The Death of Alexander the Great

Painting of Alexander | Jean-Simon Berthélemy's

King of Egypt, King of Persia, King of Macedonia… These are just some of the many titles that belonged to Alexander III of Macedon. The title he is most commonly referred to is Alexander the Great due to his reputation as a military leader and the fact that he is one of the most well known names in history. There are plenty of pieces of literature, paintings, sculptures, and descriptions that depict Alexander and tell of his battles and of his great empire. Still, despite all of our knowledge about Alexander, historians are still puzzled by the mystery surrounding his death. So the question stands, how did Alexander the Great die? I argue that Alexander died by assassination, or more specifically, by some form of poisoning.   

Alexander was a great military commander and was even successfully able to execute the conquests of several large empires, including Persia and Egypt.1 It is said that his army never once lost a battle, and at the peak of his rule, the Persian Empire became one of the largest and most populated empires in history. People viewed him as a godlike being because of his military prowess and other great accomplishments as king. It seems that even he thought of himself as a god, as he would always wear sacred clothes mimicking the appearances of Artemis and Hermes.2 It is easy to see how being the king of such a large empire can give a man a bloated ego. It has even been documented that, among the many questions he would ask other philosophers, he would always ask, “How can a man become a god?” This god-complex of his most likely played a role in his actions, as well as to what led to his assassination. But before discussing possible motivations for him being a target of assassination, the two known accounts of his death must be examined.

Painting of Battle of Guagamela|Jan Brueghel the Elder's "Batlle of Guagamela|Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Painting of Battle of Guagamela| Jan Brueghel the Elder’s “Battle of Guagamela”| Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are only two known accounts of his death, but they differ greatly in the retelling of the king’s death. The first account can be found in the “Royal Diary,” a journal written on Alexander’s everyday life. It is presumed that it was written by Alexander’s chief secretary shortly after his death. The most supported and likely reason for this is that the diary was meant to silence the rumors that his death was a result of poison.3 The second source can be found in the pages of the Alexander Romance. The Alexander Romance is a book that contains mostly fictional collections of stories, but also contains some accurate information regarding Alexander’s death.4 

Both sources place Alexander at a banquet and, in addition to having fallen ill, Alexander had planned to invade Arabia, which may have provided motive to kill him. This provides support for the theory of him being poisoned so that the invasion of Arabia could have been prevented. According to the account from the Alexander Romance, Alexander first experienced a stinging pain at the banquet and felt weak for the next few days, but had no symptoms of fever. On the other hand, the other account depicts almost the polar opposite of the Romance. It describes Alexander as first developing a small fever that slowly got worse and worse until his inevitable death.5 The differences make it hard to be able to narrow down the possible causes of death and also bring into question the reliability of these two accounts.

The possibility that Alexander was poisoned is fairly high, considering the symptoms he experienced, especially those described in the Alexander Romance, but these symptoms could also be attributed to a number of common diseases in Alexander’s time. Along with anyone who was against the Arabian invasion, there were a number of other people that could have wanted him dead. Another motivation could be Alexander’s Exile Decree. This was Alexander’s plan to allow the people exiled from Greek cities to return to their homes.6 It was a complex issue at the time and it is easy to see why people would oppose this and even possibly go as far as to assassinate Alexander.

With so many people against the king’s actions and so many possible motivations for assassination, it is hard to argue that no one was responsible for his death. The two accounts of his symptoms prior to death are the only things available to us, along with a few more records and accounts that are not as detailed or reliable. There are skeptics that believe these two accounts also cannot be trusted because they are written by people who were not in favor with Alexander.7 The article looks into whether or not Alexander’s death was due to his use of consuming alcohol. The article concludes that the authors of the accounts most likely wanted it to seem as though that was the case so as not to draw suspicion and to go against the notion that he may have been assassinated.

And so, given all the known facts and sources, it is reasonable to conclude that Alexander the Great died due to poisoning. He was going to die at the hands of his men sooner or later given the amount of people and subjects he ruled over and he was bound to make enemies. Unfortunately, his dreams of conquest came to an abrupt end, following him to his grave. Still, Alexander remains one of the greatest conquerors in history, having conquered a multitude of other empires and accumulating land and wealth for his own empire.

  1. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Alexander the Great,” by Reynolds G. Clark.
  2. Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great: Man and God (Hoboken: Routledge, 2014), 272.
  3. Edward M. Anson, Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 181-183.
  4.  Leo J. Schep et al., “Was the Death of Alexander the Great due to Poisoning? Was It Veratrum Album?,” Clinical Toxicology, no. 1 (January 2014): 73.
  5.  Leo J. Schep et al., “Was the Death of Alexander the Great due to Poisoning? Was It Veratrum Album?,” Clinical Toxicology, no. 1 (January 2014): 74.
  6. Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great: Man and God (Hoboken: Routledge, 2014),263.
  7. J. A. Liappas et al., “Alexander the Great’s Relationship with Alcohol,” Addiction 98, no. 5 (May 2003): 566.

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This Post Has 42 Comments

  1. I learned about Alexander the Great and my history classes. It’s interesting to hear the theories on how he died since most of the time, people just say his ruling ended and move on to the next events. His legacy, even after his death remains. Alexander may not have become a god, like he wanted to, but he was still preserved. That’s ultimately what people want when they think about it. They want to be remembered. Alexander’s actions while he ruled were what made him great.

  2. Alicia Guzman

    Wow, the life and legacy of Alexander the Great were truly great. It is really interesting how the details of his death are not known for sure – especially for someone who is so great. I really like how this article addresses the two most reliable possibilities of how Alexander the Great died – because I had no idea. I wonder what kind of poison led to the demise of this leader. Great article.

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