Death of Alexander

Alexander died just short of his 33 birthday on June 10, 323 B.C. The cause of his death is unknown. In some accounts he drank a huge amount of wine at a banquet and collapsed with a fever. In other accounts he became sick, perhaps with malaria, on his way back from India. Most scholars believe that was a major factor in his death. In Susa a fakir brought from India had prophesied Alexander's death.

In early 323 B.C., Alexander entered Babylon to prepare for an Arabian expedition. At a banquet he was seized with abdominal pains and was forced to retire to his quarters. He then came down with a fever and soon was so ill he couldn't speak or move. Twelve days later before he died.

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “The circumstances of his death are almost as unclear as those of his father, though it probably smacks too much of the historical novel to suggest that Alexander was assassinated, possibly by poison. Rather, he is most likely to have caught a deadly fever, probably malarial, after years of pushing himself beyond reasonable limits.” [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Some have suggested Alexander died of pancreatitis, alcoholism aggravated by a broken heart over death of his lover, Hephaestion, war wounds, a perforated ulcer, leprosy, syphilis, typhoid, panic, West Nile virus, an infected monkey bite, or even murder by poison. One scholar argued that a perforated bowel — which can cause paralysis and make one look dead before they actually die — could explain the legend that his body did not begin composing until days after his 33rd birthday,

Alexander's symptoms included a fever, thirst, abdominal pain and paralysis. His symptoms match up well with West Nile virus encephalitis. There were stories that birds dropped dead at his feet when he entered Babylon. West Nile virus encephalitis was not identified until 1937 but is thought to have been around much longer than that. some scholars believe he may have had typhoid-induced ascending paralysis which also makes one look dead before they actually die.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Predictions of Alexander’s Death

Arrian wrote: “Moreover Aristobulus has recorded the following story. Apollodorus the Amphipolitan, one of Alexander’s Companions, was general of the army which the king left with Mazaeus, the viceroy of Babylon. When he joined his forces with the king’s on the return of the latter from India, and observed that he was severely punishing the viceroys who had been placed over the several countries, he sent to his brother Peithagoras and asked him to divine about his safety. For Peithagoras was a diviner who derived his knowledge of the future from the inspection of the inward parts of animals. This man sent back to Apollodorus, inquiring of whom he was so especially afraid, as to wish to consult divination. The latter wrote back: “The king himself and Hephaestion.” Peithagoras therefore in the first place offered sacrifice with reference to Hephaestion. But as there was no lobe visible upon the liver of the sacrificial victim, he stated this fact in a letter, which he sealed and sent to his brother from Babylon to Ecbatana, explaining that there was no reason at all to be afraid of Hephaestion, for in a short time he would be out of their way. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

Dying Alexander receiving his soldiers

“And Aristobulus says that Apollodorus received this epistle only one day before Hephaestion died. Then Peithagoras again offered sacrifice in respect to Alexander, and the liver of the victim consulted in respect to him was also destitute of a lobe. He therefore wrote to Apollodorus to the same purport about Alexander as about Hephaestion. Apollodorus did not conceal the information sent to him, but told Alexander, in order the more to show his good-will to the king, if he urged him to be on his guard lest some danger might befall him at that time. And Aristobulus says that the king commended Apollodorus, and when he entered Babylon, he asked Peithagoras what sign he had met with, to induce him to write thus to his brother. He said that the liver of the victim sacrificed for him was without a lobe.

“When Alexander asked what the sign portended, he said that it was a very disastrous one. The king was so far from being angry with him, that he even treated him with greater respect, for telling him the truth without any disguise. Aristobulus says that he himself heard this story from Peithagoras; and adds that the same man acted as diviner for Perdiccas and afterwards for Antigonus, and that the same sign occurred for both. It was verified by fact; for Perdiccas lost his life leading an army against Ptolemy, and Antigonus was killed in the battle fought by him at Ipsus against Seleucus and Lysimachus. Also concerning Calanus, the Indian philosopher, the following story has been recorded. When he was going to the funeral pyre to die, he gave the parting salutation to all his other companions; but he refused to approach Alexander to give him the salutation, saying he would meet him at Babylon and there salute him. At the time indeed this remark was treated with neglect; but afterwards, when Alexander had died at Babylon, it came to the recollection of those who had heard it, and they thought forsooth that it was a divine intimation of Alexander’s approaching end.”

