The Death of Alexander the Great

Painting of Alexander | Jean-Simon Berthélemy's "Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot." | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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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44 Responses

  1. I read of Alexander the great including his death which is interesting to read about. His death was out of no where. Everyone portrayed him as some kind of God and its hard to believe that he had to die just like every other human will. At the end of the day he was still just a human no matter how anyone saw him if it was a stronger man, or God he was just a human. I’m assuming everyone expected him to live forever or if he was to die he would of died in some epic battle with some creature or maybe he sacrificed himself.

  2. Apotheosis –– could this really have been Alexander the great’s endeavor! A God complex seems to be extremely damning to almost any man; however as a leader, one must understand that it would automatically lead to complete failure. Aside from his God complex, Alexander the great was remarkably accomplished, as both a ruler and as a warrior. This article did an excellent job in explaining the contrast between the two sources that relate to the death of Alexander the great. I am actually looking forward to reading more about “the Royal diary.” Although he may not have become a god, Alexander the great will always be an icon in history.

  3. In my history lessons the teachers never really went over Alexander the Great, they mentioned him and talked about a few of his achievements but never really went into what he did. Before reading this I did not know that his conquest led him all the way to egypt and persia. It seems that he would have continued his dream of conquering more land if not for his quick death.

  4. I have studied Alexander the Great in the past, but I never knew the reasons behind his death. As I read this article, the two assumptions that were made seem very much possible especially because Alexander had many enemies and many of which would want to see him gone. Alexander had such capability of becoming a great emperor if it was not for his passing, which is probably another reason why so many individuals were envious of him.

  5. I found this a very interesting article. I had heard about Alexander the Great’s death before, but it seemed unclear how he died. While there are still a few theories presented in this article, I like how you give your reasoning for every step you take in persuading the readers that he died by poisoning. I enjoyed reading this article.

  6. This was a cool article, and the author did a good job of exploring the possible theories of how Alexander the Great died. Honestly, I didn’t learn about him in any of my history classes, but I had heard of him and his conquests outside of class, which shows how massive an impact he made. The author did a good job at explaining the mystery of how he died, and creating his own speculations too.

  7. This was a very interesting article on Alexander the Great, and the uncertainty surrounding his death. There are two accounts of Alexander the Great’s death that although has been examined for many years, historians have not been able to come up with a definitive answer as to how Alexander the Great died. Overall, this was a very well-written article that detailed the possibilities behind Alexander the Great’s death.

  8. This was something that i was really interested in, especially when i found out that his death is still mysterious. I have a theory that the reason for his death is being hidden because he was considered so great and “godly” that he didn’t want people to know he died because of such a “mortal” way. I find it so ironic that someone so powerful and looked at, dies mysteriously.

  9. This was an extremely fascinating article. In history class, I would study Alexander the Great and be given the date of his death but I was never given the reasons behind his death, and by reading this article, the two assumptions that were made seem fairly plausible considered Alexander had many enemies and people who were envious of him and would like to see him go away. Overall, great article and informative, Alexander the Great was a highly intelligent emperor, it is safe to say he would have expanded his rule further if it was not for his death.

  10. The death of Alexander the great is one of the deaths that intrigues me the most, it is like out of nowhere. Maybe because everyone portrays him as an “almost god” it is hard to believe that he had to die eventually, whether was by poisoning or by the hands of his opposes Alexander the great still just a human, maybe everyone was waiting for a more dramatic death for a such a dramatic person.

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