sharing gods» (σύνναοι θεοί). Alexander remained the main recipient of rituals and sacrifices, with the Ptolemies only partaking in them.

The elevation of Alexander over the Ptolemies, and their connection to him, was further deepened through the expansion of the cult. Thus in 269 BC, the female priestly office of «basket bearer» (kanēphóros) for the «Sibling Goddess» (Thea Adelphos) Arsinoe II was established, followed in 211 BCE by the «prize-bearer» priestess (athlophoros) in honour of the «Benefactor Goddess» (Thea Euergetis), Berenice II, and in 199 BCE by a priestess for the «Father-Loving Goddess» (Thea Philopatōr), Arsinoe III. All these priesthoods were subordinate to the priest of Alexander.

Cleopatra III added three further female priesthoods for her own personal cult as «Benefactor and Mother-Loving Goddess» (Thea Euergetis Philometōr): the «sacred foal» (hieros pōlos), the «crown bearer» (stephanēphoros), and the «light bearer» (phōsphoros).

The concept of «temple-sharing gods» was underlined under Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221–204 BCE), who translated the remains of the Ptolemies and their consorts—unlike Alexander, they had been cremated and kept in urns—to the Sēma.

Ptolemy, son of Kastor, is the last priest of Alexander known by name, before the position was merged into the royal office. Since the priesthood of Alexander is first attested in the royal titulature in the second year of the joint reign of Ptolemy IX and Cleopatra III (116/115 BC), it is unclear whether the merge of the offices took place in the last two years of Ptolemy VII’s rule, or with the accession of his successors. It is possible that the merge was the initiative of Ptolemy IX, who thus wanted to emphasize his precedence over his co-ruling mother, Cleopatra III. As such, the office changed its role and character, from an eponymous priesthood to a propaganda tool: unlike the royal office, which was increasingly shared among siblings or other family members from the early 2nd century BC on, the priesthood of Alexander was indivisible. This must have appealed to Ptolemy IX, eager to set himself apart from his mother, who he hated and who had begun her own priestly cult around her own person.

This new role of the priesthood of Alexander can be traced in later reigns as well. In the first months of 112/111 BC, an ordinary citizen, Artemidor, occupied the office. He was probably a partisan of Cleopatra III, who had succeeded to temporarily evict her son from Alexandria. As women could not occupy a supreme priesthood in the Greek world, she had to content herself with placing one of her supporters in the post, as a public sign of her new dominance. After Artemidor, however, the name of Ptolemy IX was subsequently added in the papyrus, which means that he managed to return to Alexandria in the same year.

In 107 BC, Cleopatra III managed to expel Ptolemy IX for good from Alexandria, and raised her second son, Ptolemy X, to the throne as her co-ruler and priest of Alexander. As the inter-dynastic rivalry continued, however, in 105 BC she finally decided to assume the priesthood herself, to underline her precedence. Cleopatra probably intended this arrangement to be permanent, but her blatant violation of Greek norms in assuming the priesthood must have damaged her image among the Greeks. The last years of her reign were taken up with her persistent conflict with Ptolemy IX, until she died in 101 BC, probably following an assassination attempt by Ptolemy IX, whereupon Ptolemy X became sole ruler. The priestly and royal offices remained united under Ptolemy X and his successors, although the priestly title was rarely mentioned in the papyri, as the loss of its eponymous character rendered it irrelevant for dating purposes.

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