History Question

Deciphering Alexander

In this assignment you will be doing some forensic work! Over the next several pages are three different accounts of Alexander’s death, including who wrote them. Make sure you also watch all the Lectures, especially the Lecture on this assignment which concerns the authors.

The task you have is to write at least a paragraph (5-7 sentences) giving an argument as to what happened leading up to Alexander’s death and explain your reasoning.
Following are three accounts of Alexander’s death from three different authors. A short description of author is provided after each bolded name and then an excerpt from the work. There are several people of interest in these excerpts, and I have provided short descriptions of each person at the end of the respective text in which they first appear.

Arrian, a Greek Historian (c. 86-180 CE)

Roman philosopher, statesman, and historian, Arrian was born in Greece and raised ethnically Greek, but culturally Roman, in the early Roman Empire. Arrian’s account was considered for a long time to be the definitive account of Alexander’s campaign, which is now being challenged by recent scholarship. However, Arrian seems to have had access to the Royal Diary, which kept the notes on Alexander’s day-to-day activities, and still must be taken with a high rate of credibility. Here is his account of the days leading up to the death of Alexander:

[7.24] A few days later (Day 1) Alexander was sitting at dinner with his friends and drinking far into the night. He had previously celebrated the customary sacrificial rites in thanks for his success, adding certain others in obedience to his seers’ advice, and had also, we are told, distributed wine and sacrificial victims among the various units and sections of the army. According to some accounts, when he wished to leave his friends at their drinking and retire to his bedroom, he happened to meet Medius1, who at that time was the companion most closely in his confidence, and Medius asked him to come and continue drinking at his own table, adding that the party would be a merry one.

[Book 7, Chapter 25] The Royal diaries confirm the fact that he drank with Medius after his first carouse (June 2nd). Then [they continue] he left the table, bathed, and went to sleep, after which he supped with Medius and again set to drinking, continuing till late at night (Day 2). Then, once more, he took a bath, ate a little, and went straight to sleep, with the fever already on him. Next day (Day 3) he was carried out on his bed to perform his daily religious duties as usual, and after the ceremony lay in the men’s quarters till dark. He continued to issue orders to his officers, instructing those who were to march by land to be ready to start in three days and those who were going with himself by sea to sail one day later. From there he was carried on his bed to the river, and crossed in a boat to the park on the further side, where he took another bath and rested. Next day (Day 4) he bathed again and offered sacrifice as usual, after which he went to lie down in his room, where he chatted to Medius and gave orders for his officers to report to him early the next morning. Then he took a little food, returned to his room, and lay all night in a fever.

The following morning (Day 5) he bathed and offered sacrifice, and then issued to Nearchus2and the other officers detailed instructions about the voyage, now due to start in two days’ time. Next day (Day 6) he bathed again, went through regular religious duties, and was afterwards in constant fever. None the less he sent for his staff as usual and gave them further instructions on their preparations for sailing. In the evening, after another bath, his condition was grave, and the following morning (Day 7) he was moved to the building near the swimming-pool. He offered sacrifice, and, in spite of his increasing weakness, sent for his senior officers and repeated his orders for the expedition.

The day after that (Day 8) he just managed to have himself carried to his place of prayer, and after the ceremony still continued, in spite of his weakness, to issue instructions to his staff. Another day passed (Day 9). Now very seriously ill, he still refused to neglect his religious duties; he gave orders, however, that his senior officers should wait in the court, and the battalion and company commanders outside his door. Then, his condition already desperate, he was moved from the park back to the palace. He recognized his officers when they entered his room but could no longer speak to them. From that moment until the end he uttered no word. That night and the following day (Day 10), and for the next twenty-four hours (June 11th), he remained in a high fever.

[7.26] The Diaries say that Peitho3, Attalus4, Demophon5, and Peucestas6, together with Cleomenes7, Menidas8, and Seleucus9, spent the night in the temple of Serapis and asked the god if it would be better for Alexander to be carried into the temple itself, in order to pray there and perhaps recover; but the god forbade it, and declared it would be better for him if he stayed where he was. The god’s command was made public, and soon afterwards Alexander died – this, after all being the “better” thing. The accounts of both Ptolemy and Aristobulus10 end at this point. Other writers have added that the high officers most closely in his confidence asked him to name his successor, and that Alexander’s reply was “to the strongest”. There is also a story that he went on to say that he knew very well there would be funeral “games” in good earnest after he was dead.

