I gained glory, not without many trials.
September 5, 2019 6:32 PM   Subscribe

Alexander the Great’s death is an unsolved mystery. Was he a victim of natural causes, felled by some kind of fever, or did his marshals assassinate him, angered by his tyrannical ways? An autopsy would decide the question, but it is too late for that.
posted by Chrysostom (35 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
This Is great, and better yet is an excerpt from a whole book! Gonna have to add another to the to-read pile!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 6:51 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]


I thought he was strangled in his sleep by the Gordian Knot
posted by greenhornet at 7:19 PM on September 5 [6 favorites]


The sudden pain in his back which seemed to come with heavy binge drinking suggests to me some kind of catastrophic kidney failure. And who knows what kind of insect-borne disease he might have contracted in that marshy place.

Poison also works.
posted by hippybear at 7:24 PM on September 5


Huh, I definitely thought it was mosquitoes.

One of the funny things about being vaguely aware of how history was taught in Iran in the 1960-1970s is that somehow, Alexander got the good edit and Genghis Khan got the very bad one. Maybe this is partly because Alexander had the good manners to die immediately after conquest?
posted by grandiloquiet at 7:26 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]


Alexander gets the good edit in the West, but ask one of your Persian friends about him and she will reply “Who? You mean Alexander the Accursed?”

No one likes Genghis, except the Mongolians, for equally obvious reasons.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:40 PM on September 5 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure there ever was an Alexander the Groovy.
posted by hippybear at 8:56 PM on September 5 [2 favorites]


Soooo the other thing is that Alexander gets a really soapy Persian dynasty backstory to legitimize his conquering in the Shahnameh (which is this middle ages epic that Iranians are VERY nerdy for, and also tend to name their sons after, seriously, it's like constantly meeting men named Elrond and Fingolfin in the course of your daily business). It's wild because most rulers only get the retconned backstory when their useless grandkids need to explain that their whole lineage is actually selected by God or whatever...but I also think the Shahnameh succeeded in dulling the insult of the invasion, because Ancient Persian history seems a lot less interested in the Greeks than vice versa. tldr Iskandar might not be any Iranian's favorite hero, but he does okay!

Anyway, I haven't read the book on Alexander's death, but I wonder if Ferdowsi's Alexander is mentioned. He definitely goes adventuring before his death. (Not "conquering" adventuring, but "seeking universal truth" adventuring.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 10:19 PM on September 5 [11 favorites]


i mean. it's not that it's "too late" for some mysterious dramatic reason. it's because no one knows where his actual tomb is.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:58 PM on September 5 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure there ever was an Alexander the Groovy.

Be sure.
posted by flabdablet at 11:32 PM on September 5


An autopsy would decide the question, but it is too late for that.

Maaaaybe not. There's a chance - remote, but a chance - that Alexander's body is in Venice. It's my favourite body-snatching story in all of history.

After Alexander's death, his general Ptolemy intercepted the funeral procession that was making its way to Syria and grabbed Alexander's body, which was wrapped in linen and embalmed in a coffin of hammered gold filled with honey. Holding the corpse of the man who had conquered much of the known world conferred legitimacy and regal aura on whoever possessed it, and Ptolemy used his ownership to strengthen his claim to Egypt, retaining control of the kingdom, and the corpse, through the wars that followed.

Stewardship of Alexander's body passed to Ptolemy's descendants, who became dynastic rulers of Egypt. One of them reinterred the body in Alexandria sometime in the 3rd or 4th century BC. We know that it was still there when Augustus visited Egypt after the defeat of Cleopatra. Shortly after that Emperors began to take bits of pieces of arms and armour from the body, and in 89 AD the golden coffin was melted down and replaced by one of crystal or glass. But by the 4th century AD all direct references to the body cease, although there are mentions of the tomb as late as 1491.

This is where it gets interesting. Shortly after direct references to Alexander's body disappear from the histories, the body of St. Mark appears in the same city. This is kind of weird, since St. Mark was supposed to have been martyred in 68 AD, and it's three centuries later that his tomb appears. It's conjectured that someone responding to the anti-pagan policies of Theodosius who needed a Christian drawcard for the city took Alexander's body and re-labelled it as St. Mark.

In 828, two Venetian merchants stole the purported body of St. Mark from Alexandria and smuggled it to Venice, where it was buried in a sarcophagus beneath the altar of St Mark's Basilica. So far, no-one has been allowed to do any kind of DNA testing on what remains... but the thought of Alexander the Great being worshipped in Venice as a Christian saint just gives me a perverse thrill.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 12:07 AM on September 6 [104 favorites]


Subdural haematoma, it's always a subdural haematoma.
posted by fallingbadgers at 1:17 AM on September 6 [1 favorite]


wrapped in linen and embalmed in a coffin of hammered gold filled with honey

found my preferred burial method
posted by sallybrown at 3:32 AM on September 6 [19 favorites]


One of my favorite of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History series is about how much we tend to gloss over or handwave away the massive alcoholism and substance abuse of major historical figures, going into how Alexander and Churchill were famously huge drunks, Hitler absolutely out of his head on methamphetamines, Kennedy receiving regular visits from Dr. Feelgood to manage horrendous back pain, and the Founding Fathers to a man drinking beer all day sun-up to sundown. Basically his question is, why do we acknowledge these facts but treat them like window dressing rather than driving aspects of the decisions these men made?

