Alexander of Abonoteichus

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Bornc. 105
Diedc. 170
Occupationoracle of Aesculapius
Known forfalse oracle

Alexander of Abonoteichus (Ancient Greek: Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Ἀβωνοτειχίτης Aléxandros ho Abōnoteichítēs), also called Alexander the Paphlagonian (c. 105 – c. 170 CE), was a Greek mystic and oracle, and the founder of the Glycon cult that briefly achieved wide popularity in the Roman world. The contemporary writer Lucian reports that he was an utter fraud – the god Glycon was supposedly made up of a live snake with an artificial head. The vivid narrative of his career given by Lucian might be taken as fictitious but for the corroboration of certain coins of the emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius[1] and of a statue of Alexander, said by Athenagoras to have stood in the forum of Parium.[2][3] There is further evidence from inscriptions.[4]

Lucian describes him as having swindled many people and engaged, through his followers, in various forms of thuggery.[5] The strength of Lucian's venom against Alexander is attributed to Alexander's hate of the Epicureans. Lucian admired the works of Epicurus, a eulogy of which concludes the piece, and whether or not Alexander was the master of fraud and deceit as portrayed by Lucian, he may not have been too different from other oracles of the age, when a great deal of dishonest exploitation occurred in some shrines.[6]


Not much is known about the early life of Alexander. He apparently worked in travelling medicine shows around Greece and might have been a prophet of the goddess Soi or a follower of Apollonius of Tyana. In Lucian, his partner in profession is given as one Cocconas of Byzantium. After a period of instruction in medicine by a doctor who also, according to Lucian, was an impostor, in about 150 CE he established an oracle of Aesculapius at his native town of Abonoteichus (femin.: Ἀβωνότειχος Abōnóteichos; later Ionopolis), on the Euxine, where he gained riches and great prestige by professing to heal the sick and reveal the future.[7][8]

Sometime before 160 CE Alexander formed a cult around the worship of a new snake-god, Glycon, and headquartered it in Abonoteichus. Having circulated a prophecy that the son of Apollo was to be born again, he contrived that there should be found in the foundations of the temple to Aesculapius, then in course of construction at Abonoteichus, an egg in which a small live snake had been placed. In an age of superstition no people had so great a reputation for credulity as the Paphlagonians, and Alexander had little difficulty in convincing them of the second coming of the god under the name of Glycon. A large tame snake with a false human head, wound round Alexander's body as he sat in a shrine in the temple,[9] gave "autophones", or oracles unasked.[2] The numerous questions asked of the oracle were answered by Alexander in metrical predictions. In his most prosperous year he is said to have delivered nearly 80,000 replies, concerning bodily, mental, and social afflictions, for each of which he received a drachma and two oboli.[8]

Bronze coin of Antoninus Pius minted in Abonoteichos and showing the snake god Glycon with the legend “ΓΛVΚΩΝ ΑΒΩΝΟΤΕΙΧΕΙΤΩΝ” (29 mm, 16.89 g)

Healing instructions were commonly combined with oracles, but Alexander did more; he instituted mysteries like those of Eleusis. Through the cult Alexander achieved a certain level of political influence – his daughter married Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus, the governor of the Roman province of Asia. He found believers from Pontus to Rome through pretended arts of soothsaying and magic and was revered and consulted as a prophet by many notable individuals of his age.[10] During the plague of 166 a verse from the oracle was used as an amulet and was inscribed over the doors of houses as a protection and an oracle was sent, at Marcus Aurelius' request, by Alexander to the Roman army on the Danube during the war with the Marcomanni, declaring that victory would follow on the throwing of two lions alive into the river. The result was a great disaster and Alexander had recourse to the old quibble of the Delphic oracle to Croesus for an explanation.[2]

His main opponents were Epicureans and Christians.[11] Lucian's account of Alexander represents the Christians—along with the Epicureans—as the special enemies and as the principal objects of his hate: Epicureans had too little religion or superstition to give in to a religious pretender; and the Christian faith was too deep-rooted to dream of any communion with Alexander.[12]

Lucian's own close investigations into Alexander's methods of fraud led to a serious attempt on his life. The whole account gives a graphic description of the inner working of one among the many new oracles that were springing up at this period. Alexander had remarkable beauty and the striking personality of the successful charlatan, and must have been a man of considerable intellectual abilities and power of organization. His usual methods were those of the numerous oracle-mongers of the time, of which Lucian gives a detailed account: the opening of sealed inquiries by heated needles, a neat plan of forging broken seals, and the giving of vague or meaningless replies to difficult questions, coupled with a lucrative blackmailing of those whose inquiries were compromising.[2]

