Was Alexander the Great Poisoned?

In June 323 BC, Alexander the Great died in Babylon after a two-week battle against an unknown ailment. Since then, historians have blamed his mysterious death on any number of things…excessive drinking, malaria, and typhoid fever to name just a few. However, new research points to something far more sinister…poison.

Alexander the Great in the Temple of Jerusalem
Painted by Sebastiano Conca (~1750)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Mysterious Death of Alexander the Great?

Alexander the Great was a king of Macedon. Considered a mighty warrior, he built one of the largest empires in history. In late May 323 BC, he grew ill after a night and a day drinking with Medius of Larissa at the Babylonian palace of Nebuchadnezzar II (located in modern-day Iraq). He took to bed for the next two weeks, complaining of a high fever, liver pain, and joint pain. After falling into a coma, he never awakened. Alexander the Great died on either June 11 or June 12, at the young age of thirty-two.

Rumors of an assassination soon began and his close friends suspected a poison procured from the legendary River Styx. Supposedly, the waters of the River were so corrosive that they dissolved any drinking vessel, short of one made from a horse’s hoof. Intriguingly, while their contemporaries doubted the poison rumors, they never doubted the existence of the River Styx. Regardless, the problem with the poison theory has always been the fact that Alexander suffered for about twelve days before dying. A long-acting poison of that nature seems doubtful in those ancient times.

Was Alexander the Great Poisoned?

In August 2010, Adrienne Mayor and Antoinette Hayes, both from Stanford University, proposed a new theory that breathed life into the possibility of an assassination. Similar to the ancient rumors, they speculate that Alexander might have died from ingesting a vial of water from the River Styx.

While the River Styx is popularly known as the mythological gateway to the underworld, Mayor and Hayes believe that it is based on a real-life river, namely the Mavroneri Stream, or Black Water. The Mavroneri has a strange history and the local people were once known to avoid it, claiming that its waters caused damage to metal and clay vessels.

Mayor and Hayes further speculate that the river once held a highly lethal bacterium known as calicheamicin. Calicheamicin, which was only discovered by modern science in the last few decades, grows on limestone deposits, some of which are found in the Mavroneri. While scientists have not yet looked for calicheamicin in the Mavroneri, there may be an expedition to do so as soon as October 2011. However, we do know that drinking water containing the bacteria would result in ”an agonizing death over several days, a course of events compatable with those described in the ancient sources recounting the death of Alexander.”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The true cause of Alexander’s death may never be known. However, Mayor and Hayes have gotten closer to unraveling it than anyone else in recent memory. If evidence of calicheamicin is discovered in the Mavroneri, it will provide additional support to the assassination theory. But the mystery won’t end there. If Mayor and Hayes are correct, than we have a whole new set of questions to consider such as: Who killed Alexander the Great?

And why?

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