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The Last Days of Alexander the Great

By Consul B. John Zavrel


Painting 'THE LAST SUPPER OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT', by the French painter Pierre Peyrolle.


I will remember,

I will not forget

Apollo, the Archer. 

Excerpt from the Hymn to Apollo of Delos


"Do not enter Babylon from the west, Alexander" urged the priests of Babylon the young conquerer, as he was returning from the campaign in India. Half a year later, in the midst of his preparations for a new campaign to Persian Gulf, Alexander mysteriously died at the age of 32, on June 10 of the year 3,337 according to the Babylonian calendar; according to the Indian calendar, it was the year ...... In the calendar used currently in the West, as designed by the 6th century monk Dennis the Short, it was the year 323 B.C. -- 2,323 years ago.

His last days in Babylon tell us a fascinating story of the events leading to his untimely death. Amid bad omens and dark prophesies, Alexander had tried to avert bad fortune by a series of sacrifices. Nearchus was appointed as admiral of the campaign against Arabia, and the voyage was to begin on June 4. On May 29, a party was given by Medius, one of Alexander's Companions, in honor of the death of Heracles. 'At the dinner, Alexander recited an extract from Europides's play Andromeda, which he had memorized; afterwards, he drank the health of all twenty guests in unmixed wine', reported an unknown author.

Who were the twenty guests at the 'last dinner'? Alexander, Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Eumenes the royal secretary, Philip the royal doctor, Philip the royal engineer, Nearchus the admiral and Peucestas the persophile, and 12 others. That night, there was a devious plot to poison the king. Some of the guests knew about it and they approved. It seems that the plot was planned by Antipater and his sons Iollas and Cassander. Cassander arrived in Babylon in the last months of Alexander's life, and it is believed that he brought poison with him from Greece, which he gave to his brother Iollas, who was butler to the king and who could mix the poison into the royal wine without being noticed. And the party was the perfect opportunity.

'A cup of Heracles' was traditionally circulated and Alexander, rival and descendant of Heracles, was sure to be the first to drink from it. Among the accomplices of Medius and Iollas the buttler were supposed to be also Nearchus the admiral, Philip the doctor, and several others. Only six are said to have been innocent: Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Eumenes, and three others. On the night of the banquet, all went as planned. Alexander drank from his cup and 'all of a sudden, he shouted with pain as if struck through the liver with an arrow'. After a few minutes, he could bear it no longer and left for his bedroom. Over the next ten days he became weaker and weaker. Toward the end, his soldiers wanted desperately to see him to know if he was alive; they forced their way into his tent. 'One by one, they all filed past Alexander's bed, dressed in their military tunics; he could no longer speak, but he made a sign to each of them, lifting his head with the greatest difficulty and gesturing to them with his eyes.'

When the end was announced outside the royal tent on June 10, an ominous darkness fell on the battlements and broad streets of Babylon. Men strayed through the city, not daring to kindle a light: it was not that their invincible god had died, but he had, so they said, 'departed from life among men' and himself a sun-like deity, he had robbed them of light as his soul ascended to a home among the stars. His soul was immortal, but his body lay exposed in the desolate halls of Nebuchadnezzar's palace, and while the common soldier's fretted for their fortune, officers were already rumouring their divine king's last words. 'When they asked him to whom he had left his kingdom, he replied "to the strongest". He added that he foresaw that his prominent friends would stage a vast funeral contest in his honor…'

* * *

When Alexander died, Roxane was pregnant and her baby was not due for at least six weeks. Alexander had also left a bastard son Heracles by his first Persian mistress Barsine, but the 3-year old boy had been ignored and nobody took him seriously. A choice had to be made, and as Alexander had bequeathed his ring to his Vizier Perdiccas, his was the first decision; he encouraged the Bodyguards to favor Roxanne's unborn child. On the news of Alexander's death, the Greeks were roused to rebellion by Athens and her general Leosthenes, whereas the Persians shaved their heads and lamented the passing of a fair-minded king. Sisygambis, mother of Darius, fasted to death after only five days, mouring the man whose chivalry she had respected ever since her capture at Issus. It was the most telling tribute to Alexander's courteous way with women.