Death of Hephaestion, Alexander’s Best Friend

In Ecbatana, in western Iran, Alexander’s best friend — some say lover — Hephaestion died, causing Alexander to be overcome with tremendous grief. Plutarch wrote: “When he came to Ecbatana in Media, and had despatched his most urgent affairs, he began to divert himself again with spectacles and public entertainments, to carry on which he had a supply of three thousand actors and artists, newly arrived out of Greece. But they were soon interrupted by Hephæstion’s falling sick of a fever, in which, being a young man and a soldier too, he could not confine himself to so exact a diet as was necessary; for whilst his physician Glaucus was gone to the theatre, he ate a fowl for his dinner, and drank a large draught of wine, upon which he became very ill, and shortly after died. At this misfortune, Alexander was so beyond all reason transported, that to express his sorrow, he immediately ordered the manes and tails of all his horses and mules to be cut, and threw down the battlements of the neighboring cities. The poor physician he crucified, and forbade playing on the flute, or any other musical instrument in the camp a great while, till directions came from the oracle of Ammon, and enjoined him to honor Hephæstion, and sacrifice to him as to a hero. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

Alexander and Hephaestion

Arrian wrote: “In Ecbatana Alexander offered sacrifice according to his custom, for good fortune; and he celebrated a gymnastic and musical contest. He also held drinking parties with his Companions. At this time Hephaestion fell sick; and they say that the stadium was full of people on the seventh day of his fever, for on that day there was a gymnastic contest for boys. When Alexander was informed that Hephaestion was in a critical state, he went to him without delay, but found him no longer alive. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“It has been stated by most writers that he ordered honours to be always paid to Hephaestion as a hero; and some say that he even sent men to Ammon’s temple to ask the god if it were allowable to offer sacrifice to Hephaestion as a god; but Ammon replied that it was not allowable. All the authorities, however, agree as to the following facts:—that until the third day after Hephaestion’s death, Alexander neither tasted food nor paid any attention to his personal appearance, but lay on the ground either bewailing or silently mourning; that he also ordered a funeral pyre to be prepared for him in Babylon at the expense of , talents; some say at a still greater cost; that a decree was published throughout all the barbarian territory for the observance of a public mourning. Many of Alexander’s Companions dedicated themselves and their arms to the dead Hephaestion in order to show their respect to him; and the first to begin the artifice was Eumenes, whom we a short time ago mentioned as having been at variance with him. This he did that Alexander might not think he was pleased at Hephaestion’s death. Alexander did not appoint any one else to be commander of the Companion cavalry in the place of Hephaestion, so that the name of that general might not perish from the brigade; but that division of cavalry was still called Hephaestion’s and the figure made from Hephaestion went in front of it. He also resolved to celebrate a gymnastic and musical contest, much more magnificent than any of the preceding, both in the multitude of competitors and in the amount of money expended upon it. For he provided , competitors in all; and it is said that these men a short time after also competed in the games held at Alexander’s own funeral.”

Later, “Now arrived the special envoys whom he had despatched to Ammon to inquire how it was lawful for him to honour Hephaestion. They told him that Ammon said it was lawful to offer sacrifice to him as to a hero. Rejoicing at the response of the oracle, he paid respect to him as a hero from that time. He also despatched a letter to Cleomenes, who was a bad man and had committed many acts of injustice in Egypt. For my own part I do not blame him for his friendship to Hephaestion and for his recollection of him even when dead; but I do blame him for many other acts. For the letter commanded Cleomenes to prepare chapels for the hero Hephaestion in the Egyptian Alexandria, one in the city itself and another in the island of Pharos, where the tower is situated. The chapels were to be exceedingly large and to be built at lavish expense. The letter also directed that Cleomenes should take care that Hephaestion’s name should be attached to them; and moreover that his name should be engraved on all the legal documents with which the merchants entered into bargains with each other. These things I cannot blame, except that he made so much ado about matters of trifling moment. But the following I must blame severely: “If I find,” said the letter, “the temples and chapels of the hero Hephaestion in Egypt well completed, I will not only pardon you any crimes you may have committed in the past, but in the future you shall suffer no unpleasant treatment from me, however great may be the crimes you have committed.” I cannot commend this message sent from a great king to a man who was ruling a large country and many people, especially as the man was a wicked one.”

