Puddle Question: What Killed Alexander the Great?

Alexander the Great
Image by brewbooks via Flickr

Those who teach grade-school level math or science are familiar with the concept of a ‘puddle question’. These are usually word problems of some sort which have more than one possible answer. From a teacher point of view, they are designed to assess how a student approaches a problem, comes up with a plan, then solves the problem. They tend to be ‘strange’ things in a math class like “How many raindrops make up a puddle?” (whence comes the name of this type of question) or “How many hours have you spent watching TV your entire life?” In Ancient History, we also have puddle questions, although not known by that name, and possibly the most common/famous one relates to “solving” why Alexander the Great died. Today, Discovery News presents a completely new theory, related to a bacterium from the Styx. Here are some excerpts:

An extraordinarily toxic bacterium harbored by the “infernal” Styx River might have been the fabled poison rumored to have killed Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.) more than 2,000 years ago, according to a scientific-meets-mythic detective study.


“Indeed, no ancient writer ever casts doubt on the existence of a deadly poison from the Styx River,” Mayor, author of the Mithradates biography “The Poison King,” said.

The researchers believe this mythic poison must be calicheamicin. “This is an extremely toxic, gram-positive soil bacterium and has only recently come to the attention of modern science. It was discovered in the 1980s in caliche, crusty deposits of calcium carbonate that form on limestone and is common in Greece,” author Antoinette Hayes, toxicologist at Pfizer Research, told Discovery News.

Now called Mavroneri, “Black Water,” the Styx originates in the high mountains of Achaia, Greece. Its cold waters cascade over a limestone crag to form the second highest waterfall in Greece.

“Unfortunately, the geochemistry of the river has not yet been studied by modern scientists; therefore, there is no scientific data to support the plausible and interesting calicheamicin theory,” Walter D’Alessandro, hydro-geochemist at the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Palermo, told Discovery News.

Whether Alexander really died from poisoning, as some of his closest friends believed, is pure speculation, Mayor and Hayes concede.

“We are not claiming that this was the poison that killed Alexander, nor we are arguing for or against a poison plot,” Mayor said.


Retrodiagnoses for his mysterious death have included poisoning, heavy drinking, septicemia, pancreatitis, malaria, West Nile fever, typhoid, and accidental or deliberate poisoning (hellebore, arsenic, aconite, strychnine).

“Notably, some of Alexander’s symptoms and course of illness seem to match ancient Greek myths associated with the Styx. He even lost his voice, like the gods who fell into a coma-like state after drinking from the river,” Mayor said.

The poisoning diagnoses were rejected by many experts because few poisons induce fever. Furthermore, even fewer such poisons were available in Alexander’s time.

However, naturally occurring calicheamicin, which is extremely cytotoxic, could still be the culprit.

“Cytotoxins cause cell death and induce high fever, chills, and severe muscle and neurological pain. Therefore, this toxin could have caused the fever and pain that Alexander suffered,” Hayes said.

According to Richard Stoneman, the foremost expert on the myths of Alexander, the theory offers a good explanation for the Styx’s ancient reputation.

“I personally think that Alexander probably died of natural causes — either typhoid or an overdose of the hellebore used to treat his illness — but other views are possible,” Stoneman, author of “A Life in Legend: Alexander the Great,” told Discovery News.

via: Alexander the Great Killed by Toxic Bacteria?

Back in December of 2004, when West Nile Virus was being suggested as a possible cause of Alexander’s death, I said I would present a summary of the various theories ‘after Christmas’. I don’t appear to have actually ever done that but, fortunately for me, in the mean time an incredibly excellent article on the subject has appear in the January issue of Acta Classica and it’s online at the Free Library:

In brief, it presents Alexander’s symptoms, provides a timeline of what happened when according to the ancient sources, and then has an incredibly useful appendix of all the proposed causes of death and their merits or lack thereof. Just to give you an idea of the things that have been proposed:

  • malaria
  • alcohol-related problems (this one seems to be the most popular current belief, to judge from some Twitter reactions to the Discovery.com article; recent movies probably contribute to this view)
  • typhoid fever
  • West Nile Virus/encephalitis
  • Schistosomiasis
  • some water-bourne illness leading to pneumonia

Whatever the case,  both the Discovery article and the Acta Classica one are must reading …

Paris (?) Sarcophagus … and Biblical Archaeology Review

I don’t know why this happens to me so often … I take a break from my news feed to run some errands and then I get a notice via Twitter from the folks at Biblical Archaeology Review pointing me to an article with the headline screaming: Has the Sarcophagus of Paris, Prince of Troy, Been Found? Of course, I’m looking at this on my iPod while sitting in a parking lot somewhere and can’t check things out fast enough. Whatever the case, the coverage at BAR mentions the Balkan Travellers site as a source so, of course, my instincts are that something has simply been lost in translation, as often seems to happen. But no! The summary from BAR (which is simply their daily news page; this item might scroll off) includes this as the incipit:

Archaeological excavations at the ancient city of Parion in northwest Turkey have revealed the sarcophagus of an ancient warrior. The sarcophagus contains an inscription of a warrior pictured saying goodbye to his family as he leaves for war. It is believed that the sarcophagus could belong to Paris, the prince of Troy who triggered the Trojan War.

