Babylon, 11 June 323 BC, around 05:00, Alexander the Great dies at the age of 32, having conquered an empire that stretched from Albania to the East Pakistan. What, or who, killed the Macedonian king is a question that has never been answered satisfactorily. Today, new theories are popping up and revealing that “cold cases” may also be found throughout history. Just like Stalin’s death, the death of Alexander represents a mystery that is perhaps insoluble, but it still remains irresistible to speculate over.
1) What Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” Reveals
Conspiracy buffs have done so since before the king’s body had gone cold, but there have been an extraordinary number of new accusers recently, and new suspects. The mystery was relived Oliver Stone’s “Alexander”, released in 2004 but which gained new versions in 2006 and 2008: Regardless of its artistic failures, the movie presents a historically informed theory on who killed Alexander and why. Few events were as unexpected as Alexander’s death.
The king had shown great strength during his 12-year campaign through Asia, enduring severe difficulties and strenuous fighting. Some came to think of him as divine, an idea promoted and, perhaps, entertained, by Alexander himself.
2) Alexander Had One Of His Lungs Pierced By An Arrow
In 325, fighting an army from south Asia virtually by himself, Alexander had one of his lungs pierced by an arrow, but soon after he made the most difficult of his military marches over a distance that took him 60 days walking along the arid coast of southern Iran. Consequently, when the king fell gravely ill and died two years later, the shock felt by his army of 50,000 was considerable. So was the confusion about who would be the next to lead it, because Alexander had not made any plans for his succession and had no rightful heir yet, though an heir would be born shortly after his death.
3) Disappearance Of Alexander
The sudden disappearance of a prominent figure proved to be a catastrophic turning point, the beginning of half century of instability and conflicts known today as the War of the Successors. Events of this magnitude inevitably lead to a frantic search for its causes. It is disturbing to think that it was only by chance – a drink consumed by mistake or an unknown mosquito bite – placed the ancient world in such a dangerous new path. An explanation reaffirming that such a tragedy was caused by human hands is somewhat more comforting, although it sheds a darker view of Alexander’s relationship with his Companions, the circle of friends and high-ranking officers that followed him around in Babylon.
4) Eugene Borza Research On His Death
Ancient historians have not reached a consensus on the question of Alexander’s death, although many attribute it to some unidentified disease. In 1996, Eugene Borza, a scholar specializing in ancient Macedonia, participated in a medical research at the University of Maryland, which concluded the kind died of typhoid fever; Borza has ever since defended his findings. Smallpox, malaria and leukemia have also been proposed, as well as infection by alcoholism, complications from his lung injury and pain – Hephaestion, a close friend of Alexander’s, had died a few months before – having been often seen as complicating factors. But some historians are not willing to identify a specific disease, or even choose between disease or murder: Two experts in Alexander who had once made their mind (one defended murder, the other disease) later changed their opinions to “undecided”.
With the historical research at a stalemate, “detectives” investigating Alexander’s death are coming up with new ideas and new approaches. Armed with reports issued by forensic pathologists and toxicologists, and studies in criminal psychology, they are to open a file on Alexander as though it were an ongoing murder investigation.
5) The Idea That Alexander Was Murdered First Gained Greater Attention In 2004
The idea that Alexander was murdered first gained greater attention in 2004, thanks to the end of Stone’s movie. In his epilogue, Ptolemy, played by Anthony Hopkins, looks back through the decades since his master’s death and declares: “The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… Because we could not go on.” Ptolemy then instructs the alarmed scribe registering his words to destroy what he had just written and start again. “You shall write: He died of fever and a weakened condition.”
6) Murder Conspiracy From India
The idea that the Alexander’s generals felt pushed away from their master, and to prevent them from accessory to murder, gave birth to Stone’s imaginative plot. There is some evidence that not even Alexander’s commanders were willing to follow him anywhere. In India, in 325 BC, on the eastern bank of the Indus River, Alexander’s army went on strike, so to speak, and refused to continue their march when they received orders to go east, to the Ganges. Even the most senior officers of took part in the mutiny.
