Note: Professor Paul Cartledge was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, answering questions about ancient Greece submitted by our readers and the top online search queries posed to the internet. A selection of his answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…
Listen to the full conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast
How did Alexander the Great die?
Alexander the Great died at Babylon in June 323 BC at the age of just 32, after a meteoric reign which lasted 12 years and eight months and which saw him found a dozen or more cities and create an empire that stretched across three continents.
But, says Professor Cartledge, there is no consensus as to how he died. “The evidence for such a climactic event [Alexander’s death] was very confused. It’s not at all sure how he actually died, or what from,” says the historian.
Alexander fell fatally ill after having sought to conquer “what he thought was the outer limits of the entire inhabited world,” says Cartledge. In fact, what he achieved was massive enough – he conquered as far east as what we today call Afghanistan and Pakistan. But by the time Alexander and his men reached the Indus Valley his men “got fed up, they were footsore, they were tired, they were homesick. They couldn’t see the point of carrying on ever-further east, when all you would get was more territory and power and glory, mainly for Alexander.
“And so they mutinied, and it was a big mutiny which Alexander failed to put down. So instead of carrying on east beyond Pakistan, he had to go down south along the Indus. And then he headed back along the Persian Gulf, initially to Iran, and then eventually he ended up back in what we call Iraq, at its capital Babylon, in 323 BC, where he fell fatally ill.”
Alexander may have been poisoned, possibly by someone in his immediate entourage, “rather like Indira Gandhi, who was killed by her Sikh bodyguard [in 1984],” says Cartledge. “In the same way, Alexander may have been killed by one of his bodyguards.”
He adds: “There’s a lot of dispute. Was Alexander poisoned or did he die of natural causes, for example, some kind of disease? And he’d been very seriously wounded more than once. Who knows?”
Where was Alexander buried? Has his tomb been found?
“It hasn’t,” says Cartledge. “There have been four main candidates proposed in the city of Alexandria, and, in terms of our reliable evidence, that is the only city, the only site, in which he could conceivably have been buried. And, as far as we know, his remains have never since been transported from there. But none of the sites proposed has yet yielded anything even remotely approaching proof.
“He died in Babylon. That much is undisputed. His corpse was mummified so that it could be transported back ultimately to the capital of Macedonia, a place called Pella in northern Greece. But as it was passing Damascus in Syria, one of his successor rulers, future King Ptolemy I of Egypt, interrupted the procession when he grabbed the coffin and hijacked the corpse. He took it to what was then his capital, which was Memphis. Memphis is the old capital of Egypt – when the Greeks under Alexander conquered Egypt from the Persians in 332 BCE, they first of all took over the old Egyptian capital, Memphis. But Alexander had designated Alexandria, further to the west near the Canopic mouth of the Nile, to be the new capital of Greek Egypt.
“So, when Alexandria was built, Alexander’s corpse was transferred from Memphis to Alexandria and given a fantastic burial in a great ceremony. His body was at some point put into a fancy surround – glass was put over the tomb so you could actually look at the mummified corpse, like Lenin’s body in the Kremlin [first placed there in the 1920s]. It was still there when the first Roman emperor, Augustus, came to pay his respects after his own conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE. And that’s the last we know for sure of where Alexander’s body was.
“I’m absolutely sure that the corpse of Alexander was buried somewhere in Alexandria. The problem partly is that the district where the Ptolemies’ palace was – and surely where Alexander’s mausoleum therefore was situated – is now under water. You may have seen pictures of divers fishing up Greek and Egyptian statues from the seabed and bringing them up to Alexandria. So probably where he was buried is no longer accessible on the land.”
Alexander the Great on his horse, Bucephalus. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Where else might he have been buried, according to the various theories?
“There are devotees who think that they can identify [his burial place], and there are, I think, four main candidates,” says Cartledge. “One of them is a mosque, the Nabi Daniel mosque in Alexandria. It’s a suitable sort of place with a deep basement, because the original burial level of Alexander’s corpse would have been well below the current street level of the city. But no more can be said than that.”
