11 June 323 BC: Alexander the Great dies after drinking binge

The mighty ruler’s sudden demise sends his empire spiralling into decline


Alexander of Macedon, master of the world from the shores of the Adriatic to the mountains of Afghanistan, spent the early summer of 323 BC in Babylon. Only a year before, his troops had persuaded him to turn back from a planned invasion of India. But already he was planning new conquests, hoping to strike at the heart of Arabia. On top of that, the 32-year-old king was pressing forward with his plans to integrate Persians and Macedonians, even urging his officers to take Persian wives. And then, some time around the beginning of June, disaster struck.

Accounts of Alexander’s death differ widely. The most popular, told by the historian Plutarch, holds that he was taken ill after a drinking session with his friend Medius of Larissa. In the next few days, Alexander developed a fever. Although he managed to put in an appearance before his worried troops, his condition worsened until he could no longer speak. At last, some time in the night between 10 and 11 June, he died.

Since so many Macedonian rulers fell victim to assassination, speculation has long surrounded Alexander’s death. Many historians have suggested that he may have been poisoned by rivals within the Macedonian elite or by officers outraged by his Persian affectations. The true explanation may be more prosaic. In the festering heat of summer in Babylon, the hard-drinking Alexander may well have succumbed to typhoid or malaria.

His death had a shattering impact. Within weeks the Macedonian empire was already falling apart, as his officers began to carve out their own rival dominions. Even Alexander’s sarcophagus, hijacked and taken to Alexandria, became a weapon in the civil war. “I foresee great contests,” he is supposed to have said, “at my funeral games.” He was right. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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