James Romm examines some intriguing new theories about a long-standing historical mystery.
In Babylon on June 11th, 323 BC, at about 5pm, Alexander the Great died aged 32, having conquered an empire stretching from modern Albania to eastern Pakistan. The question of what, or who, killed the Macedonian king has never been answered successfully. Today new theories are heating up one of history’s longest-running cold cases.
Like the death of Stalin, to which it is sometimes compared, the death of Alexander poses a mystery that is perhaps insoluble but nonetheless irresistible. Conspiracy buffs have been speculating about it since before the king’s body was cold, but recently there has been an extraordinary number of new accusers and new suspects. Fuel was added to the fire by Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004 with new versions in 2006 and 2008: a film that, whatever its artistic flaws, presents a historically informed theory about who killed Alexander and why.
Few events have been as unexpected as the death of Alexander. The king had shown fantastic reserves of strength during his 12-year campaign through Asia, enduring severe hardships and taking on strenuous combat roles. Some had come to think of him as divine, an idea fostered, and perhaps entertained, by Alexander himself. In 325, fighting almost single-handed against South Asian warriors, Alexander had one of his lungs pierced by an arrow, yet soon afterwards he made the most arduous of his military marches, a 60-day trek along the barren coast of southern Iran.
Consequently, when the king fell gravely ill and died two years later, the shock felt by his 50,000-strong army was intense. So was the confusion about who would next lead it, for Alexander had made no plans for succession and had as yet produced no legitimate heir (though one would be born shortly after his death). The sudden demise of such a commanding figure would indeed turn out to be a catastrophic turning point, the start of a half-century of instability and strife known today as the Wars of the Successors.
Events of such magnitude inevitably prompt a search for causes. It is disturbing to think that blind chance – a drink from the wrong stream or a bite from the wrong mosquito – put the ancient world on a perilous new course. An explanation that keeps the change in human hands may in some ways be reassuring, even though it involves a darker view of Alexander’s relations with his Companions, the inner circle of friends and high-ranking officers that surrounded him in Babylon.
Ancient historians have reached no consensus on the cause of Alexander’s death, though many attribute it to disease. In 1996 Eugene Borza, a scholar specialising in ancient Macedon, took part in a medical board of inquiry at the University of Maryland, which reached a diagnosis of typhoid fever; Borza has since defended that finding in print. Malaria, smallpox and leukaemia have also been proposed, with alcoholism, infection from the lung wound and grief – Alexander’s close friend Hephaestion had died some months earlier – often seen as complicating factors. But some historians are unwilling to identify a specific illness, or even to choose between illness or murder: two Alexander experts who once made this choice (one on each side) later changed their opinions to undecided.
With historical research at an impasse, Alexander sleuths are reaching out for new ideas and new approaches. Armed with reports from toxicologists and forensic pathologists and delving themselves into criminal psychology, they are re-opening the Alexander file as an ongoing murder investigation.
The idea that Alexander was murdered first gained wider attention in 2004, thanks to the ending of Stone’s film. In its epilogue Alexander’s senior general Ptolemy (played by Anthony Hopkins), looking back over decades at his commander’s death, declares: ‘The truth is, we did kill him. By silence, we consented … Because we couldn’t go on.’ Ptolemy then instructs the alarmed scribe recording his words to destroy what he has just written and start again. ‘You shall write: He died of disease, and in weakened condition.’
The idea that Alexander’s generals felt pushed too far by their master and colluded in his murder in order to stop him did not arise out of Stone’s famously plot-prone imagination. There is some evidence that not even Alexander’s senior commanders were willing to follow him anywhere. In India in 325 BC, at the eastern edge of the Indus river system, Alexander’s army staged a sit-down strike, when ordered to march eastward towards the Ganges. Even the highest ranking officers took part in the mutiny. Stone considered this episode a forerunner of the later murder conspiracy, since Alexander was again planning vast new campaigns at the time of his death. ‘I can’t believe that these men were going on with Alexander’ to Arabia and Carthage, he said in a 2008 interview at the University of California, Berkeley.
Stone likewise drew on historical research for the idea that Ptolemy masterminded a cover-up of Alexander’s murder, but the waters he is wading in here are very murky indeed. The account Ptolemy tells his scribe to compose at the end of Alexander apparently represents a controversial ancient document called the Royal Journals. Though now lost it was summarised (in different versions) by Arrian and Plutarch, two Greek writers of the Roman Empire, who endorsed it as the most reliable record of Alexander’s last days. Some scholars, led by the Australian classicist Brian Bosworth, believe the Royal Journals were falsified to make Alexander’s death appear natural, just as Stone’s film represents (though in Bosworth’s view the culprit was Eumenes, Alexander’s court secretary, rather than Ptolemy). Others disagree, taking the Journals to be just what Arrian and Plutarch thought they were, an undoctored, day-by-day eyewitness account.
