Greek ruler‐worship is the rendering, as to a god or hero, of honours to individuals widely revered because of their achievements, position, or power.
In the aristocratic society of the Archaic period, as in the Classical polis of the 5th cent., no one could reach a position of such generally acknowledged pre‐eminence as to justify the granting of divine honours: posthumous heroization (see hero‐cult), rather than deification, was the honour for founders of cities. The first case of divine honours occurred in the confused period at the end of the Peloponnesian War, when Lysander, the most powerful man in the Aegean, received divine cult on Samos.
Ruler‐cult in a developed form first appears during the reign of Alexander (2) the Great, and is directly inspired by his conquests, personality, and esp. his absolute and undisputed power. Alexander's attempt to force the Greeks and Macedonians in his entourage to adopt the Persian custom of prostration before the king (proskynesis), which for the Persians did not imply worship, was an isolated and ineffectual experiment. More important is his encounter with the priest of Ammon at Siwa in 331 bc. The priest seemingly addressed Alexander as the son of Ammon, the traditional salutation due to any Pharaoh of Egypt, but the prestige which the oracle of Ammon then enjoyed throughout the Greek world had a decisive effect, not only on the Greeks, but also and esp. on the romantic imagination of the young king himself. It is probably the progressive development of these emotions which caused Alexander in 324, when he ordered the restoration of political exiles, to press the Greek cities to offer him divine cult; some cities certainly responded, though contemporary evidence remains thin. Alexander also secured heroic honours for his dead intimate Hephaestion, as official recognition of his achievements.
The cults of Alexander's successors are found in various different contexts. The principal context was that of the Greek cities dependent on particular kings, both ancient cities and those founded by the king himself. The cities acknowledged benefactions received from a king by the establishment of a cult, with temple or altar, priest, sacrifices, and games, modelled on that granted to the Olympian gods. Rulers were also honoured by having their statues placed in an already existing temple. The king was thought to share the temple with the god, and thus to partake in the honours rendered to the deity and, on occasion, in the deity's qualities.
The other main context was that of the court itself. The Greek monarchies of the east in time created their own official cults. The dynastic cult of the Ptolemies (see Ptolemy (1)) at Alexandria in its developed form by the end of the 3rd cent. bc consisted of priests: of Alexander, of each pair of deceased rulers, and of the reigning king and queen. In 280 Antiochus I deified his dead father Seleucus I and dedicated to him a temple and precinct at Seleuceia Pieria; Antiochus III extended a court cult throughout his newly reconquered Seleucid empire, with high priests of the living king and his divine ancestors in each province of the empire.
Subjects: Classical Studies.