For other posts in this series click here
Date 333 BC Place Cydnus River, Asia Minor
Bad Medicine Is What I Need
Philip of Arcanania
Alexander Falls Ill
It isn’t often that a man gets to show how hard he is in a – ahem – bed chamber, but in the summer of 333 B.C. Philip of Arcanania was given the opportunity and was not found wanting.
This is how it happened. Alexander took ill after going for a bathe in the Cydnus River. His condition was so bad his doctors wouldn’t treat him in case he died and they got the blame for it. For ‘blame’ read ‘executed’.
Cometh the hour, cometh the bad ass. Philip had been Alexander’s doctor since the latter’s youth. If the king is going to die, he told himself, I am going down with him. We hear a lot in the news these days about how wonderful the NHS in Britain and ‘Obamacare’ in America are but let’s be honest no British or American doctor would guarantee the success of their treatment with their own life.
While Philip was off making the potion, Alexander received a letter from Parmenion. In it, his second-in-command warned that Philip had been bribed by Darius and intended to kill him.
According to Curtius, Alexander debated with himself whether to accept Philip’s treatment or not. After much thought, he decided he would do so. ‘Better to be killed by someone else’s crime than my own fear’ (Curtius). That’s so Alexander it makes me wonder if he was really ill at all.
Alexander told no one about the letter. Instead, he sealed it and hid it under his pillow. Philip took two days to finish making his draught. Upon entering Alexander’s bed chamber, he handed it over. In return, Alexander gave him the letter and asked him to read it.
The Moment of Truth
The king drank the draught ‘with confidence’ (Curtius). Philip’s reaction to Parmenion’s letter, however, depends on which source you read. Curtius says that the physician ‘demonstrated more outrage than fear’. Plutarch says it was a scene worthy of the stage – Alexander serenly drinking the cup while Philip, upon reading the letter, ‘was filled with surprise and alarm’. Significantly, however, the physician was not deflected from his course, and he implored Alexander ‘to take courage and follow his advice’ (Plutarch). Arrian says that Philip simply read the letter and, without alarm, told the king to carry on following his instructions.
Which ever way you look at it, Philip behaved with commendable strength. Here he was, being stitched up – see below – by the second most powerful man in the Macedonian army and, even in Plutarch’s account, he stood still, stood tall, held firm and held fast. Next time you watch a medical drama on TV and see all the doctors and nurses running around like headless chickens wondering what to do about someone’s broken finger, remember Philip.
As it happens, the danger wasn’t over yet. Plutarch and Curtius both report that after taking Philip’s medicine, Alexander fell ill again. Curtius says his ‘breathing became intermittent and difficult’. Plutarch tells us that Alexander ‘fell into a swoon and displayed scarcely any sign of sense or of life’.
- Did Philip panic?
- Did Philip run away?
- Did Philip kill himself in fear and shame?
No, of course not, and shame on you if you think he did any of the above. What Philip actually did was stick to his job and carry on treating the king. Soon, Alexander recovered and proved that he was back to his best by giving Darius a well deserved pasting at the Battle of the Issus River a few months later. What a man.
There is something very suspect about Parmenion’s rôle in this affair. It may just be me but when I consider what Parmenion had to gain by Alexander’s death – as the king’s second-in-command he had a more than reasonable chance of taking the throne in the event of Alexander’s dying without an heir – his bad mouthing of the one doctor who was willing to help the king looks to me like an attempted coup. It was the perfect plan, after all: if Alexander didn’t die, Parmenion could just blame his ‘source’ for providing bad information. We don’t hear anything about who told Parmenion that Philip was going to poison Alexander after the event so I imagine that that is exactly what happened and he got away with it.
Rating of Hard 8/10
For Philip set himself the target of healing Alexander with primitive medicine knowing that if he failed, he would probably die himself; he kept his head after reading Parmenion’s letter
Against As Alexander’s friend even if the king had died would the other generals really have turned against him? Philip was at Medius’ party and probably helped the king then. We don’t know what happened to him thereafter but if he had been executed for failing to save Alexander’s life, I think one of the sources would have mentioned it.
Picture Source The Daily Beast. Testa’s painting can be found at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nice to revisit this episode of Alexander’s life and I want to share with you a thought that always puzzled me about this incident. Parmenion sent a letter to Alexander, it should mean that the general wasn’t in nearby tent or he could simply walk over. So, he was somewhere else. So, how could he have learned about the incident and that Philip was Darius’ spy? Luckiest of coincidences? I think the sources don’t say for how long Alexander has been sick before Philip started to treat him but it couldn’t be long. Awfully sorry, but I am away from any sources so I can’t check. I think someone mentioned a Persian by the name Sisina, whom Parmenion intercepted and in his clothes discovered the letter from Darius to Philip promising him a lot of gold if the doctor finds the way of killing Alexander…. This episode always so strongly reminded me about how Palamedes ended his life.
Even if there was no capture of the Persian, still, it is so suspicious that Parmenion became aware about Philip having intention of poisoning Alexander exactly when the king needed his doctor. Also, let presume that, whether Parmenion really believed Philip’s ill intentions, how could the general know that every physician would be afraid of treating Alexander and only Philip would take responsibility? Did something like that happen before? Honestly, I always thought that it was propaganda against Parmenion invented either during Philota’s affair or later. Ptolemy’s storytelling, anybody?
By the way, I think it is considered that Philip died somewhere in India because he is not mentioned afterwards. This is why Glaukos treated Hephaistion in Ectabana, he was at the time Alexander’s chief physician. Maybe, if Philip was still alive, Hephaistion would be too….