BMCR 2022.05.08

Lucian: Alexander or the false prophet

, Lucian: Alexander or the false prophet. Clarendon ancient history series. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 256. ISBN 9780198868248 £90.00.

There is no doubt that Lucian’s pamphlet on the religious entrepreneur Alexander of Abonouteichos belongs to the most entertaining writings of antiquity. At the same time, it is a precious witness to the religious atmosphere of the later second century AD, that is, the same period in which we find the major Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (John, Andrew, Paul and Peter). It would perhaps have paid off for Thonemann to compare them more closely, as they portray more or less contemporaneous religious entrepreneurs, partially working in the same area as Alexander.

Thonemann starts with a substantial introduction, in which he first sets out our meagre knowledge about Lucian’s life (ca. 120-180s), career and works, which he conveniently lists in the second Appendix. The Alexander dates to the later part of Lucian’s career. It shows similarities with Oenomaos’ Exposure of Sorcerers, which Thonemann translates and selectively comments upon in the first Appendix—an added bonus of this book. The Alexander is addressed to Celsus, who Thonemann convincingly identifies as the Celsus of Origen’s True Doctrine (8, 62-64). Its nods to Epicureanism are explained by Thonemann from the long-standing Epicurean tradition of polemic against rival philosophers (9, 12), but it might be more appropriate to note that Epicurean philosophy, atheism lite, was rather popular among the Greek elites, and its followers could advertise their ideas in public inscriptions, such as the famous one of Diogenes of Oenoanda.[1] The somewhat loose structure of the work is clearly set out (10-11). Thonemann repeatedly, and, rightly, warns against confusing the ‘Lucian’ of the pamphlet. with the historical Lucian (12). However, any attempt to reach the historical reality of Alexander and his cult is fraught with problems, and the issues have to be looked at one at a time, as there is no easy key to unlock the historical reality. Although sceptical, Thonemann is not a minimalist and his judgement seems to me nearly always right or, at least, defensible.

Thonemann proceeds carefully and, following and updating Louis Robert’s groundbreaking study,[2] reviews the evidence for Alexander’s god Glykon. He concludes convincingly that Glykon was of regional, not empire-wide, significance (15-21). Glykon’s oracular procedures can be neatly paralleled with what we know of other contemporaneous oracles (21-25), just as the mention of Perseus connects Alexander with the Achaemenid Persian kings or Mithradatic kings of Pontos (27-28). Against recent interpretations of Alexander as a religious entrepreneur, Thonemann stresses the civic place and impact of the cult he devised, and notes the importance of recognising the fact that the elites used oracles for a kompetitiver Selbstdarstellung,[3] which should not be confused with piety of the community as such.[4] In the end, as Thonemann argues, it makes more sense to see Alexander as a member of such a local elite than as the religious charlatan pictured by Lucian (28-34). There is certainly truth in this, but Thonemann perhaps lets the pendulum swing too far the other way. Isn’t Alexander an extremely successful entrepreneur, whereas others, such as Paul, Apollonius of Tyana, or Peregrinus, failed to reach his success, because they did not come with a message that perfectly fitted the times and the place?

After the introduction, there is no Greek text, as is the rule in the Clarendon Ancient History Series, but a fluent translation (37-60), mainly based on the OCT text of Macleod, followed by a commentary, which aims at demonstrating the work’s relevance to the ‘cultural, social, or religious historian of the Greco-Roman world’ (Preface). In this, Thonemann is really successful; his commentary is a pleasure and instructive to read because of his full command of the epigraphical and numismatic sources combined with a judicious judgement.

Naturally, with such a rich text, one sometimes misses parallels or can differ in opinion. I will give a few examples, which are in no way meant to detract from the value of Thonemann’s work. Let us start with the name Celsus, the addressee of the pamphlet (1). Thonemann convincingly identifies him, as we have seen, with Origen’s Celsus, but he could have gone further. This Celsus probably worked in Alexandria.[5] As Lucian also worked in Alexandria late in his life (1), this location supports Thonemann’s suggestion that the Alexander ‘probably falls relatively late in Lucian’s writing career’ (pp. 3, 68, 131). As the Peregrinus is ‘the closest analogy’ to the Alexander (5), one may even wonder if that was not written in Alexandria too, as the name of its addressee, Kronios, is typically Egyptian (191 x in Trismegistos Names, with thanks to Jitse Dijkstra), and names with Kronos are virtually absent from the Greek world.[6]