Within a year the turbulence burst over Asia and the Mediterranean. For many, the empire was a unity; for a few, there were kingdoms to be carved out. For the next twenty years, separatism grew to overpower unity, until the world had been split into four: in Egypt, Ptolemy; is Asia, Seleucus, once leader of Alexander's Shield Bearers; in Thrace, Lysimachus, a former Bodyguard, and in Macedonia whichever king could raise and hold support.

The spell of disaster began at once among Alexander's associates.

In Babylon Roxanne sent for his second wife, now called Stateira, Darius's daughter, and poisoned her, with Perdiccas's approval. Roxanne's baby turned out to be a son, Alexander IV, who was given Perdiccas as a guardian.

Within three years Perdiccas had been stabbed by his guards after asking them to cross the Nile against its crocodiles and sandbeds.

Craterus, loved by the troops as a true Macedonian, was trampled to death in the same month, his horse having tripped in battle; his troops were conquered by Eumenes the secretary, who knifed a commander of the Shield Bearers in the course of victory.

Already Ptolemy had murdered the financier Cleomenes and seized Egypt; he went on to murder Perdiccas's relations, various kings of Cyprus and Syria's satrap Laomedon, one of Alexander's oldest friends.

Anaxarchus the contented refused to flatter a Cypriot king, was killed for his obstinacy and had his tongue pounded in a pestle and mortar.

Peucestas was removed from Persia to the fury of Persians who loved him.

Porus was killed by a Thracian who coveted his elephants; the original Shield Bearers returned to the Asian battlefields at the age of sixty and more and fought with decisive ferocity.

Thais, meanwhile, saw her children prosper and her Ptolemy take political wives.

Pyrrho the philosopher, who had accompanied Alexander, returned to Greece and founded the school of the sceptics who professed to know nothing for certain.


In Greece, the pattern was hardly brighter.

Leosthenes of Athens died in battle and his rebellion collapsed.

Demosthenes, in exile, took poison.

Aristotle was driven from Athens because of his Macedonian past and ended his life in his mother's house on the island of Euboa, saying that he grew fonder of the myths in his loneliness.

When Antipater died of senility, Olympias promptly clashed with his son Cassander. With the help of her Thracians she killed king Arrhidaeus and a hundred of Cassander's friends and family. To Euridice, great niece of Philip, she sent hemlock, a noose and a sword and told her to choose; Euridice hanged herself by her girdle, whereupon Cassander retorted. He besieged Olympias in the coast town of Pydna and reduced her to feeding her elephants on sawdust; she ate those that died, along with the corpses of her maids. After nine months she surrendered and went to a proud death. Cassander killed off her family and turned against Roxanne who was visiting Greece with her son; they were murdered by his henchmen twelve months after their imprisonment. Most ruthless of Antipater's children, Cassander disgraced a brother and sister who had nothing to do with him. His brother founded a drop-out community on Mount Athos and his sister stood out in these savage times, defending the innocent and helping penniless couples to get married at her own expense.

While the world was ripped apart by feuding and ambition, Alexander's body was not allowed to rest in peace. At Babylon, Egyptians embalmed him for posterity, saying that his dying wish had been to be burried at Siwah.

Meanwhile, his last plans were produced from his official papers and read to the troops: Hephaistion's 240-foot high pyre was to be completed regardless of cost; a thousand warships, larger than triremes, were to be built in the Levant for a campaign against Carthage, along north Africa, up to the Straits of Gibraltar, back down the coast of Spain and on to Sicily; roads and docks were to be distributed along north African coast; six temples were detailed for Greek and Macedonian religious centers at huge expenses; the largest possible temple was to be set at Troy and Philip should have a tomb equal to the biggest Egyptian pyramid; last, but not least, 'cities should be merged and slaves and manpower should be exchanged between Asia and Europe, Europe and Asia in order to bring the greatest two continents to common concord and family friendship by mixed marriages and the ties of kith and kin.'

