Alexander the Great's 3 Heroes

A bust of alexander wearing a herculean hat, artist unknown

A bust of alexander wearing a herculean hat, artist unknown

Alexander the Great has long been associated with the mythic heroes of ancient Greece. In many ways, it seems like he was one himself - the only difference being that we have proof Alexander actually lived. 

Of the many heroes of Greek myth, Achilles is the one most commonly paired with Alexander. The ancient Greek historian Arrian wrote that Alexander considered Achilles his rival ever since his youth (Campaigns of Alexander, Book 7) and Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox referred to Alexander as the "new Achilles" in his groundbreaking biography of the conqueror. 

But did Alexander really view Achilles as his greatest rival? Or did other figures of Greek myth loom just as large in his mind? 

In a previous article, I weigh the evidence for Alexander's alleged emulation of Achilles. But in this article, I look at Alexander's overlooked relationships with the greatest Greek hero of all - Heracles (known as "Hercules" in Roman times) - and the mortal-turned-Olympian Dionysus. At the end, I'll try to present a version of Alexander that incorporates all three of these heroes, as well as his preoccupation with the god known as Zeus-Ammon. Let's start with Heracles.


Heracles Strangling the Nemean Lion, Peter Paul Rubens, 1639

Heracles Strangling the Nemean Lion, Peter Paul Rubens, 1639

First off, let's review the basic legend of Heracles: He was the son of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, and a mortal woman. He had extraordinary strength and intelligence, although he was doomed from birth to be subjected to the will of a spiteful king. Homer described him in the Iliad as "mighty, bold, lion-hearted". 

Heracles is probably best known for his 12 Labors - a series of spectacular undertakings - in which he defeated the Nemean lion, the many-headed hydra serpent, and other foes. Upon his death, it was believed he was struck by a lightning bolt thrown by his father Zeus, which sent his soul to Mount Olympus instead of the Underworld. He was one of the few men to be rewarded with immortality. 

By Alexander's time, Heracles was revered as the greatest of all the Greek heroes. He was depicted as a "youthful, unbearded god who wears a lion-skin on his back and has the lion's paws knotted on his chest. He tends to carry a club, not a bow, and to have one arm raised" (Fox, 194). The legends of his exploits placed him at a variety of locations stretching to the eastern and western fringes of the known world. 

The most direct connection Alexander had to Heracles was through his royal lineage. The Argead dynasty of Macedon - which included Philip II, Alexander, and their predecessors back to 700 BCE - traced their line back to Karanos, the great-great-great grandson of Heracles. It was an important belief: Through this connection, the Argead royal family established both its Greek roots and divine pedigree. 

But Alexander also seems to have had a personal association with Heracles. Throughout his life, Alexander was paired with the symbol of a lion, which was also a symbol of Heracles. A story about Alexander's birth, told by Plutarch, says that Philip II had a dream before his son was born in which Olympias' womb was sealed with the image of a lion. It is unclear whether this story became commonly known before, during, or after Alexander's life. 

Alexander was even described in Herculean terms: 

" contemporaries, he (Alexander) was believed to be lion-like in appearance and often in temper, and for a young man of streaming hair and penetrating gaze the comparison was apt, the more so as he had been born under the sign of Leo and was best known from the portraits on his coins, which showed him in the lionskin cap of his ancestor Heracles, a headdress he may have worn in his everyday life" (Fox, 41). 

Here are the other ways Alexander was connected to Heracles, according to the ancient biographies and archaeology: 

  • When Alexander first met with the Thessalonians, he reminded them of their common ancestor Heracles (Diodorus, 17.4.1). 
  • Alexander was associated with Heracles in the art and coinage of his time: "As for his heroic ancestor Heracles, Alexander was shown wearing a helmet made from a lion's head on an otherwise lifelike series of sculptures carved soon after his death...the helmet was a symbol of Heracles, and no doubt Alexander wore it in real life. On coins, Heracles' standard Macedonian portrait had taken on Alexander's features: there were precedents for this, not least in the gold coin-portraits of Apollo issued by Philip but unmistakably influenced by Alexander's features; coins also showed Alexander in his lifetime wearing Ammon's rams'-horns, and this was a theme all his own" (Fox, 443).
A portion of the Alexander Sarcophagus (late 4th century BCE) shows Alexander wearing a lion head helmet at the Battle of Issus.

