Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The death of Alexander the Great is one of the greatest cold cases in history. At the time of his death in 323 BC Alexander was only 32 and controlled the largest empire in the world. He’d shown remarkable stamina during his life, which made him seem invincible. In 325 BC during a fight against South Asian warriors, Alexander had one of his lungs pierced by an arrow. Immediately afterward he made one of the most difficult of his military marches—a 60-day trek along the coast of what is now southern Iran.

His unexpected illness occurred at the palace of Nebuchadnessar II in Babylon. He became ill during a banquet and died after suffering for twelve days. The cause of his demise has been the subject of speculation for years. Some say it was due to natural causes. One guess was malaria because at the time of his death he’d been tramping through marshes. Others guessed he’d been poisoned with strychnine or arsenic. Some say he simply died of liver failure because he’d been drinking too much at the palace.

Amidst all the speculation, a New Zealand scientist may have unraveled the cause of Alexander’s death. Dr. Leo Schep, a toxicologist from New Zealand’s National Poisons Centre says poisons like arsenic could not be to blame as death would have come too fast. Instead, Dr. Schep suggests Alexander could have been poisoned by a plant from the lily family also known as white or false hellebore.

White hellebore was fermented by the Greeks as an herbal treatment for inducing vomiting, and it could account for the 12 days it took for the leader to die. It also agrees with an account of Alexander the Great’s death written by ancient Greek historian Diodorus, who said he was struck with pain after drinking a large bowl of unmixed wine in honor of Hercules. Wine made from white hellebore is bitter, but it could have been sweetened, and Alexander was probably quite drunk at the banquet.

Dr. Schep's research states that “Veratrum [white hellebore] poisoning is heralded by the sudden onset of epigastric and substernal pain, which may also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, followed by bradycardia and hypotension with severe muscular weakness. Alexander suffered similar features for the duration of his illness.”

On the 7th of June, 323 BC, the Macedonians were allowed to file past their leader. It was the last time they would see him alive. Three days later, on June 10, 323 BC, Alexander the Great died at the age of 32.

Was Alexander poisoned?  As Dr. Schep concluded in his research, “we’ll never know really.” Alexander the Great’s death will always remain a cold case.


  1. Who doesn't love a little mystery like this one? Great post!

  2. Fascinating! Love stories like this. :)

  3. Jamie and Rachel, so glad you enjoy the blog article. I love mysteries, too!


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