Stone found this episode a precursor for the murder conspiracy, since Alexander was again planning new campaigns at the time of his death. “I can not believe that these men were following Alexander to Saudi Arabia and Carthage,” he said during an interview in 2008 at the University of California, Berkeley. Stone’s also based Ptolemy’s concealment of Alexandre’s murder on historical research, but he was indeed treading a thin line.
7) Royal Journals – A Controversial Documents On Alexander’s Death
The story composed by Ptolemy’s scribe on the death of Alexander, apparently, represents an old controversial document called Royal Journals. Although now lost, these documents were summarized (in different versions) by Arrian and Plutarch, two Greek writers of the Roman Empire who endorsed the papers as the most reliable record of the last days of Alexander.
Some scholars, led by Australian classicist Brian Bosworth, believe that the actual journals were forged to give the impression that Alexander’s death was natural, just as Stone’s movie depicts – although Bosworth blames Eumenes, the secretary at Alexander’s court, for the deceit instead of Ptolemy. Others disagree, being of the opinion that the Royal Journals were exactly what Arrian and Plutarch imagined them to be: a reliable report. The debate concerning the Royal Journals has put forward many great implications about our understanding of Alexander’s death, because Arrian and Plutarch describe this event very differently from other ancient sources.
Both authors say that Alexander became feverish after leaving a friend’s house, called Medius, quite drunk. His fever worsened over the course of the following 10 or 12 days (the reports differ in chronology), ultimately leading to a state of paralysis in which the king could not move nor speak. As his troops paraded by his deathbed, Hadrian reports that Alexander just moved his eyes as a way to say goodbye to each one of them. He died the next day. The kind died on the following day.
8) Other Accounts On His Death
But a variety of other accounts paints a very different picture, and it was on these that Stone based his movie. In this alternate version, Alexander was afflicted in the middle of the drinking feast, not later, and, more importantly, it happened as he drained a large glass of wine. These accounts say that Alexander felt as though he had been stabbed in the back after throwing the glass away and screaming loudly. From that point on, according to these sources, a variety of symptoms appear, including acute pain, seizures and delirium, but little or nothing is said about a fever, the focus of Plutarch and Arrian’s accounts.
Acute pain after a sip of wine clearly suggests poison, which is why Plutarch, in his biography of Alexander, vehemently denied that it had occurred. “Some authors think they have to say certain things, as it is part of a tragic end to great drama,” he sneered. Apparently, the dispute between those who believe Alexander had died of a disease and those who suspect murder – essentially, those who rely on the Royal Journals and those who do not – was already common place in Plutarch’s time.
Probably, all reports of Alexander’s symptoms were centrifuged in one way or another, and no one can be trusted entirely. For supporters of the poisoning scenario the main question is, of course, “who did it?” Stone’s movie is extremely cautious when answering this question. In the scene that depicts the fatal feast, complicit glances are exchanged between his companions to show that they were aware of Alexandre’s glass being poisoned, but no clue is given as to how it was put there.
It is somehow contrary to many Greek and Roman writers, who were certain that they knew not only who did it, but which poison was used. With remarkable unanimity, they pointed the finger at Antipater, the senior general that Alexander had left in charge of his homeland, Macedonia, and two of his sons, Cassander and Iollas.
9) Antipater – An Another Suspect
Antipater may have actually had a reason for wanting to see Alexander dead in the spring of 323 BC, because the king had just take him from his post and called him to Babylon, perhaps with hostile intentions. Antipater stayed in Macedonia, but Cassander was sent in his stead. According to several ancient reports, Antipater sent his son with toxic waters, collected from the legendary River Styx (believed to flow above the ground in northern Peloponnese before diving into the underworld).
