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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 24th October 2011

I read a piece, written several years ago, about whether it was possible to use current knowledge to determine if Alexander the Great died as a result of alcohol abuse. I love these sort of articles when, as this one, the author acknowledges that you cannot reach a conclusion you can only try and make an informed speculation.

The ones I don’t like are where the author tries to claim that they have proved or disproved some specific point. I come across a number of those sorts of pieces when looking into poisoning murders from the past. So far, I’ve always found that the only way for such claims to stand up is to ignore at least one crucial piece of evidence.

Alexander the Great died in 323BC at the age of 33. He became ruler of Macedonia at the age of 20 and proceeded to create a large empire. Acclaimed as King of Asia by his army, he decided to extend his empire to the whole world. His sudden death in Babylon ended that ambition and led to speculation about the cause of his death that has continued for over 2,000 years.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Though there were contemporaneous records of Alexander’s rule, the so-called ‘Royal Journals’, they have not survived to today and, thus, what is known about his times is based on the work of historians writing in the first century AD who did have the ‘Royal Journals’ to hand. But, as we still see nowadays, different historians can place different interpretations on someone else’s writing so there is no agreement in those documents as to the cause of death.

In addition to the theory that Alexander fell victim to some fatal disease, two other theories are usually put forward. One is that Alexander was a very heavy drinker and his death was the result of alcohol abuse and the other is that he was poisoned for political reasons. More recently, a fourth possibility has been put forward and it is the one I like most, though, as I’ll discuss later, it can only be put forward as a speculation.

The article I have just read looked at the possible evidence for Alexander’s drinking and whether it suggested that alcohol abuse might have caused his demise. The ruling classes of the time were known to indulge in what we might these days call binge drinking. They would collect together for a ‘symposium’, which was, in essence, a social gathering to discuss a variety of intellectually stimulating issues before drinking prodigious amounts of wine often requiring over 24 hours of sleep for recovery.

There seems to have been a certain amount of nationalist rivalry on the subject of wine. The Greeks were in the habit of drinking wine with water added whereas the Macedonians drank theirs undiluted. The Macedonians would argue that their wine was of much higher quality and did not, like the Greek wine, need to be diluted to reduce the unpleasant taste. The Greeks would argue that drinking undiluted wine was a sign that the Macedonians abused alcohol to a much greater extent. Given that most of the histories still available today were written by Greeks, it may be that Alexander’s use of alcohol was overstated.

Veratrum album, the white hellebore or false hellebore

Veratrum album, white hellebore

But, there is nothing in any of the writings about Alexander to suggest that he excessively indulged during symposia and the available details of his last couple of weeks do not support alcohol as the cause of death.

Those putting forward the poisoning theories for Alexander’s death seem to have plenty of ideas as to who may have wanted to murder Alexander but I haven’t read anything giving a reasonable suggestion of what poison was used for this purpose. There is a story that a girl covered her lips in Aconitum napellus, monkshood, and kissed Alexander as a means of delivering the poison but where this is mentioned it is usually said that this plot was foiled.

The fourth possible cause of Alexander’s death was suggested by a New Zealand poisons’ expert when approached, in 2002, by a TV production company making a programme about Alexander the Great. This theory suggests that Alexander suffered a bout of diarrhoea. Until quite recently, the belief was that diarrhoea was caused by having something unwelcome in the bowels and, so, it could be cured by giving a strong laxative to purge the bowels of the irritant.

Veratrum album, the white hellebore or false hellebore, as well as irritating the nasal passages, hence its other common name, sneezewort, is a very strong laxative. The speculation is that Alexander was given Veratrum album for his diarrhoea but, for some reason, was given too much and died from its effects.

Now, this is where we get to my own speculation. Pliny the Elder says that hellebore (he doesn’t distinguish between the Helleborus and Veratrum genera) is such a strong laxative that it must not be given to the old, children or the effeminate. There is a great deal written about Alexander’s sexuality and whether his affection for male friends went beyond the general acceptance of same sex relationships that was widespread at the time.

It seems to me to be possible that Alexander was not too concerned about being known to be either bi-sexual or exclusively homosexual but he did not want to be thought of as effeminate. This might have led him to insist that his doctors continue to administer Veratrum album in amounts that proved lethal.