A portion of the Alexander Sarcophagus (late 4th century BCE) shows Alexander wearing a lion head helmet at the Battle of Issus.

  • Alexander's claims of invincibility harken back to Heracles: "No man, and only one hero, had been called invincible before him, and then only by a poet, but the hero was Heracles, ancestor of the Macedonian kings...When Alexander began to stress this powerful link with Victory (Greek goddess) and the hero Heracles, whose assistance he constantly recognized, a new concept was born for divine kingship" (Fox, 71-72). 
  • Alexander may have named an illegitimate son of his "Heracles", although the identity of Heracles of Macedon has been disputed
  • Alexander made sacrifices to Heracles during his military campaigns, including after he crossed the Danube River and Hellespont, and when he reached the Indian Ocean (Arrian). He also sacrificed to him after the victory at the Battle of Issus (Curtius, 3.12.27). 
  • Before battle, he told his troops that they "would one day traverse the bounds of set by Hercules (Heracles) and Father Liber (Dionysus) to subdue not only the Persians but all the races of the earth" (Curtius, 3.10.5).
  • Before assaulting Tyre, Alexander had a dream that Heracles welcomed him into the city (Arrian); after, he pardoned the Tyrians who took refuge in the Temple of Heracles. He also "offered sacrifice to Heracles and held a ceremonial parade of his troops in full battle equipment; the fleet also took part in the review in the god's honour, and there were athletic contests in the Temple enclosure and a torch-race" (Arrian, 143). Alexander also dedicated the siege machine that breached the Tyrian wall and a sacred Tyrian ship to Heracles. Later, after conquering Egypt, Alexander returned to Tyre and again held religious celebrations and athletic contests in his honor (Arrian, 155). 
  • Alexander's motivation to visit the Temple of Ammon in Libya was partially attributed to his connection to Heracles. Arrian writes that "Alexander longed to equal the fame of Perseus and Heracles; the blood of both flowed in his veins, and just as legend traced their descent from Zeus, so he, too, had a feeling that in some way he was descended from Ammon" (Arrian, 151). 
  • Some of Alexander's flatterers publicly compared him to Heracles, which bred resentment among other followers (Arrian, 214). Anaxarchus allegedly suggested that Macedonians were better off granting divine honors to Alexander than to Dionysus or Heracles, as only Alexander was from Macedon. Callisthenes responded by reminding Anaxarchus and others than not even Heracles was worshipped while he was still alive (Arrian, 219-221). 
  • According to Curtius, the local rulers in India greeted Alexander as "the third son of Jupiter to have reached them". Although Dionysus and Heracles had come in the distant past, Alexander "had come in person and was before their eyes" (8.10.1). 
  • Alexander captured the Rock of Aornos in India, which had allegedly thwarted the great Heracles. Arrian believes this factored into Alexander's motivation to siege the Rock, although there was also a practical element to the operation. 
    • Arrian's explanation: "Personally, of course, I should not like to state categorically that the Theban, or the Tyrian, or the Egyptian Heracles did, in fact, go to India. I incline to fancy that he did not; for it seems to me that people like to make difficulties look much more difficult than they really are, and to this end start a legend about Heracles' failure to overcome them. That, at any rate, in my opinion about this rock: the name of Heracles was introduced simply to make the story more impressive". Clearly, even Arrian was suspicious about the origins of this myth. However, he did believe that Alexander bought into it: "The description of this remarkable place awakened in Alexander a passionate desire to capture it, and the story about Heracles was not the least of his incentives" (Arrian, 249).  
  • Alexander and his troops are said to have believed Heracles visited India after finding cattle that had been branded with the image of a club; they also thought they had discovered the cave of Prometheus, where Heracles was believed to have visited (Arrian, 258-259). Arrian acknowledges that the traveling Greeks seemed to have made mistakes about the placement of various mythical landmarks and taken liberties in interpreting these legends. 