Anyway, based on accounts, Alexander's death sure looks a hell of a lot like alcohol poisoning and I'm not sure why we're so quick to ignore that likelihood.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:08 AM on September 6 [11 favorites]


Say what you want about Victor Davis Hanson, his remarks about the "greatness" of Alexander are spot-on.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 6:14 AM on September 6


i mean. it's not that it's "too late" for some mysterious dramatic reason. it's because no one knows where his actual tomb is.
I’ve recently been watching The X Files for the first time (go Hulu!) and I’ve got this. The simplest reason is there’s no tomb because he never died. Every famous drunk in history has been Alexander. By WWII as Churchill he’d really let himself go a bit.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:15 AM on September 6 [13 favorites]


By the way, I missed that Dan Carlin podcast that was mentioned. It sounds great, and this was a fascinating post. I too am going to read the book it was excerpted from.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:17 AM on September 6 [1 favorite]


how much we tend to gloss over or handwave away the massive alcoholism and substance abuse of major historical figures

I don’t understand how they got anything done. They must have felt like crap all the time while accomplishing these massive things (good or bad).
posted by sallybrown at 6:25 AM on September 6 [4 favorites]


Every famous drunk in history has been Alexander.

See also

They must have felt like crap all the time while accomplishing these massive things

Solution there is clearly more meth.
posted by flabdablet at 7:06 AM on September 6 [1 favorite]


This is the episode I was talking about, though it's sadly behind a $1.99 paywall now.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:10 AM on September 6 [2 favorites]


The simplest reason is there’s no tomb because he never died

[alexander voice] rip to your great generals of antiquity but im different
posted by poffin boffin at 10:51 AM on September 6 [3 favorites]


The Eternal Champion but for Macedon.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:11 AM on September 6


In my opinion, Alexander the Great as we consider him today is not a real person. It seems to me that Alexander's mythos has been largely inflated in order to define a particular type of regent, a mold that later rules could use.

For my money, Alexander's father Philip II of Macedon was the real badass, and Alexander essentially a spoiled kid who has been told since birth that he is literally almost a god and is obsessed with eclipsing his father's glory.

It was Philip that strode in and basically transformed how infantry and cavalry warfare was conducted more or less overnight. Alexander just took those innovations and used the same hammer and anvil battle tactic over and over and got lucky.
posted by lazaruslong at 12:01 PM on September 6 [4 favorites]


I don’t understand how they got anything done. They must have felt like crap all the time while accomplishing these massive things (good or bad).

The Greeks and Romans watered down their wine considerably before drinking it, and AFAIK pre-industrial beer and cider for regular consumption would have been quite low in ABV by modern standards. So you have to calibrate for that when figuring out how drunk our ancestors would have been on a daily basis.

I mean, it's not impossible to get falling down drunk like that, and certainly you always had the option of not watering down your wine (there's even a Catullus poem about it), but you have to take the whole "the ancients were constantly drunk because they would have multiple glasses of wine and/or beer throughout the day" thing with a grain or two of salt.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:15 PM on September 6 [8 favorites]


For my money, Alexander's father Philip II of Macedon was the real badass, and Alexander essentially a spoiled kid who has been told since birth that he is literally almost a god and is obsessed with eclipsing his father's glory.

Plenty of heirs manage to screw up a sure thing! That said, I'm not that into Alexander either. He named a bunch of towns after his horse (weird and boring), and the composition of his empire was so blatantly untenable that it fractured into warring factions for decades after his death (I'm not impressed with hereditary leaders that can't perform their most important job, designating an heir).
posted by grandiloquiet at 12:19 PM on September 6 [3 favorites]


He named a bunch of towns after his horse (weird and boring), ...

Ok, this is now my second-favorite parenthetical aside ever uttered in the English language after "picnic, lightning."
posted by invitapriore at 1:14 PM on September 6 [1 favorite]


The most interesting thing about Alexander was his lifelong commitment to Sparkle Mo Achilles cosplay.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:40 PM on September 6 [3 favorites]


Naming places after his horse was the most relatable thing Alexander did. If I ever become a world-conquering general you can bet your ass a bunch of big cities are getting renamed after my cat.
posted by um at 5:30 PM on September 6 [11 favorites]


What's your cat's name?
posted by porpoise at 6:09 PM on September 6


I’m guessing “Springfield?”
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:06 PM on September 6 [7 favorites]


my cat's name was Cat of course but sometimes it was Pussycat
posted by um at 8:40 PM on September 6 [1 favorite]




Large parts of European medieval history only make sense when you realise the people making the decisions were drunk, entitled teenagers.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:25 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


Or Lucius Sergius Catilina.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:08 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]


Beer and wine was a lot safer than drinking water back then. The point was not so much to get drunk as to avoid water borne illness. Still, they drank alcohol almost constantly.
posted by xammerboy at 8:19 PM on September 7


Or Lucius Sergius Catilina.

optimates propaganda!
posted by poffin boffin at 11:03 AM on September 8


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