Alexander died of gangrene of the leg in his seventieth year.[2]

Modern scholarship[edit]

Scholars have described Alexander as an oracle who perpetrated a hoax to deceive gullible citizens,[13][14] or as a false prophet and charlatan who played on the hopes of simple people. He was said to have "made predictions, discovered fugitive slaves, detected thieves and robbers, caused treasures to be dug up, healed the sick, and in some cases actually raised the dead".[15] Sociologist Stephen A. Kent, in a study of the text, compares Lucian's Alexander to the "malignant narcissist" in modern psychiatric theory, and suggests that the "behaviors" described by Lucian "have parallels with several modern cult leaders."[16] Ian Freckelton has noted at least a surface similarity between Alexander and David Berg, the leader of a contemporary religious group, the Children of God.[17]


  1. ^ Joseph Hilarius Eckhel, Doctrma Nummorum veterum, ii. pp. 383, 384
  2. ^ a b c d e  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Alexander the Paphlagonian". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 567. This cites:
    • Lucian, Άλεξάνδρος ἢ ψευδόμαντις
    • Samuel Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (1904)
    • F. Gregorovius, The Emperor Hadrian, trans. by M. E. Robinson (1898).
  3. ^ Athenagoras, Apology, c. 26
  4. ^ See Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, nos 4079-80
  5. ^ "Alexander the False Prophet," translated with annotation by A. M. Harmon, Loeb Classical Library, 1936. [1]
  6. ^ Nuttall Costa, Charles Desmond, Lucian: Selected Dialogues, p. 129, Oxford University Press (2005), 0-199-25867-8
  7. ^ Masson, John, Lucretius, Epicurean and Poet, pp. 339-340, John Murray (1907).
  8. ^ a b Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913
  9. ^ Frankfurther, David, Ritual Expertise in Roman Egypt and the Problem of the Category of Macician, in Schäfer, Peter and Kippenberg, Hans Gerhard, Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, p. 115, BRILL (1997), ISBN 90-04-05432-4
  10. ^ Neander, Johann August W, General history of the Christian religion and Church (1850), p. 41.
  11. ^ Fergurson, Everett, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, p. 218, (2003), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, ISBN 0-8028-2221-5
  12. ^ Rainy, Robert D. D., The Ancient Catholic Church: From the Accession of Trajan to the Fourth General Council, (A.D. 98-451), p. 32, Charles Scribner's Sons (1902).
  13. ^ Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: A Critical Edition, p. 175, Oxford University Press (2000), ISBN 0-19-825060-6
  14. ^ Meyer, Marmin W., The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, p. 43, University of Pennsylvania Press (1999), ISBN 0-8122-1692-X
  15. ^ Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet, ch. 24
  16. ^ Stephen A. Kent. "Narcissistic Fraud in the Ancient World: Lucian's Account of Alexander of Abonoteichus and the Cult of Glycon," Ancient Narrative (University of Groningen), Vol. 6.
  17. ^ Ian Freckelton. "'Cults' Calamities and Psychological Consequences," Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 5(1), pp. 1-46. doi:10.1080/13218719809524918


Further reading[edit]

  • Gillespie, Thomas W. "A Pattern of Prophetic Speech in First Corinthians," Journal of Biblical Literature, 97,1 (1978), 74–95.
  • Jones, C. P. Culture and Society in Lucian (Cambridge, MA, 1986).
  • Ancient Scientific Basis of the" Great Serpent" from Historical Evidence, RB Stothers – Isis, 2004.
  • Martin, Dale B., "Tongues of Angels and Other Status Indicators," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 59,3 (1991), 547–589.
  • Sorensen, E. Possession and Еxorcism in the New Testament and Early Christianity (Tübingen, 2002), 186-189 (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2. Reihe, 157).
  • Elm, D. "Die Inszenierung des Betruges und seiner Entlarvung. Divination und ihre Kritiker in Lukians Schrift „Alexander oder der Lügenprophet“," in D. Elm von der Osten, J. Rüpke und K. Waldner (Hrsg.), Texte als Medium und Reflexion von Religion im römischen Reich (Stuttgart, 2006), 141-157 (Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, 14).

External links[edit]