  • At the Hyphasis River, where Alexander's troops refused to march any farther east, Alexander allegedly invoked the example of Heracles, saying, "Are you not aware that if Heracles, my ancestor, had gone no further than Tiryns or Argos - or even than the Peloponnese or Thebes - he could never had won the glory which changed him from a man into a god, actual or apparent? Even Dionysus, who is a god indeed, in a sense beyond what is applicable to Heracles, faced not a few laborious tasks; yet we have done more: we have passed beyond Nysa and we have taken the rock of Aornos which Heracles himself could not take" (Arrian, 294). 
    • In Curtius, Alexander also compares himself to Dionysus and Heracles at multiple inflection points of their campaign: after defeating the army of Porus in India (9.2.29) and at the Hyphasis River (9.4.21). 

  • There was a story about Alexander encountering the legendary tribe of Amazon women, whom Heracles had also met. Arrian mentions that this was not included in the account of any "reliable" biographer. 

  • It is well attested that Alexander believed, or at least claimed, that he was a son of Zeus-Ammon. Zeus-Ammon was an Egyptian/Libyan version of Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods and father of Heracles. This would have made Alexander a half-brother of Heracles.

  • Alexander's future plans, which he died too early to pursue, may have included heading west from Asia toward the Pillars of Heracles (Curtius, 10.1.17). 

  • In one account of Alexander's final days, he first became ill while drinking wine in honor of Heracles' death (Diodorus, 17.17.1). 


Bronze head of Dionysus, British Museum, 50 BCE - 50 AD

Bronze head of Dionysus, British Museum, 50 BCE - 50 AD

Who was Dionysus? A mortal hero, an Olympian god, or both? 

According to Greek myth, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. As an infant, he was killed by the Titans but reincarnated by his immortal father. Dionysus was sent to a foreign land called Nysa, believed to have been either far south or east of Greece, in order to escape the wrath of Zeus' jealous wife Hera. In his youth he learned to make wine from grapes and later travelled across the known world teaching these skills. For this reason, he was often depicted as a foreigner in ancient Greek myth and art. 

Upon his death, Dionysus joined the Twelve Olympians on Mount Olympus, becoming the only major god to have been born to a mortal mother. He was worshipped as the god of wine, religious ecstasy, and rebirth. For these reasons, many festivals were held in his honor. Personality-wise, Dionysus was a god of the extremes. He could be both generous and kind, but also vengeful and cruel. This contradiction stemmed from his association with alcohol. 

It appears that the cult of Dionysus was more prominent, or at least slightly different, in classical Macedon than elsewhere in Greece. Some historians believe that the Dionysus of Macedon religon was heavily influenced by the indigenous religious beliefs of the peoples of northern Greece. For that reason, their Dionysus may have been much different than the Dionysus of the Athenians and other peoples to the south. Here is a passage from the Encyclopedia Mythica:

He (Dionysus) is hardly mentioned at all in the Homeric epics, and when he is it is with some hostility. A number of his stories are tales of how Dionysus moved into a city, was resisted, and then destroyed those who opposed him. The most famous account of this is that of Euripides in his play the Bacchae. He wrote this play while in the court of King Archelaus of Macedon, and nowhere do we see Dionysus more destructive and his worship more dangerous than in this play. Scholars have speculated not unreasonably that in Macedon Euripides discovered a more extreme form of the religion of Dionysus being practiced than the more civil, quiet forms in Athens. 

Through his mother Olympias, Alexander may have also had a personal connection to Dionysus. She was an initiate to the cult of Dionysus, which involved secretive "orgiastic" rituals. Intoxication, snake-handling, and animal sacrifices were often part of these practices.

According to Plutarch, Olympias was a devoted member of this cult and even kept serpents in her private quarters. Philip allegedly saw Olympias lying in bed with one of these snakes once, which terrified him. (Note: some, possibly even Alexander himself, came to believe that the serpent who slept with Olympias was not a Dionysian symbol, but rather a manifestation of the hybrid god Zeus-Ammon). 