Possession of Alexander's body was a unique symbol of status, and until the west and Antipater seemed certain, no officer at Babylon was likely to let it go from Asia. There was talk of a Siwah burial and for two years workmen were busied with elaborate plans for the funeral chariot. The body was to lie among spices in a golden coffin with a golden lid, covered with purple embroidery on which rested Alexander's armour and famous Trojan shield; above it, a pillared canopy rose 36 feet high to a broad vault of gold and jewels, from which hung a curtain with rings and tassels and bells of warning; the cornice was carved with goats and stags and at each corner of the vault there were golden figures of Victory, the theme which Alexander had stressed from Athens across Asia and into the Punjab. Paintings were attached to mesh-netting down either side of the vault: Alexander with his sceptre and his Asian and Macedonian bodyguards, Alexander with his elephants, his cavalry, his warships; gold lions guarded the coffin and a purple banner embroidered with an olive wreath was spread above the canopy's roof. The chariot was built in Persian style and its decorations of griffins, lions and a canopy recalled the throne of the Persian kings. Sixty-four selected mules drew four separate yokes in Persian fashion; the ornate wheels and axles had been sprung against potholes, while engineers and roadmenders were to escort them on their way. Egypt's new satrap Ptolemy had the chariot set out in secret for Egypt, and instead of sending the coffin into Siwah in the desert, he displayed it first in Memphis, then finally in Alexandria, where it was still on show to the young Augustus when he visited Egypt three hundred years later. Despite wishfull rumours from time to time, the modern Alexandria has not yet revealed the site of its founder's remains.

Most historians have had their own Alexander, and a view of him which is one-sided is bound to have missed the truth. There are features which cannot be disputed: the extraordinary toughness of a man who sustained nine wounds, breaking an ankle bone and receiving an arrow through his chest and the bolt of a catapult through his shoulder. He was twice struck on the head and neck by stones and once lost his sight from such a blow. The bravery which bordered on folly never failed him in the front line of battle, a position which few generals since have considered proper; he set out to show himself a hero, and from the Granicus to Multan he left a trail of heroics which has never been surpassed and is perhaps too easily assumed among all his achievements. There are two ways to lead men, either to delegate all authority and limit the leader's burden or to share every hardship and decision and be seen to take the toughest labour, prolonging it until every other man has finished. Alexander's method was the second, and only those who have suffered the first can appreciate why his men adored him; they will also remember how lightly men talk of a leader's example, but how much it costs both the will and the body to sustain it.

Alexander was not merely a man of toughness, resolution and no fear. He had wide interests outside war, his hunting, reading, his patronage of music and drama and his lifelong friendship with Greek artists, actors and architects; he minded about his good and took a daily interest in his meals, appreciating quails from Egypt or apples from western orchards; from the naphta wells of Kirkus to the Indian 'people of Dionysus' he showed the curiosity of a born explorer. He had an intelligent concern for agriculture and irrigation which he had learnt from his father; from Philip, too, came his constant favor for new cities and their law and formal design. He was famously generous and he loved to reward the same show of spirit which he asked of himself; he enjoyed the friendship of Iranian nobles and he had a courteous way, if he chose, with women. Equally he was impatient and often conceited. He was not a man to be crossed or to be told what he could not do, and he always had firm views on exactly what he wanted.

With a brusque manner went discipline, speed and shrewd political sense. He seldom gave a second chance, for they usually let him down; he had a bold grasp of affairs. He was generous, and he timed his generosity to suit his purpose; he knew better than to wait and be certain that conspirators were guilty. As a grand strategist, he took risks because he had to, but he always attempted to cover himself. Through Zeus Ammon, Alexander believed he was specially favored by heaven; through Homer, he had chosen the ideal of a hero, and for Homer's heroes there could be no turning back from the demands of honor. Each ideal, the divine and the heroic, pitched his life too high to last; each was the ideal of a romantic.

There are the small details, his sudden response to a show of nobility, his respect for women, his appreciation of eastern customs, his extreme fondness for his dog and especially his horse. He was a man of passionate ambitions, who saw the intense adventure of the unknown. He did not believe in impossibility; man could do anything, and he nearly proved it. Born in a half-world between Greece and Europe, he lived above all for the ideal of a distant past, striving to realize an age which he had been too late to share. No man ever went as far as Alexander on those terms again. The chivalry of Homer's heroes dies with him.



May we recommend some books?

Alexander the Great, by Robin Lane Fox


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