The death of Alexander the Great

The death of Alexander the Great

F.P. Retief and L. Cilliers

Acta Theologica, Vol 26, No 2 (2006)


The circumstances of Alexander’s death are reviewed. Since contemporary sources vary in their accounts of the reason for his death, they are briefly reviewed and assessed. The account of Alexander’s final illness is then discussed as recorded in the King’s Journal and the Liber de morte testamentumque Alexandri Magni. The theory that he was poisoned is rejected, as is the hypothesis that he drank himself to death. His final illness shows symptoms characteristic of malignant tertian malaria (Plasmodium falciparum), possibly precipitated by recent wounds, exhaustion and heavy drinking.

Introduction: Alexander, King of Macedonia, conqueror of the Persian empire, died in Babylon at sunset on the 10th of June, 323 BC. He was not yet 33 years old, had been king for 12 years and 8 months and had shown himself to be fully deserving of the title “The Great”. Educated by Aristotle, trained in warfare by his father Philip II, he invaded Asia at the age of 22 and defeated Darius III within 3 years. He never returned to Macedonia but commenced with the establishment of an Asian empire based on Hellenistic culture whilst incorporating the best elements of the Persians and other conquered nations. With few exceptions he was remarkably magnanimous towards his former enemies, performing acts of justice far in advance of his time. As Tarn (1948:I.124- 125) puts it:

This was probably the most important thing about him: he was a great dreamer. To be mystical and intensely practical, to dream greatly and to do greatly, is not given to many men; it is this combination which gives Alexander his place apart in history.

Alexander’s sudden death left his large and heterogeneous empire without a predetermined successor. This caused a protracted power struggle among his generals. Furthermore, the circumstances of his death soon became controversial — rumours of foul play and poisoning arose almost immediately, and were exploited by his contemporaries to further their own ends. The aim of this article is to review this historical event.

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