1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Alexander the Paphlagonian
ALEXANDER THE PAPHLAGONIAN, a celebrated impostor and worker of false oracles, was born at Abonouteichos (see Ineboli) in Paphlagonia in the early part of the 2nd century A.D. The vivid narrative of his career given by Lucian might be taken as fictitious but for the corroboration of certain coins of the emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius (J. H. Eckhel, Doctrina Nummorum veterum, ii. pp. 383, 384) and of a statue of Alexander, said by Athenagoras (Apology, c. 26) to have stood in the forum of Parium. After a period of instruction in medicine by a doctor who also, according to Lucian, was an impostor, he succeeded in establishing an oracle of Aesculapius at his native town. Having circulated a prophecy that the son of Apollo was to be born again, he contrived that there should be found in the foundations of the temple to Aesculapius, then in course of construction at Abonouteichos, an egg in which a small live snake had been placed. In an age of superstition no people had so great a reputation for credulity as the Paphlagonians, and Alexander had little difficulty in convincing them of the second coming of the god under the name of Glycon. A large tame snake with a false human head, wound round Alexander’s body as he sat in a shrine in the temple, gave “autophones” or oracles unasked, but the usual methods practised were those of the numerous oracle-mongers of the time, of which Lucian gives a detailed account, the opening of sealed inquiries by heated needles, a neat plan of forging broken seals, and the giving of vague or meaningless replies to difficult questions, coupled with a lucrative blackmailing of those whose inquiries were compromising. The reputation of the oracle, which was in origin medical, spread, and with it grew Alexander’s skilled plans of organized deception. He set up an “intelligence bureau” in Rome, instituted mysteries like those of Eleusis, from which his particular enemies the Christians and Epicureans were alike excluded as “profane,” and celebrated a mystic marriage between himself and the moon. During the plague of A.D. 166 a verse from the oracle was used as an amulet and was inscribed over the doors of houses as a protection, and an oracle was sent, at Marcus Aurelius’ request, by Alexander to the Roman army on the Danube during the war with the Marcomanni, declaring that victory would follow on the throwing of two lions alive into the river. The result was a great disaster, and Alexander had recourse to the old quibble of the Delphic oracle to Croesus for an explanation. Lucian’s own close investigations into Alexander’s methods of fraud led to a serious attempt on his life. The whole account gives a graphic description of the inner working of one among the many new oracles that were springing up at this period. Alexander had remarkable beauty and the striking personality of the successful charlatan, and must have been a man of considerable intellectual abilities and power of organization. His income is said by Lucian to have reached an enormous figure. He died of gangrene of the leg in his seventieth year.
See Lucian, Ἀλεξάνδρος ἢ ψευδόμαντις; Samuel Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (1904); and F. Gregorovius, The Emperor Hadrian, trans. by M. E. Robinson (1898).