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NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE

1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The proskynesis or bow to the king:

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Why do some people bow to others to recognize them a higher social status?

Nowadays in our world there are a big number of monarchies, although many of them, not all, are under the rules of democracy. Although they are very different now from past times monarchies when the kings really ruled the countries, they are still accompanied by certain rituals and protocol behaviors. Among the most important rituals is perhaps the bowing or genuflection that many citizens do to the kings’ greeting or presence. For others this act is wrong, unbecoming and unsuitable as long as to bob or genuflect doesn’t fit with modern times anymore.

This act is an ancient ritual generally related to an eastern origin. In ancient Greek they called proskynesis (προσκύνησις), word formed by “pros” (to, towards) and “kyneo” (kiss, kissing), to the greeting ritual that the Persians made their king.

It’s Herodotus, the father of History, who lived in the V century BC, who tells us in his Stories, 1,134 the way the Persians greeted each other:

"When two Persians meet in the street, you can know whether or not they have got the same social status, because if they have, they do not greet each other with words but by kissing each other on the mouth; if one of them has a little bit lower status, they do it by kissing each other on the cheek; but if one’s status is much less noble than the another’s, he offers reverence to him by bending down or prostrating in front of him".

In the royal court, this greeting, which Herodotus saw in the streets, was ritualized and formalized depending also on the people’s status, so people prostrated themselves, knelt, bowed or sent him a kiss.

Herodotus does not judge this greeting negatively, but the Greek people thought this act was humiliating because they only prostrated themselves to their gods, so they interpreted that the Persian king was worshiped as a god, although the Persians didn’t worship him as such; it was just a rite of vassalage to recognize his superiority.

So when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and wanted to introduce this rite in the summer of 327 BC because it was the custom of his new subjects and aimed to unify the ritual, he caused some troubles with his Greeks fellows.

The following text of Arrian of Nicomedia, a Greek historian and philosopher of the second century of our era, is illustrative of the moment:

(Callisthenes’s intervention: Not even to Heracles the Greek people gave him divine honors while he was alive, and even after his death, we had to wait until the god of Delphi gave us his permission to worship him as a god. Now if by being talking about this issue in a barbarous region we have to think like barbarians, I think, Alexander, I have to ask you to remember Greece, which is why you organized this expedition to annex Asia to Greece. Think carefully about the following: when you come back to Greece, are you going to force the Greeks, who are the men who most appreciate their freedom, to accept the proskynesis or will you exempt the Greeks of it, keeping it as an outrageous obligation to the Macedonians? Or maybe are you going to get over with all these honor issues at once and for all, so you get those that are proper to man from Greeks and Macedonians, and will leave rituals that are used by barbarians for when you are among barbarians?) (Anabasis of Alexander the Great, IV, 11, 7-8; ).

We do not know exactly what happened then, although Arrian tells us that Alexander the Great exempted the Greeks, but the rite was used later by his successors; it was also imposed in the ritual of the Roman emperors, especially in the second part of the empire, known as the Low Empire or the Dominate, and somehow it has come down to us, to modern times, as we said at the beginning, as many people feel a reverential awe to kings. 

Related to this issue is somehow the deification of kings, of Alexander himself and of the Roman emperors, which we will discuss some another time.

   
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