Thursday, April 02, 2009

What the ancient sources recorded as regards Alexander death

1. Diodorus Siculus (17.117, 1–3)

‘‘He drank much unmixed wine.and finally downed a whole beaker in one gulp. Instantly, he shrieked aloud as if smitten by a violent blow.and was led by the hand back to his apartments.’’

2. Curtius Rufus

There is a large lacuna at 10.4 and, when 10.5 begins, the king is already mortally ill, and ‘died moments later’.

3. Plutarch(Alexander, 75–6)

‘‘He allowed himself to indulge in a number of .drinking bouts. He gave a splendid banquet in honour of Nearchus. (and) when Medius invited him he went to his house, and there, after drinking through all the next day, he began to feel feverish.’’
Plutarch expressly denies a ‘big drink’, or the onset of a sudden pain.

‘‘These are details with which certain historians felt obliged to embellish the occasion...and invent a tragic end and moving finale to a great action. Aristobulus tells us that he was seized with a raging fever.became very thirsty and drank wine which made him delirious.’
He then goes on to describe continued high fever, gradual deterioration and death about 10 days after Medius’ party. Plutarch avers that ‘most of this account follows the version which is given in ‘‘the journals’’ almost word for word’.

4. Arrian (7, 24–26)
Arrian tells essentially the same story as Plutarch. Alexander had been drinking ‘far into the night’ and accepted Medius’ invitation to another ‘merry party’ where he again set to drinking, continuing till late at night after which ‘(he) went straight to sleep with the fever already on him’. There is no record in Arrian’s text of a catastrophic event, but he describes the same slow deterioration with a high fever and death about 10 days later. ‘These details are all to be found in the Diaries’.

5. Justin (12, 13–14)
Justin tells the same story of prolonged drinking followed by Medius’ invitation to continue. But, he adds,

‘Alexander took a cup, but had not drunk more that half of it when he suddenly uttered a groan as if he had been pierced by a spear.and was racked by such agony that he asked for a sword to put an end to it, and the pain on being touched was like that of a wound’.
There is the same description of a slow deterioration, but no mention of a fever.

‘‘On the sixth day, Alexander’s voice failed. His friends put it about that the cause of his illness was excessive drinking, but it was in fact a conspiracy though the scandal was suppressed by the power of his successors.’’

There are clearly discrepancies in these accounts. Both Plutarch and Arrian expressly quote from the ‘Royal Diaries’. The authenticity and authorship of such diaries has been questioned by modern scholars and, of course, if there were any, they have been lost. Views, pro and con, have been expressed by Pearson( The diary and letters of Alexander the Great. Historia 1954–5; 3: 429–55.), Hammond ( Collected Studies III Alexander and his Successors in Macedonia. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1994, pp. 151–172) and Lane Fox( Alexander the Great. London: Robert Hale, 1968,p. 468). Bosworth ( Conquest and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988,p. 299) points out that the diaries may have been edited to remove evidence of a catastrophic event during drinking to suppress suspicions of poisoning.

The plain fact in all of this is that the noble Macedonians drank in legendary quantities and drunken quarrels and murder occurred not infrequently (Plutarch, 9, 23; Curtius Rufus, 8,1–43; Arrian, 4, 14; ). What appears clear from the ancient accounts is that Alexander indulged in prodigious and long continued drinking. There may have been a catastrophic event. He developed a high fever, slowly deteriorated and died about 10 days later.

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