(Really) Cold Case: Alexander the Great

A Roman copy of a statue of Alexander by Lysippos. Plutarch said that the sculptures by Lysippos were the most faithful.

A Roman copy of a statue of Alexander by Lysippos. Plutarch said that the sculptures by Lysippos were the most faithful.


One of the great leaders from the ancient west was the son of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great. Educated in the classics by Aristotle and in the arts of war and statecraft by his father, Alexander was the very portrait of an overachiever. Leading his first troops into battle at the age of 16, by the time of his death at age 32, Alexander ruled an empire that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to modern day India and south into Arabia and Egypt. After being ill for twelve days, Alexander died on June 11, 323 BCE, at the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon. Given the circumstances surrounding his death and the well-known penchant of the Macedonian aristocracy to use assassination, speculation about foul play began immediately, although many natural theories surrounding Alexander’s death have arisen over the years from bacteriological infection to acute pancreatitis.  The latest contender?  Poisoning by an extract of the white hellebore plant (Veratrum album).

University of Otago’s Dr. Leo J. Schep, a researcher at the National Poisons Centre in New Zealand, has been studying Alexander’s death for almost a decade. Although he originally suggested the white hellebore solution for a BBC documentary in 2003, Dr. Schep published a formal paper co-written with Robin J. Slaughter, J. Allister Vale, and Pat Wheatley endorsing that theory in the current issue of the peer reviewed journal Clinical Toxicology. While white hellebore does seem to be a good match to the symptoms historically recorded of Alexander’s death, there remains a sticking point on evidence, namely . . . the remains.  Although history records that Alexander’s body was taken to Alexandria and entombed in a gold coffin, we do not actually have the Macedonian king’s body to run forensic and toxicological tests upon. In the end, Dr. Schep’s argument – as persuasive as it might be – is still just speculation.

Absent any kind of conclusive chemical analysis of the remains, is such speculation useful to the study of history?

What do you think?

About Gene Howington

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5 Responses to (Really) Cold Case: Alexander the Great

  1. Blouise says:

    Are you playing at devil’s advocate … provocateur?
    Hey Newton, you lazy slob, get out from under that tree and find a job!

  2. Tony C. says:

    Sure it is useful. Even without physical evidence, I think speculation can lead one to insights that produce a coherent and compelling picture of what happened. In this case, it opens leads to who might have known and had access to the poison and the access to administer it to Alexander. Who would benefit from his death? How rare was the knowledge? How rare was the plant in the region? etc.

    All investigations begin with speculations, and even on circumstantial evidence some results can fit so well and explain so much that they become the most probable reality of what happened.

  3. Dredd says:

    Yep, speculation is a valid initial technique.

    It only becomes detrimental when some discovery indicatates that some or all of the prior content that formed the previous speculation was in error.

    All forms of inquiry that could be defined as speculation, initially, must give way to established facts during the development of any case. Otherwise, the consequence is that once reasonable speculation becomes reckless speculation.

    Alexander must have deeply offended some people as well as making devotees of others, so both “he died of self-inflicted excess”, or “he died of poisoning by others”, are initially reasonable speculation.

    It is akin to “educated guess” I suppose.

  4. Gene Howington says:

    Devil’s advocate … provocateur?
    Why I never!
    Fairly often.
    But never at dusk!

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