Alexander the Great believed himself to be the son of Zeus.
Even if you never paid attention during history class, you know that Alexander the Great is one of the most important figures in world history. He was Aristotle’s student as a young boy, and when his father was assassinated, he became king of Macedonia at the age of 20. He ruled for about 13 years, but during this time, he single-handedly created one of the biggest empires the world has ever seen, going all the way from modern-day Greece to northwestern India. Around twenty cities were founded in his name (among them Alexandria, Egypt), and it is thanks to him in part that Greek philosophy and art reached the farthest corners of the globe. But did you know he was also extremely religious, and that he actually believed that he was the son of a god? Take a look at the painting below, and you’ll see where this is going.
Conception of Alexander the Great, Les faize d'Alexandre. Bruges ca. 1468-1475.
This 15th century painting is called The Conception of Alexander the Great. At first sight, it’s definitely a bizarre and funny image that you wouldn’t expect to find in a medieval manuscript, but when you discover what it really shows, it’ll teach you a lot about Alexander’s beliefs about his origins. The painting shows Olympias, Alexander’s mother, in bed with a dragon, as Philip II, his father, looks on from a window. Now, the thing is that because the painting is titled The Conception of Alexander the Great, it’s much more than just your everyday depiction of a man catching his wife cheating on him with a dragon: it’s an artistic rendition of the theory that a god (more specifically, Zeus) was actually Alexander’s father, and not Philip. This theory is not the unknown artist’s idea, and it didn’t come out nowhere. It comes, in fact, from Alexander himself, who allegedly heard it from his mother.
Woodcut illustration of the conception of Alexander from Alixandre le grant, printed in Paris by Michel Le Noir ca. 1507-1520.
The conception of Alexander the Great, artist unknown, ca. 1475, Flanders.
According to Plutarch, the Greek biographer and essayist, Alexander first started believing that he was Zeus’s son the day before he set out to conquer Asia. That day, his mother told him that on the night before her marriage to Philip was consummated, a lightning bolt (Zeus, of course) hit her in the stomach, followed by a flash of light. This incredible event didn’t harm her, but it confirmed to her that the son she would have in the future would be meant for great things and that he would be directly related to Zeus. However, according to his family lineage, Alexander was already related to Zeus even before this event. His mother’s family claimed to be descended from Olympian gods, and Philip too claimed that he was a descendant of Heracles (or Hercules), the son of Zeus.
The conception of Alexander, with Nectanebus in the form of a dragon, flying over Queen Olympias and King Philip in bed, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, N. or Netherlands, S., 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 A V, f. 6r
Interestingly, Olympias wasn’t the only one who fed Alexander’s belief that he was the son of Zeus. According to Plutarch, Philip also had his own reasons to doubt his paternity. One day, he saw Olympias sleeping in her bed with a snake lying next to her. This encounter disturbed him deeply and made him lose all trust in (as well as attraction to) his wife, whom he suspected of practicing magic and having “commerce with some god.” As a result, he sent one of his men to consult Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, “and was told he should one day lose that eye with which he presumed to peep through that chink of the door, when he saw the god, under the form of a serpent, in the company of his wife...” (section 3.2 of Life of Alexander) Here, it’s important to note that both in ancient and Medieval culture, dragons and serpents were used interchangeably in art, which is why the creature in Philip’s “vision” is represented differently in the paintings that tell this story.
Olympias with snake. Andrea Boscoli, ca. 1560-1608.
Jupiter seducing Olympias, Giulio Romano, 1526-1528.
Naturally, the more powerful Alexander became and the more his empire grew, the more he believed in the stories about his origins. Because of this, he wanted to visit the oracle of Zeus-Ammon at Siwa (between Egypt and Libya) to ask him about his conception and finally get the confirmation he so desperately wanted. And this is what happened: (from “Alexander the Great as a God”)
Upon arriving at the temple, Alexander was met by the priest who greeted him in rather poor Greek, stating “O, paidios” meaning “Oh, son of god.” Some believe he meant to say “O, paidion” or “Oh, my son.” Apparently, Alexander seemed pleased with the mispronunciation. The visit would completely change Alexander, for the priest confirmed what he had already been told: he was the son of Zeus and had been given the rule of the world. Alexander now honestly knew whose blood ran through his veins; he was truly the son of Zeus.
Detail of Alexander the Great mosaic, ca. 100 BC.
In this way, after growing up being told that he was the son of a god and believing that this fact gave him the right to conquer and rule over all the peoples of the world, Alexander the Great finally got the proof he desired of his “divine” greatness. Many other paintings and mosaics from different time periods depict his conception and birth, while referencing this extraordinary theory, showing Olympias in bed with a dragon or a snake, which at times represents Zeus and at other times Nectanobo, the last Egyptian pharaoh. As a result, these paintings aren’t only works of art that illustrate the theories surrounding Alexander’s origins, but they are also historical documents that record what some people believed were his true origins.
A Dragon in the Bedroom, The Conception of Alexander the Great. Artist and date unknown.
There might not be anyone in the 21st century who actually believes that Alexander the Great was the son of a god. However, this doesn't make this fictional aspect of his life any less interesting or relevant to his story. On the contrary, it only adds another layer of mystery to his historic greatness.
Cover image: Olympias and Nectanebus in the form of a half-ram half-dragon (conception of Alexander the Great) Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Histoire (Speculum Historiale), France ca. 1370-1380.