by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Part One can be found HERE.
Alexander the Great was one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever known. Yet he died young, at the age of 32. What exactly caused his shocking, premature death? The main theories are below….
The leading and most widely accepted theory is death by malaria of typhoid fever. Typhoid fever and malaria were especially rife throughout the ancient world, so it is understandable why experts are quick to assume that typhoid took him – especially since he had travelled through swampy, stagnant water and muddy terrain just a few days before.
However, the ‘smoking gun’ of the typhoid/malaria theory comes from the Alexander Romance a dramatic account of the life and times of Alexander the Great that was composed in 338 BC, shortly after his death.
The romance describes Alexander writhing about with severe abdominale pain shortly before his death, which gives credence to the theory – however, there are some problems with the source.
Although the Romance is based on Alexanders’ life, it is a work of fiction. Not to mention the dozens of translations that the work has undergone over the past two centuries which has led to a variety of different works all derived from the original – so there is certainly some room for doubt.
Pages from an Armenian manuscript of the Alexander Romance from 1538–1544
Pages from an Armenian manuscript of the Alexander Romance from 1538–1544
Who would have cause to murder Alexander the Great? Quite a lot of people it seems. Many theorize that one of his wives, his generals, his half brother or even the royal cup bearer slipped Alexander some poison during the great feast at Babylon. However, suspicion mostly falls on Alexanders hosts – the Babylonians themselves.
Shortly after his arrival, an unusual incident took place in the Babylonian Royal Palace that was recorded by authors who were present in Babylon at the time: Cleitarchus, Aristobulus, and Ptolemy.
On that fateful day, Alexander left the palace to get a massage (or inspect troops, or to exercise, depending on the source). During his absence, an escaped prisoner entered the throne room, sat on Alexanders’ throne, and crowned himself with a diadem.
When apprehended and asked what he thought he was doing and how he escaped, the stranger insisted that he had been released by ‘a supreme God’. Alexander’s advisers insisted the man be put to death immediately, as the act of a stranger sitting on one’s throne was a bad omen.
Alexander was undoubtedly troubled by the incident, perhaps even recalling the prior warnings he had received. He began to grow distrustful of those around him. Allegedly he lost faith in all the gods, and become severely depressed and inconsolable.
Although each account differs slightly in details, all three agree that a stranger entered the palace, crowned himself, and was later executed.
Only one account records the prisoner as having been ‘freed by a supreme God’ which points to the clergy of Marduk, the Chaldaean astrologers.
Greek philosophers reported that the Babylonian priests had ‘strange rituals’ which, incidentally, included a ritual called ‘the substitute king’ whereby someone with a mental disability or a prisoner was placed on the throne during an eclipse to protect the true ruler from misfortune or bad omens.
The unfortunate substitute would be removed once the eclipse passed and executed.
But did Babylonians have a motive? According to one source, they did.
According to the Greek philosopher and biographer of Alexander, Arrian of Nicomedia, the Chaldaeans embezzled the money for the Etemenanki temple project and there was no money left for the new ziggurat. He believed that their primary reason for redirecting Alexander’s route to Babylon was not for Alexanders’ safety, but to keep him as far away from the city as possible, which did not work.
Arrian, philosopher and biographer of Alexander
So, could it be that the Babylonians poisoned Alexander to prevent him from uncovering their deception?
Although this is one of the most popular theories, it is unlikely. Three cuneiform tablets have since been discovered that give thorough accounts of where Alexander’s temple money was deposited and where it was spent.
Archaeologists later uncovered the demolished remains of the temple, so as far as the records demonstrate, the only thing that prevented the reconstruction of the temple was Alexanders Death shortly after his arrival in Babylon.
Natural Causes
Could it be that Alexander died of a naturally occurring illness?
A new ground-breaking new theory has been put forward by Dr Katherine Hall of the Dunedin School of Medicine that Alexander suffered from Guillain-Bare Syndrome, and that his body did not decompose for 6 days simply because Alexander was not dead yet.
Guillain-Bare Syndrome is a rare auto-immune disorder that causes paralysis. While suffering in agony in the days before his death, Alexander complained of severe back pain and a fever that robbed him of his speech.
Eventually, he could not raise his head and experienced extreme thirst, and his physicians were baffled that his body showed no signs of deterioration, and that he maintained a sound mind throughout.
These are all fitting symptoms of GBS, but it must be noted thaat this theory is based on records that come to us centuries later through Plutarch, who wrote his histories on earlier sources that are now lost.
There are many theories as to the death of Alexander, too numerous to mention here. However, they all have one thing in common: no matter which theory is followed, there are gaps in the story and room for doubt. The only truth we have is that without a body, it is impossible to establish the likelihood of one cause over another.
Historians and physicians are left with numerous sources that at times conflict with each other, appear too fantastical or even mystical to accurately interpret, or were written centuries after, based on ‘eye-witness’ accounts that have long since vanished.
Until older texts recovered or Alexanders body is found, there will always be a great mystery hanging over the death the Great King.