As the end of May approaches, we get ready to say our annual goodbye to Alexander. Following a short illness, the Macedonian king died on 10th/11th June* 323 BC.
What do I mean by ‘short illness’? And what exactly happened?
As to the first question, I will break it down.
‘Short‘: According to Arrian, Alexander died at least nine days after falling ill during a drinking party**. Plutarch has the illness lasting for eleven days. Justin is not specific but indicates that at least six days passed before Alexander succumbed. Unfortunately, the relevant portion of Curtius’ history is missing so we don’t know what he says. As for Diodorus, while he covers Alexander’s death, he doesn’t say how long he was ill for.
‘Illness‘. What happened to Alexander? All we know for sure is that he fell ill during the aforementioned drinking party. The reason for his illness is unknown. In the years following Alexander’s death, poisoning by Antipater was alleged. Did he do it? Well, maybe, but then maybe Antipater’s enemies in the Wars of the Successors blamed him in an attempt to undermine him and his son Cassander’s cause.
Ever since those first allegations, people have proposed different reasons for Alexander’s untimely demise. Every so often, a scholar, a doctor, or someone in-between suggests another cause. None have ever been fully accepted, however, because Alexander’s symptoms, as described in the sources, do not completely fit one illness or intervention.
What happened? All the sources (excluding Curtius) agree that Alexander fell ill at a party hosted by his friend Medius. In regards Arrian and Plutarch, while both agree that the king fell ill after drinking, they disagree on how long he had been drinking for. Arrian seems to suggest that Alexander fell ill after drinking through the evening and into the night, whereas Plutarch says that he drank all night and the following day before falling ill. Both agree that the fever started by the end of, or almost immediately after, Alexander left Medius’ party.
Both Justin and Diodorus claim that Alexander was struck down in pain during the party. Plutarch, however, denies that this happened. He says that it is a later embellishment of ‘certain historians’. Arrian doesn’t address this issue. Presumably, he would agree with Plutarch.
Now, you may think that 25th May is a little early to be thinking about something that won’t happen until nearly two weeks into June, and it is. The reason Alexander’s death is on my mind at the moment is that I had got it into my head that it is about now that Medius’ fatal party took place. Having had a look at the sources, I don’t know why I thought that. I expect I was just misremembering what I had read long ago. Looking at the chronology I wrote out for The Second Achilles a few years ago, I note that at any rate, Peter Green suggests that the party took place on 29th/30th May. I suppose I could have delayed writing this until the start of June but I already leave until tomorrow too many things that could be done today, so why add to the tally.
Anyway, having mentioned that we are approaching the season of Alexander’s death, what next? Just put the information to one side and get on with life? Or, do something with it? And if the latter, what? I don’t know, so I will think about that and see if I can come back to it in another post.
* I have written this as an absolute but I should acknowledge that some scholars propose different dates for his death
** His timeline becomes a little vague right at the end when he refers to events without saying when exactly they occurred; i.e., during the nine days already mentioned, or thereafter?
The Dying Alexander – Wikipedia
Thanks for the post.