Proskynesis (Greek προσκύνησις (English pronunciation: /ˈpɹɒskɪniːsɪs/)) refers to the traditional Persian act of bowing or prostrating oneself before a person of higher social rank. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the term proskynesis is used theologically to indicate the veneration given to icons and relics of the saints; as distinguished from latria, the adoration which is due to God alone, and also physical gestures such as bowing or kneeling (genuflection in the Western church) before an altar or icon.
Προσκύνησις from the words πρός pros (towards) and κυνέω kuneo (I kiss), literally meaning "kissing towards") describes an attitude of submission or worship, particularly towards a sovereign ruler, God or the gods.
According to Herodotus in his Histories, a person of equal rank received a kiss on the lips, someone of a slightly lower rank gave a kiss on the cheek, and someone of a very inferior social standing had to completely bow down to the other person before them. To the Greeks, giving proskynesis to a mortal seemed to be a barbarian and ludicrous practice. They reserved such submissions for the gods only.
This may have led some Greeks to believe that the Persians worshipped their king as a god, the only Persian that received proskynesis from everyone, and other misinterpretations caused cultural conflicts. Alexander the Great proposed this practice during his lifetime, in adapting to the Persian cities he conquered, but it failed to find acceptance amongst his Greek companions (an example can be found in the court historian, Callisthenes) - and in the end, he did not insist on the practice.
The emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) is usually thought to have introduced the practice to the Roman Empire, forming a break with the Republican institutions of the principate, which preserved the form, if not the intent, of republican government. However, there is some evidence that an informal form of proskynesis was already practiced at the court of Septimius Severus The political reason for this change was to elevate the role of the emperor from "first citizen" to an otherworldly ruler, remote from his subjects, thus reducing the likelihood of successful revolt, which had plagued the Empire during the preceding 50 years.
Similarly, the emperor was hailed no longer as "Imp(erator)" on coins, which meant "commander in chief" but as "D(ominus) N(oster)" - "Our Lord." With the conversion of Constantine I to Christianity, proskynesis became part of an elaborate ritual, as asserted by historian John Julius Norwich, whereby the emperor became God's vice-regent on earth. Titular inflation also affected the other principal offices of the Empire.
See also 
- Josef Wiesehöfer: "Denn ihr huldigt nicht einem Menschen als eurem Herrscher, sondern nur den Göttern". Bemerkungen zur Proskynese in Iran", in: C.G. Cereti / M. Maggi / E. Provasi (Hgg.), Religious Themes and Texts of Pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia. Studies in Honour of Gh. Gnoli on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday on 6 December 2002, Wiesbaden 2003, S. 447-452.