Alexander the Great’s death is an unsolved mystery. Was he a victim of natural causes, felled by some kind of fever, or did his marshals assassinate him, angered by his tyrannical ways? An autopsy would decide the question, but it is too late for that.
The trail is long cold. All who recalled the terrible fortnight of his dying had their own reputations to protect and they were not under oath when publishing their memoirs. The secret of Alexander’s end will not be discovered by poring over disputed narratives, but by assessing his interaction with others. Who were the men and women he knew, and who his friends and enemies? What did they think of him and he of them? Where lay their loyalties, and where the imperatives of self-interest?
In the year 323 BC, Alexander enjoyed an overdue vacation in the deluxe metropolis of Babylon in Mesopotamia. This was one of the great cities of the Persian empire and over the centuries had grown accustomed to looking after the needs of invaders. Its Hanging Gardens were one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. A few weeks there of uninterrupted leisure and pleasure were just what Alexander and his careworn soldiers needed.
The youthful Macedonian monarch had spent a good ten years fighting his way nonstop through the Persian empire to its Indian frontier, deposing the Great King and seizing power himself. After winning victories in the Punjab and along the Indus River, he marched back to civilization through a searing desert, losing thousands of his men for lack of water before reaching the safety and the comforts of Mesopotamia.
Alexander was still a handsome man in his prime whose triumphant past augured a shining future. His next and imminent project was to establish commercially viable townships along the Arabian coast. A port had been specially built near Babylon to house a new fleet. Meanwhile the army prepared to march south by land. Victory was taken for granted, but after that, who knew what?
For now, in late May, as the unrelenting heat of summer approached, he needed a good rest. Babylon had all the necessary facilities. There was water everywhere; the river Euphrates on its way to the Persian Gulf passed through the center of the city and poured into the moats that lay alongside the lofty defensive walls of baked mud brick. And beyond the walls lay swamps and lagoons bursting with wildlife, irrigation channels, and reservoirs.
Wine was sent round to every unit in the encampment, as were animals for sacrifice to the gods.
Two colossal palaces stood in the north of Babylon, with offices and workshops. One of them functioned, at least in part, as among the world’s earliest museums, housing treasured artifacts from earlier times, and was probably where kings and their families lived in grand but private seclusion. The other, which modern archaeologists have named the Southern Palace, was set aside mainly for administration and for ceremonial functions. Offices and workshops surrounded five courtyards, one of which opened onto a vast throne room whose walls were glazed in blue and yellow tiles and decorated with floral reliefs, lions, and fan-shaped designs suggesting the fronds of a palm tree.
On the river’s edge beside the palace, the Hanging Gardens astounded visitors. A set of ascending terraces, angled back one above the other, rested on great brick vaults. Each terrace contained a deep bed of earth and was planted with trees and shrubs. The effect was of a wooded hillside. A staircase led up to all the floors, and water drawn from the river by mechanical pumps irrigated each tier. The story was told that Babylon’s most successful king, Nebuchadnezzar II, constructed the Hanging Gardens for his wife, who missed the mountains of her childhood.
In principle, there was nothing so very unusual about them, for they were a condensed urban version of the large walled garden or park much favored by the wealthy and the powerful, who sought refreshing green relief from the parched landscapes of the east. The Greek word for such a garden was paradeisos, from which we derive our “paradise.”
As the design of the Hanging Gardens goes to show, the people of Babylon and other Mesopotamians were skillful managers of water. They built canals and irrigation systems, and just to the north of the Southern Palace they constructed what seems to have been a large reservoir.
On the eastern side of Babylon, an outer wall formed a first defense against attack and enclosed large areas of less populated ground. It led to a so-called summer palace, 2,000 meters north of the main city. Here ventilation shafts counteracted the heat of the day and, away from the crowded city center, afforded some relief to the ruling family. The palace may also have functioned as a military headquarters; there was certainly plenty of space for an army encampment nearby. Alexander preferred being with his men to living in the city, and spent time in the royal tent or aboard ships on the river. So whether there or in the palace, he oversaw the preparations for his Arabian expedition and relaxed.
The navy was approaching a state of high readiness and an intensive training program was under way. Different classes of warship raced against one another and the winners were awarded golden wreaths. Alexander decided to organize a banquet for the army on the evening of May 29th (according to the Greek calendar, Daesius 18). It was held to celebrate the end of one campaign, the invasion of India, and the imminent onset of a new one, the invasion of Arabia.
But in the interval there was time for a good time. Wine was sent round to every unit in the encampment, as were animals for sacrifice to the gods—that is, for roasting on an altar and then, as was the way in the ancient world, for eating. The guest of honor at the king’s table was his admiral of the fleet, a Greek called Nearchus, a loyal if not especially talented follower, who had been a boyhood friend.
Alexander knew well his Euripides, the Athenian tragic poet of the late 5th century BCE, and recited verses from his play Andromeda. The plot concerned a beautiful young princess who was chained to a rock and awaited death from a sea monster. At the last minute the hero, Perseus, arrives on his flying horse, Pegasus, and rescues her. Only fragments of the drama have survived and we do not know what lines the king spoke, but one certainly fits his high opinion of himself: I gained glory, not without many trials.
