The Roman approach to religion was an interesting one. For the most part they just “borrowed” gods from the ancient Greeks for their pantheon and gave them new names.
The gods which weren’t inspired by those of the Greeks were taken from lands the Romans had conquered, as a kind of social integration. But Glycon the snake god was different.
It first appeared in the 2nd century AD and seems to have been the invention of one of ancient history’s greatest con men. That didn’t stop the snake god from developing a large and influential cult within the Empire. So who was Glycon and how did it come into existence?
The “Oracle of Glycon”
Most of what we know about Glycon and its chief patron comes from Lucian, a satirist from the second century AD who took particular umbrage with the cult of Glycon. Most of this information comes from a highly amusing pamphlet written by Lucian called “Alexander, the oracle monster”.
The pamphlet is full of accusations but, if we ignore its inherent bias, it can still act as a relatively reliable historical source. Lucian attributed Glycon’s creation to a mid-2nd century Greek prophet called Alexander of Abonoteichos.
Thanks to the pamphlet we know that Alexander most likely “discovered” or found inspiration for Glycon in Macedonia, where similar snake cults had been operating for centuries. Alexander is said to have brought the snake god (a very large snake) to his hometown of Abonutichus in Paphlagonia after discovering it in Macedonia. Upon his arrival, he built Glycon a temple and made himself the oracle of the temple.
Once installed as oracle, Alexander announced the imminent incarnation of Asclepius (a Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo). Soon after his announcement, people began to flock to the town’s marketplace.
When the crowd was sufficiently large Alexander revealed a goose egg which he sliced open to reveal a large snake. Within a week the snake had grown as large as a man and had formed human features on its face.
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According to Lucian, this was no miracle. Instead, what Alexander had revealed was actually a masterfully crafted sock puppet.
This new snake god whom Alexander called Glycon was worshipped as the new Asclepius by the people of Abonoteichus. A cult was born. At first, Alexander promoted Glycon as more of a fertility god.
Women desperate for a baby would bring Alexander and his puppet offerings in return for the oracle’s blessing. In his pamphlet, Lucian heavily implies Alexander’s “blessing” may have been more than a little R-rated.
At first, Alexander did well with his fertility treatments but he wanted more. As luck would have it the Empire was in the grip of a terrible pandemic during this time. Between 160 and 190AD a great plague tore through the Roman Empire.
It is believed the plague started in Asia and slowly progressed westwards towards ancient Europe. Historians have put the death toll at around five million and it is believed around a third of the Empire’s population fell.
Glycon the Moneymaker
Why sell fertility treatments when you can sell the cure for a pandemic? Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine after all. Alexander began claiming that a magical verse, whispered in his ear by Glycon and written on a residence could keep the deadly plague at bay.
The cult of Glycon soon spread far from Abonoteichos and across the Mediterranean. An inscription found on a doorway in what was once Antioch reads “Glycon protect us from the plague cloud”.
As Alexander and Glycon rose to fame politicians began to jump on the snake oil bandwagon. At some point around 160AD governor Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus crowned himself the protector of Glycon’s oracle. Seeking to tie himself even closer to the great oracle Rutilianus went as far as to marry Alexander’s daughter.
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By this point, according to Lucian, Alexander was making good money. He would sit in his temple giving his followers their fortunes as well as curing their diseases, all for the low, low price of one drachma and two oboli. Lucian states in Alexander’s best year he made 80,000 such predictions.
Over time Alexander’s list of services continued to grow. As one historian has put it, the followers of the cult of Glycon believed he “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,”.
If Lucian is to be believed precious few of Alexander’s predictions came true. Those which did were supposedly worded so vaguely that it was all but impossible for them not to come true.
Even the emperor of the time, Marcus Aurelius was suckered by Alexander. During Rome’s war with the Marcomanni Aurelius requested Alexander send an oracle to the Roman army which was waiting on the Danube river. Alexander sent word that the Roman army would be victorious if they threw two live lions into the river. They did just that and disaster ensued. Alexander saved face by walking back his prophecy after the Roman army was defeated.
Ultimately perhaps the best evidence that Glycon was an elaborate hoax or con are the circumstances around Alexander’s death. He lived a long life for the time, making it to his 70th year. Unfortunately for him, he contracted gangrene at the age of 70 and Glycon was unable to save him.
An Outstanding Salesman
Today most scholars agree that Alexander was a charlatan who managed to pull off perhaps one of history’s greatest hoaxes. His cult lived on for years after his death and coins with Glycon’s visage on them were still being minted well into the third century AD.
His story would be amusing if it wasn’t for that he preyed on his victims during a period when millions of people were dying. The people of the empire were desperate for a cure to the terrible plague and Alexander was right there selling them his religious snake oil. It made him a very rich man.
Some modern scholars have gone as far as to compare Alexander to modern say cult leaders, labeling him a ‘malignant narcissist’. It is difficult to disagree with their verdict. It seems Alexander was a master conman who tricked much of the Roman Empire, including the emperor himself.
Top Image: Statue of Glycon. Source: Ángel M. Felicísimo / CC BY 2.0.
By Robbie Mitchell
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Jones. C. P. 1986. Culture and Society in Lucian. Harvard University Press.
Kent. S.A. 2007. Narcissistic Fraud in the Ancient World: Lucian’s Account of Alexander of Abonoteichus and the Cult of Glycon. University of Groningen Press. Available at: https://ancientnarrative.com/article/view/24522