Another example would be Alexander’s baldness (3), which was not only a sign of ‘ridicule, failure, and poverty’ (p. 71), but also a feature that was considered ugly in antiquity: no Foucaults there![7] Regarding Alexander’s long mane of hair (3), Thonemann points to the Pythagoreans,[8] but given Alexander’s playing the role of Apollo (14, with Thonemann ad loc), one could also think of the god’s frequent epithet ἀκερσεκόμης (see also, pp. 117-18). The listing of the magical skills of the unknown sorcerer (5) is an interesting glimpse of the claims apparently made by contemporaneous magicians. Rather rare in this enumeration is the finding of treasure, which became much more popular in later times.[9] This claim recurs later, in Alexander’s claims for his oracle’s services (24), where he also claims to be able to raise the dead—plausibly another example of Lucian’s knowledge of Christian literature.[10]

The discovery of bronze tablets (10) was more widespread than Thonemann suggests. The oldest example of the motif is found in the Gilgamesh epic, but it already occurs in the case of Akousilaos and has remained a popular motif through the ages.[11] Thonemann appropriately compares the noted presence of women as spectators of Alexander’s discovery of the goose egg with Glykon (13) to Chariton’s description of women crowding at Miletos’ harbour to witness an epiphany of Aphrodite (3.2.17). One could add Martyrium Pionii 3, where women are singled out, in addition to Greeks and Jews, as spectators of Pionius’ trial.

Regarding Alexander’s shaking of his golden locks and uttering of incomprehensible words (13), Thonemann (p. 92) compares these with the head tossing and speaking in tongues of Christian prophets as described by Celsus (Origen, CC7.9). Now Lucian himself compares Alexander’s behaviour to that of a mendicant of the Mother,[12] but he details the sounds as vaguely sounding Hebrew or Phoenician, which suggests Celsus’ description of the prophecies in Phoenicia and Palestine—an indication, as Thonemann plausibly argues (pp. 92-93), that Lucian had actually read Celsus’ polemic against the Christians (for another convincing example, see p. 157 on 60). Taken as a whole, though, the parallel is perhaps less striking than Thonemann suggests, as there is no mention of prophecies by Lucian at this point.

For the Mysteries (38-40), Thonemann follows recent comparisons with the Eleusinian Mysteries, but persuasively identifies the name of Alexander’s mother, Dadis, instead of Macleod’s Δᾳδὶς, ‘Torch-festival’ (39: p. 121). Although Thonemann notes the rise of mystery-like rites in the second century, he should have referred to the excellent study of Echkardt and Lepke, who have shown that the ‘mysterisation’ was used by local elites to enhance their own prestige and to also communicate with the emperors, whose worship they incorporated into their rituals.[13] The presence of the wife of a Roman procurator Augusti, Rutilia, suggests that Alexander’s Mysteries also were an elite event, although we do not hear of any connections with the Emperor himself.

When speaking of the boast of many women that they had a child by Alexander (42), Thonemann naturally discusses Louis Robert’s argument that Lucian’s notice is supported by an inscription of a priest of Apollo Soter at Lydian Kaisareia Troketta named ‘Meiletos, son of Glykon, the Paphlagonian’ or ‘Meiletos, son of Paphlagonian Glykon’ (Μειλήτου τοῦ Γλύκωνος Παφλαγόνος: SGO I 04/01/01),[14] Thonemann rejects Robert’s suggestion on the grounds that Meiletos’ year of birth would be too early for the cult of Glykon. Robert Parker, in a much more detailed discussion, leaves the matter open.[15] Yet what other evidence do we have for such semi-divine sonship at the time, and would the man, with such an illustrious origin, not have a more prominent position in society?  Finally, regarding Alexander’s death and his putrefied leg with maggots (59), Thonemann refers to the well-known article of Thomas Africa, but he could have added the recent study by Candida Moss.[16]

The book is nicely printed and virtually without typos (p. 85, line 4 [2 x also]; 107 [and passim]: van Nuffelen > Van Nuffelen). It is highly recommended.