The convention among civilized partygoers was that serious drinking only began once the meal was over. Wine was a little syrupy and could have a high alcohol content compared with vintages today. It was usually served diluted with water. A large two-handled bowl, or crater, containing wine (it could hold as many as six quarts of liquid), was brought into the dining room where guests reclined on shared couches. The host, or a master of ceremonies chosen by those present, decided how much water should be mixed with the wine and how many top-ups should be allowed. Guests had individual cups, and servants used ladles to fill them.
The Macedonians and their monarchs had a proud tradition of heavy alcohol consumption. It was not at all uncommon for a session to end with drinkers passing out. In a play performed in Athens earlier in the 4th century, Dionysus, the god of wine, sets out the stages of inebriation:
For sensible men I prepare only three craters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third mixing bowl is drained, sensible men go home. The fourth crater is nothing to do with me—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.
Alexander had experience of the higher numbers of the scale and drank a toast to each of the 20 men present in the room. Then he decided to leave the party early and get some sleep. This was unusual behavior for him; he may have been feeling a little off-color. As was his habit, he took a bath before sleeping, but then a Thessalian friend of his, Medius, invited him to join a late-night party. “You’ll enjoy yourself,” he promised. The king agreed and continued drinking. Eventually he left and turned in.
On the following day, he felt feverish and spent much of his time in bed. He played dice with Medius and dined with him. Alcohol was on the menu again. According to one version of events, Alexander challenged a fellow guest to down a crater of wine in one go. After he had done so, the man counterchallenged the king to repeat the trick. Alexander tried, but failed. He felt a stabbing pain in his back “as if he had been pierced by a spear,” gave a loud cry, and slumped back onto his cushion. He left the party, ate a little food, and took a bath. He now definitely had a fever and fell asleep on the spot in the bathhouse.
By the morning of the third day, Alexander was no better. He was carried out on a couch to conduct the usual daily sacrifice to persuade the gods to watch over him and his army. His indisposition was an annoying setback, but no more than that. He issued instructions to his officers for the imminent Arabian campaign and amused himself by listening to Nearchus reminisce about his adventures at sea.
Then the king was carried on his bed to a waiting boat and taken downstream to the palaces in Babylon. Here he was installed in the paradeisos or, in other words, the Hanging Gardens, doubtless because of their calm, quiet, and coolness. He lay in a vaulted chamber beside a large bathing pool. He discussed vacant posts in the army with his commanders and spent time chatting with Medius.
Days passed; Alexander’s condition gradually worsened. There seems to have been a variety of pools and bathhouses in the vicinity, and the king was transferred to at least one of them and finally to a lodge beside the reservoir. These constant removals suggest growing panic among the king’s staff.
It was increasingly obvious that he was gravely ill; his commanders and high officials were warned to stay within reach. Generals waited in the courtyard. Company and regimental officers were to gather outside the gates. On June 5th Alexander was ferried back to the Summer Palace. He stayed either there or in the royal tent in the nearby army encampment.
What killed the king was as uncertain as the future from which he was now excluded.
The fever did not abate. By the next evening it was obvious that the king was dying. He had lost the power of speech and he handed his signet ring to his senior general, Perdiccas. In this way he dramatized an at least temporary handover of power.
A rumor spread that Alexander was already dead. Soldiers crowded round the palace entrance, shouting and threatening to riot. A second doorway was knocked through the bedroom wall so that they could walk more easily past their dying leader. They were let in, wearing neither cloak nor armor. Alexander’s historian Arrian writes:
I imagine some suspected that his death was being covered up by the king’s intimates, the eight Bodyguards, but for most their insistent demand to see Alexander was an expression of their grief and longing for the king they were about to lose. They say that Alexander could no longer speak as the army filed past him, but he struggled to raise his head and gave each man a greeting with his eyes.
Seven of his commanders undertook a ritual of incubation. They spent the night in the temple of a Babylonian deity, hoping for an omen-bearing vision or dream. They inquired whether the king should be moved there, but were told, discouragingly, that they should leave him where he was.
On June 11th, between three and six o’clock in the afternoon, Alexander died, a month or so short of his 33rd birthday. What was to happen next? everyone wondered uneasily. Nobody knew. If the stories are correct, the king himself had been no wiser. While still able to speak, he turned his disenchanted attention to the succession. When someone asked him: “To whom do you leave the kingdom?” he replied: “To the strongest.” He is said to have added: “I foresee great funeral games after my death.”
Perdiccas asked when he wished divine honors paid to him. He replied: “When you yourselves are happy.” It is reported that these were Alexander’s last words.
What killed the king was as uncertain as the future from which he was now excluded. Natural causes were assumed. However, after a while, circumstantial details of a plot to poison him emerged into the light of day. So the real question may have been who killed the king.
We have two explanations of Alexander’s death, both decorated with data, opaque with cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die verisimilitude. One gives a verdict of murder, and the other of a complicated natural death. Which are we to believe?
Excerpted from Alexander the Great by Anthony Everitt. Copyright © 2019 by Anthony Everitt. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.