Alexander’s Grief Over Hephaestion’s Death

Arrian wrote: ““Different authors have given different accounts of Alexander’s grief on this occasion; but they agree in this, that his grief was great. As to what was done in honour of Hephaestion, they make diverse statements, just as each writer was actuated by good-will or envy towards him, or even towards Alexander himself. Of the authors who have made these reckless statements, some seem to me to have thought that whatever Alexander said or did to show his excessive grief for the man who was the dearest to him in the world, redounds to his own honour; whereas others seem to have thought that it rather tended to his disgrace, as being conduct unbecoming to any king and especially to Alexander. Some say that he lay prostrate on his companion’s body for the greater part of that day, bewailing him and refusing to depart from him, until he was forcibly carried away by his Companions.[Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“Others that he lay upon the body the whole day and night. Others again say that he hanged the physician Glaucias, for having indiscreetly given the medicine; while others affirm that he, being a spectator of the games, neglected Hephaestion, who was filled with wine. That Alexander should have cut off his hair in honour of the dead man, I do not think improbable, both for other reasons and especially from a desire to imitate Achilles, whom from his boyhood he had an ambition to rival. Others also say that Alexander himself at one time drove the chariot on which the body was borne; but this statement I by no means believe. Others again affirm that he ordered the shrine of Asclepius in Ecbatana to be razed to the ground; which was an act of barbarism, and by no means in harmony with Alexander’s general behaviour, but rather in accordance with the arrogance of Xerxes in his dealings with the deity, who is said to have let fetters down into the Hellespont, in order to punish it forsooth. But the following statement, which has been recorded, does not seem to me entirely beyond the range of probability:—that when Alexander was marching to Babylon, he was met on the road by many embassies from Greece, among which were some Epidaurian envoys, who obtained from him their requests. He also gave them an offering to be conveyed to Asclepius, adding this remark:—“Although Asclepius has not treated me fairly, in not saving the life of my Companion, whom I valued equally with my own head.”

Plutarch wrote: “Then seeking to alleviate his grief in war, he set out, as it were, to a hunt and chase of men, for he fell upon the Cossæans, and put the whole nation to the sword. This was called a sacrifice to Hephæstion’s ghost. In his sepulchre and monument and the adorning of them, he intended to bestow ten thousand talents; and designing that the excellence of the workmanship and the singularity of the design might outdo the expense, his wishes turned, above all other artists, to Stasicrates, because he always promised something very bold, unusual, and magnificent in his projects. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“Once when they had met before, he had told him, that of all the mountains he knew, that of Athos in Thrace was the most capable of being adapted to represent the shape and lineaments of a man; that if he pleased to command him, he would make it the noblest and most durable statue in the world, which in its left hand should hold a city of ten thousand inhabitants, and out of its right should pour a copious river into the sea. Though Alexander declined this proposal, yet now he spent a great deal of time with workmen to invent and contrive others even more extravagant and sumptuous.”

Bad Omen for Alexander the Great

Plutarch wrote: “As he was upon his way to Babylon, Nearchus, who had sailed back out of the ocean up the mouth of the river Euphrates, came to tell him he had met with some Chaldæan diviners, who had warned him against Alexander’s going thither. Alexander, however, took no thought of it, and went on, and when he came near the walls of the place, he saw a great many crows fighting with one another, some of whom fell down just by him. After this, being privately informed that Apollodorus, the governor of Babylon, had sacrificed, to know what would become of him, he sent for Pythagoras, the soothsayer, and on his admitting the thing, asked him, in what condition he found the victim; and when he told him the liver was defective in its lobe, “A great presage indeed!” said Alexander. However, he offered Pythagoras no injury, but was sorry that he had neglected Nearchus’s advice, and stayed for the most part outside the town, removing his tent from place to place, and sailing up and down the Euphrates. Besides this, he was disturbed by many other prodigies. A tame ass fell upon the biggest and handsomest lion that he kept, and killed him by a kick. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

Good omen before Gaugamela: an eagle flew over Alexander's head

“And one day after he had undressed himself to be anointed, and was playing at ball, just as they were going to bring his clothes again, the young men who played with him perceived a man clad in the king’s robes, with a diadem upon his head, sitting silently upon his throne. They asked him who he was, to which he gave no answer a good while, till at last coming to himself, he told them his name was Dionysius, that he was of Messenia, that for some crime of which he was accused, he was brought thither from the sea-side, and had been kept long in prison, that Serapis appeared to him, had freed him from his chains, conducted him to that place, and commanded him to put on the king’s robe and diadem, and to sit where they found him, and to say nothing. Alexander, when he heard this, by the direction of his soothsayers, put the fellow to death, but he lost his spirits, and grew diffident of the protection and assistance of the gods, and suspicious of his friends. His greatest apprehension was of Antipater and his sons, one of whom, Iolaus, was his chief cupbearer; and Cassander, who had lately arrived, and had been bred up in Greek manners, the first time he saw some of the barbarians adore the king, could not forbear laughing at it aloud, which so incensed Alexander, that he took him by the hair with both hands, and dashed his head against the wall. Another time, Cassander would have said something in defence of Antipater to those who accused him, but Alexander interrupting him, said, “What is it you say? Do you think people, if they had received no injury, would come such a journey only to calumniate your father?” To which when Cassander replied, that their coming so far from the evidence was a great proof of the falseness of their charges, Alexander smiled, and said those were some of Aristotle’s sophisms, which would serve equally on both sides; and added, that both he and his father should be severely punished, if they were found guilty of the least injustice towards those who complained. All which made such a deep impression of terror in Cassander’s mind, that long after, when he was king of Macedonia, and master of Greece, as he was walking up and down at Delphi, and looking at the statues, at the sight of that of Alexander he was suddenly struck with alarm, and shook all over, his eyes rolled, his head grew dizzy, and it was long before he recovered himself.