The debate over the Royal Journals has huge implications for our understanding of Alexander’s death, because Arrian and Plutarch describe that event very differently to other ancient sources. Both authors say that Alexander became feverish after leaving a drinking party at the home of a friend named Medius. His fever grew worse over the course of 10 or 12 days (the two accounts differ in chronology), leading finally to a paralytic state in which the king could neither move nor speak. As his troops shuffled past his sickbed, Arrian reports, Alexander could only shift his eyes to say farewell to each one. Death followed the next day.
But a variety of other accounts paint a very different picture and it was these that Stone followed in Alexander. In this alternate version Alexander was first stricken in the midst of the drinking party rather than afterward and, more importantly, just as he drained a huge cup of wine. These accounts say that Alexander felt a stabbing sensation in the back after downing the cup and cried aloud. From that point on these sources record a variety of symptoms, including great pain, convulsions and delirium, but they say little or nothing about fever, the keynote of the Plutarch and Arrian accounts.
A stabbing pain following a drink of wine would clearly suggest poison, which is why Plutarch, in his biography of Alexander, vehemently denied that it had occurred. ‘Some writers think they have to say such things, as though composing the tragic finale of a great drama’, he sneered. Apparently the dispute between those who thought Alexander had died of disease and those who suspected murder – essentially, those who did or did not trust the Royal Journals – was already rife in Plutarch’s day. Probably all reports of Alexander’s symptoms were spun one way or the other and none can be trusted absolutely.
For supporters of the poisoning scenario the central question is, of course, ‘whodunnit?’ Stone’s film is remarkably cagey about answering this question. In the scene that portrays the fatal banquet dark looks are exchanged among the Companions to show that they know Alexander’s cup contains poison, but no clue is given as to how it got there. By contrast many Greek and Roman writers were certain they knew not only who did it, but how and with what poison. With remarkable uniformity they pointed their fingers at Antipater, the senior general whom Alexander had left in charge of the Macedonian homeland, and at two of his sons, Cassander and Iollas.
Antipater may indeed have had reason to want Alexander dead in the spring of 323 BC, for the king had just removed him from his post and summoned him to Babylon, perhaps with hostile intent. Antipater stayed put but sent Cassander in his stead. According to several ancient accounts Antipater sent with his son a draught of toxic water, collected from the legendary river Styx (believed to flow above ground in the northern Peloponnese before plunging down into the underworld). The water had to be transported in a hollowed-out mule’s hoof, for it was said to eat right through any other substance but horn. In Babylon, ran the story, Cassander passed this mule’s hoof to his brother Iollas – conveniently enough, Alexander’s wine-pourer – who then slipped the toxin into the king’s drink.
The basic elements of this story are the same in every ancient retelling, but details vary. Some versions mention the philosopher Aristotle as a co-conspirator; he was a known friend of Antipater and probably estranged by that time from his former student Alexander, who had sanctioned the death of his relative Callisthenes. Others make Medius, the host of the final, fatal dinner party and allegedly Iollas’ male lover, a participant in the plot. One very early version, published in an anonymous Greek pamphlet, now known as The Last Days and Testament of Alexander, made Iollas doubly guilty: when the first draught of poison failed to kill Alexander, Iollas administered a second, soaking in Styx water the feather he used to help the king vomit.
Until recently historians dismissed the story of the Styx water-poisoning as a fiction, possibly a political smear designed to harm Antipater and Cassander. Both were contestants for power in the era after Alexander’s death and had many enemies, especially Olympias, Alexander’s vengeful mother (who, perhaps to help foster the idea of Antipater’s family’s guilt, eventually had Iollas’ grave dug up and his ashes scattered to the wind). Even the idea that ordinary Greek river water could have toxic properties seemed absurd. In 1913 the distinguished classicist J.G. Frazer declared that the waters the Greeks identified as the Styx, today called Blackwater or Mavroneri, contained no toxins and there the matter rested for almost a century.
But, in a presentation 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 bacterium called calicheamicin. Chemical tests are being planned to determine whether such bacteria are still present today (though they may have disappeared over the centuries). Mayor and Hayes argue that ‘calicheamicin could cause illness and death like that described for Alexander’ – including his high fever, usually seen as proof of a natural death.
