| More

Proskynēsis: From a Persian Court Protocol to a Greek Religious Practice

Views: 2180 Downloads: 975
Takuji Abe
Takuji Abe


Greek ambassadors who were granted an audience before the Persian King were required to observe a certain form of court ritual. Although the Persian proper name for this ritual has since been lost to us, the Greeks called this act of homage proskynēsis; a term normally understood to refer to the act of “falling down” and prostrating oneself before the king. At the same time, the Greeks employed a gesture also called proskynēsis, which was performed when addressing a divine entity. These two acts, while different in their functions, shared the same name on the basis that their outward appearances bore a co- incidental likeness to each other. Greek ambassadors, who would have come to Susa for the purpose of petitioning assistance from the Great King, were rigorously hesitant to follow the Persian practice, arguing that the religious practice of proskynēsiswas reserved exclusively for the divine among them. In this paper, I endeavour to elucidate the true nature of this Persian court pro- tocol, and to show why the Greeks were so unwilling to perform this ceremo- nial act. I conclude that the normal posture of the Persian proskynēsis was most represented by that of a bow with a hand raised up to the mouth, the depth of the bow being dependent on the ethnicity of those performing it and their relative status. In contrast to the Greek version, this Persian proskynēsiswas a rather secular practice, serving to authenticate social hierarchy between su- periors and inferiors. Even though some of the Greek ambassadors must have been aware of this, or perhaps as a direct result of this understanding, they remained loath to accept the insult that offering proskynēsiswould cause to the belief of their perceived freedom from Persian subjugation. 


proskynēsis; Court Protocol; Prayer; Persian King; Greek ambassadors

Full Text:



Allen, L.K. 2005. “Le roi imaginaire: An Audience with the Achaemenid King”, in O. Hekster, R. Fowler (eds.), Imaginary Kings: Royal Images in the Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome (Oriens et Occidens 11). Stuttgart, 39-62.

Álvarez-Mon, J. 2010. “Platform Bearers from Kūl-e Farah III and VI”, Iran 48, 27-41.

Anti, C. 1952. “Il vaso di Dario e i Persiani di Frinico”, ArchCl 4, 23-45.

Asheri, D., Lloyd, A., Corcella, A. 2007. A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV. Oxford.

Aubriot-Sévin, D. 1992. Prière et conceptions religieuses en Grèce ancienne jusqu’à la fin du Ve siècle av. J.-C. (Collection de la Maison de l’Orient méditerranéen ancien 22, série littéraire et philosophique 5). Lyons.

Badian, E. 1981. “The Deification of Alexander the Great”, in H.J. Dell (ed.), Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honor of Charles F. Edson. Thessaloniki, 27-71.

Badian, E. 1996. “Alexander the Great between Two Thrones and Heaven: Variations on an Old Theme”, in A. Small (ed.), Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity (JRA Suppl. 17). Ann Arbor, 11-26.

Bakır, T. 2001. “Die Satrapie in Daskyleion”, in T. Bakır (ed.), Achaemenid Anatolia. Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Anatolia in the Achaemenid Period, Bandırma, 15-18 August 1997. Leiden, 169-180.

Baldwin, B. 1969. “The Authorship and Purpose of Lucian’s Demosthenis encomium”, Antichthon 3, 54-62.

Balsdon, J.P.V.D. 1950. “The ‘Divinity’ of Alexander”, Historia 1, 363-388.

Bickerman, E.J. 1963. “À propos d’un passage de Chares de Mytilène”, PP 18, 241-255.

Binder, C. 2008. Plutarchs Vita des Artaxerxes: Ein historischer Kommentar. Berlin.

Bosworth, A.B. 1988a. From Arrian to Alexander: Studies in Historical Interpretation (Oxford Scholarly Classics). Oxford.

Bosworth, A.B. 1988b. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great. Cambridge.

Bosworth, A.B. 1995. A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander, Vol.2. Oxford.

Bowden, H. 2013. “On Kissing and Making up: Court Protocol and Historiography in Alexander the Great’s ‘Experiment with Proskynesis’”, BICS

, 55-77.

Brosius, M. 1996. Women in Ancient Persia (559-331 BC) (Oxford Classical Monographs). Oxford.

Brosius, M. 2007. “New out of Old? Court and Court Ceremonies in Achaemenid Persia”, in A.J.S. Spawforth (ed.), The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies. Cambridge, 17-57.

Brosius, M. 2010a. “The Royal Audience Scene Reconsidered”, in J. Curtis, S. Simpson (eds.), The World of Achaemenid Persia: History, Art and Society in Iran and the Ancient Near East. London, 141-152.

Brosius, M. 2010b. “Das Hofzeremoniell”, in B. Jacobs, R. Rollinger (eds.), Der Achämenidenhof/The Achaemenid Court. Akten des 2. Internationalen Kolloquiums zum Thema “Vorderasien im Spannungsfeld klassischer und altorientalischer Überlieferungen”, Landgut Castelen bei Basel, 23.–25. Mai 2007

(Classica et Orientalia 2). Wiesbaden, 459-471.

