On either 10 or 11 June 323 BC, Alexander died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, in Babylon, at age 32. There are two different versions of Alexander’s death and details of the death differ slightly in each. Plutarch’s account is that roughly 14 days before his death, Alexander entertained admiral Nearchus, and spent the night and next day drinking with Medius of Larissa. He developed a fever, which worsened until he was unable to speak. The common soldiers, anxious about his health, were granted the right to file past him as he silently waved at them. In the second account, Diodorus recounts that Alexander was struck with pain after downing a large bowl of unmixed wine in honour of Heracles, followed by 11 days of weakness; he did not develop a fever and died after some agony. Arrian also mentioned this as an alternative, but Plutarch specifically denied this claim.
Given the propensity of the Macedonian aristocracy to assassination, foul play featured in multiple accounts of his death. Diodorus, Plutarch, Arrian and Justin all mentioned the theory that Alexander was poisoned. Justin stated that Alexander was the victim of a poisoning conspiracy, Plutarch dismissed it as a fabrication, while both Diodorus and Arrian noted that they mentioned it only for the sake of completeness. The accounts were nevertheless fairly consistent in designating Antipater, recently removed as Macedonian viceroy, and at odds with Olympias, as the head of the alleged plot. Perhaps taking his summons to Babylon as a death sentence, and having seen the fate of Parmenion and Philotas, Antipater purportedly arranged for Alexander to be poisoned by his son Iollas, who was Alexander’s wine-pourer. There was even a suggestion that Aristotle may have participated.
It is claimed that the strongest argument against the poison theory is the fact that twelve days passed between the start of his illness and his death; such long-acting poisons were probably not available. However, in 2003 Dr Leo Schep From The New Zealand National Poisons Centre proposed in a BBC documentary investigating his death that the plant white hellebore (Veratrum album) may have been used to poison Alexander. In 2014 Dr Leo Schep published this theory in the peer-reviewed medical journal Clinical Toxicology; in this journal article it was suggested Alexander’s wine was spiked with Veratrum album, a plant known to the Ancient Greeks, which produces poisoning symptoms that match the course of events as described in the Alexander Romance. Veratrum album poisoning can have a prolonged course and it was suggested that if Alexander was poisoned, Veratrum album offers the most plausible cause. Another poisoning explanation was put forward in 2010, it was proposed that the circumstances of his death were compatible with poisoning by water of the river Styx (Mavroneri) that contained calicheamicin, a dangerous compound produced by bacteria.
Several natural causes (diseases) have been suggested, including malaria and typhoid fever. A 1998 article in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed his death to typhoid fever complicated by bowel perforation and ascending paralysis. Another recent analysis suggested pyogenic spondylitis or meningitis. Other illnesses fit the symptoms, including acute pancreatitis and West Nile virus. Natural-cause theories also tend to emphasise that Alexander’s health may have been in general decline after years of heavy drinking and severe wounds. The anguish that Alexander felt after Hephaestion’s death may also have contributed to his declining health.
Alexander’s body was laid in a gold anthropoid sarcophagus that was filled with honey, which was in turn placed in a gold casket. According to Aelian, a seer called Aristander foretold that the land where Alexander was laid to rest “would be happy and unvanquishable forever”. Perhaps more likely, the successors may have seen possession of the body as a symbol of legitimacy, since burying the prior king was a royal prerogative.
While Alexander’s funeral cortege was on its way to Macedon, Ptolemy seized it and took it temporarily to Memphis. His successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, transferred the sarcophagus to Alexandria, where it remained until at least late Antiquity. Ptolemy IX Lathyros, one of Ptolemy’s final successors, replaced Alexander’s sarcophagus with a glass one so he could convert the original to coinage. The recent discovery of an enormous tomb in northern Greece, at Amphipolis, dating to the time of Alexander the Great has given rise to speculation that its original intent was to be the burial place of Alexander. This would fit with the intended destination of Alexander’s funeral cortege.
Pompey, Julius Caesar and Augustus all visited the tomb in Alexandria, where Augustus, allegedly, accidentally knocked the nose off. Caligula was said to have taken Alexander’s breastplate from the tomb for his own use. Around AD 200, Emperor Septimius Severus closed Alexander’s tomb to the public. His son and successor, Caracalla, a great admirer, visited the tomb during his own reign. After this, details on the fate of the tomb are hazy.
The so-called “Alexander Sarcophagus”, discovered near Sidon and now in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, is so named not because it was thought to have contained Alexander’s remains, but because its bas-reliefs depict Alexander and his companions fighting the Persians and hunting. It was originally thought to have been the sarcophagus of Abdalonymus (died 311 BC), the king of Sidon appointed by Alexander immediately following the battle of Issus in 331. However, more recently, it has been suggested that it may date from earlier than Abdalonymus’ death.
Division of the empire
Kingdoms of the Diadochi in 281 BC: the Ptolemaic Kingdom (dark blue), the Seleucid Empire (yellow), Kingdom of Pergamon (orange), and Macedonia (green). Also shown are the Roman Republic (light blue), the Carthaginian Republic (purple), and the Kingdom of Epirus (red).
Alexander’s death was so sudden that when reports of his death reached Greece, they were not immediately believed. Alexander had no obvious or legitimate heir, his son Alexander IV by Roxane being born after Alexander’s death. According to Diodorus, Alexander’s companions asked him on his deathbed to whom he bequeathed his kingdom; his laconic reply was “tôi kratistôi”—”to the strongest”.
Arrian and Plutarch claimed that Alexander was speechless by this point, implying that this was an apocryphal story. Diodorus, Curtius and Justin offered the more plausible story that Alexander passed his signet ring to Perdiccas, a bodyguard and leader of the companion cavalry, in front of witnesses, thereby nominating him.
Perdiccas initially did not claim power, instead suggesting that Roxane’s baby would be king, if male; with himself, Craterus, Leonnatus, and Antipater as guardians. However, the infantry, under the command of Meleager, rejected this arrangement since they had been excluded from the discussion. Instead, they supported Alexander’s half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus. Eventually, the two sides reconciled, and after the birth of Alexander IV, he and Philip III were appointed joint kings, albeit in name only.
Dissension and rivalry soon afflicted the Macedonians, however. The satrapies handed out by Perdiccas at the Partition of Babylon became power bases each general used to bid for power. After the assassination of Perdiccas in 321 BC, Macedonian unity collapsed, and 40 years of war between “The Successors” (Diadochi) ensued before the Hellenistic world settled into four stable power blocks: Ptolemaic Egypt, Selucid Mesopotamia and Central Asia, Attalid Anatolia, and Antigonid Macedon. In the process, both Alexander IV and Philip III were murdered.
Diodorus stated that Alexander had given detailed written instructions to Craterus some time before his death. Craterus started to carry out Alexander’s commands, but the successors chose not to further implement them, on the grounds they were impractical and extravagant. Nevertheless, Perdiccas read Alexander’s will to his troops.
The testament called for military expansion into the southern and western Mediterranean, monumental constructions, and the intermixing of Eastern and Western populations. It included:
- Construction of a monumental tomb for his father Philip, “to match the greatest of the pyramids of Egypt”
- Erection of great temples in Delos, Delphi, Dodona, Dium, Amphipolis, and a monumental temple to Athena at Troy
- Conquest of Arabia and the entire Mediterranean Basin
- Circumnavigation of Africa
- Development of cities and the “transplant of populations from Asia to Europe and in the opposite direction from Europe to Asia, in order to bring the largest continent to common unity and to friendship by means of intermarriage and family ties.”