The water had to be carried in a hollow mule’s hoof, because it was believed that these waters could corrode any substance, except horn. In Babylon, when reporting the fact, Cassander passed the hoof off to his brother, Iollas. Conviniently, Alexandre requested wine, and his glass was then spiced with the toxic waters. The basic elements of this story are the same in all old tales, but the details vary.
10) Aristotle As A Co-conspirator
Some versions of stories mention the philosopher Aristotle as a co-conspirator, he was a known friend of Antipater’s had been away from his former pupil, Alexander (who had sanctioned the death of Callisthenes), for a long time. Others accuse Medius, the host of Alexandre’s final dinner party, of being a Iollas’ male lover, as being a participant in the plot.
11) An Account Of Anonymous Greek Manuscript
A much older version, published in an anonymous Greek manuscript now known as The Last Days and the New Testament of Alexander, made Iollas doubly guilty: when the first draft of poison could not kill Alexander, Iollas administered a second. Until recently, historians dismissed this version of poisoning by water of the Styx as a fiction, and possibly as a political maneuver to harm Antipater and Cassander. Both competed for power in the years following Alexander’s death and had many enemies, especially Olympia, Alexander’s vengeful mother who might have helped promote the idea that Antipater’s family was to blame. Antipater’s family eventually unearthed Iollas from his grave and had his ashes scattered to the wind.
12) Mayor And Hayes Could Suggest That Alexander Was Murdered, Although The Authors Have Not Claimed So
Even the idea that the water from of the Greek river could have toxic properties seemed absurd. In 1913, the illustrious classicist JG Frazer stated that the river the Greeks identified as the Styx, which is called Blackwater or Mavroneri nowadays, contained no toxins and did not let the subject rest for almost a century. However, during a lecture at a conference in Barcelona in 2010, the historian Adrienne Mayor and the toxicologist Antoinette Hayes proposed that the limestone around Mavroneri could easily have nurtured a lethal bacteria called calicheamicin.
Chemical rests are being planned to determine if these bacteria are still found there today, even though it is likely they have disappeared over the centuries. Mayor and Hayes argue that “calicheamicin could cause sickness and death, just as it was said that Alexander experienced,” including fever, which is generally seen as evidence of a natural death. The research carried out by Mayor and Hayes could suggest that Alexander was murdered, although the authors have not claimed so. They are more interested in explaining the legend rather than that death itself.
Their thesis that the Styx was indeed strongly toxic would also add to the theory that Antipater and his sons were the main suspects in the ancient world: Cassander had traveled from Europe to Babylon just a few weeks before the onset of Alexander’s symptoms, and through a route that made it possible for Styx water could have reached the king’s glass during that banquet. Cassander later helped confirm the suspicions of the ancient world on him by usurping the throne of Macedonia and ordering the execution of Alexander’s mother, wife and son.
13) Mythic Resonance Of The Styx
The authors are also interested in how, in the Greek culture, the mythic resonance of the Styx could surprise even the gods and, therefore, made it the perfect weapon to be used by Antipater and his sons. “This is a sacred drug that would lend an aura of divinity to Alexander”, said Mayor recently. “A common drug would not do. Only a substance that is extremely rare, powerful and legendary would be appropriate for Alexander.” It remains to be seen whether such ruminations about the legend of Antipater’s conspiracy can help unravel the mystery.
14) Three New Researches
It is clear, however, that Mayor-Hayes’ approach, combined to the toxins available in the ancient world that could also cause the symptoms experience by Alexander, has become an increasingly popular explanation to the mystery. Three other researchers also tried to find answers in recent years, combining Mayor-Hayes’s findings with three new hypotheses about who could have administered the toxin: Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s leading generals, committed the murder using arsenic; Rhoxane, the king’s wife, did it using strychnine; Alexander’s doctors did so, though unintentionally, by administering powder of hellebore root.
The latest of these theories arose from the unlikely collaboration between Leo Schep, a toxicologist from New Zealand, and the Scotland Yard detective John Grieve. They were brought together by a television documentary, in 2009, about the mysterious death of Alexander the Great. Schep had, by this time, come to the conclusion that the white powder of hellebore was used medicinally by the ancient Greeks. In high doses, however, it can be lethal and explain the symptoms Alexander display.
