A 2,300 Year Old Cold Case: Was Alexander the Great Murdered?

A 2,300 Year Old Cold Case: Was Alexander the Great Murdered?

Patrick Lynch - February 11, 2017

On June 10-11 323 BC, one of the best military commanders of all time, Alexander the Great, died in Babylon. He was just 32 years of age, and one wonders how history would have changed had he lived longer. The legendary leader was still in his prime and had grand ambitions of further conquest. Given his remarkable career, it is likely that Alexander would have fulfilled at least some of his aims.

His death was unexpected, to say the least, because, during an incredible 12-year Asian campaign, Alexander proved to be seemingly indestructible. In 325 BC, a South Asian warrior struck the general with an arrow and pierced his lung. That could have been fatal, and for a lesser mortal, it would signal the end of any further thoughts of conquest. Alexander was no ordinary man, however, and soon after the injury, he embarked on an arduous 60-day trek through southern Iran.

The Death of Alexander

It isn’t a stretch to suggest that Alexander was murdered. After all, there is evidence that even his most loyal generals were fed up with constant traveling, fighting, and conquest. In 325 BC, Alexander ordered a march east towards the Ganges in India, but his generals staged a sit-down protest and refused to continue. At the time of his death, Alexander was planning a new campaign in Arabia, so perhaps his generals had enough and decided to kill him?

Sometime in late May 323 BC, Alexander was in the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon. Although ancient sources such as Arrian and Plutarch vary in their accounts of his death, both say that he developed a fever after a memorial party to honor a dead friend. By the middle of the evening, Alexander collapsed after seizing up in agony. He was taken to his bedchamber where he spent up to 12 days before he slipped into a coma and died.

A 2,300 Year Old Cold Case: Was Alexander the Great Murdered?
The rebuilt palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon. Gospel Doctrine

Sources suggest the symptoms included tremors, a stiff neck, agitation and severe stomach pain. Other issues included extreme thirst, delirium, convulsions and hallucinations followed by calm periods. As he edged towards death, Alexander couldn’t speak and he could only move his arms and head with great difficulty. When it became apparent that he wouldn’t recover, his troops filed by him mournfully. Alexander could only move his eyes to say goodbye to them. He died the following day. Another account says the commander felt a sudden stabbing pain after drinking wine; the sign of poison. Plutarch dismissed the notion out of hand.

The news was greeted with profound sadness as the mother of Darius III, Sisygambis, refused to eat or drink and died a few days after learning of Alexander’s death. Achaemenid subjects shaved their heads as a tribute while residents and Macedonians wept openly. Was Alexander the Great murdered? Keep reading for theories on one of the oldest and most compelling whodunits in history.

A 2,300 Year Old Cold Case: Was Alexander the Great Murdered?
Alexander with the Macedonian cavalry. History of Macedonia

Theories on How Alexander Died

Of the likely causes, poisoning is among the most plausible. Malaria is unlikely since it comes from mosquitoes in jungle regions and Alexander was in a desert where he wouldn’t have come into contact with mosquitoes. Alcohol poisoning from overindulgence can be discounted as common symptoms include projectile vomiting; none of the sources tell us that Alexander suffered from severe vomiting. Typhoid would have affected a lot of people in the area, and there are no reports of a typhoid epidemic in Babylon at that time.

That leaves us with poisoning. Alexander’s body didn’t show signs of decomposition for six days despite being left in a warm location. A lethal dose of a toxic substance could delay the decay, but what kind of poison? Dr. Leo Schlep believes Alexander died after drinking poisoned wine from a harmless-looking plant that becomes lethal when fermented. Schlep identified white hellebore as the culprit and discounted poisons such as arsenic, hemlock, aconite, and strychnine because such fast-acting methods wouldn’t allow Alexander to survive 12 days.

Another theory suggests that one of Alexander’s men gave him poison water from the River Styx and when it failed to kill him, gave him a second cup and helped him get sick with a feather coated in the water. It seems absurd that river water could poison the king, but in a conference in Barcelona in 2010, a report suggested that the limestone around the river (called the Mavroneri today) might have produced a deadly bacterium called calicheamicin.

Who Killed Him?

Ancient sources point the finger at Antipater and his sons Iollas and Cassander. Alexander left Antipater in charge of Macedonia while he tried to conquer Asia. The king removed Antipater from his post in 323 BC and called him to Babylon. The angry general stayed at home but sent Cassander with a draught of toxic water from the Styx.

Alexander’s trusted General Ptolemy is another suspect. Of all the leading generals, Ptolemy fared the best in the division of land after his leader’s death. He almost certainly had a lust for power and reportedly stayed in the camp with the men while Alexander remained alone dreaming of future conquests. Ptolemy was apparently obsessed with the golden treasures near the River Nile, and maybe he believed the death of Alexander was the best way to achieve his goal?

Sources tell us that Ptolemy took the mummified body of his dead leader to Alexandria where he declared himself Pharaoh of Egypt. The embalmed body of the king disappeared from the Egyptian city in the third or fourth century AD, so we will never know the truth about Alexander’s death.

A 2,300 Year Old Cold Case: Was Alexander the Great Murdered?

The case against poison also makes sense. Alexander quickly snuffed out enemies in his later years. If he suspected an assassination attempt, he would have weeded out the perpetrators before his death. His inner circle knew how ruthless he was so they would hardly have risked such a slow-acting poison; that or they made a terrible mess of the job.

If his men killed him to enjoy their spoils, it was a bad decision. Only Ptolemy enjoyed success after the death of Alexander as he presided over a new Egyptian Dynasty. Most of his leading generals died fighting each other, and none of them returned home to Macedonia. Perhaps his death was the result of short-sighted foolishness from his generals, or maybe it was simply a tragic occurrence due to illness. Whatever happened, we know the death of Alexander the Great changed the course of history. The result was a half-century of instability and the breaking up of his vast empire. Most men follow, Alexander was born to lead.