This afternoon, after finishing the last of my posts on Plutarch’s Women, I continued reading Paradise Lost by Giles Milton, which is an account of the destruction of Smyrna in 1922.
According to Pausanias, Alexander refounded Smyrna during his passage through Asia Minor*. I’m still early on in the book so don’t yet know who – if anyone – Milton blames for the city’s loss to a great fire that killed many thousands of people in September 1922; Wikipedia says that both the Turkish troops who took control of the city just four days before its devastation have been blamed as have Greeks and Armenians who lived there.
The reason I mention Smyrna here is not to discuss the fire but on account of a man named Alfred Simes.
In the last chapter of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch gives a day-by-day account of Alexander’s last illness. The Macedonian king developed a fever following a drinking party. For a few days he was able to bathe, play games, sacrifice and talk to his officers. On the third night, however, the fever grew worse. From the next day until his death Alexander was bedridden. On the eighth day he lost the ability to speak. On the tenth day, ‘he died’.
What was the ultimate cause of Alexander’s death? Plutarch discusses the allegation that he was poisoned on Antipater’s orders. Plutarch is sceptical that this happened as Alexander’s body did not decompose in the days following his death.
Now, it often happens that when a famous person dies, conspiracy theories regarding their death spring up. A mysterious bike rider was supposedly seen at the scene of the accident that killed T. E. Lawrence. How was 93 year old Rudolph Hess able to hang himself in Spandau Prison? Surely it was murder.
Events also breed conspiracies. Why did the twin towers of the World Trade Centre fall in the way they did? Why were there no Jews in the Towers at the time? Allowing for the fact that just because something is a conspiracy theory that does not mean it is therefore false, we do – as a race – find it difficult sometimes to accept that the most rational explanation for an occurrence is the correct one. On other occasions, of course, the conspiracy theory relies on the propagation of out and out falsehoods for its life.
The length of time that has passed between Alexander’s death and the present makes it hard to reach a definitive judgement regarding the cause of his death one way or another. I do suspect, though, that when we look for conspiracies we fly in the face of the simplest – and in this case, best – answer to what happened; namely, that he caught a bug and that it killed him.
The problem with saying that is that it does feel too simple an explanation. Alexander was a tough man! He was also an very injured one – not just physically by psychologically. It is here that I come back to Alfred Simes. His father died in 1916. Here is his account of what happened, as recorded by Milton,
‘He went fishing in the torrential rain,’ recalls Alfred, ‘and fell ill with a fever soon after.’ With no medication available [due to a British Naval blockade of Smyrna's port], he died after an illness lasting just a few days.
Alfred Simes was just five years old when his father died. I daresay he thought his father a strong, perhaps indestructible, man as well. Despite this, like Alexander, Mr Simes died after doing no more than catching a bug and developing a fever. Sadly, these things happen.
Of course, this is a fact that I knew before I wrote this post. What Paradise Lost has done is connect me to the past – and enabled me to appreciate it more – through an event that happened in the present. Well, not the present but when you are considering an event that took place 2,337 years ago, 100 years is hardly more than yesterday.