The research of Mayor and Hayes might suggest that Alexander was murdered, though the authors themselves stop short of that claim. They are more interested in explaining the legend than the death itself. Their thesis that the Styx really was strongly toxic would account for why Antipater and his sons were the ancient world’s prime suspects: Cassander’s journey from Europe to Babylon just a few weeks before the onset of Alexander’s symptoms provided an obvious conduit by which Styx water could have arrived at the king’s banquet table. (Cassander later helped confirm the ancient world’s suspicions about him by usurping the throne of Macedonia and executing Alexander’s mother, wife and son.)
The authors are also interested in how, in the Greek imagination, the mythic resonance of the Styx, a river thought able to stupefy even the gods, made it an ideal weapon for Antipater and his sons to use. ‘Such a sacred drug would lend an aura of divinity to Alexander’, Mayor said recently. ‘An ordinary, common drug would not do. Only a very rare, potent and legendary substance would be appropriate for Alexander.’
It remains to be seen whether such glosses on the legend of Antipater’s conspiracy can help crack the mystery. But it is clear that the Mayor-Hayes approach, matching toxins available to the ancient world with Alexander’s reported symptoms, has become an increasingly popular route into that mystery. Three other investigators have pursued it in recent years, combining it with three new hypotheses about who might have administered the toxin: Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s leading generals, committed the murder with arsenic; Rhoxane, the king’s wife, did it with strychnine; Alexander’s physicians did it, but by accident, with powdered hellebore root.
The last of these theories emerged from the unlikely collaboration of the New Zealand toxicologist Leo Schep and the Scotland Yard detective John Grieve. These two men were brought together in a 2009 television documentary, Alexander the Great’s Mysterious Death. Schep had by that time arrived at the conclusion that powdered white hellebore, used medicinally by the ancient Greeks but lethal in large doses, could best account for Alexander’s recorded symptoms. Grieve then made the guess that the hellebore was not delivered by an assassin, as Schep had supposed, but by Alexander’s doctors, who accidentally overdosed their patient while trying to cure him.
Grieve’s ingenious speculation is only that, but has already won the endorsement of at least one Alexander specialist, the British classicist Richard Stoneman. ‘Hellebore, despite its dangers, was the favourite prescription of many ancient doctors because of its violent purgative effects’, Stoneman notes. ‘But it was easy to get the dose wrong, and Alexander’s doctors might have had access to an unfamiliar strain of the drug in Babylon – or even misread the Babylonian label.’
But the toxicology on which Schep and Grieve rely is evidently not an exact science, especially when practiced at a distance of 2,300 years. The author Graham Phillips submitted the same record of Alexander’s symptoms as Schep’s to the Los Angeles County Regional Poison Center but obtained a very different answer. In his 2004 book Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon Phillips maintains that only strychnine could have produced a death like Alexander’s.
Following a twisting, at times tortuous, trail of logic Phillips tries to identify Alexander’s murderer by finding out who had access to strychnine. The poisonous plant is rare along Alexander’s route of march and could be harvested only in high elevation regions of the subcontinent (modern Pakistan). Not all of Alexander’s retinue followed him into such areas, allowing Phillips to eliminate potential suspects. He concludes that only one person who might have had a motive to kill Alexander also had the means: Rhoxane, the first of the king’s three wives. She had become enraged at Alexander, Phillips assumes, by his two subsequent marriages to Persian princesses and killed him. This view of Rhoxane as a latter-day Medea revives one popularised in the 17th-century English tragedy by Nataniel Lee, The Rival Queens, but is not supported by evidence. (Oliver Stone, too, portrays Rhoxane as a murderously jealous woman, though he makes her guilty of the death of Hephaestion – in his view, Alexander’s male lover – rather than Alexander himself.)
Arsenic gets the spotlight in a 2004 book, The Death of Alexander the Great by Paul Doherty, novelist and amateur historian. Doherty lays particular stress on a macabre piece of evidence mentioned by Plutarch and the Roman writer Quintus Curtius: Alexander’s body did not decay even after lying exposed to the summer heat of Babylon for a week or more. Doherty cites toxicology studies of the 19th century to show that arsenic poisoning can lead to mummification. However the jury seems to be out on this point and, for obvious reasons, opportunities for field tests are few.
If Alexander’s body really did resist decomposition – and some experts consider the story a fiction – then numerous explanations have to be considered. Those who believe Alexander drank himself to death have claimed that his corpse was more or less pickled in alcohol. Strychnine, hellebore and the calicheamicin bacteria have all been given preservative properties by their various adherents. Defenders of the disease scenario give an entirely different and more disturbing reason for the non-decay phenomenon: Alexander, in their view, only appeared to die on June 11th; he actually entered a deep coma. He may still have been barely alive when embalmers arrived many days later to disembowel him.