  1. Medius – Thessalian who was probably with Alexander throughout his campaign. He commanded the Thessalian wing of the cavalry.
  2. Nearchus – The commander of Alexander’s navy.
  3. Peithon – Commander of a phalanx battalion. He may have been with Alexander throughout his campaign, but he is not mentioned until 325 during the India campaign. Peithon later took command of the southeasternmost portion of Alexander’s Empire after his death at the mouth of the Indus River Valley.
  4. Attalus – An officer in Alexander’s army, and likely part of his personal retinue. He was caught up in Philotas’ assassination plot in 330, but was acquitted along with his brothers. He later was left in command in Bactria, along with others, when Alexander took part of the army to march on another area.
  5. Demophon – Alexander’s seer. He prophesied that Alexander should not attack the Mellian city where Alexander received his most severe injury, the arrow through his upper chest and lung.
  6. Peucestas – Was probably with Alexander throughout his campaign. He was awarded with bearing the sacred shield before Alexander during the India campaign, and was one of two men to go over the wall against the Mellians when Alexander was severely wounded. Afterwards Alexander kept him in his personal retinue.
  7. Cleomenes of Naucratis – About 20 miles up the Nile from the Mediterranean, Naucratis was the only permanent Greek colony in Egypt for centuries. Cleomenes was from a prominent house there and was given the task of governing Egypt during the rest of Alexander’s campaign.
  8. Menidas – Commander of the mercenary Greek cavalry in Alexander’s army. He was crucial at the Battle of Gaugamela, he then broke off from Alexander’s army afterwards and spent much time in Bactria. He later rejoined Alexander in Persia.
  9. Seleucus – Rose through the ranks of infantry in Alexander’s army from the beginning of the campaign till he was an infantry commander by the end. Would go on to become the king of the most powerful of the Successor States.
  10. Ptolemy and Aristabolus – Arrian’s main Primary sources for Alexander’s campaign

Plutarch, a Roman Biographer (49-116 CE)

Roman philosopher, biographer, and priest of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Plutarch was, much like Arrian, raised ethnically Greek in a culturally Roman social sphere. He was from a wealthy family, but, unlike Arrian, he was not born a Roman citizen. This made him ineligible to be a politician, which forced him to largely stay out of politics throughout his career. Plutarch, who was a biographer and not a historian, is now mainly known as an author responsible for two works, Lives of the Roman Emperors and The Parallel Lives, this excerpt is from the latter, and arguably more famous, of those two works:

[Chapter 77] And as for suspicions of poisoning, no one had any immediately [following Alexander’s death], but five years afterwards, upon information given, we are told that Olympias1 put many men to death, and scattered abroad the ashes of Iolas2, alleging that he had administered the poison. But those who affirm that Aristotle counselled Antipater to do the deed, and that it was entirely through his agency that the poison was provided, mention one Hagnothemis3 as their authority, who professed to have heard the story from Antigonus4 the king; and the poison was water, icy cold, from a certain cliff in Nonacris; this they gathered up like a delicate dew and stored it in an ass’s hoof; for no other vessel would hold the water, but would all be eaten through by it, owing to its coldness and pungency. Most writers, however, think that the story of the poisoning is altogether a fabrication; and it is no slight evidence in their favor that during the dissensions of Alexander’s commanders, which lasted many days, his body, although it lay without special care in places that were moist and stifling, showed no sign of such a destructive influence, but remained pure and fresh.

  1. Olympias – Alexander’s mother and the first wife of Philip.
  2. Iolas – Brother of Cassander and son of Antipater. Antipater was the governor who Alexander left in control of Macedon and Greece when he set out on his campaign into Persia. Iolas was Alexander’s cupbearer along with his brother, Philippus.
  3. Hagnothemis – Though he seems important enough for Plutarch to drop his name, this is the only place we hear of Hagnothemis.
  4. Antigonus – He was a general and counsellor to Alexander’s father Philip, and Antigonus accompanied Alexander till the Battle of Gaugamela, when he was sent back to Anatolia to secure the supply lines from Greece. He successfully rooted out several rebellions and revolts and gained a lot of support in Anatolia over the next several years as Alexander continued east to Bactria and India. He was able to secure this area for decades after Alexander’s death.

Justin, a Roman Historian (c. 2nd century CE)

Justin, the Roman historian, is largely an unknown entity. He was often conflated with Justin Martyr, a contemporary early Christian thinker, which gave him added credibility in the Middle Ages. Essentially, his text follows the work of Pompey Trogue, whose magnum opus — Histories of the Line of Philip and the Origin of the Whole World and the Places of the Earth, which is now lost — was functionally an examination of all the geographical areas and cultures taken over by Alexander. This work excerpted here is essentially nothing more than a summary of that work, likely with his own embellishments:

