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Proskynesis // or proscynesis // (Greek προσκύνησις, proskúnēsis) refers to the traditional Persian act of bowing or prostrating oneself before a person of higher social rank. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the term proskynesis is used theologically to indicate the veneration given to icons and relics of the saints; as distinguished from latria, the adoration which is due to God alone, and also physical gestures such as bowing or kneeling (genuflection in the Western church) before an altar or icon.
The Greek word προσκύνησις is derived from the verb προσκυνέω, proskyneo, itself formed from the compound words πρός, pros (towards) and κυνέω, kyneo ([I] kiss). It describes an attitude of humbling, submission, or worship adoration – particularly towards a sovereign ruler, God or the gods.
According to Herodotus in his Histories, a person of equal rank received a kiss on the lips, someone of a slightly lower rank gave a kiss on the cheek, and someone of a very inferior social standing had to completely bow down to the other person before them. To the Greeks, giving proskynesis to a mortal seemed to be a barbaric and ludicrous practice.
This may have led some Greeks to believe that the Persians worshipped their king as a god, the only Persian that received proskynesis from everyone, and other misinterpretations caused cultural conflicts. Alexander the Great proposed this practice during his lifetime, in adapting to the customs of the Persian cities he conquered, but it failed to find acceptance amongst his Greek companions (an example can be found in the court historian, Callisthenes) - and in the end, he did not insist on the practice. Most of his men could cope with Alexander’s interest for having a Persian wardrobe, but honouring the king as if he was a god by performing proskynesis went a bit too far. According to Arrian, Callisthenes explains the existence of separated ways of honouring a god or a human and that prostration is a way to explicitly honour gods. It is seen as a threat to the Greeks, ‘who are men most devoted to freedom’. According to Callisthenes, prostration is a foreign and degrading fashion.
The emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305) is usually thought to have introduced the practice to the Roman Empire, forming a break with the Republican institutions of the principate, which preserved the form, if not the intent, of republican government. However, there is some evidence that an informal form of proskynesis was already practiced at the court of Septimius Severus. The political reason for this change was to elevate the role of the emperor from "first citizen" to an otherworldly ruler, remote from his subjects, thus reducing the likelihood of successful revolt, which had plagued the Empire during the preceding 50 years.
Similarly, the emperor was hailed no longer as "Imp(erator)" on coins, which meant "commander in chief" but as "D(ominus) N(oster)" - "Our Lord." With the conversion of Constantine I to Christianity, proskynesis became part of an elaborate ritual, whereby the emperor became God's vice-regent on earth. Titular inflation also affected the other principal offices of the Empire. Justinian I and Theodora both insisted on an extreme form of proskynesis, even from members of the Roman Senate, and they were attacked for it by Procopius in his Secret History.
References and sources
- Ware, Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) (1993). The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books. p. 257. ISBN 0-14-014656-3.
- πρός,κυνέω,προσκυνέω,προσκύνησις. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
- Herodotus. Histories. pp. I.134.
- Alexander III and proskynesis: an affair
- Frank Kolb, Herrscherideologie in der Spätantike. Review by Chris Epplett, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2002.07.02.
- John Julius Norwich
- Mitchell, Stephen. (2007) A History of the later Roman Empire AD 284-641: The Transformation of the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 228. ISBN 9781405108560
- Procopius, Secret History 30, 21-30.
- Josef Wiesehöfer: "Denn ihr huldigt nicht einem Menschen als eurem Herrscher, sondern nur den Göttern". Bemerkungen zur Proskynese in Iran", in: C.G. Cereti / M. Maggi / E. Provasi (eds.), Religious Themes and Texts of Pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia. Studies in Honour of Gh. Gnoli on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday on 6 December 2002, Wiesbaden 2003, S. 447-452.
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