The Mysterious Death Of Alexander The Great

By the age of 32, Alexander of Macedon had forged the greatest empire the world had ever seen He conquered more than five million square kilometres, stretching from northern Greece to ancient Egypt, over Persia and across modern Pakistan to the edge of the Himalayas

After a decade of constant military campaigns, Alexander remained undefeated He founded 70 cities, and was popular with his own soldiers and the people he conquered Yet, in June 323 BC, he suddenly succumbed to mysterious pains, paralysis and death

Rumours arose that he was poisoned Modern historians think he died of disease, but cannot determine which one What, or who, killed Alexander the Great? Alexander’s death was unusual in many ways He was a remarkably fit man, leading the charge in battle and often recklessly endangering himself, but always coming through He had withdrawn his army to Babylon, the new centre of his empire, and was planning his next military campaigns into Arabia

According to the biographer Plutarch, Alexander feasted for several days, drinking large amounts of wine The Greek historian Diodorus says Alexander consumed a large bowlful of unmixed wine, before being struck by sudden pains in his abdomen Over the next twelve days, Alexander lost the ability to speak, and eventually could not move In great agony, he slipped into a coma and passed away without an obvious heir His generals soon carved up the empire in a great civil war

The cause of Alexander’s death was a mystery even at the time His symptoms do not suggest it was merely liver failure from too much alcohol Plutarch says he suffered a fever, and stories of him being poisoned are untrue Today, most historians agree with Plutarch They argue the poisons of the time do not match Alexander’s symptoms

Strychnine and arsenic do not create the abdominal pain and progressive muscle weakness he experienced Hemlock causes paralysis and coma before death, but acts far faster than the twelve days Alexander suffered Henbane induces mania and visual disturbances, but Alexander was lucid in his final days Cambridge University’s Doctor Paul Cartledge therefore favours the idea that Alexander died from malaria, which was common in Babylon So too was typhoid fever, which matches the symptoms, and which University of Maryland Medical Doctor David Oldach believes killed Alexander

His inability to speak may have been the result of one of his many old war wounds However, Diodorus says Alexander did not suffer a fever, suggesting his symptoms were not from a disease Alexander’s mother claimed he was poisoned Moreover, recent research has identified the poison that most probably killed him Toxicologist Doctor Leo Schep from New Zealand’s National Poisons Centre says that Alexander’s wine was probably laced with white hellebore

This plant was often fermented by the Greeks as a herbal treatment to induce vomiting It is slow acting, and all its symptoms match Alexander’s, including nausea and muscle weakness Even in the 21st century, people have accidentally poisoned themselves by ingesting wild white hellebore If Alexander was poisoned, who murdered him? The most likely suspect is one of Alexander’s generals Towards the end of his life, Alexander claimed to be the son of Zeus, and demanded more and more from his soldiers

His rash actions often led to unnecessary casualties Nevertheless, the generals followed him loyally for 13 years They refused him only once, a few months before his death: when Alexander was on the edge of India and ready to push forwards, they insisted the Macedonian veterans return home and rest That is why Alexander was in Babylon when he died Additionally, Alexander had developed a habit of executing nobles who displeased or disobeyed him

Any one of the generals might have feared for his life as Alexander grew more despotic And the way they fought over Alexander’s empire after his death, demonstrates how ambitious and power hungry they were Furthermore, assassinating the king was something of a tradition in Macedon: Alexander’s own father was murdered in public Alexander’s mother accused Antipater, a Macedonian general He seems the most likely culprit

Antipater was regent of Macedonia while Alexander conquered the world Later, he would rule the whole empire, and his son would become king But in 323 BC, Alexander removed Antipater from office and summoned him to Babylon

Other generals summoned to Alexander had been executed, so Antipater mave have thought he had a death sentence His son happened to be the official wine-pourer in Alexander’s court It would have been easy to arrange Alexander’s fatal toast Yet in a surprising twist, Antipater may have had help from the man who taught Alexander The famed philosopher and scientist, Aristotle

His close relationship with his former pupil deteriorated badly as they disagreed over Alexander’s methods Alexander even killed the old man’s nephew Alexander the Great’s body was placed in an incredible tomb in Alexandria Unfortunately, his remains have been lost to time Without them, we cannot scientifically prove or disprove the theory that he was poisoned

Dr Leo Schep says that, even if we had Alexander’s bones, traces of the white hellebore poison would probably not be detectable The mysterious sickness that brought down history’s greatest general does not comfortably fit any likely disease or poison All we can know is that, by the end of his remarkable life, Alexander was loved, feared and hated by the men who surrounded him, in a culture where kings could be removed by violence and the empire would continue

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