“When once Alexander had given way to fears of super natural influence, his mind grew so disturbed and so easily alarmed, that if the least unusual or extraordinary thing happened, he thought it a prodigy or a presage, and his court was thronged with diviners and priests whose business was to sacrifice and purify and foretell the future. So miserable a thing is incredulity and contempt of divine power on the one hand, and so miserable, also, superstition on the other, which like water, where the level has been lowered, flowing in and never stopping, fills the mind with slavish fears and follies, as now in Alexander’s case. But upon some answers which were brought him from the oracle concerning Hephæstion, he laid aside his sorrow, and fell again to sacrificing and drinking; and having given Nearchus a splendid entertainment, after he had bathed, as was his custom, just as he was going to bed, at Medius’s request he went to supper with him.”

Omens of Alexander’s Approaching Death

Arrian wrote: “Having thus proved the falsity of the prophecy of the Chaldaeans, by not having experienced any unpleasant fortune in Babylon, as they had predicted, but having marched out of that city without suffering any mishap, be grew confident in spirit and sailed again through the marshes, having Babylon on his left hand. Here a part of his fleet lost its way in the narrow branches of the river through want of a pilot, until he sent a man to pilot it and lead it back into the channel of the river. The following story is told. Most of the tombs of the Assyrian kings had been built among the pools and marshes. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“When Alexander was sailing through these marshes, and, as the story goes, was himself steering the trireme, a strong gust of wind fell upon his broad-brimmed Macedonian hat, and the fillet which encircled it. The hat, being heavy, fell into the water; but the fillet, being carried along by the wind, was caught by one of the reeds growing near the tomb of one of the ancient kings. This incident itself was an omen of what was about to occur, and so was the fact that one of the sailors swam off towards the fillet and snatched it from the reed. But he did not carry it in his hands, because it would have been wetted while he was swimming; he therefore put it round his own head and thus conveyed it to the king.

a bad omen before his death: a flock of crows

“Most of the biographers of Alexander say that the king presented him with a talent as a reward for his zeal, and then ordered his head to be cut off; as the prophets had directed him not to permit that head to be safe which had worn the royal fillet. However, Aristobulus says that the man received a talent; but afterwards also received a scourging for placing the fillet round his head. The same author says that it was one of the Phoenician sailors who fetched the fillet for Alexander; but there are some who say it was Seleucus, and that this was an omen to Alexander of his death and to Seleucus of his great kingdom. For that of all those who succeeded to the sovereignty after Alexander, Seleucus became the greatest king, was the most kingly in mind, and ruled over the greatest extent of land after Alexander himself, does not seem to me to admit of question.”

“But Alexander’s own end was now near. Aristobulus says that the following occurrence was a prognostication of what was about to happen. He was distributing the army which came with Peucestas from Persia, and that which came with Philoxenus and Menander from the sea, among the Macedonian lines, and becoming thirsty he retired from his seat and thus left the royal throne empty. On each side of the throne were couches with silver feet, upon which his personal Companions were sitting. A certain man of obscure condition (some say that he was even one of the men kept under guard without being in chains), seeing the throne and the couches empty, and the eunuchs standing round the throne (for the Companions also rose up from their seats with the king when he retired), walked through the line of eunuchs, ascended the throne, and sat down upon it. According to a Persian law, they did not make him rise from the throne; but rent their garments and beat their breasts and faces as if on account of a great evil. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“When Alexander was informed of this, he ordered the man who had sat upon his throne to be put to the torture, with the view of discovering whether he had done this according to a plan concerted by a conspiracy. But the man confessed nothing, except that it came into his mind at the time to act thus. Even more for this reason the diviners explained that this occurrence boded no good to him. A few days after this, after offering to the gods the customary sacrifices for good success, and certain others also for the purpose of divination, he was feasting with his friends, and was drinking far into the night. He is also said to have distributed the sacrificial victims as well as a quantity of wine to the army throughout the companies and centuries. There are some who have recorded that he wished to retire after the drinking party to his bed-chamber; but Medius, at that time the most influential of the Companions, met him and begged him to join a party of revellers at his residence, saying that the revel would be a pleasant one.”