Chantraine, P. 1968-1980. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque: Histoire des mots, 4 vols. Paris.

Choksy, J.K. 1990a. “Gesture in Ancient Iran and Central Asia I: The Raised Hand”, in Iranica varia. Papers in Honor of Professor Ehsan Yarshater (Acta Iranica 30). Leiden, 30-37.

Choksy, J.K. 1990b. “Gesture in Ancient Iran and Central Asia II: Proskynesis and the Bent Forefinger”, BAI n.s. 4, 201-207.

Clark, C.A. 2009. “To Kneel or Not to Kneel: Gendered Nonverbal Behavior in Greek Ritual”, in S. Calef, R.A. Simkins (eds.), Women, Gender, and Religion (Journal of Religion and Society Suppl. 5). Omaha, 6-20.

Couch, H.N. 1931. “Proskynesis and Abasement in Aeschylus”, CP 26, 316-318.

Cranmer-Byng, J.L. 2000. An Embassy to China: Lord Macartney’s Journal, 1793-1794. London – New York.

Delatte, A. 1951. “Le baiser, l’agenouillement et le prosternement de l’adoration (προσκύνησις) chez les Grecs”, Bulletin de la Classe des lettres et des sciences morales et politiques de l’Academie royale de Belgique, sér. 5, 37, 423-450.

Eppihimer, M. 2013. “Representing Ashur: The Old Assyrian Rulers’ Seals and Their Ur III Prototype”, JNES 72

Gow, A.S.F. 1928. “Notes on the Persae of Aeschylus”, JHS 48, 133-158.

Hall, E. 1989. Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford Classical Monographs). Oxford.

Hamilton, J.R. 1969. Plutarch: Alexander. Oxford.

Holden, H.A. 1887. The Cyropaedeia of Xenophon: Books III, IV, V, with Notes. Cambridge.

Horst, J. 1932. Proskynein: Zur Anbetung im Urchristentum nach ihrer religionsgeschichtlichen Eigenart. Gütersloh.

How, W.W., Wells, J. 1912. A Commentary on Herodotus, Vol. 1. Oxford.

Junge, P.J. 1940. “Hazarapatiš: Zur Stellung des Chiliarchen der kgl. Leibgarde im Achämenidenstaat”, Klio 33, 13-38.

Kaptan, D. 2002. The Daskyleion Bullae: Seal Images from the Western Achaemenid Empire (Achaemenid History 12), 2 vols. Leiden.

Kuhrt, A. 2007. The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period, London.

Lanfranchi, G., Roaf, M., Rollinger, R. (eds.) 2003. Continuity of Empire (?): Assyria, Media, Persia. Proceedings of the International Meeting in Padua, 26th-28th April 2001 (History of the Ancient Near East Monographs 5). Padua.

Lenfant, D. 2009. Les Histoires perses de Dinon et d’Héraclide (Persika 13). Paris.

Lincoln, B. 2007. Religion, Empire, and Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib. Chicago.

Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2013. King and Court in Ancient Persia 559 to 331 BCE (Debates and Documents in Ancient History). Edinburgh.

Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2015. “‘That My Body Is Strong’: The Physique and Appearance of Achaemenid Monarchy”, in D. Boschung, A. Shapiro, F.

Wascheck (eds.), Bodies in Transition: Dissolving the Boundaries of Embodied Knowledge (Morphomata 23). Paderborn, 211-248.

Lloyd, A.B. 1975-1976. Herodotus, Book II: Introduction, Commentary 1-98 (EPRO 43), 2 vols. Leiden.

Macleod, M.D. 1967. Lucian, vol. viii (Loeb Classical Library 432). London – Cambridge, Mass.

Marinatos, N. 2007. “Proskynesis and Minoan Theocracy”, in F. Lang, C.Reinholdt, J. Weilhartner (eds.), ΣΤΕΦΑΝΟΣ ΑΡΙΣΤΕΙΟΣ. Festschrift für

Stephan Hiller zum 65. Geburtstag. Vienna, 179-185.

Marti, B.M. 1936. “Proskynesis and Adorare”, Language 12, 272-282.

Matarese, C. 2013. “Proskynēsis and the Gesture of the Kiss at Alexander’s Court: The Creation of a New Élite”, Palamedes 8, 75-85.

Matarese, C. 2014. “Sending a Kiss to the King: The Achaemenid Proskynēsis between Explanations and Misunderstandings”, AncW 45, 122-145.

Mitropoulou, E. 1975. Kneeling Worshippers in Greek and Oriental Literature and Art. Athens.

Moorey, P.R.S. 1988. “Religion and the Rulers”, in CAH2: Plates to Volume 4, 45-50.

Muccioli, F. 2016. “Classical Sources and Proskynesis: History of a Misunderstanding”, in C. Bearzot, F. Landucci (eds.), Alexander’s Legacy. Atti del Convegno, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano 2015. Rome, 41-59.

Musti, D. 2003. “Posidonio e l’etimologia di Proskynesis”, in EPKOΣ. Studi in Onore di Franco Sartori. Padua, 159-170.

