Midnight Musings: The Death of Alexander

One of the great, unsolved mysteries of history is the death of Alexander. The cause of death has troubled historians, writers and students for millennia, including several books in the past few years and a new article on whether or not bacteria from the River Styx could have killed him. Solving this mystery will be a great accomplishment and further our historical understanding in ways not yet dreamed of. Or so they say.

The truth is that I don’t care about the death of Alexander. I don’t care if he died from alcohol poisoning, wounds, malaria, typhoid or was poisoned, though I will point out that silence in the ancient sources about deaths from an epidemic really doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur, just that it wasn’t written down. If Alexander was poisoned, I don’t care who did it or how.

In fact there are exactly three episodes that I do care about from the week or so he was dying. 1) I care who he supposedly granted succession to. 2) I care what the aristocrats were doing on the day and night of his death. 3) I care that he died.

This is an instance where perceptions (ancient perceptions, both contemporary and later) matter more than what actually did happen. So, once again, I don’t really care what did happen.

A second issue here is that Alexander did die. Every attempt to solve the whodunit is an exercise in rhetoric and argumentation from the flimsiest of evidence. Looking at the actions Alexander did while alive, the impact of those actions and the ripples from his death. For the overall historical narrative these are what matter, these are what will enable a more detailed understanding of the historical period.

And so, one final time, I don’t care how Alexander died.

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