Alexander the Great: Death of a King Revisted

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian, built an empire that extended from the eastern Mediterranean to India. Upon inheriting the empire, Alexander the Great continued where his father left off. He strategically led an eastern military campaign that would outspread the borders of his empire of Macedonia to Greece to the outer reaches of India.

After years of military campaigning, and as the shipbuilding of his fleet that would take his army back to Egypt was near completion, Alexander fell ill after a celebratory banquet. The Macedonian king developed a fever and suffered severe stomach pain. Shortly following, he was unable to walk or speak. Afflicted, and only able to move his hands and eyes, he remained in bed for 12 days. Alexander the Great died mysteriously just shy of his 33rd birthday.

The reason of his unexpected death has long been a subject of debate. Was it natural causes or due to injuries received during his long years in battle? Conceivably, it was due to a bacterium, malaria or from a parasite.  Alternatively, what most people believed was that the Macedonian king was poisoned.

New Zealand toxicologist Leo Schup and his colleagues have recently detailed in the medical journal, Clinical Toxicology that it is quite feasible that Alexander was indeed poisoned.  With no records of Alexander’s death, and his resting place unknown, historians have tried to reconstruct his life from written historical papers and royal documents. For historians and scientists, it is an arduous task. They must sift through papers over 300 years old to ascertain historical truth from propaganda related to the Macedonian king.

In one account, based upon Arrian, a Greek historian’s text from the “Royal Diary,” purportedly penned on the accounts of the reign of the king states, “Many pressed into the room in their grief and longing to see Alexander. They say that he remained speechless as the army filed past him. Yet he welcomed each one of them by a nod with his head or a movement of his eyes.”

For over 2,000 years, the mysterious death of this Macedonian king has puzzled researchers. Yet, the scientists at the University of Otago National Poisons Center may have finally discovered the culprit. Through their research, they found that it may have originated from a particular innocuous-looking plant called white hellebore. This poisonous white-flowering plant would have been slipped into Alexander’s wine.

With what started as research for a BBC documentary ten years ago, has captivated Shup to continue his research.  He told The New Zealand Herald, “They asked me to look into it for them and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll give it a go, I like a challenge’ – thinking I wasn’t going to find anything. And to my utter surprise, and their surprise, we found something that could fit the bill.”

In the course of their examination, Shup and his colleagues ruled out common poisons, arsenic, hemlock and strychnine. The effects and rapid onset of death didn’t match Alexander’s symptoms. The Greeks, however, were familiar with white hellebore. Used to induce vomiting, the herbal plant could have been fermented. After being mixed with actual wine to sweeten the bitter taste, the now toxic concoction could have easily been given to the king during the celebration.

The hellebore effects correspond with the king’s onset of symptoms and the length of his sickness – severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and acute muscular weakness. It affects the ability to talk, slows the heart muscle and the person would be aware but unable to move until death.

This analysis also parallels an explanation of the Macedonian king’s death inscribed by ancient Greek historian Diodorus. He stated that after drinking a large vessel of wine in Hercule’s honor, he was wracked with pain.

The excruciating death of the king is still shrouded in mystery. Without the Alexander the Great’s actual body, the question on how he died can never truly be known.

by Dawn Levesque



The Independent

NBC News

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