Olbrycht, M.J. 2014. “‘An Admirer of Persian Ways’: Alexander the Great’s Reforms in Parthia-Hyrcania and the Iranian Heritage”, in T. Daryaee, A. Mousavi, K. Rezakhani (eds.), Excavating an Empire: Achaemenid Persia in Longue Durée. Costa Mesa, 37-62.

Osada, T. 2012. “Die Entmythologisierung des Alexandermosaiks anhand der Darstellung des Dareios”, in C. Reinholdt, W. Wohlmayr (eds.), Akten

des 13. Österreichischer Archäologentages: Klassische und Frühägäische Archäologie, Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg, vom 25. bis 27. Februar 2010. Vienna, 145-152.

Panaino, A. 2000. “The Mesopotamian Heritage of Achaemenian Kingship”, in S. Aro, R.M. Whiting (eds.), The Heirs of Assyria. Proceedings of the Opening Symposium of the Assyrian and Babylonian Intellectual Heritage Project.

Held in Tvärminne, Finland, October 8-11, 1998. Helsinki, 35-49.

Pease, A.S. 1911. “The Omen of Sneezing”, CP 6, 429-443.

Powell, J.E. 2004. A Lexicon to Herodotus, 2nd ed. Hildescheim.

Pulleyn, S. 1997. Prayer in Greek Religion (Oxford Classical Monographs). Oxford.

Richards, G.C. 1934. “Proskynesis”, CR 48, 168-170.

Root, M.C. 1979. The King and Kingship in Achaemenid Art: Essays on the Creation of an Iconography of Empire (Acta Iranica 19). Leiden.

Sachsen-Meiningen, F. von. 1960. “Proskynesis in Iran”, in F. Altheim (ed.), Geschichte der Hunnen, Vol. II: Die Hephthaliten in Iran. Berlin, 125-166.

Sancisi-Weerdenburg, H. 1988. “Was There Ever a Median Empire?”, in A. Kuhrt, H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg (eds.), Method and Theory (Achaemenid History 3). Leiden, 197-212.

Schmidt, M. 1982. “Asia und Apate”, in M.L. Gualandi, L. Massei, S. Settis (eds.), Ἀπαρχαί. Nuove ricerche e studi sulla Magna Grecia e la Sicilia antica in onore di Paolo Enrico Arias (Biblioteca di Studi Antichi 35), Vol. 2. Pisa, 505-520.

Scott, J.A. 1922. “The Gesture of Proskynesis”, CJ 17, 403-404.

Spawforth, A.J.S. 2007. “The Court of Alexander the Great between Europe and Asia”, in A.J.S. Spawforth (ed.), The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies. Cambridge, 82-120.

Stevenson, R.B. 1997. Persica: Greek Writing about Persia in the Fourth Century BC (Scottish Classical Studies 5). Edinburgh.

Stoneman, R. 2015. Xerxes: A Persian Life. New Haven – London.

Stronach, D. 2002. “Icons of Dominion: Review Scenes at Til Barsip and Persepolis”, IrAnt 37, 373-402.

Taylor, L.R. 1927. “The ‘Proskynesis’ and the Hellenistic Ruler Cult”, JHS 47, 53-62.

Taylor, L.R. 1931. The Divinity of the Roman Emperor. Middletown, Conn.

Tilia, A.B. 1972. Studies and Restorations at Persepolis and Other Sites of Fārs (IsMEO Reports and Memoirs 16). Rome.

Trendall, A.D. 1989. Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily: A Handbook (World of Art). London.

Trendall, A.D., Cambitoglou, A. 1982. The Red-Figured Vases of Apulia (Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology), Vol. II: Late Apulian. Oxford.

Tuplin, C.J. 2017. “The Great King, His God(s) and Intimations of Divinity: The Achaemenid Hinterland of Ruler Cult?”, AHB 31, 92-111.

Ussher, R.G. 1993. The Character of Theophrastus, 2nd ed. London.

van der Horst, P.W. 2013. “The Omen of Sneezing”, AncSoc 43, 213-221.

van Straten, F.T. 1974. “Did the Greeks Kneel before Their Gods?”, BABesch 49, 159-189.

van Straten, F.T. 1981. “Gifts for the Gods”, in H.S. Versnel (ed.), Faith, Hope and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World. Leiden, 65-151.

von Graeve, V. 1970. Der Alexandersarkophag und seine Werkstatt (Istanbuler Forschungen 28). Berlin.

Wiesehöfer, J. 2001. “Proskynesis”, Der Neue Pauly 10, 443-444.

Wiesehöfer, J. 2003. “‘Denn ihr huldigt nicht einem Menschen als eurem Herrscher, sondern nur den Göttern’: Bemerkungen zur Proskynese

in Iran”, in C. Cereti, M. Maggi, E. Provasi (eds.), Religious Themes and Texts of Pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia. Studies in Honour of Professor Gherardo Gnoli on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday on 6th December 2002. Wiesbaden, 447-452.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.