Another theory, says Cartledge, is that Alexander’s remains are no longer in Alexandria but in Venice. “When the Arabs took over Alexandria, they had no obvious interest in preserving anything pagan or polytheistic, anything pre-Islamic, so preserving the tomb of Alexander (who had been worshipped even in his lifetime as a god) would not have been a priority. But Alexandria also, it so happened, was the last resting place of one of the four Christian gospel writers, (St) Mark. Now, Mark famously is the patron saint of today’s Venice.
“So one enthusiast has – utterly implausibly, I would argue – suggested that, when the Venetians, looking for the relics of St Mark, went to Alexandria and dug up what they took to be St Mark’s relics (which they then reburied under St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice), what they also actually dug up were the remains of Alexander the Great. Hence this notion that he’s underneath St Mark’s!”
St Mark’s Cathedral and Campanile, Venice, Italy. (Photo by Ionut David/Alamy Stock Photo)
The other outlier hypothesis, says Cartledge, focuses on a famous oasis called Siwa, located about 250 kilometres to the west of Alexandria on the borders with Libya. It is “a site where Alexander certainly visited,” says Cartledge. “It certainly meant a great deal to him, because otherwise why would he have made a long and dangerous side-trip to a site with no military significance whatsoever when he had yet to defeat the Persian emperor? What Alexander’s private consultation of the oracle of Ammon (Egyptian Amun) achieved was confirmation of his heroic, divinely appointed mission.
“There is, however, a Greek scholar who believes that his remains, having been for some time in Alexandria, were then transported to where she thinks he really wanted to be buried, which is at Siwa. Siwa is a shrine devoted to the chief Egyptian God Amun, whom the Greeks called Ammon and equated with their Zeus. And so the hypothesis has a certain plausibility, in a novelistic sort of way, but no credibility whatsoever as historical fact.”
What were Alexander the Great’s last words?
“Let’s suppose he died of natural causes [rather than being poisoned], let’s suppose he did have breath enough to speak at the last moment,” says Cartledge. “There is a story that his famous last words were ‘toi Kratistoi’. ‘Kratos’ is translated as ‘power’, ‘Kratistos’ means ‘the most powerful person’. Just before he expired he’d handed his signet ring, the ring he used to stamp any document as official, to one of his premier generals. But was that general meant to be Alexander’s intended successor as king and emperor?, he was asked. To which came the reply – allegedly – that the kingdom and empire should go “to the most powerful”.
“Those two last words were interpreted in the light of history, because for the next 40-odd years a handful of warlords, starting with his original bodyguards, fought it out between them. And they didn’t just fight metaphorically, they actually fought major pitched battles, with each striving for his own piece of the turf.
“So Alexander’s huge empire was carved up, eventually into three major kingdoms, and it all started with Alexander not leaving a living male heir. He married three times – or, rather, he had three wives, because actually the second two he married at the same time – he was polygamous, which was not a very Greek thing. And one of his wives – the famous one, Roxana, who was from Bactria, which is in today’s Afghanistan – was pregnant, and she did, in fact, give birth to a son after Alexander’s death. But that son was murdered by one of the several rivals for Alexander’s kingdom. And that just shows you how murderous, how vicious the struggle was after Alexander’s death.”
Did the Roman emperor Augustus break off the nose of Alexander the Great?
“There’s a famous alleged instance when the first Roman emperor, that’s Augustus, made a visit, a pilgrimage, almost, to the corpse of Alexander,” says Cartledge. “But – now this could be just a joke – he is said to have been so keen to get down to look at the corpse that he knocked its nose right off. Well, you’ve probably seen images of Egyptian mummies, quite often they don’t have a nose because it’s very easy to knock that off, it’s very brittle.
“To me, though, that is just a nasty story possibly originating from an Egyptian source, designed to make Augustus and the Roman conquerors as a whole look like clumsy, insensitive brutes.”
To hear more about Alexander the Great, plus ancient Greek democracy and what life was like for ancient Greek slaves, listen to the first part of our ‘Everything you wanted to know about ancient Greece’ podcast interview with Professor Cartledge – click here to listen. The second part, which explores women, homosexuality and pederasty, the Olympic games and the Elgin Marbles, will be available from Sunday 2 August.
Paul’s latest book, Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, was published by Picador as an e-book in May 2020 and will be published in hardcovers in November.
Emma Mason is the digital editor at HistoryExtra