Alexander’s death is shrouded in mystery. From antiquity until today, scores of historians, admirers, archaeologists, authors and philosophers have written about it and each and every one has developed his own theory and his own point of view.
It is useless to retell the story – or the many versions of the story – as I certainly cannot add anything sensible to that. Like everybody else, I have, however, my own thoughts and own reflections on the matter.
Alexander’s death most certainly was first recorded in his Royal Diaries, but is the account that reached us truly reflecting what was written down at that time or has the original report been manipulated to suit his courtiers and successors? That is hard to tell, certainly 2,500 years onwards.
We have a very detailed, day-by-day account of Alexander’s whereabouts and health during the last days of his life. I find this rather strange as it sounds more like a justification than an actual report of the events. Alexander’s life has been in the balance before but not so many details were reported or at least have not survived. The first time the troops feared for the king’s life was at Tarsus after he plunged into the cold waters of the Cydnus River and the remedy of his doctor Philip was being questioned by Parmenion, in those days his trusted general. We have no day-to-day account of Alexander’s condition at that time although it must have been quite critical none the less as it kept him pinned down for several weeks.
Another life-threatening experience was during his attack on the Malian town in
when Alexander was hit by a poisonous arrow while scaling the city wall. The soldiers had been slow to follow their king, exposing him to the full force of the enemy’s attack. Alexander had to be carried away and for three days he fought between life and death. At the cost of enormous superhuman efforts, he eventually showed himself to his troops and even hoisted his battered body on the back of a horse to prove them he was still alive. No day-to-day account of his eating and drinking pattern has been recorded, and none of the worries and treatments by his doctor have been documented. All we know is that he floated down the India Indus in full view of his men. He needed much rest to help the healing process but the march to the mouth of the Indus went on as planned.
So, why this detailed list of activities in Babylon? If Alexander had been straightforwardly sick, there was no need to document his eating, drinking, or sleeping pattern during the days preceding his death.
The question that arises more often than not is, was Alexander poisoned? Attempts to take his life had occurred before. The first one mentioned in our sources is Philotas’ attempt to at least cover up the plot to kill Alexander in 330 BC. In
Central Asia, the king survived the Pages’ conspiracy said to be planned by Callisthenes. There may have been more attempts to take his life that are not necessarily recorded and the next occasion may well have arisen here in Babylon.
If Alexander was indeed poisoned, which I doubt, then Hephaistion would have died of poisoning also. Had his dear friend still been alive, the murderer(s) would have had less chance and could expect the full wrath of Hephaistion. He not only was the most intimate and dearest friend of Alexander, but also the second-in-command, the only one ever to be promoted to the title
Chiliarch and as such the obvious person to replace and take over from Alexander. Many people must have envied his privileged position.
With Hephaistion no longer in the way, the main question is, however, who would or could benefit from eliminating the king? It is not only about killing Alexander, it is also about providing a good and approved replacement. So, who would be eligible? Not Ptolemy since he withdrew soon enough to his beloved
and didn’t interfere much in the matter of succession. Not Nearchus, who was happy to keep his admiralship of the navy. Not Peucestas who made the effort to learn the Persian language and must have been quite happy in his role as satrap. Not Seleucos, who had married the daughter of Spitamenes – the only marriage that survived the big Susa wedding. Not Eumenes who had faithfully served both King Philip and Alexander for years as secretary and archivist. Not Craterus who was halfway to Egypt with strict orders to replace Antipater. Antipater has been named as possible beneficiary as he sent his son Cassander to Babylon in his place carrying a very potent poison according to some sources. If so, the poison was not very potent since it took Alexander almost ten days to die. Besides, Antipater did not hold Cassander in high esteem for he did not allow him to recline with his guests during the Symposia but had to sit like a little boy on a chair at the end of his father’s couch. When Antipater died, Polyperchon was appointed as his successor and not his own flesh and blood. That tells enough. Perdiccas may be a suspect as, after all, he helped Roxane to poison Alexander’s Persian wives after the king’s death, but that may be simply because he was still a Macedonian in heart and soul. Besides, in my honest opinion, I think he was far too loyal to Alexander to harm him in any way. Macedonia
Cassander, however, may have acted on his own, ceasing the opportunity of being delegated to Babylon. Not impossible. Although he had shared the early years at Mieza with Alexander and his Companions, he stayed behind when Alexander went east probably as persona non grata. He must have resented this denial. Fueled by his father’s attitude, he developed a deep grudge against Alexander and his clique. Life at the Babylonian court was totally alien to Cassander and he cannot have operated without inside help, possibly that of his younger brother Iollas who was one of the king’s Pages. All this is based on speculations, although eight years later Olympias accuses Cassander of murdering her son – perhaps not entirely unfounded.
If Alexander had indeed been killed with poison without involving his Bodyguards and his other faithful generals (I cannot imagine they were not), then why don’t we hear anything about an investigation to find the culprit? This was certainly the case when Philotas’ plot was discovered and also after the conspiracy of the Pages. These were, of course, led or instigated by Alexander but in his absence, the army certainly expected that much from their commanders and there was no way anyone could avoid the Macedonian legal machine.
Another possible cause of Alexander’s death could be his excessive drinking which would immediately make any investigation superfluous. The heavy drinking is at least what the Royal Diaries in all their elaborate details want us to believe, although some twenty-five years after the facts Aristobulos casually remarks that Alexander sat for hours over his wine for the sake of conversation. The drinking theory, however, has been widely developed in the Alexander Romance. On one such occasion, Alexander is spending a drinking night with twenty other guests, toasting to their health in turn with unmixed wine creating the ideal circumstances for the poisoning theory. But as we know, the Alexander Romance is to be taken with a large pinch of salt, maybe a shovel full.
Less often highlighted but very real are the prophecies made by the Chaldean diviners who advised Alexander not to enter Babylon. Their warning was recorded on cuneiform tablets and predicted Alexander’s death in these words “ When in the month Ajaru, during the evening watch, the moon eclipses, the king will die. The sons of the king will vie for the throne of their father, but will not sit on it” (see: Alexander the Great and the Magi). Alexander is not being mentioned by name, just as “king”. In our modern world we no longer believe in prophecies but maybe we should. After all, facts and figures do not explain everything.
Alexander simply dying of exhaustion and of the consequences of his near-fatal wound in
is not a heroic way to end his life that evolved between myths and reality from the beginning. But if he was indeed suffering from his chest wound, why did he not name his successors? Was he hoping and waiting for Roxane to give birth to a boy? His Persian wife Stateira is said to be pregnant as well, meaning that is was not beyond reason for Alexander wanting to live long enough to see his heir(s). Another possibility is that he was in denial and did not take his declining health seriously but that is very much unlike Alexander. His succession, I think, was a problem even for him. He was surrounded by very capable men and generals but none of them had the vision of his greater world. The only one who ever shared that insight with him was Hephaistion and he was dead. India
When on his deathbed Alexander gave his signet ring to “the strongest” he may have meant just that: the man who would be strong enough to keep his empire together but they had to work it out for themselves. A poor legacy one may say but under the circumstances, this was the best he could do for even had he indeed named Perdiccas as some sources pretend, he probably lacked the capabilities and vision to pursue Alexander’s goals? Well, time has given us the answer and Alexander was right one last time.