Alexander III of Macedon was an athlete; he could beat any man in a foot race and was once invited to be in the Olympics. He was a warrior, true and unstoppable, unflinching at carnage, determined in his mission. He was from a family, and a country, of rugged men, who in his later years could out-drink anyone, though he ate the healthiest of foods, drank the purest of water, kept the cleanest of body, and got the soundest of sleep. He took care of himself, the bodily machine that he meant to conquer the world. Traveling with his 4th Century B.C.E. army at all times were the best physicians and medicines known to man. And yet, as he was beginning to recover from a sudden illness after attending a banquet in Babylon, Alexander died. A long-held theory among the ancients, perpetuated by Alexander’s mother, was that Alexander the Great actually died from poisoning rather than illness, and he may have been poisoned at the will of the great philosopher and Alexander’s former childhood tutor, Aristotle. Aconite was the most probable poison used; myth attributes Aristotle to have committed suicide years later by taking aconite.
Foremost of the reasons why Aristotle may have taken it upon himself to bring about Alexander’s demise was that he detested Alexander’s grandiosity. Legend held that Artemis allowed her Temple to burn on the night of Alexander’s birth because she was busy overseeing his entrance into the world. Alexander’s mother, Olympias, proclaimed that her son’s father was actually Zeus, who had come to her in the form of a snake. Alexander knew he was a descendant of both Herakles and Achilles, gods in their own rights. At Siwa he was proclaimed by the oracle of Amon to be the son of Amon (whom he felt was the Egyptian denotation for the Greek god Zeus). With his divinity in mind and with constant victories under his belt, Alexander requested deity whilst in India—which his Greek soldiers vehemently argued with (one of them was even killed by Alexander due to his refusal to the required worshipful prostration upon the ground). Via letters, Aristotle was aghast at this.
Not the least among reasons was political motivation. Alexander had amassed the monumental kingdom of his time, but who would rule it upon his death? ‘The most worthy,’ said Alexander on his deathbed, but who might that be? When he died, many vied for the kingdom he created. Before his death, Alexander believed that there were many notable people plotting against him, and he proceeded to uncover these plots, whether actual or by swayed opinion. The paranoia that the plots unleashed in him grew stronger until one of the plots perhaps succeeded. His kingdom was thrown into shambles upon his death, and chaotic efforts to grab power weakened Alexander’s accomplishments. The individuality of the city-states that he had founded became a thing of the past. Olympias believed from the start that Aristotle, as well as the veteran general Antipater, was involved. Aristotle’s knowledge of poisons was a derivative of his scientific mind, as well as influenced by his father’s background as a physician.
Aristotle’s nephew, Callisthenes, was at the helm of one of the main conspiracies against Alexander. Holding to Greece’s supremacy, Aristotle became sickened with Alexander’s adaptation of Persian dress and customs as he conquered Persian lands, as well as with Alexander’s claim to godhood. When Alexander had Aristotle’s nephew, his own court historian, Callisthenes, executed for treason, Aristotle himself began to fear for his own life, if Alexander ever returned to Macedonia. Thus, in attempt to separate himself, Aristotle stated that Callisthenes, had “possessed great eloquence, but lacked common sense” (pathos.org). Callisthenes had been tasked with accompanying the army to give ethical advice, collecting botanical specimens along the way, possibly having also conspired to bring the poison to Alexander without his knowledge.
In addition to these aggravations, the war to conquer Persia was extending too long for Alexander’s Greek and Macedonian soldiers. By 326 B.C.E. Alexander’s army won the great battle of the Hydaspes (Jhelum) against the Raja Porus (the king of Paurava) in India, but Alexander subsequently revealed his plans to war against the tribes of Arabia. Weary from years and years of battle away from home, Alexander’s men began to mutiny. By 324 B.C.E., Alexander’s men resented their leader’s Orientalism intensely, for he had continued to adapt much of his former enemy’s culture and clothes. This resulted in the army’s mutiny in Opis. He told them that he would dismiss them all and replace them with Persians, thereby rubbing salt into the wounds of their jealousy. He also recounted for them their great deeds, which they had performed under his leadership. His army then became ashamed of turning their backs on him and began begging him to take them back. He recognized his army, in the moments afterward, as his fellow kinsman, and quickly returned thousands of old and wounded veterans to Macedonia. He turned the army back toward Babylon, but only through the force of loyalty to his soldiers. However, Alexander himself never believed that he should continue on.
Aristotle was extremely off-set by Alexander’s ‘crazed’ actions at this point as well as his extreme religiosity, and was publicly contemptuous of Alexander’s pretense of divinity. Alexander held several trials for treason, and subsequently many of his soldiers were executed, including Aristotle’s nephew, and Alexander’s veteran general Parmenio. Upon entering into a drunken argument at Maracanda, Alexander drew his sword upon and killed the same man who had once saved his life at the Granicus River in Persia, one of his oldest friends, Cleitus the Black. Cleitus had refused to worship Alexander as a god. Also during these later years of Alexander’s life, his beloved friend and soul mate, Hephaestion, died of illness after drinking too much and consuming a whole chicken; Alexander was inconsolable, continuing to suspect plots and threatening Aristotle in letters.