To signify the significance of Dionysus, Philip II had symbols of the god added to his coins, which primarily featured the image of Heracles - the ancestor of the royal family of Macedon. Dionysus was also featured prominently on a pebble mosaics in a palace in Pella, the capital of Macedon.

Dionysus riding a cheetah in a mosaic from Pella, Macedon, 4th century BCE

Dionysus riding a cheetah in a mosaic from Pella, Macedon, 4th century BCE

Clearly, Alexander was familiar with the hero-god Dionysus from an early age. Here are the ways he was connected to Dionysus later in life:

  • The Greek playwright Euripides probably composed the Bacchae, the most famous depiction of Dionysus, while in Macedon. A young Alexander would have likely known this play, possibly in great detail: "Alexander could quote Euripides' plays by heart and would send for his plays..." (Fox, 48). 
  • Alexander began wearing a diadem, a kind of crown or headband denoting royalty, during his campaign in Asia. It is unclear whether this part of his royal dress was meant to invoke a comparison to the god Dionysus. Some historians believe Alexander intended to mimic the god, while others suggest that this was merely his way of trying to mix elements of both Median and Greek clothing. Here are a couple of their arguments:
    • Robin Lane Fox: "Both in art and literature, parallels were to be drawn between Alexander and Dionysus, but though there were decided similarities between his triumphal procession on leaving Makran and the epiphany, or manifestation of Dionysus and other gods, this is a theme which only arose after Alexander's death, especially when the Ptolemies began to derive their descent through Philip from Dionysus himself. By wearing Oriental dress, Alexander had unintentionally assumed certain features of Dionysus' appearance, but the connection was incidental, and though Alexander might rival Dionysus, particularly in India, he never tried to represent the god directly" (443).   
    • EA Fredricksmeyer: "...the tradition of the god’s Eastern conquests must have been well established by the mid-century in Macedonia, where the Homeric martial ethos was still strong and the god immensely popular. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that Dionysus served Alexander and his men as their heroic model for conquest of the East (the only heroic paradeigma then available to them), not just in India, where they believed they had found actual traces of the god’s campaigns, but from the very beginning...If it is correct that Alexander indeed considered Dionysus his heroic-divine predecessor in his own conquest of the East and that the badge of Dionysus already then was thought to symbolize the god’s conquest of the East, it becomes likely, in light of the importance of Dionysus both for the Macedonian kings and their people, and in light of Ptolemy’s coin portrait of Alexander with the Dionysus badge, that at Arbela Alexander assumed this emblem as the insignia of his own conquest, and his kingship, of Asia...By this badge Alexander not only showed his emulation of the hero-god in his conquest of the East, but also suggested that his new kingship was neither entirely Macedonian nor Persian, but a creation uniquely his own, which rested on the authority of his conquests and the sanction of his Graeco-Macedonian gods" (105-107). 
    • In his article "The Royal Costume and Insignia of Alexander the Great" historian AW Collins writes that we cannot assume Alexander knew of a connection between the diadem and Dionysus

  • Alexander blamed the wrath of Dionysus for the madness that came over him when he killed his friend and commander Cleitus the Black.
  • In India, Alexander and his army came to a town called Nysa (or something similar), which they associated with the Nysa found in the myth of Dionysus. There, Alexander held a celebratory festival honoring the god in which many of his commanders drank themselves into a "Bacchic frenzy". Alexander was reportedly pleased to have travelled so far and to have the chance to go farther than the god. Arrian questions the connection they made between this Indian town and Dionysus (5.1) and Robin Lane Fox suggests that Alexander and his followers relied on purely circumstantial evidence for this claim. As far as anyone can tell, Dionysus was never believed to have visited India before this encounter by Alexander's army. 
  • Alexander referenced Dionysus' achievements in his speeches to his army (see Heracles list above).
  • Arrian mentions a story, which he himself admits is probably false, of Alexander imitating the indulgent behavior of Dionysus while crossing through Asia (342). Curtius also mentions this (9.10.24). 
    • According to Robin Lane Fox, "Alexander's rivalry with Dionysus was no idle legend, but a fact which the customs of Hindu India had helped to confirm. His was the only Greek precedent for an Indian triumph and as ancestor of the Macedonian kings and god of the victory which Alexander stressed throughout his career, it was natural to turn to his example for this extraordinary procession" (400). 
    • Curtius, while remarking about Alexander's lack of moderation, also mentions Alexander's emulation of Dionysus, writing: "Had he been able to maintain this degree of moderation to the end of his life, I would certainly consider him to have enjoyed more good fortune than appeared to be his when he was emulating Father Liber's (Dionysus) triumph on his victorious march through all the nations from the Hellespont right to the Ocean" (3.12.18).
  • Some of Alexander's flatterers held him in higher esteem than Heracles, Dionysus, and other heroes. This was a cause of conflict among Alexander's court (8.5.8). 

