Alexander the Great – Death by Wine?

Alexander the GreatDVHe wasn’t called ‘Great’ for nothing. With a brief resume that stretches to the founding of over 70 cities and an empire that stretched across 3 continents and covered around 2 million square miles, when Alexander the Great died his subjects shaved their heads in mourning and Sisygambis, his grandmother-in-law, was so distraught she refused to eat, thus dying herself just a few days later.

Alexander died at the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon in 323 BC – but what was it that killed this mighty man at the premature age of 32, plunging his Achaemenid subjects into inconsolable grief? Typhoid fever? Malaria? Or something more sinister?

Veratum albumA team led by Dr Schep of Otago University – the ultimate in cold-case history sleuths – have been on the scent for a decade, and claim to have found a possible killer… or at least a smoking gun. The key clue hangs on the tortuous 12 days it took Alexander to die, during which it is said he was feverish and couldn’t walk or talk. Although many poisons have all been suggested as the possible murder weapon (including arsenic, strychnine and hemlock) they are all too fast acting and none would’ve caused such a prolonged and agonising demise.

The alleged culprit… Veratrum album. Don’t be fooled by its dainty white flowers, for this her –  also known as white hellebore – can cause hell on earth when ingested. Think nausea, vomiting, dizziness, stupor, convulsions and eventual death.  Not the nicest way to go. Veratrum album was already familiar to the Greeks, fermented as herbal medicine to induce vomiting.

Back to the murder hypothesis, and Diodorus recorded that Alexander was struck with pain after drinking a large bowl of unmixed wine in honour of Hercules. According to the medical journal Clinical Toxicology the poison causes symptoms similar to Alexander’s, “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.” Now we don’t really understand all that, and we’re admittedly no detectives, but whenever someone collapses in pain shortly after drinking wine at a banquet on Miss Marple, it always turns out foul play.

Nevertheless researcher Schep admits his theory can’t be proven beyond doubt, “We’ll never know really,” he says. Poison or no poison we’ve learnt one thing.

Unless you want to redefine the notion of ‘love sick’, it’s probably not such a good idea to pick wild white hellebore to give to your girlfriend for valentines next month! As Juliet might say…

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose a hellbore
By any other name would smell as sweet deadly

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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