[Chapter 13] When he was hastening to Babylon, therefore, to hold an assembly, as it were, of the states of the world, one of the Magi warned him “not to enter the city,” for that the “place would be fatal to him.” He accordingly avoided Babylon, and turned aside to Borsippa, a city on the other side of the Euphrates, that had been for some time uninhabited. Here again he was persuaded by Anaxarchus1 the philosopher, to slight the predictions of the Magi as fallacious and uncertain; observing that, “if things were fixed by fate, they were unknown to mortals, and if they were dependent on the course of nature, were unchangeable.” Returning, therefore, to Babylon, and allowing himself several days for rest, he renewed, in his usual manner, the entertainments which had been for some time discontinued, resigning himself wholly to mirth, and joining in his cups the night to the day (Day 1). As he was returning, on one occasion, from a banquet, Medius, a Thessalian, proposing to renew their reveling, invited him and his attendants to his house. Taking up a cup, he suddenly uttered a groan while he was drinking, as if he had been stabbed with a dagger, and being carried half dead from the table, he was excruciated with such torture that he called for a sword to put an end to it, and felt pain at the touch of his attendants as if he were all over wounds. His friends reported that the cause of his disease was excess in drinking, but in reality it was a conspiracy, the infamy of which the power of his successors threw into the shade.

[14] The author of this conspiracy was Antipater. Seeing that his dearest friends were put to death [and] that Alexander Lyncestes2, his son-in-law, was cut off, and that he himself, after his important services in Greece, was not so much liked by the king as envied by him and was also persecuted with various charges by his mother Olympias…,secretly, in order to get close to Alexander, furnished his sons Cassander3, Philippus4 and Iolas5, who were accustomed to attend on the king at table, with poison. The strength of this poison was so great that it could be contained neither in brass, nor iron, nor shell, nor could be conveyed in any other way than in the hoof of a horse. Cassander had been warned to trust nobody but the Thessalian (Medius) and his brothers; and hence it was that the banquet was prepared and renewed in the house of the Thessalian. Philippus and Iolas, who used to taste and mix the king’s drink, had the poison ready in cold water, which they put into the drink after it had been tasted.

[15] On the fourth day [of his illness]…he asked his friends that stood about him, “whether they thought they should find a king like him?” All continuing silent, he said that, “although he did not know that, he knew, and could foretell, and almost saw with his eyes, how much blood Macedonia would shed in the disputes that would follow his death, and with what slaughters, and what quantities of gore, she would perform his obsequies.” At last he ordered his body to be buried in the temple of Jupiter Ammon. When his friends saw him dying, they asked him “whom he would appoint as the successor to his throne?” He replied, “The most worthy.” Such was his nobleness of spirit, that…he named only “the most worthy” as his successor; as though it were unlawful for any but a brave man to succeed a brave man, or for the power of so great an empire to be left to any but approved governors. But as if, by this reply, he had sounded the signal for battle among his friends, or had thrown the apple of discord amongst them, they all rose in emulation against each other, and tried to gain the favor of the army by secretly paying court to the common soldiers. On the sixth day from the commencement of his illness, being unable to speak, he took his ring from his finger, and gave it to Perdiccas6, an act which tranquillized the growing dissension among his friends; for though Perdiccas was not expressly named his successor, he seemed intended to be so in Alexander’s judgment.

  1. Anaxarchus – A philosopher who travelled with Alexander throughout his campaign. He followed the philosophical school of Democritus, who was a pre-Socratic philosopher (ie. he came before Socrates). There are several accounts where he tried to explain to Alexander that he was not, in fact, a god.
  2. Alexander Lyncestes – Was accused, along with his brothers, of the assassination plot on Alexander the Great’s father, Philip. For an unknown reason he was not executed along with his brothers. Afterwards Alexander the Great acquitted him entirely and gave him an office and titles. A few years later he caught corresponding with t he Persian king Darius, in an attempt to possibly assassinate Alexander the Great. He was eventually executed for these crimes after several years of imprisonment.
  3. Cassander – Brother of Iolas and Philippus, and son of Antipater. Cassander was a childhood friend of Alexander, but did not accompany him on his campaign into Persia. He stayed in Macedon with his father throughout the campaign. He rejoined Alexander only shortly before his death in 323, when he was sent by his father, Antipater, to attend Alexander in Babylon.
  4. Philippus – Brother of Cassander and son of Antipater. Antipater was the governor who Alexander left in control of Macedon and Greece when he set out on his campaign into Persia. Philippus was Alexander’s cupbearer along with his brother, Iolas.
  5. Iolas – Brother of Cassander and son of Antipater. Antipater was the governor who Alexander left in control of Macedon and Greece when he set out on his campaign into Persia. Iolas was Alexander’s cupbearer along with his brother, Philippus.
  6. Perdiccas – Out of all of Alexander’s successors, he seems to have had the best claim to succession since he was given Alexander’s ring right before the king died. Perdiccas, who had been a commander throughout Alexander’s campaign, was given the title of second-in-command upon Hephaestion’s sudden death. He claimed the title of Regent of the Empire when Alexander died, and he quickly gained enemies allying against him. He was killed by his own troops within a few years of Alexander’s death.

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