  • When Alexander's troops showed resistance to his ambitious plans, he chastised them for getting in his way of achieving "undying fame" by surpassing even Heracles and Dionysus (9.4.21).  

  • Alexander's desire to conquer Arabia may have been informed by their people's alleged worship of Zeus and Dionysus:
    • "Alexander accordingly felt it would not be beyond his merits to be regarded by the Arabs as a third god, in view of the fact that his achievements surpassed those of Dionysus" (Arrian, 382). 
  • After his death, Alexander was featured on coins with certain features associated with Dionysus (see below). 

A coin minted after 301 BCE which appears to show Alexander with features associated with Dionysus, such as a panther-skin helmet and the horns and ears of a bull.  

A coin minted after 301 BCE which appears to show Alexander with features associated with Dionysus, such as a panther-skin helmet and the horns and ears of a bull.  

Another coin, minted by Ptolemy (Alexander's companion) in the late 4th century BCE shows Alexander in the style of Dionysus. 

Another coin, minted by Ptolemy (Alexander's companion) in the late 4th century BCE shows Alexander in the style of Dionysus. 

What do these connections mean? Did Alexander see himself as a successor to the great Dionysus, who had also wandered through Asia and conquered eastern peoples?

In some ways, maybe. But, according to French historian Claude Mosse, Alexander's primary feelings for Dionysus were motivated by fear: “Far from seeing himself as a new Dionysus, Alexander seems to have feared the vengeance of the son of the Theban Semele" (Alexander: Destiny and Myth). Alexander's blaming of his murder on Cleitus on a Dionysian curse is evidence to support Mosse' view.  

The 3 Heroes

Now we must connect these 3 heroes - Achilles, Heracles, and Dionysus - in Alexander's life. How did they fit together in his worldview? (Note: I go into more detail on Alexander's connection to Achilles in this previous blog post.)

For some historians, such as Robin Lane Fox and Andrew Stewart, Achilles took clear precedence in Alexander's own identity. 

"While Heracles and Dionysos certainly spurred Alexander's ambition and shed luster on his achievements, there is no evidence that he consistently felt himself to be a reincarnation of either of them. The opposite is true of Achilles" (Stewart, 80).  

The problem for supporters of this Achilles-centric view of Alexander's persona is quite simply the evidence, or lack thereof. Just as much contemporary evidence exists (if not more) styling Alexander as the next Heracles or Dionysus as it does the next Achilles.

Although a case can be made that Alexander modeled himself off the myth of Achilles from his beloved Iliad, it hinged on a good deal of speculative and circumstantial evidence. For instance, Stewart writes that Alexander's motivation bore a striking resemblance to that of Achilles:

"The very Achillean pothos (longing) for arete (excellence) drove Alexander to cross the Danube, to severe the Gordian knot, to found Alexandria, to consult Ammon at Siwah in emulation of his ancestors Perseus and Herakles, and to initiate the exploration of the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Caspian Sea. It even drove him to surpass the gods themselves: to take the Rock of Aornos where Herakles had failed, and to advance into India beyond Dionysos' birthplace at Nysa" (86).   

Yet this resemblance, if true, is hardly reason to suggest that Alexander elevated Achilles above the other chief heroes and gods in his life. These values of excellence were displayed by many other figures of mythology, even if Achilles was in many ways their prototype. 