Alexander Seized with Fever

Alexander with his doctor

Arrian wrote: “The Royal Diary gives the following account, to the effect that he revelled and drank at the dwelling of Medius; then rose up, took a bath, and slept; then again supped at the house of Medius and again drank till far into the night. After retiring from the drinking party he took a bath; after which he took a little food and slept there, because he already felt feverish. He was carried out upon a couch to the sacrifices, in order that he might offer them according to his daily custom. After performing the sacred rites he lay down in the banqueting hall until dusk. In the meantime he gave instructions to the officers about the expedition and voyage, ordering those who were going on foot to be ready on the fourth day, and those who were going to sail with him to be ready to sail on the fifth day. From this place he was carried upon the couch to the river, where he embarked in a boat and sailed across the river to the park. There he again took a bath and went to rest. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“On the following day he took another bath and offered the customary sacrifices. He then entered a tester bed, lay down, and chatted with Medius. He also ordered his officers to meet him at daybreak. Having done this he ate a little supper and was again conveyed into the tester bed. The fever now raged the whole night without intermission. The next day he took a bath; after which he offered sacrifice, and gave orders to Nearchus and the other officers that the voyage should begin on the third day. The next day be bathed again and offered the prescribed sacrifices. After performing the sacred rites, he did not yet cease to suffer from the fever. Notwithstanding this, he summoned the officers and gave them instructions to have all things ready for the starting of the fleet. In the evening he took a bath, after which he was very ill.

The next day he was transferred to the house near the swimming-bath, where he offered the prescribed sacrifices. Though he was now very dangerously ill, he summoned the most responsible of his officers and gave them fresh instructions about the voyage. On the following day he was with difficulty carried out to the sacrifices, which he offered; and none the less gave other orders to the officers about the voyage. The next day, though he was now very ill, he offered the prescribed sacrifices. He now gave orders that the generals should remain in attendance in the hall, and that the colonels and captains should remain before the gates. But being now altogether in a dangerous state, he was conveyed from the park into the palace. When his officers entered the room, he knew them indeed, but could no longer utter a word, being speechless. During the ensuing night and day and the next night and day he was in a very high fever.”

Plutarch on Alexander the Great’s Death

Alexander hands his note that his doctor is poisoning him to his doctor

Plutarch wrote: “Here he drank all the next day, and was attacked with a fever, which seized him, not as some write, after he had drunk of the bowl of Hercules; nor was he taken with any sudden pain in his back, as if he had been struck with a lance, for these are the inventions of some authors who thought it their duty to make the last scene of so great an action as tragical and moving as they could. Aristobulus tells us, that in the rage of his fever and a violent thirst, he took a draught of wine, upon which he fell into delirium, and died on the thirtieth day of the month Dæsius. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“But the journals give the following record. On the eighteenth of the month, he slept in the bathing-room on account of his fever. The next day he bathed and removed into his chamber, and spent his time in playing at dice with Medius. In the evening he bathed and sacrificed, and ate freely, and had the fever on him through the night. On the twentieth, after the usual sacrifices and bathing, he lay in the bathing-room and heard Nearchus’s narrative of his voyage, and the observations he had made in the great sea. The twenty-first he passed in the same manner, his fever still increasing, and suffered much during the night. The next day the fever was very violent, and he had himself removed and his bed set by the great bath, and discoursed with his principal officers about finding fit men to fill up the vacant places in the army.

“On the twenty-fourth he was much worse, and was carried out of his bed to assist at the sacrifices, and gave order that the general officers should wait within the court, whilst the inferior officers kept watch without doors. On the twenty-fifth he was removed to his palace on the other side the river, where he slept a little, but his fever did not abate, and when the generals came into his chamber, he was speechless, and continued so the following day. The Macedonians, therefore, supposing he was dead, came with great clamors to the gates, and menaced his friends [254]Page 254 so that they were forced to admit them, and let them all pass through unarmed along by his bedside. The same day Python and Seleucus were despatched to the temple of Serapis to inquire if they should bring Alexander thither, and were answered by the god, that they should not remove him. On the twenty-eighth, in the evening, he died. This account is most of it word for word as it is written in the diary.

“At the time, nobody had any suspicion of his being poisoned, but upon some information given six years after, they say Olympias put many to death, and scattered the ashes of Iolaus, then dead, as if he had given it him. But those who affirm that Aristotle counselled Antipater to do it, and that by his means the poison was brought, adduce one Hagnothemis as their authority, who, they say, heard king Antigonus speak of it, and tell us that the poison was water, deadly cold as ice, distilling from a rock in the district of Nonacris, which they gathered like a thin dew, and kept in an ass’s hoof; for it was so very cold and penetrating that no other vessel would hold it. However, most are of opinion that all this is a mere made-up story, no slight evidence of which is, that during the dissensions among the commanders, which lasted several days, the body continued clear and fresh, without any sign of such taint or corruption, though it lay neglected in a close, sultry place.”

