Did Poisoned Wine Kill Alexander The Great? New Zealand Scientists Think So

A bust of Alexander The Great, inscribed ‘Alessandro’, circa 330BC. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He was one of the world’s greatest military leaders, the King of Macedon, the Persian conqueror and ruler of an empire that stretched from Greece to India and Egypt. Hannibal and Julius Caesar were in awe of his prowess.

But when he was just 32, Alexander the Great fell ill and 12 days later, died.

For more than 2000 years, scholars have argued about what killed him.
The theories ranged from typhoid to malaria and meningitis.
Poisoning, a popular modus operandi of the ancient aristocracy, was often discounted because it took him almost two weeks to die.

Now a team of New Zealand researchers think they’ve found the answer: wine poisoned by a medicinal plant called white hellebore. A member of the lily family, Veratrum album has a toxic root known to the ancient Greeks as a medicinal herb to induce vomiting.

Dr Leo Schep, a toxicologist from the University of Otago’s National Poisons Centre is the lead author in a paper published in the January edition of Clinical Toxicology. He told The New Zealand Herald that he first began looking into the issue more than a decade ago after being approached by a documentary crew.

“They asked me to look into it for them and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll give it a go, I like a challenge’ – thinking I wasn’t going to find anything. And to my utter surprise, and their surprise, we found something that could fit the bill,” Dr Schep told The Herald .

The challenge for researchers is that there are conflicting contemporaneous accounts of Alexander the Great’s demise. The Royal Diary details a growing fever and paralysis, while the Alexander Romance points to a political assassination.

The military genius fought and played hard and before falling ill, he’d been on a two-day bender. Dr Schep’s theorised that the bitterness of the herb used could have been sweetened by wine and the drunk general didn’t really notice.

Outlining their findings, Dr Schep and his team write: “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.”

“If Alexander the Great was poisoned, Veratrum album offers a more plausible cause than arsenic, strychnine, and other botanical poisons.”

Likely, but still not definitive. This is a very cold case with no DNA left behind to check. As Dr Schep tells The NZ Herald: “We’ll never know really.”

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