Doherty’s book uses some intriguing guesswork to arrive at Ptolemy as its lead suspect. Ptolemy got the best post-Alexander assignment of any of the leading generals, a posting in wealthy Egypt. He eventually established an independent kingdom there that endured for centuries, until finally lost by his descendant Cleopatra in 30 BC. Doherty argues backward from Ptolemy’s later success, reasoning that he who gained the most from Alexander’s death had the greatest incentive to bring it about. It is the same thinking that Oliver Stone used when he made Ptolemy a principal member of the murder plot depicted in Alexander. As the director said in the Berkeley interview: ‘I go back to [the film] JFK: Cui bono? Who benefits?’
It is startling to think that Ptolemy or Rhoxane, two people normally regarded as dependent on and devoted to Alexander, may have wanted him dead, but those possibilities cannot be ruled out. Neither can Stone’s hypothesis that the entire general staff colluded in Alexander’s murder, at least by not intervening to prevent it (‘By silence we consented’). Indeed John Atkinson, a South African classicist, has put forward a scenario very much like that of Stone’s film in a 2009 journal article entitled ‘Alexander’s Last Days: Malaria and Mind Games?’ (co-authored with two medical specialists, Elsie and Etienne Truter).
Like Stone, Atkinson portrays an Alexander who in his final months was feared and mistrusted by his closest associates. ‘The officers were dealing with a man who had become paranoid and cheap’, he and his co-authors write. ‘Men who valued their own lives would have no wish to be led by one who might again risk his own life and put his men into unnecessary mortal danger.’ In Atkinson’s view the campaigns Alexander had in mind in June 323 BC – including conquest of Arabia, Carthage and the entire Mediterranean coast – were a bridge too far for Alexander’s officers. Having turned him back from the East by mutiny, he argues, these men now felt only death could stop him from taking on the West.
Even while regarding Alexander as a pariah to his own people, Atkinson rejects the idea that he was poisoned, seemingly on the grounds of his symptoms. His verdict is something closer to euthanasia: after the king became ill his inner circle pushed him toward death using the ‘mind games’ of the article’s title. ‘The officers in Alexander’s court had the opportunity to work on his mind and undermine his will to survive’, Atkinson writes. ‘Maybe he reached the point of believing that the only heroic thing left for him to do was to die.’
And so the debate goes on with new paths leading to darker mysteries and raising increasingly difficult questions. Ironically the net result of recent theorising has been to create greater uncertainty than ever, even to break down the longstanding dichotomy between illness and poison scenarios. Mayor and Hayes raise the possibility that Alexander died of an illness but was nonetheless murdered; John Grieve suspects he was poisoned, but by accident. Atkinson makes the case that Alexander’s death was neither entirely criminal nor entirely natural, but something in between.
If the embalmed body of Alexander is ever found – and some researchers continue to hunt for it – we may finally learn what caused his death, but the mummy disappeared from view in the third or fourth century ad (it had been displayed before that in a sumptuous monument at Alexandria). Meanwhile investigators will continue to pore over the records left behind by Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus, Justin and Quintus Curtius. Unfortunately the pool of textual data is large enough to allow multiple ways of connecting the dots.
With physical remains lacking and written testimony ambiguous the burden of proof in the Alexander case falls heavily on circumstantial evidence and much of this presents a grave challenge to all conspiracy theories. Opponents of such theories have long noted that Alexander himself, during the 10 or 12 days he slid towards death, never gave any sign that he suspected poison, though he had become quick to sniff out and punish traitors in his final years. He would never have gone willingly to his death (as Oliver Stone’s film appears to imply), nor would his enemies have allowed him to linger so long if they had in fact acted against him. A slow decline would allow him to order their executions. To assert that Alexander was poisoned one would have to admit that the job was badly bungled.
The same point could be made about what followed Alexander’s death. The chaos and collapse in the succeeding decades looks nothing like the result of a planned assassination. If the goal of the generals was to ‘go home and spend their dough’, as Oliver Stone asserted in his Berkeley interview, they failed miserably. None ever returned to Macedonia and only Ptolemy succeeded in gaining any measure of peace or security. Many of the others continued fighting and killing each other. Given how central Alexander was to the stability of their world, they had no reason in June 323 BC to expect otherwise.
Any plan to poison Alexander would have been fraught with perils, especially for Macedonian warriors who had no experience with toxins. Conspiracy theories have to assume that Alexander’s generals hated their commander enough to risk everything. It is easier to see them in the way the sources portray them: as a dedicated cadre of elite officers reliant for their fortunes on the survival and success of their king. Thus it is easier, in the end, to believe that Alexander died of disease, despite ingenious and determined recent efforts to prove otherwise.
James Romm is James H. Ottaway Jr Professor of Classics at Bard College in Annandale, New York and the author of Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire (Knopf, 2011).