Aristotle’s ‘Greece is supreme’ belief overshadowed Alexander’s efforts to bring Greek and Persian cultures together. His Greek and Macedonian soldiers ultimately met his ideas of unification with contempt, reflecting Aristotle back home. Alexander intended to include a trained regiment of Persian boys, though it is uncertain that Alexander adopted the Persian royal title of shahanshah (“great king” or “king of kings”). Full of fury, Aristotle wrote “The Letter to Alexander,” in which he gave Alexander advice to be “a leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians, to look after the former as friends and relatives, and to deal with the latter as with beasts or plants” (Green, 1991: 58) . In truth, Alexander’s efforts among the Persians had alienated the older guard Greek and Macedonians. Aristotle and Antipater both believed that Alexander was verging on tyranny, for Alexander himself seemed to identify more with Persian customs, which he attempted to inflict upon his Macedonian and Greek army. He was in effect distancing himself from governing the Greeks as ‘first among equals,’ and the Persians as barbarians. Like Cleitus, Aristotle’s nephew Callisthenes also refused to pay Alexander the divine honor of proskynesis, prostrating himself before Alexander with his chin to the floor.
Further, Aristotle knew that Alexander gave Persians and Indians the positions of honor that were due Macedonians and Greeks. During this later time of turmoil, Alexander continued to wear Persian attire at court, as he demanded proskynesis, both practices that Greeks disapproved of. His army believed he meant to deify himself by requiring the humbling posture, which beleaguered most of his own soldiers as well as Aristotle. Within the ranks of Greeks and Macedonians, conspirators continued to be weeded out by Alexander. After his victory against Porus in India, Alexander made an alliance with the Raja and appointed him as satrap of his own kingdom (upsetting Aristotle and the Greek soldiers). As Alexander conquered more land still, he learned that his prior satraps and military governors in Persia had not acted in his best interest in his absence, thus he had many of them executed on his march to Susa.
Alexander’s scientific research, conducted for Aristotle, had been a main focus during the campaign; Alexander began by funding Aristotle’s research, and brought with him from Macedonia many zoologists, botanists, and researchers. Prior to his campaign, Alexander believed he had already learned a great deal about Persian customs and traditions from Aristotle, however Alexander learned himself on the march that Aristotle’s geography had been wrong. When Aristotle released his Persian works to the public, Alexander had remarked, “Thou hast not done well to publish thy acroamatic doctrines, for in what shall I surpass other men if those doctrines wherein I have been trained are to be all men’s common property”.
Alexander’s irrationality was by this time clearly evident to Aristotle, for in addition to murdering his longtime friend Cleitus and continually suspecting his Greek and Macedonian rank and file of treasonous plots, Alexander also had burned the great Persian holy city of Persepolis upon the will of a female consort. His unpredictable temper, his paranoia, megalomania, and purges of ruthlessness, as well as his drinking bouts, did little to regain control of his army. Alexander’s irrationality may have in fact caused him to overlook the events that led to his own murder. The son of Antipater had been Alexander’s cupbearer on that fateful night, illustrating Alexander’s lack of judgment at this point. The death of Hephaestion, and Alexander’s self-inflicted isolation during his last stage of life, procured more dissent among his troops, likely egged-on by Aristotle’s letters and judgments.
Alexander’s marriages to foreign women were by the accounts of many, the last straw. In 326 BCE, Alexander married Roxana (Roshanak in Bactrian) to solidify his relations with his new Central Asian satrapies. However, that wasn’t enough. He hoped to forge his troops with the Persians, and ordered a mass wedding at Susa, in which over 10,000 Macedonians were wed to Persian women. He meant the unity among them to be unending, and yet few of the marriages lasted beyond a single year. His intention was for Persian and Macedonian blood to be mixed and create a new ruling class which no one would contend. Alexander himself had married the sister of the woman Hephaestion married in order to be uncle to Hepheastion’s children. This was ultimately a forced melding of the two cultures which his men, and Aristotle, resented.
These reasons combined hold to the ancient tradition that Alexander the Great was poisoned by the great philosopher Aristotle.
Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C., A Historical Biography, Peter Green, University of California Press 1991.
A History of Ancient Egypt, Nicolas Grimal translated by Ian Shaw, Blackwell Publishers 1992.
All about Alexander the Great, pathos.org.
The Campaigns of Alexander, Arrian, Penguin Classics, 1971.
The Deadly Styx River and the Death of Alexander, Adrienne Mayor, Stanford University 2010.
About the author:
Justine Johnston Hemmestad (J.J.Hemmestad) is a wife, mother of seven children, and a writer for over twenty years. Currently she’s also enrolled in the BLS program at The University of Iowa and has taken several Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Poetry, and Playwrights Workshop courses, with a goal of one day teaching writing as well as publishing novels. Her blog is at www.justinejohnstonhemmestad.blogspot.com