Print this page

The Legends Surrounding Alexander's Death

In 1977 a symposium was held in Groningen, The Netherlands, discussing various accounts of Alexander's death. The studies were published as "Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages". What follows here is a brief synopsis of the fantastic stories which circulated throughout Medieval Europe.

Byzantine Story

The Byzantine story about Alexander's death was written in 1388 AD. As Alexander returns to Babylon a woman gives birth to a partly dead, partly living infant. The human part is dead, but the living part has the shape of a monster. One of Alexander's soothsayers explains this sign: Alexander will die, his successors will rule. Alexander has the monster cremated.

Meanwhile in Macedonia Antipater has revolted and Olympias calls on Alexander for help. To prevent Alexander's intervention Antipater sends a poison, so strong that it has to be transported in a leaden box within an iron one. The poison is offered to Alexander by his personal cupbearer Iollas. Roxane nurses her dying husband.

After Alexander made his last will with the assistance of Perdiccas, Ptolemy and Lysimachus, mist covers the entire sky. A star falls down into the sea, pursued by an eagle. The statue of Zeus in Babylon is shattered to the ground. Thereupon the sunken star rises again, followed by the eagle. Alexander dies. His embalmed body is buried by Ptolemy in Alexandria.

(Study by W.J. Aerts)

Romanian Story

The Romanian story was probably composed around the year 1560 AD and closely resembles a Serbian version of the same era. Alexander returns to Persia and to Babylon and is reunited with Roxane. In his dream the prophet Jeremiah appears and warns him of his death. Alexander awakes in despair and is comforted by Ptolemy and Philotas.

Aristotle and Olympias arrive in Babylon. Then a priest from Jerusalem reports that the prophet Jeremiah has died; Alexander has Jeremiah buried in Alexandria. Alexander is poisoned by a son of Minerva, a wicked shrew from Macedonia.

The dying Alexander divides his empire in the presence of Ptolemy, Philotas, Roxane and Olympias. He foresees that Macedonia will be ruled by an Asian Empire in a distant future (the Ottoman Turks). He requests to be buried in Alexandria and states that there will never be a second Alexander. Then his horse Bucephalus comes to his deathbed and weeps for his master. Bucephalus kills Alexander's murderer by crushing him underfoot.

Alexander dies in Jerusalem. Woods and rivers and mountains weep. The grieving Roxane commits suicide by stabbing herself with Alexander's sword.

(Study by A.N. Cizek)

Spanish Story

The Spanish story was written around 1280 AD by Alfonso X of Castile. A woman gives birth to a monster half dead and half alive. A soothsayer explains this omen as the forboding of Alexander's death and the wars of his successors. Antipater plots Alexander's assassination and prepares a poison so powerful it has to be transported in an iron vessel. Antipater's son Cassander brings the poison to Babylon and delivers it to Iollas. After being poisoned Alexander tries to drown himself in the Euphrates but is saved by Roxane.

Alexander makes his last will. Babylon is hit by a violent thunderstorm and an earthquake at the same time. To complete the spectacle, there's a total eclipse of the sun. Alexander gives his last instructions about the embalming of his body and the construction of his tomb in Alexandria. Then he dies.

In a letter to Olympias Alexander had adviced her to arrange a banquet after his death. Olympias does so, but not one of the invited guests appears. Alexander is carried to Alexandria in a golden coffin.

(Study by W.L. Jonxis-Henkemans)

Middle English Story

This story was written in London around 1300 AD. Accompanied by Antioch and Ptolemy, Alexander marches to Babylon where he expects to find Darius' treasure. Alexander intends to make Babylon his capital city and raises taxes for a campaign in Africa. He recieves complaints from Macedonia about Antipater's rule and summons him to court. Antipater poisons Alexander.

On his deathbed the dying Alexander names nine heirs. Perdiccas gets Greece, Macedonia and Carthage. Ptolemy gets Egypt and Portugal. Philotas gets all the lands from the Caucasus mountains up to India. Antioch (a name common in the later Seleucid dynasty) gets Rome and northern Italy. The other five heirs are fictional characters with fictional names and they get various dominions between Italy, the Balkan, the Black Sea and Persia.

A bird tells the heirs the body must be buried in Alexandria, according to the will of the gods. After this is done, the heirs are occupied in wars amongst themselves. This is the way of the world: the head is fallen and the limbs are in distress.

(Study by G.H.V. Bunt)

Dutch Story

The book which may contain the weirdest story of all, was written around 1260 AD in Flandres by the monk Jacob van Maerlant. Alexander has announced this world is too small for him and he yearns for other worlds to conquer as well. In reaction to his attitude a plot to end his life is forged, not on Earth, but in Hell. The vile creatures of Hell brew a poison strong enough to end Alexander's life and they hand the substance to Antipater.

Meanwhile Alexander campaigns in the deserts of India with his ally King Porus and he reaches regions never visited before, not by men, nor by gods. There, two trees - the trees of the sun and the moon - whisper the message of his forthcoming death. Alexander bribes and threatens his soldiers not to spread the rumour.

Back in Babylon Alexander receives submissions from delegates of Gaul, Carthage, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sicily, the British Isles, Norway and Denmark. The presence of Porus at Alexander's side proves Alexander is a kind and forgiving ruler and submission is the best thing to do. It would have been wise for King Darius if he had done so too. Alexander adresses his troops and announces he now wants to conquer the world of the Antipodes.

Next morning unsual natural phenomena occur: the day hesitates to begin. Alexander drinks poisoned wine. On his deathbed he tells his troops of an even more important task: four giants are planning to conquer heaven and enthrone his father Jupiter. So the gods have summoned him to come to his father's aid. Alexander hands his ring to Perdiccas and dies.

Now for a man who claimed the world was too small for him, a grave five feet long is enough. Alexander lays buried in an inconspicuous plot of land for a long time, until Ptolemy moves his body to a beautiful tomb in Alexandria.

(Study by K.A. de Graaf)


These Medieval stories are utter fiction. It is actually rather amazing that a few details appear to be quite right - like Ptolemy bringing the body to Egypt. What we have to rely on are the accounts of Arrian, Plutarch and Curtius (and Diodorus, Justin). All these sources agree Alexander died from illness. The illness manifested itself after a drinking party. There is no agreement that the illness occurred because of the drinking. All sources agree there were rumours Alexander died of poison. Arrian and Plutarch dismiss these rumours, Curtius says they were surpressed. All accounts agree there is only circumstancial evidence for poisoning.

Questions about Alexander often concern the truth behind myths and legends. Myths are still forming around his person. Recently a message in the 'Forum' suggested Alexander may have died from a bite of his pet monkey. That is even weirder than anything recorded here.

Written by nick