Who Killed Alexander the Great?

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.

Originaly Posted: History Today