(Alexander the Great founding Alexandria, Egypt, by Placido Costanzi (Italian, 1702-1759), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Rulers have claimed political authority from divine lineage throughout the history of many cultures from all over the world. Alexander the Great (c. 356- 323 BCE) was no exception—his family claimed some of the greatest figures in Greek mythology as their ancestors.
The marriage between King Philip II of Macedon and Olympias from Epirus merged two families with formidable mythological ties. On his mother’s side of the family, Alexander the Great claimed Achilles as his ancestor. From Achilles, Alexander could argue that he was also related to Thetis (Achilles’ mother), an important sea-nymph who was well respected by Zeus, the leader of the Greek gods.
Alexander’s father, Phillip II, had an even more impressive ancestral claim. From his father’s side of the family, Alexander could claim he was descended from Heracles (also spelled Hercules). Through Heracles’ parentage, Alexander was able to claim he was related to almighty Zeus.
If being related to Achilles, Heracles, Zeus and Thetis was not enough, Alexander’s mother, Olympias, also believed that Alexander was not fathered by Phillip II, but by a god disguised as the Macedonian king. Alexander took his mother’s belief seriously and as his accomplishments began to accumulate without precedent, he began to publicly hint that he was a son of Zeus. Around 326 BCE, the year he defeated King Porus of India, Alexander had coins (or medallions) minted that depicted himself wielding lightning.
(Victory coin minted by Alexander the Great, c. 326 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Alexander the Great: The Story Of An Ancient Life, by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.