Toxic wine made from a harmless looking plant might have been the culprit for Alexander the Great’s untimely and mysterious death more than 2,000 years ago, new research claims.
Published in the medical journal Clinical Toxicology, the study points to a white flowering plant, Veratrum album, more commonly known as white hellebore and a fabled poison, as the most likely candidate to have killed the Macedonian king in 12 days.
“If Alexander the Great was poisoned, Veratrum album offers a more plausible cause than arsenic, strychnine, and other botanical poisons,” wrote New Zealand researchers Leo Schep, of the National Poisons Centre, Pat Wheatley, a classics expert at Otago University, and colleagues.
The researchers reviewed ancient literary evidence associated with the Macedonian leader’s demise in 323 B.C.
Indeed, there are basically two divergent reports of Alexander’s death. The first originated in the Royal Diary, allegedly kept in Alexander’s court. The second account survives in various versions of the Alexander Romance, a collection of texts and manuscripts about the exploits of the Macedonian king.
“The Royal Diary describes a gradual onset of fever, with a progressive inability to walk, leading to Alexander’s death, without offering a cause of his demise,” Schep and Wheatley said.
“In contrast, the Romance implies that members of Alexander’s inner circle conspired to poison him,” they added.
Alexander fell ill at one of many all-night drinking parties in Babylon, in modern Iraq. The overlord of one of the largest empires in the ancient world, stretching from Greece to India and Egypt, was taken to bed with severe stomach pain and fever.
Over the next 12 days, he worsened. Alexander could only move his eyes and hands and was unable to speak. He later fell into a coma.
The Macedonian king was pronounced dead on June 11, 323 B.C. — just before his 33rd birthday.
According to the researchers, white hellebore, a plant well known to the Greeks as a herbal treatment for inducing vomiting, could have been fermented as a wine that was given to the leader during the banquet.
The drunk general probably wouldn’t notice the bitterness of the herb, which was sweetened as wine.
The researchers noted that Veratrum poisoning matches Alexander’s symptoms and course of illness, beginning with “a sudden onset of epigastric and substernal pain.”
They added that nausea and vomiting may follow, along with by bradycardia and low blood pressure, with severe muscular weakness.
“Of all the chemical and botanical poisons reviewed, we believe the alkaloids present in the various Veratrum species, notably Veratrum album, were capable of killing Alexander with comparable symptoms to those Alexander reportedly experienced over the 12 days of his illness,” Schep and Wheatley said.
Other scholars disagree with the hellebore poisoning theory. According to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's Departments of Classics and History of Science, the symptoms of an overdose of hellebore were very well known in antiquity.
“The harsh gastrointestinal effects are immediate and an overdose would have been distinctively violent. I think the symptoms would probably have been recognized by Alexander’s doctors and his companions,” Mayor, author of the Mithradates biography "The Poison King,” told Discovery News.
She noted that hellebore not only induces vomiting but always causes severe, profuse diarrhea, which doesn’t appear to be mentioned by any of the ancient sources who described Alexander’s death.
"If Schep now proposes that Alexander was secretly and deliberately poisoned with ‘hellebore wine’ mixed with regular wine, is there any evidence that hellebore was ever fermented into a bitter wine in Alexander's day?” she asked.
Alexander’s agonizing death has long puzzled scholars.
Retrodiagnoses have included poisoning from a deadly bacterium found in the River Styx, complications from heavy drinking, septicemia, pancreatitis, an unhealthy environment in Babylon possibly exacerbated by malaria, West Nile fever, a typhoid fever or some other parasitic or viral illness.
But with no corpse to examine, any hypothesis is pure speculation and Alexander’s fate remains a very cold case.
The researchers admitted it’s impossible to establish whether he was really poisoned.
“We’ll never know really,” Schep said.
Photo: Alexander the Great is depicted in a third century B.C. statue at Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Credit: Giovanni Dall’Orto/Wikimedia Commons