Murder at Babylon, the problem with pop-history, don’t trust everything you read!

The new book Murder at Babylon is atrocious. [an inserted note is that I have not actually read the book, just skimmed a couple of chapters at the bookstore] True enough, it is laudable to go about trying to solve one of history’s great mysteries in such a fashion (more on this presently), but troubling is how the information for the search was found, and this became more and more evident throughout.

I suppose that I should first comment on the methodology before proving why this is a mistake and to do this I should set the stage. The year is 323 BCE, sometime during the summer, the place is Babylon, which is Alexander’s new capital, the center of the empire and the staging ground for a new wave of campaigns. The Macedonians who are left have been with Alexander since his rise to power after the murder of Philip and have since marched for 13 years and well over 25,000 miles.

Alexander had not been himself since Hephaestion died, nay, even before when he was wounded in India by some native dart. Newly recovered from sickbed, Alexander stormed through and conquered more territory, then crossed the desert, before presiding over a mass marriage and more campaigning, during which he lost his closest companion and even lover. To alleviate the depression that accompanied this loss, Alexander resumed a campaign to punish rebels before crossing into Babylon. Some months Later, Alexander died.

What this book does is approach Alexander’s death the way a death in the modern world would be–first reaching the conclusion that it was an unnatural death, largely becuase “the symptoms” don’t match any known disease; they do, however, match a number of poisons. After determining that it was poison, the author tracks eight suspects, looking for motive and opportunity to commit such a deed, before concluding that it was Roxane who killed Alexander, not Antipater, Seleukos, Meleagros or any of the other ludicrous possibilities.

Of course poison could have been used–and as much is suggested in the existing sources, but frankly this is rubbish. Poison had a very low success rate unless it was self inflicted, so it is not likely on that account, but also the author discredits himself with his historical research and source use.

None of the existing sources were written within 400 years of Alexander’s life and all were based off of two accounts written shortly after Alexander died, by his contemporaries. This fact did not deter the author from using their testimony about symptoms as admissable, and creates an argument for poison based on which symptoms each author chose to use, discounting that any number of them could have been fictional and that there was noone taking down which symptoms were real when Alexander lay dying. As for the historical bent, his history is wrong. While reading the chapter on Seleukos, the author rewrites the plot against Philotas as a plot against Nikanor that was brought about by Seleukos, the second in command of the Hypaspists–with the other officers brought in at the last minute becuase Seleukos was low ranked. In the histories, however, Seleukos is nowhere mentioned, and Nikanor was six months dead by the time that the case against Philotas came to a head.

Rather than properly researching and coming up with suspects, the author has instead shoe-horned Seleukos and Nikanor into an unbelievable situation that is not based in fact while badly misportraying both. Though not to the same degree, he has done similar discredit to his work in the analysis of Meleager, who he judged a suspect because of his jealousy over being low ranked (which could be reasonable if that was not also the reason for his dismissal as a suspect), and Roxane who takes out her jealousy against Statiera and the son of Alexander by killing Alexander, instead of killing Statiera. I need to go back and review his arguments again, but it is much more feasible that if Alexander was poisoned by someone of note that it was done by Antipatros, but even then the most logical explanation is that Alexander was wounded a vast number of times, and that in the end he received an illness, be it malaria or pneumonia or something completely different, and his already weakened body, and lungs in particular, simply could not cope.

In an effort to bring this full circle to the title, there are two reviews of this book on Amazon. They both give the author five stars, though one person admitted that she didn’t know what historians would say–that she started with the Oliver Stone movie of Alexander did not bode well for her, though. The other person considered himself an Alexander buff, owning every book made (I call bull on that, by the way, and I have problems with his type, but that is neither here nor there), but the point is that both of them chose this book for readability, not accuracy. I cannot talk about readability since I did not truly read it (though I shuddered at some of the organization), but it was inaccurate.

One thought on “Murder at Babylon, the problem with pop-history, don’t trust everything you read!

  1. Wow, that does sound pretty bad. I usually check the sources of the “pop” history I read to ensure that I’m not reading bullshit, unless I want to argue against it somewhere. Incidentally, the book I just read, Great Tales from English History, was wrong as well, but only on minor points which are still argued by historians, not nearly on the sort of level you’ve described here. I find it amusing as well when people decide they want to be historians and have no training and no idea what they’re doing – until I realize that people believe what they write.

    Like

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