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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

“Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon”, by Graham Phillips

320 pages, Virgin Books, ISBN-13: 978-1852271343

In Babylon on June 10th, 323 BC, Alexander the Great died at the age of 32, having conquered an empire stretching from modern Albania to eastern Pakistan. The question of what (or who) killed the Macedonian king has never been answered successfully, and even today new theories are constantly cropping up in regards to one of history’s longest-running cold cases. The death of Alexander poses a mystery that is, perhaps, insoluble, but nonetheless irresistible; conspiracy buffs (naturally) have been speculating about it since before the king’s body was even cold, but recently there has been an extraordinary number of new accusers and new suspects. Fuel was added to the fire by Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004, a film that, whatever its artistic flaws, presents a historically informed theory about who killed Alexander and why thanks to its ending: Ptolemy, now Pharaoh of Egypt (and played by Anthony Hopkins), looks back over the decades since his king and commander’s death and declares that “the truth is, we did kill him. By silence, we consented, because we couldn’t go on”.

All this matters in this context as Graham Phillips, the author of Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon, thinks he’s solved this ancient mystery, maintaining that that only strychnine could have produced a death like Alexander’s, after having submitted the record of Alexander’s symptoms to the Los Angeles County Regional Poison Center. Following a twisting (at times, tortuous) trail of logic, Phillips tries to identify Alexander’s murderer by finding out who had access to strychnine. The poisonous plant is rare along Alexander’s route of march and could be harvested only in high elevation regions of the subcontinent, like modern-day Pakistan. Not all of Alexander’s retinue followed him into such areas, allowing Phillips to eliminate potential suspects. He concludes that only one person who might have had a motive to kill Alexander also had the means: Roxana, the first of the king’s three wives. She had become enraged at Alexander (Phillips assumes) by his two subsequent marriages to Persian princesses and killed him. This view of Roxana as a latter-day Medea revives one popularized in The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great, by the 17th Century English tragedy Nathaniel Lee, but is not supported by evidence. After 2000+ years, it would appear that the trail has grown cold. With physical remains lacking and written testimony ambiguous at best, the burden of proof in the Alexander case falls heavily on circumstantial evidence, and much of this presents a grave challenge to all conspiracy theories. Opponents of such theories have long noted that Alexander himself, during the 10 or 12 days he slid towards death, never gave any sign that he suspected poison, though he had become quick to sniff out and punish traitors in his final years. He would never have gone willingly to his death, nor would his enemies have allowed him to linger so long if they had in fact acted against him. A slow decline would allow him to order their executions.

To assert that Alexander was poisoned one would have to admit that the job was badly bungled. The same point could be made about what followed Alexander’s death. The chaos and collapse in the succeeding decades looks nothing like the result of a planned assassination. If the goal of the generals was to go home they failed miserably; only one, Antipater, ever returned to Macedonia, and only Ptolemy succeeded in gaining any measure of peace or security. Many of the others continued fighting and killing each other. Given how central Alexander was to the stability of their world, they had no reason in June 323 BC to expect otherwise. Any plan to poison Alexander would have been fraught with perils, especially for Macedonian warriors who had no experience with toxins. Conspiracy theories have to assume that Alexander’s generals hated their commander enough to risk everything. It is easier to see them in the way the sources portray them: as a dedicated cadre of elite officers reliant for their fortunes on the survival and success of their king. Thus it is easier, in the end, to believe that Alexander died of disease, despite ingenious and determined recent efforts to prove otherwise.

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