Arrian on Alexander’s Death

Arrian wrote: “Such is the account given in the Royal Diary. In addition to this, it states that the soldiers were very desirous of seeing him; some, in order to see him once more while still alive; others, because there was a report that he was already dead, imagined that his death was being concealed by the confidential body-guards, as I for my part suppose. Most of them through grief and affection for their king forced their way in to see him. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“It is said that when his soldiers passed by him he was unable to speak; yet he greeted each of them with his right hand, raising his head with difficulty and making a sign with his eyes. The Royal Diary also says that Peithon, Attalus, Demophon, and Peucestas, as well as Cleomenes, Menidas, and Seleucus, slept in the temple of Serapis, and asked the god whether it would be better and more desirable for Alexander to be carried into his temple, in order as a suppliant to be cured by him.

“A voice issued from the god saying that he was not to be carried into the temple, but that it would be better for him to remain where he was. This answer was reported by the Companions; and soon after Alexander died, as if forsooth this were now the better thing. Neither Aristobulus nor Ptolemy has given an account differing much from the preceding. Some authors, however, have related that his Companions asked him to whom he left his kingdom; and that he replied: “To the best.” Others say, that in addition to this remark, he told them that he saw there would be a great funeral contest held in his honour.”

Death of Alexander the Great

Rumour that Alexander was Poisoned

Arrian wrote: “I am aware that many other particulars have been related by historians concerning Alexander’s death, and especially that poison was sent for him by Antipater, from the effects of which he died. It is also asserted that the poison was procured for Antipater by Aristotle, who was now afraid of Alexander on account of Callisthenes. It is said to have been conveyed by Cassander, the son of Antipater, some recording that he conveyed it in the hoof of a mule, and that his younger brother Iollas gave it to the king. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“For this man was the royal cup-bearer, and he happened to have received some affront from Alexander a short time before his death. Others have stated that Medius, being a lover of Iollas, took part in the deed; for he it was who induced the king to hold the revel. They say that Alexander was seized with an acute paroxysm of pain over the wine-cup, on feeling which he retired from the drinking bout.

One writer has not even been ashamed to record that when Alexander perceived be was unlikely to survive, he was going out to throw himself into the river Euphrates, so that he might disappear from men’s sight, and leave among the men of after-times a more firmly-rooted opinion that he owed his birth to a god, and had departed to the gods. But as he was going out he did not escape the notice of his wife Roxana, who restrained him from carrying out his design. Whereupon he uttered lamentations, saying that she forsooth envied him the complete glory of being thought the offspring of the god. These statements I have recorded rather that I may not seem to be ignorant that they have been made, than because I consider them worthy of credence or even of narration.”

Was Alexander Killed by Toxic Wine

In 2014, Dr Leo Schep, an Otago University and National Poisons Centre toxicologist, said he had figured what might have killed Alexander the Great: a poisonous wine made from a common flowering plant. Archaeologyv News Network reported: “Dr Schep, who has been researching the toxicological evidence for a decade, said some of the poisoning theories – including arsenic and strychnine – were laughable” because the symptoms caused by these poisons are far different from those described before Alexander’s death. His research, co-authored by Otago University classics expert Dr Pat Wheatley and published in the medical journal Clinical Toxicology, found the most plausible culprit was Veratrum album, known as white hellebore. [Source: archaeologynewsnetwork, Ancientfoods, January 15, 2014]

“The white-flowered plant, which can be fermented into a poisonous wine, was well-known to the Greeks as a herbal treatment for inducing vomiting. Crucially, it could have accounted for the 12 torturous days that Alexander took to die, speechless and unable to walk. Other suggested poisons – including hemlock, aconite, wormwood, henbane and autumn crocus – would likely have killed him far more quickly.

Dr Schep began looking into the mystery in 2003 when he was approached by a company working on a BBC documentary. They asked me to look into it for them and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll give it a go, I like a challenge’ – thinking I wasn’t going to find anything. And to my utter surprise, and their surprise, we found something that could fit the bill.”