Here’s the actual Balkan Travellers item … there do seem to be some possible translation problems, but I’ve highlighted an important passage:

A sarcophagus of a warrior was recently discovered during archaeological excavations of the ancient city of Parion, located in Turkey’s north-western province of Canakkale, near Troy.

The sarcophagus was unearthed in the ancient city’s necropolis, Professor Cevat Basaran, head of the excavation team in Parion ancient city in the village of Kemer near the town of Biga, told national media.

According to the archaeologist, the newly found sarcophagus had an inscription of a warrior saying goodbye to his family as he left for a war. The warrior in the inscription, he added, could be Paris who caused the Trojan War.

Parion is among the most important of the dozens of ancient settlements in the region of Troad, in which the city of Troy was the focus. Parion was first found by archaeologists in 2005. Many precious artefacts, including gold crowns and sarcophagi, have been unearthed at the site since, suggesting the city’s importance during the Hellenistic and Roman Age.

via: Archaeologists Unearth Warrior Sarcophagus at Ancient City of Parion, Turkey

That is to say, they’re NOT claiming this sarcophagus BELONGS to PARIS but rather, that it possibly DEPICTS Paris. Now there isn’t a picture of this sarcophagus included but I’m willing to put big bucks on the likelihood that this is actually something Hellenistic/Roman as might be hinted at in the article’s final paragraph … that pretty much nixes the ‘actual sarcophagus of Paris’ possibility right there.  And just so we’re not confining our criticism to BAR,  we should also point out that ‘Paris departing for the Trojan War’ really isn’t a common motif (if I’m wrong, please correct me) — Paris CAUSED the Trojan War by taking that thousand-ships-launching beauty away; I really can’t think of a depiction of the “Bye folks … I’m off to kidnap-Helen-and-give-Homer-something-to-poetize-about” genre …

Whatever the case, the folks at Biblical Archaeology Review really should know better than to describe things as they did … source notwithstanding.

UPDATE (07/19/10): we now note that BAR has made corrections to their text …

Chasing Mummies: A Cleopatra Update?

History (Australian television channel)
Image via Wikipedia

As I sit here rethinking my Ancient World on Television listings because there seem to be so few ‘new’ items worth watching coming out (more on this later) I wandered over to the History Channel’s website and they have a pile of preview videos from Zahi Hawass’ new series called Chasing Mummies. Early media reviews have commented primarily on how badly Dr Hawass seems to abuse folks working on sites (and that comes out in some of the previews) but of more importance to us are a couple of segments which are of interest to us and, of course, the History Channel’s embedding thing doesn’t want to work. So here’s the APA format citation:

Bonus Discoveries At Taposiris Magna. (2010). The History Channel website. Retrieved 10:51, July 16, 2010, from http://www.history.com/videos/bonus-discoveries-at-taposiris-magna.

I won’t comment on the silliness of certain folks asking for a brush so they can clean the femur a bit more. Nor will I comment on the apparent ‘amazement’ at rather common lamp decorations and the identification of certain winged horses coming from “Roman Mythology”.

Of more interest/importance is a segment where Dr Allan Morton and David Cheetham discuss what happened to Cleopatra’s body. Both of them seem to think she was cremated “according to Macedonian tradition”. Morton thinks the idea of a tomb at Taposiris Magna is ‘possible’, but not probable. Cheetham thinks the possibility of a tomb there is zero because he thinks she was cremated and buried:

Where is Cleopatra?. (2010). The History Channel website. Retrieved 10:47, July 16, 2010, from http://www.history.com/videos/where-is-cleopatra.

Ignoring the apparent lack of any suggestion that the tomb might be under water where Franck Goddio has been working, as regular readers of rogueclassicism will recall, we have previously pondered the fate of Antony’s and Cleopatra’s bodies ages ago and wondered what Macedonian practices would have been. I’m not sure that the suggested cremation scenario works for Cleopatra — Macedonian cremation traditions notwithstanding — because it seems clear from Augustus’ famous visit to the tomb of Alexander that the bodies/sarcophagi of other ptolemies were on view there as well. Here’s Suetonius, Augustus 18 (via Lacus Curtius):

About this time he had the sarcophagus and body of Alexander the Great brought forth from its shrine, and after gazing on it, showed his respect by placing upon it a golden crown and strewing it with flowers; and being then asked whether he wished to see the tomb of the Ptolemies as well, he replied, “My wish was to see a king, not corpses.”

A famous pronouncement, of course,  but one I don’t would work in a cremation situation if the Ptolemies continued Macedonian practice. But maybe Cleo was treated differently?

… by the way, the Chasing Mummies website will probably be of interest to many of our readers …

UPDATE (an hour or so later): I think it’s  salutary to note that the Latin Suetonius uses for ‘corpses’ is ‘mortuos’, which is possibly ambiguous in the context of ‘burial’ (it could generally refer to ‘bodies’, sarcophagi, urns with ashes, etc., I think. The Latin text/notes from the Detlev Carl Wilhelm Baumgarten-Crusius text at Google include the parallel passage from Dio and seem to suggest the passage in Suetonius has been restored from the Dio passage, so it’s problematical on many levels: