Narcissistic Fraud in the Ancient World: Lucian's Account of Alexander of Abonuteichos and the Cult of Glycon

By Kent, Stephen | Ancient Narrative, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Narcissistic Fraud in the Ancient World: Lucian's Account of Alexander of Abonuteichos and the Cult of Glycon


Kent, Stephen, Ancient Narrative


A single, but rather detailed, account of a newly formed cult and its leader survives from the ancient world, written by a rhetorician named Lucian of Samosata (now Samsat, Turkey). He is born around the year 120 A.D., lives for periods of time in Athens and Egypt, and dies during or probably soon after 180 (see Costa 2005, vii; Edwards 1949; Jones 1986, 8, 17). (1) To a friend, he writes a scathing expose of Alexander of Abonuteichos, (2) and this account surely ranks as among the earliest reports of sectarian malfeasance in Western civilization.

In and of itself, the account is of interest to persons who concern themselves with religious wrongdoing in the contemporary world, since Alexander's deceits have broad parallels with those of some more recent sectarian founders. Of some importance, however, is our ability to apply contemporary psychiatric research to gain insight into the mind and motivations of this manipulative, deceitful leader. In essence, I suggest that a mental disorder quite recognizable among psychiatrists and clinicians likely is behind the actions of this cult figure who lives some eighteen centuries ago. Since we have mounting evidence of the role that mental disorders play in sectarian formation in modern times (Kent 2006; Lys 2005; Raine 2005), we can begin to explore the possibility that these disorders have played generative roles in the creation of abusive religions for centuries if not millennia.

I contribute to this explorative possibility by first summarizing the account that Lucian provides of Alexander, followed by an interpretation of Alexander's behaviors and attitudes according to contemporary research on narcissistic personality disorder. More specifically, I argue that Lucian's account strongly suggests that Alexander is a particularly dangerous type of narcissist called a malignant narcissist, because of the way that he responds to persons who appear to threaten either his public image or his fraudulent operation. By making this argument, I place Alexander in the company of some modern sectarian leaders who share similar traits.

Lucian's Account

Calling Alexander a great 'villain' and a 'quack' (the latter because of his medical claims [Alex. 1, see 5]), (3) Lucian writes a multi-page account of both his 'daring schemes and his chicaneries' (Alex. 1). Scholars generally agree that this account is based upon an actual figure, 'and its factual basis [is] firmly established' by various archeological finds (Branham 1989, 182; see Anderson 1976, 72; Jones 1986, 133-148). Even with these finds as support, however, the possibility always exists that Lucian spins some of his information through his favorite literary motifs (see Anderson 1976, 16-19; Jones 1986, 146).

In any case, Alexander is born sometime 'between about 105 and 115 in Abonuteichos, a small port-city on the coast of the Black Sea...' (Jones 1986, 134). In his prime, this cult leader:

   was tall and good-looking, really god-like, with a fair complexion,
   a beard which was not very thick, hair partly natural and partly
   false, but so well matched that most people couldn't tell the
   difference. His eyes flashed like one possessed, while his voice
   was very clear and pleasant.... [I]n intelligence, sagacity, and
   shrewdness he was far ahead of everyone; and as for an enquiring
   mind, a readiness to learn, memory, and a natural capacity for
   knowledge--every single one of these qualities he had in excess for
   every occasion. But he used them for the worst purposes, and,
   equipped with noble instruments, he lost no time in becoming the
   most accomplished of those who have been notorious for wickedness
   (Alex. 3-4).

His immodesty is sufficiently great that he 'claimed to resemble Pythagoras' (Alex. 4)--a comparison that Lucian scorns. (4)

While not considering Alexander to be anywhere near the man that Pythagoras was, Lucian nevertheless realizes that Alexander has skills--all of which he uses for evil purposes:

   I ask you to imagine and carefully picture the most complex
   psychological temperament, consisting of lying, perjury, and
   malice, a temperament which is unscrupulous, daring, reckless,
   energetic in forwarding its own schemes, persuasive, plausible,
   making a pretense of virtue, and with an appearance totally
   opposite to its real purpose. … 

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