I believe the most that can be said of Alexander's connection to Achilles is that he was part of the elite group of mythical men whom Alexander compared himself to. And even though his admiration for these figures was authentic, he publicly expressed it in a way that benefited him as a king and leader. For this reason, the myth of Achilles was most useful to Alexander in the early stages of his campaign, when he visited Troy and began his own version of the Trojan War - Greece vs. Persia.

Since Achilles never made it past Troy, Achilles became a less useful symbol as his campaign took his army farther from Greece. In Africa and the East, the myths of the far-ranging Heracles and Dionysus became more relevant, both in the minds of Alexander and his soldiers. It is no surprise, then, that he invoked their stories more often. 

However, it can also be said that Achilles may have represented something unique to Alexander. For one, he seemed to be a staple character of his childhood. Achilles also had a close relationship with a male peer, Patroclus, which Alexander may have compared to his relationship with Hephaestion. Hephaestion was the most important person in Alexander's life, so this connection can't be ignored. Even when Achilles had long been overshadowed by Heracles, Dionysus, and Zeus-Ammon in Alexander's campaign, the king still returned to the example of Achilles after Patroclus' death.  

Another way in which Achilles stands out from Heracles and Dionysus is through his humanity. Achilles was half-god - his mother, Thetis, was a sea goddess. In ancient Greek myth, being born to a human and god (or goddess) often gave one special abilities and attributes, but it did not give one the ultimate prize - eternal life.  Even Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan War, was killed and sent to wander in the underworld. 

But there were a couple of exceptions to this "rule" of mortality - Heracles and Dionysus. Both received the extremely rare honor of being deified after their deaths, which allowed them to join the ranks of the gods. Of the four most prominent figures of Alexander's worldview (the 3 heroes and Zeus-Ammon), only one - Achilles - suffered a wholly human fate.

Achilles' humanity made him an easier figure for a young Alexander to relate to, especially if he could not yet imagine equaling the feats of Heracles and Dionysus. But after visiting the Oracle of Ammon and defeating the Great King Darius, Alexander grew far more comfortable comparing himself to the gods. The more he accomplished, and the bigger his ego grew, the more he was drawn to the immortal Heracles and Dionysus.

Achilles also had a weaker connection to Zeus than the other two, who were both sons of the king of the gods. Although Achilles was believed to be descended from Zeus, he was removed by at least one generation. Alexander eventually came to believe - or to at least claim - that he was also a son of Zeus. 

Then there are the biographical similarities between Alexander and Achilles. They were both princes, had the world's finest tutors, waged war with an eastern civilization, had a single defining same-sex friendship, and died young, among other commonalities. But many of these things would have only been obvious in retrospect, which helps explain the Alexander-as-Achilles motif that arose in later centuries. Alexander may not have seen himself in Achilles any more than he did in Heracles and Dionysus. 

So where does that leave us? It certainly leaves us without a simple explanation of Alexander's psyche. He was neither a new Achilles nor a new Heracles or Dionysus. He drew inspiration from all three, but he sought to outdo them, not to mimic them. To the extent he represented himself as a successor to any of them, he did so in a political context. 

Sure, one can point to any single line in Arrian or Plutarch or an artifact to make the case that Alexander modeled himself on one hero or another. But the whole of his life suggests that his greatest similarity to them was in wishing to establish his own immortal legacy - one that was uniquely his. 

To understand who Alexander believed himself to be and how this influenced the legacy he wished to leave, it is his trip to Siwah - not his visit to Troy or siege of the Rock of Aornos -  that was pivotal. This mysterious episode of his life had a significant and lasting impact on his persona. It is the start of a strand of his biography that connected him directly to the gods. It also raises questions about his birth and the supernatural rumors which Olympias may have spread. 

For more on Alexander's encounter with the Oracle at Siwah, see last week's blog post: The Secrets of Zeus-Ammon


  • Arrian, Campaigns of Alexander
  • Plutarch, Life of Alexander
  • Curtius, History of Alexander
  • Robin Lane Fox, Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer
  • Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great
  • AW Collins, The Royal Costume and Insignia of Alexander the Great
  • Claude Mosse, Alexander: Destiny and Myth
  • Andrew Stewart, Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics
  • EA Fredricksmeyer, The Origins of Alexander's Royal Insignia