Grieve then made the assumption that the hellebore was not delivered by an assassin, as Schep supposed, but by Alexander’s physicians who accidentally gave the patient an overdose during an attempt to heal him. Grieve’s ingenious speculation has already been endorsed by at least one expert in Alexander, the british classicist Richard Stoneman. “Hellebore, despite its dangers, was the favorite prescription of many ancient doctors because of their violent purgative effects,” observed Stoneman. “But it was easy to administer the wrong dosage, and Alexander doctors could have had access to an unknown strain of the medication in Babylon, or it could have even been misused.” But the toxicology science on which Schep and Grieve depend on, of course, is not an exact science, especially when seen from a distance of 2,300 years.
15) Graham Phillips’ Account
The author Graham Phillips presented the same record of Alexander’s symptoms as Schep did to the Los Angeles County Regional Poison Center, but received a very different response. In his 2004 book, “Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon”, Phillips argues that only strychnine could have produced a death similar to that of Alexander’s.
Following a reasoning often lacking in logic, Phillips tries to identify Alexander’s murderer by discovering who had access to strychnine.
The poisonous plant is rare along the path travelled by Alexandre in March of that fateful year, and it could be harvested only in regions of subcontinent altitudes (modern day Pakistan). Not all of Alexandre’s entourage followed through such areas, allowing Phillips to eliminate potential suspects. He concludes that only a person who could have had both a reason to kill Alexander and the means to do it: Rhoxane, the first of the king’s three wives.
She became furious with Alexander, Phillips assumes, by its two subsequent marriages to Persian princesses and poisoned him. This portrait of Rhoxane as a Medea brings to mind the popular English tragedy from the 17th century by Nathaniel Lee, The Rival Quees, but it is not supported by the evidence. Oliver Stone also portrays Rhoxane as a jealous woman, although he has made her guilty of Hephaestion’s death, who she believed to be Alexander’s lover, and not Alexander’s. The arsenic is the focus of attention in the 2004 book “The death of Alexander the Great” by Paul Doherty, novelist and amateur historian.
Doherty gives particular emphasis to a macabre piece of evidence mentioned by Plutarch and by the Roman writer Quintus Curtius: Alexander’s body does not deteriorate, even after being exposed to the heat of the Babylonian summer for a week or more. Doherty cites toxicology studies from the 19th century to demonstrate that arsenic poisoning can lead to mummification. However, the jury seems to be still out on that for obvious reasons, as the opportunities of field testing are few. If Alexander’s body really resists decomposition – and some experts consider the story a fiction – then several explanations have to be considered. Those who believe that Alexander drank until death claimed that his body was more or less preserved in alcohol. Hellebore, strychnine and calicheamicin bacteria also have preservative properties, claim the defenders of these hypothesis. Supporters of the disease scenario give a completely different and more disturbing reason for the phenomenon of non-decay: Alexander, in their opinion, only appeared to die on 11 June, for he had, in fact, fallen into a deep coma. He may still have been almost dead when the embalmers arrived, many days later, to work on him.
Doherty’s book makes use of substantial guess work when it comes to pointing at Ptolemy as the main suspect. Ptolemy has the best post-Alexander assignment among the leading generals, a post in prosperous Egypt. He finally established an independent kingdom which stood strong for centuries until it finally succumbed to after his descendant Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC. Doherty argues that who had more to gain with Alexander’s death had the greatest incentive to kill him. It is the same train of thought that Oliver Stone followed used when he made Ptolemy the leader in a conspiracy to end Alexander’s life in his movie. As the director said during an interview at the University of Berkeley: “I shall recall (the movie) JFK: Cui bono? Who benefits?” It’s amazing to think that Ptolemy or Rhoxane, two people usually considered as dependent and dedicated to Alexander would want him dead, but these possibilities cannot be ruled out. Neither Stone’s hypothesis that all the Companions were complicit of Alexanders assassination because “By silence we consented” means nobody intervened in the king’s behalf.