Dr Schep’s theory was that Veratrum album could have been fermented as a wine that was given to the leader. It would have tasted “very bitter” but it could have been sweetened with wine – and Alexander was likely to have been very drunk at the banquet. But whether Alexander was poisoned is still a mystery. “We’ll never know really … ”

Alexander demonstrating his trust in his doctor

Eulogy of Alexander

Arrian wrote: “Whoever therefore reproaches Alexander as a bad man, let him do so; but let him first not only bring before his mind all his actions deserving reproach, but also gather into one view all his deeds of every kind. Then, indeed, let him reflect who he is himself, and what kind of fortune he has experienced; and then consider who that man was whom he reproaches as bad, and to what a height of human success he attained, becoming without any dispute king of both continents, and reaching every place by his fame; while he himself who reproaches him is of smaller account, spending his labour on petty objects, which, however, he does not succeed in effecting, petty as they are. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“For my own part, I think there was at that time no race of men, no city, nor even a single individual to whom Alexander’s name and fame had not penetrated. For this reason it seems to me that a hero totally unlike any other human being could not have been born without the agency of the deity. And this is said to have been revealed after Alexander’s death by the oracular responses, by the visions which presented themselves to various people, and by the dreams which were seen by different individuals. It is also shown by the honour paid to him by men up to the present time, and by the recollection which is still held of him as more than human. Even at the present time, after so long an interval, other oracular responses in his honour have been received by the nation of the Macedonians. In relating the history of Alexander’s achievements, there are some things which I have been compelled to censure; but I am not ashamed to admire Alexander himself. Those actions I have branded as bad, both from a regard to my own veracity, and at the same time for the benefit of mankind. For this reason I think that I undertook the task of writing this history not without the divine inspiration.”

Tomb and Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great

Ptolemy I Soter (304-283 B.C.) took control of Egypt after Alexander the Great died. He was an ambitious self-made Macedonian general who served under Alexander and was also known as Ptolemy the savior. Ptolemy was crowned pharaoh in 304 B.C. on the anniversary of Alexander's death. He made offerings to the Egyptian gods, took an Egyptian throne name, and portrayed himself in pharaonic garb.

When Alexander died Ptolemy somehow got his hands of Alexander's embalmed corpse (some say he stole it as it was being shipped back to Macedonia for burial). The body had been embalmed with honey. Ptolemy put the corpse in class coffin and had it displayed to the public. [Source: Lionel Casson, Smithsonian magazine, June 1985]

Alexander's catafalque

Ptolemy brought Alexander's body to the northern coat of Egypt to shore up his claim on the region and boost his legitimacy. Ptolemy made Alexander's tomb into one of the world's first major tourist attractions and through it brought recognition to Alexandria. The corpse was exhibited in an elaborate mausoleum much as the bodies of Lenin and Mao are displayed in class cases in Moscow and Beijing. Tourist reportedly formed long lines to glimpse the famous Macedonian general's embalmed body. The body is thought to have remained there for six centuries and is thought to have maybe disappeared in riots in the A.D. 3rd century.

In February 1995, Greek archaeologist Liana Souvalzi claimed she had discovered the tomb of Alexander the Great at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt (near the Libyan border), 1,200 miles away from where the Macedonian general died in Babylon. Ruined by an ancient earthquake, the tomb consists of a 12-by-12 foot burial chamber with two antechambers and a corridor flanked by statues of two lions. The tomb, which is similar to the tomb of Alexander's father, Philip II, was identified by a tablet believed to have been written by Ptolemy I, describing how he brought the body from Alexandria.

After the announcement a Greek delegation toured the site and said there was no proof to corroborate Souvalzi's claim. A few years later funding of the excavation was stopped. The delegation claimed that what Souvaltzi found may not even be a tomb and that it appeared to have been built more than a century after Alexander's death. Souvaltzi's research was funded by her husband. She once said that she sought advice of where to look for promising site from snakes.

Plots and Grief After Alexander’s Death

Before his death, Alexander's troops, concerned he was already dead, demanded to see him. Arrian wrote: "Nothing could keep them from the sight of him, and the motive in almost every heart was grief of a sort of helpless bewilderment at the thought of losing their king. Lying speechless as the men filed by, he struggled to raise his head, and in his eyes there was a look of recognition for each individual he passed."

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “His passing was greeted very differently in different parts of his vastly enlarged empire. The traditional enemies of Macedon in Greece were thrilled to bits, whereas those Greeks and non-Greeks who had gladly worshipped him as a living god felt genuinely bereft. Whatever is thought of his lifetime achievements, there is no questioning the impact of his posthumous fame. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Roxana with Alexander IV Aegus, son of Alexander the Great

Roxanne and her son, Alexander IV, born six weeks after Alexander's death were murdered by a distant relative when the boy was 12 or 13. Alexander's mother Olympias was also killed. Plutarch wrote: “Roxana, who was now with child, and upon that account much honored by the Macedonians, being jealous of Statira, sent for her by a counterfeit letter, as if Alexander had been still alive; and when she had her in her power, killed her and her sister, and threw their bodies into a well, which they filled up with earth, not without the privity and assistance of Perdiccas, who in the time immediately following the king’s death, under cover of the name of Arrhidæus, whom he carried about him as a sort of guard to his person, exercised the chief authority. Arrhidæus, who was Philip’s son by an obscure woman of the name of Philinna, was himself of weak intellect, not that he had been originally deficient either in body or mind; on the contrary, in his childhood, he had showed a happy and promising character enough. But a diseased habit of body, caused by drugs which Olympias gave him, had ruined not only his health, but his understanding. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

