Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE), after becoming king of the Macedonians, but before launching his famous invasion of the Persian Empire, decided to stop by the Oracle at Delphi for a prophecy about his future. Alexander’s visit to Delphi sparked a curious legend, and the odd story was later recorded by the prolific biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120). As the story goes, Alexander had the bad luck of arriving at Delphi on a day when the Oracle was closed due to religious law and customs. The young king, the legend tells, was such an impetuous and headstrong person that, rather than wait a day or two for the Oracle site to resume its operations, Alexander instead barged into the complex and forcefully compelled the priestess to deliver a divine message, despite the religious laws forbidding her from carrying out her duties on that day. On this odd episode, Plutarch wrote:
“[Alexander] visited Delphi because he wished to consult the oracle of Apollo about the expedition against the Persians. It so happened that he arrived on one of those days which are called inauspicious, when it is forbidden for the oracle to deliver a reply. In spite of this he first sent for the prophetess, and when she refused to officiate and explained that the law forbade her to do so, he went up himself and tried to drag her by force to the shrine. At last, as if overcome by his persistence, she exclaimed, ‘You are invincible, my son!’ and when Alexander heard this, he declared that he wanted no other prophecy…” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Alexander, chapter 13).
Such is the scene that Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée re-creates in his painting, featured above. It shows Alexander the Great dragging a priestess, known as a Pythia, towards a statue of Delphi’s patron god, Apollo. The scene likely is set right around the time when the priestess complained that pushy Alexander was invincible, or perhaps incorrigible. Whatever really occurred at Delphi during Alexander’s visit, the king subsequently invaded the Persian Empire with confidence in 334 BCE, beginning his famous series of campaigns that took him from the Middle East to the borderlands of India.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Plutarch’s Life of Alexander in The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. London: Penguin Classics, 1973, 2011.
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.