In fact, John Atkinson, a South African classicist, presented a very similar scenario to the one seen in Stone’s movie in a newspaper article from 2009 entitled ” Alexander’s Last Days: Malaria and Mind Games?” (co-authored by two medical specialists, Elsie and Etienne Truter). As Stone, Atkinson depicts an Alexandre who had been feared and distrusted by his closest collaborators. “They were dealing with a man who had become paranoid,” wrote he and his co-authors. “The men who valued their own lives would not wish to be led by someone who could again risk his own life and put his men in mortal danger unnecessarily.”
In Atkinson’s opinion, the campaigns which Alexander had in mind in June 323 BC included conquering Arabia, Carthage and the entire Mediterranean coast, and these had become a bridge Alexander’s officers were not willing to cross. After their mutiny back east, Atkinson argues, these men now felt that only death could prevent them from taking the West. Even considering the idea of Alexander being treated as a pariah by his own people, Atkinson rejects the idea of his being poisoned, apparently due to the symptoms.
His verdict is something closer to euthanasia: After the king fell ill, his inner circle pushed him toward death with ‘mind games’, as mentioned in the title of his book. “Those in Alexander’s court had the opportunity to influence his mind and weaken his will to survive,” Atkinson wrote. “Perhaps he had reached the point where he believed the only thing heroic left for him to do was to die.”
So What We Have Learnt & What We Can Assume
And so, the debate continues with new theories leading to even more obscure mysteries and raising increasingly difficult questions. Ironically, the net result of recent speculations was an even greater uncertainty than ever before, reaching far beyond the dichotomy between the long-lasting scenarios of death by disease or poisoning. Mayor and Hayes raise the possibility that Alexander died of an illness, but he was murdered nonetheless. John Grieve suspected that he was poisoned, but by accident. Atkinson says that Alexander’s death was not entirely criminal or completely natural, but something in the middle. If the body of Alexander’s embalmed body were found – and some researchers continue in their quest – we could finally find out what caused his death, but his remains disappeared the third or fourth century, even though it had had been previously displayed in a sumptuous monument in Alexandria. Meanwhile, researchers will continue to question the records left by Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus, Justin and Curtius Quintus.
Unfortunately, the combined existing texts are sufficiently large to allow multiple ways to connect the dots. In the absence of his physical remains and any written testimony, the ambiguous load of evidence concerning Alexander falls heavily on circumstantial evidence and presents a serious challenge to all conspiracy theorists. The opponents of such theories have long point out that Alexander himself, during the 10 or 12 days he slowly slid toward death, never gave any indication that he suspected foul play, and he had become quite an expert at sniffing out and punishing traitors in his final years. He never would have accepted his death so easily (as the Oliver Stone’s movie seems to imply), nor would his enemies would remain so for a long time if they had acted against him. A slow decline would allow him time to order their executions.
To say that Alexander was poisoned, it would be necessary to admit the job had been badly executed. The same could be said about what followed his death. The chaos and the collapse of his kingdom in the following decades do not seem to be the result of a planned assassination. If the generals’ goal was “to go home and spend their money”, as Oliver Stone said in his interview at Berkeley, they failed miserably. None of them ever returned to Macedonia and Ptolemy failed to find peace or security. Many of the others continued fighting and killing each other. Given that Alexandre aimed at having some stability in his world, they had no reason to expect anything different in June 323 BC. Any plan to poison Alexander meant too many dangers, especially for the Macedonians warriors who had no experience with toxins.
Conspiracy theorists must assume that Alexander’s generals hated their commander enough to risk losing everything. It is easier to see them as they were than how some want to portray them: A dedicated group of elite officers whose fortunes depended on to their king’s survival and success. Thus it is easier, in the end, to believe that Alexander died naturally because of some disease in spite of recent and ingenious to prove otherwise.