What Caused The Death Of Alexander The Great?

JAMES ROMM Paul, on the question of the cause of Alexander’s death, there is a 2,000-plus year debate between poisoning theorists and medical diagnosticians, still going on today. Both Plutarch and Arrian believed that Alexander died of a disease, and Plutarch rather brusquely rejected the idea that he was poisoned. However Justin (the summarizer of Pompeius Trogus) emphatically supports that idea, and we know from other evidence it was prevalent in the years just after Alexander’s death. Greek writers even claimed to know “whodunnit” – most of them pointed fingers at Antipater, Alexander’s viceroy in Macedonia, and his son Cassander. Just recently, a third theory has entered the arena, that Alexander died from a maladministration of hellebore, a medicine that, if given in too large a dose, could also be a toxin. Do you think there is enough evidence to ever resolve this question — barring recovery of Alexander’s mummified corpse?

PAUL CARTLEDGE Call me an old sceptic, Jamie, but somehow poison has to me much more of a Roman than a Greek ring to it, and it’s a fact that all our surviving narrative and other accounts of Alexander come from what’s usually called the Roman period (1st century BCE to end of the 3rd CE). Obviously, the Greeks knew enough about poisons to concoct a fatal dose of hemlock for Socrates, but the killing of a king or emperor secretly by poison is an almost hackneyed theme from Mithridates King of Pontus to Roman Emperor Commodus, so I’d need pretty good objective evidence to convince myself that Alexander too met his end that way. But unless we can find his mummy, as you say, we’re not going to nail his cause of death via DNA. Instead, I’d like to hear your reaction to a couple of the more recent – and imaginative – theories. One is supposedly impersonal and medical: West Nile Virus encephalitis. The other is a rather startling spin on the old Cassander theory – that what killed Alexander was bacterium-ridden water drawn from the River Styx in Arcadia (Peloponnese) brought to Alexander in Babylon by Cassander – in a mule’s hoof.

JR I’m familiar with Adrienne Mayor’s intriguing theory about the presence of poisonous bacteria in the river Styx, but we should note that Mayor does not claim to explain Alexander’s death with it. She’s primarily interested in the origin of the legends about the Styx — said by the Greeks to stupefy even the gods — than in identifying the cause of Alexander’s demise. As to the West Nile Virus theory, I understand it is connected with a phenomenon of mass bird deaths that was noticed in the area of Babylon in the Spring of 323, which seems to me a slender thread of evidence. The problem with all disease-based explanations is that they rely on diagnoses of Alexander’s symptoms, but these are reported very differently by our different sources. The only point on which the sources agree is that Alexander became paralyzed in his last days, which of course could be the result of almost any disease or toxin, but there does seem to be an especially close link to the effects of hellebore – at least, in the view of toxicologist Leo Schep. So let me bring you back to the hellebore theory for a moment, and press you to say what you think of it? I see that Richard Stoneman, a well-regarded historian, has given it credence.

PC Richard Stoneman is indeed a well-regarded Alexander historian, especially strong on the posthumous Alexander legends and fantasies, and Leo Schep I would judge to be an equally well-regarded toxicologist, but the Atlantic Productions documentary of 2003 in which his theory was exploited seemed to me one of the worst kinds of sensational treatments of Alexander’s death. A senior ex-policeman was hired to host the show, as if he were carrying out a non-medical coroner’s autopsy, in a sort of parody of a (living) ‘reality’ programme. To me the main problem with any such pseudo- or quasi-scientific approach is that, as you say, Alexander’s terminal symptoms are very differently described by the extant sources – which are we to believe? So, I tend to restrict my own enquiries to a simple dichotomy – murder or death by ‘natural’ causes, and I tend to think that by June 323 Alexander’s body had taken so much (non-legal) punishment over so many years that it was a bit of a miracle he was still alive rather than that he should have died so relatively ’young’ at 32 going on 33. Not that there weren’t members of his immediate entourage who weren’t all that sorry that he should have died when and where he did, and some of whom would not have scrupled at resorting to poison or whatever – you’ll know their names …

JR I too prefer clean dichotomies, but the old poison/illness argument has been getting more complicated lately. I refer not only to the hellebore thesis but to an intriguing 2009 Acta Classica article by John Atkinson, “Malaria and mind-games?” The article rehearses all the theories as to what killed Alexander and adds a new one: After the king became ill, his inner circle pushed him toward death by withholding treatment and robbing Alexander of his will to live. It’s speculative, but Atkinson is an expert who has the right to speculate. His assumption, also the assumption of Brian Bosworth in an influential 1973 article, is that Alexander’s top generals wanted their king dead, as that was the only way they could stop the now-endless campaign of conquest. I’m opposed to that view myself, but impressed at how much traction it has gained.

PC You are quite right about the traction, Jamie – and if we may refer to the broadest of mass media circulation, it’s a version of it that is expressed by Oliver Stone’s narrator Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) in his controversial movie Alexander (on which I co-edited a volume of academic ’Responses’ published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2010).

JR Well, on that note, let me announce that our blog will include Oliver Stone himself as a participant, for its last two installments — starting in March, after a week’s hiatus.

Originally posted @ Archaeology News

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