Philip III Arrhidaios — Alexander the Great's half-brother and successor — and his young warrior-queen wife Eurydice, were respectively killed and forced to commit suicide by Olympias, Philip III's stepmother and Alexander’s mother. Historical texts say that Philip II was buried, exhumed, burned and re-buried: A royal tomb found in Greece containing the burned bones of a man and a young woman, some scholar believe, could belong to Philip III and Eurydice. Others say the entombed man is probably Philip II, Alexander the Great's father, making the woman in the tomb Cleopatra, Philip II's last wife (She is different from the famous Cleopatra). This Cleopatra also met a tragic end. She was either killed or forced to commit suicide by Olympias. Scholars are still debating issues whether the bones were burned dry or covered in flesh and viscera. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 8, 2011]

Alexander's Legacy

Alexander the Great's million-and-a-half square mile empire lasted for only a few decades after he died. "Alexander the Great's Empire fell, in part, because he treated his provincial subjects as defeated enemies," journalist T.R. Reid wrote in National Geographic. "The Romans treated their subjects as Romans — not outsiders but contributors." Yet Alexander must be given credit for spreading Greek culture to the corners of the known world at that time and ushering in the Hellenistic period. Arrian wrote that in one of his last speeches to his troops Alexander said "I set no limits of labors to a man of spirit, save only that the labors themselves...lead on to noble enterprises...It is a lovely thing to live with courage, and to die, leaving behind an everlasting renown."↔

Alexander is recognized for spreading Greek culture far into Asia, which in turn had an affect on government, art, literature and religion in places that had never heard of Greeks before. He Great founded 20 cities and unified the East and West. The cities helped disseminate Greek culture. He is also is credited with exposing Greece and the Western to Eastern culture. Some say he helped civilize the Persians, Sogdians and others. Of the six cities established by Alexander only Alexandria remains.

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “Thanks above all to the literary text known as the Alexander Romance, created originally at the great leader's most famous foundation - the city of Alexandria, in Egypt - Alexander has featured internationally as a hero, a quasi-holy man, a Christian saint, a new Achilles, a philosopher, a scientist, a prophet, and a visionary. The more earthy musings of the hero of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in the graveyard scene, are just one chauvinistic illustration of the fact that Alexander has featured in the literature of some 80 countries, stretching from our own Britannic islands (as Arrian, called them) to the Malay peninsula - by way of Kazakhstan. |::|

legend of the flying Alexander

“That is another way of saying that Alexander is probably the most famous of the few individuals in human history whose bright light has shot across the firmament to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. One of our best sources on Alexander, Arrian, focused on one particular quality of Alexander, his pothos or overmastering desire to achieve or experience the humanly - and divinely - unprecedented. Alexander's hunt for what was in the end unattainable by him in his lifetime provides us with the chance, and the motive, to conduct a new hunt to try to capture the daunting immensity of his achievement. |::|

Borcas, the Greek god of the west wind, was adopted by local people and made its way westward as far as Japan, where he became Fujin, the Japanese god of wind. As he moved eastward Borcas exchanged his wings for a veil as he became Vado the wind god in ancient Kushan in Pakistan. Greek-influenced images of the Buddhist gods Vaisravana and Majakala have been found in Pakistan. Images of Greek soldiers have been found in China.

The Kafir-Kalash (Kafir-Kalaish) — a tribe that lives in the Birir, Bumburet and Rambur valleys off of the Chistral Valley in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan — claim they are descendants of five of Alexander the Great's warriors. One of a handful of groups that claim Alexander's army to be their ancestors, the Kalash relate a story of Alexander's bacchanal with mountain dwellers claiming descent from Dionysus. "They were likely the forbears of the Kalash, who still worship a pantheon of gods, make wine, practice animal sacrifice — and resist conversion to Islam." Although Alexander's armies passed through the Chitral region there is little evidence that they reached the remote valleys where the Kalash live today.

Pierre A. Zalloua of the American University of Beirut Medical Center is studying if the armies of Alexander the Great left behind a genetic legacy in places he conquered. Whether Alexander the Great is from the present-day countries of Greece or Macedonia is a divisive political issue between those two nations. Each claims Alexander as their own. In 2009, Macedonia raised eyebrows when it proposed building an eight-story-high statue of Alexander the Great in the center of its capital Skopje.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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