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The Death of the Great Conqueror

Azizul Jalil

"My son, ask for thyself another Kingdom,
for that which I leave is too small for thee".
--Philip of Macedon to Alexander
From a song by English heavy metal band Iron Maiden Alexander of Macedon fell ill at Babylon at the end of May 323 BC. He died ten days later. By that time he had conquered most of the known world with his brave leadership and by a combination of foot soldiers and cavalry, which was the envy of great generals who came later, like Julius Cesar.

There are so many conflicting stories of his death at the young age of thirty-three that it is difficult to unravel the truth. Did he die a natural death from a disease like malaria contracted while returning from India? Did he succumb to wounds suffered in the battle of Malle (at the fort at Multan) in 325 BC on his way back from India via the Jhelum River? Did his war-weary generals turn against him and conspire to end his life due to the increasing unpredictability of Alexander, his unending campaign to conquer the world and the succession issue?

Many of Alexander's soldiers contracted malarial fever while passing by land route through the most inhospitable Gedrosian (modern-day Makran) desert. Many of them died out of disease, lack of water and other privations. Alexander survived but after reaching Babylon where he rested and waited for his naval troops coming by sea to catch up with him, he had fever. The official version is that Alexander died from a mixture of high fever and alcohol.

Alexander was personally involved in sword fights at the riverside fort at Malle. He had bravely climbed up the fort and found him at one point surrounded by the ferocious Malle fighters, one of whom managed to come near him and pierce his shoulder with a sword. It was a serious enough injury, which caused him great pain and suffering. Alexander's pain lingered on even when he reached Babylon but it was most unlikely to be the cause of his death.

The story of poisoning of Alexander by his leading marshals, who were mostly in their fifties and who had accompanied him in almost every battle across the continents for many years, is believed by many people. They were very nervous about Alexander's mood. He considered himself of divine origin, and had a violent temper, ordering the execution of many of his close comrades in bursts of anger, particularly when drinking. His marshals were also tired of staying away from family for years and of ceaseless warfare. They had already made their fortune and at their old age, did not wish to pursue Alexander's fantasies of conquering the world any more. Troops under their leadership had seen the death of thousands of their brethren in long warfare-they were also of a similar bent of mind. In fact, even during those ten days of his mortal sickness, Alexander was planning an invasion of Arabia. He had already kept troops in readiness and was about to order them to march in advance, to be followed by other troops led by him. The troops and their generals had already mutinied in 326 BC when in the Punjab Alexander was goading them to march toward Bengal by crossing the Ganges. Alexander had to abort that military campaign and return from India.

There was also the question of succession to the throne. Alexander's Persian wife, Roxanne was carrying his child at that time. The Macedonians considered that possibility abhorrent- they were not ready to be ruled by a child born of a mother of inferior barbarian origin. Already Alexander's appointment of Persian generals and noblemen as his bodyguards and companions had created a lot of jealousy and heart burning. Time was therefore ripe for action to be taken to bring an end to Alexander's life.

The story of the poison plot goes like this: Alexander was retiring from a late night party, when his friend, Medici asked him to join him in his tent at a smaller party, which Medici said Alexander would enjoy. The latter obliged and was offered a large goblet of wine, which he took in one gulp. Immediately, he cried in pain as if hit with a sword in his stomach and fell to the ground. He developed high fever, took repeated baths and died within a few days. According to rumour, his boyhood tutor, Aristotle had made the potent concoction in Macedonia. This was sent by Antipater, the general appointed by Alexander as the regent of Macedonia, to Babylon. It was to be mixed with wine and offered to Alexander by one of his sons, Iolaus, who was the king's cup-bearer and Medius' close friend. Antipater had suspected that Alexander was sending10,000 veterans home to Macedonia, apparently retiring them from service but with the real intention of removing Antipater from his position. The conspiracy was mentioned by ancient historians like Arrian, Curtius and Plutarch, but most of them had expressed skepticism. The real cause of Alexander's death would thus remain a mystery.

When asked to whom he wished to leave his empire, Alexander in his sick-bed had replied in Greek- “to kratisto.” Ambiguity in the word led to speculation whether he meant “to the best man” or “to the strongest man.” He had also told his generals that he knew whatever his personal inclination, they would play funeral games after his death. That is what actually happened. They could not agree on who the ruler should be after Alexander. Wars of Succession followed and the vast empire from Egypt to Asia was eventually broken up into many Satrapis (provinces). Ptolemy ruled Egypt, Seleucus-Asia Minor and Antipater held the supreme authority in Europe. After Alexander's corpse was embalmed, there was competition for its custody. By trickery and fighting, Ptolemy was able to take it away to Egypt. Alexander was buried in a temple in Alexandria-a city that he had founded during his conquest of Egypt.

[The following books have been consulted in the writing of this piece: “The Death of Alexander the Great” by a British Historian, Paul Doherty, published in 2004; a two-thousand year old classic, “The History of Alexander” by Quintus Curtius Rufus; “Alexander the Great” by Paul Cartledge; and “Alexander” by Guy MacLean.]

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