[1] P. Scholz, ‘Gute und in jeder Hinsicht vortreffliche Männer. Überlegungen zur Funktion und Bedeutung der paideia für die städtischen Führungsschichten im kaiserzeitlichen Kleinasien’, in W. Eck and M. Heil (eds), Prosopographie des Römischen Kaiserreichs: Ertrag und Perspektiven (Berlin and Boston, 2017) 155-85 at 170-73; for the inscription see, most recently, J. Hammerstaedt et al. (eds), Diogenes of Oinoanda: Epicureanism and Philosophical Debates (Leuven, 2017); P. Gordon, ‘Diogenes of Oenoanda’, in Ph. Mitsis (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism (Oxford, 2020) 531-48.

[2] L. Robert, A travers l’Asie Mineure (Paris, 1980) 393-421.

[3] Add to Thonemann: K. Zimmerman, ‘“Small Gods”? Transformationen griechischer Religiosität im Spiegel kaiserzeitlicher Orakelpraxis‘, in M. Blömer and B. Eckhardt, Transformationen paganer Religion in der römischen Kaiserzeit (Berlin, 2018) 199-214 (quote at p. 210).
[4] Cf. A. Chaniotis, ‘Negotiating Religion in the Cities of the Eastern Roman Empire’, Kernos 16 (2003) 177-90, whose conclusions fit those of Zimmerman (previous note).
[5] Cf. B. Puech, ‘Celsus (Aulus Cornelius)’, in R. Goulet (ed.), Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, vol. 2 (Paris, 1994) 257-59. An additional argument may be his knowledge of an Alexandrian Jewish writing, cf. M. Niehoff, ‘A Jewish Critique of Christianity from Second-Century Alexandria: Revisiting the Jew Mentioned in Contra Celsum’, JECS 21 (2013) 151-75.

[6] R. Parker, ‘Theophoric Names and Greek Religion’, in S. Hornblower and E. Matthews (eds), Greek Personal Names (Oxford, 2000) 53-79 at 58.

[7] Persius 1.56; Petronius, Sat. 108.1; Plutarch, M. 607a; Suetonius, Dom. 18.2; Apuleius, Apol. 59.6 with Hunink ad loc. and Met. 5.9; Philogelos 56.

[8] See also Thonemann on 4; for Lucian’s Alexander and Pythagoras, add the very full bibliography in C. Macris, ‘Pythagore de Samos’, in R. Goulet (ed.), Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques VII (Paris, 2018) 681-850, 1025-1174 at 1143.

[9] Add to Thonemann: Socrates and Dionysius, Lith. 50.1, p. 176 Halleux-Schamp on the ‘mole stone’ which is pneumatic (empnous), looks like the animal itself, and is useful for finding treasure; Apuleius, Ap. 42 (both with thanks to Richard Gordon); V. Tedesco, ‘Treasure Hunt—Roman Inquisition and Magical Practices Ad Inveniendos Thesauros in Southern Tuscany’, Religions 10 (2019), accessible on the author’s page (accessed 29 December 2021).

[10] Cf. J.N. Bremmer, ‘Ghosts, Resurrections and Empty Tombs in the Gospels, the Greek Novel and the Second Sophistic’, in J. Verheyden and J. Kloppenborg (eds), The Gospels and Their Stories in Anthropological Perspectives (Tübingen, 2018) 233-52.

[11] Cf. R.L. Fowler, Early Greek Mythography 2 (Oxford, 2013) 624-25; J. Herman and F. Hallyn (eds), Le topos du manuscrit trouvé (Leuven, 1999).

[12] For the head tossing, begging and music of the followers of the Mother, see now J.N. Bremmer, ‘Kubaba, Kybele and Mater Magna: the long march of two Anatolian goddesses to Rome’, in M. Kerschner (ed.), The Cult of Meter / Kybele in Western Anatolia (Vienna, 2020) 13-32. Thonemann translates ‘the Great Mother’, but the Greek has only ‘the Mother’.

[13] B. Eckhardt and A. Lepke, ‘Mystai und Mysteria im kaiserzeitlichen Westkleinasien’, in Blömer and Eckhardt, Transformationen paganer Religion, 39-79.

[14] Robert, A travers l’Asie Mineure, 480-85.

[15] R. Parker, ‘Θεῶν Φίλτρα: Sexual Union between Gods and Mortals’, in E. Pachoumi (ed.), Conceptualising Divine Unions in the Greek and Near Eastern Worlds (Leiden, 2022) 148-67 at 157-60.

[16] Thomas Africa, ‘Worms and the Death of Kings’, CA 1 (1982) 1-7; C.R. Moss, ‘A Note on the Death of Judas in Papias’, New Test. Stud. 65 (2019) 388-97 at 389-92.