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Thursday, June 11, 1998 Published at 19:46 GMT 20:46 UK


Health

Alexander's death riddle is 'solved'

Scientists now believe Alexander the Great died of natural causes

Scientists claim to have solved one of the great mysteries of ancient history - what killed Alexander the Great?

It has commonly been thought that the warrior king was either poisoned or died of malaria.

But the New England Journal of Medicine has reported that he probably died of typhoid fever.

The death of Alexander, at just 33-years-old, has long been shrouded in uncertainty.

The cry of pain

Various historical versions agree that the Macedonian king, who conquered much of the ancient known world, died after attending several banquets in Babylon, where he drank a great deal of wine.

After finishing the last glass, Alexander cried out in pain and said it felt like he had been "hit in the liver with an arrow," according to one version of the events.

Other historians, such as Aristobulus, said Alexander was seized with a raging fever. Some claim he had chills and sweats before falling into a coma and dying 11 days later on June 10, 323 BC.

Poisoned by lieutenants

A number of historians speculated his lieutenants, dissatisfied with Alexander's rule, poisoned the wine.

There were also reports that several days elapsed before he could be buried, and signs of decomposition were notably absent.

Now, researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine report that Alexander probably died of typhoid fever.

The medical team, led by Dr David W Oldach, said there have been many possible causes of death, such as alcohol poisoning (which may explain why the body remained preserved), arsenic poisoning, an inflammation of the pancreas, or malaria (which was common in the area).

Unreliable sources

But the team said descriptions of what happened do not precisely fit those causes, although the group acknowledged that the surviving accounts of his death are not completely reliable, since they were written two or three centuries after the events.

The disease that seems to fit best is typhoid fever, which comes from contaminated food or drinking water, or is spread by poor hygiene. Before antibiotics, it was often fatal.

Oldach said the sharp abdominal pain is a vital clue because it probably means the disease perforated his intestine, hastening death.

The illness may also have struck down Alexander's male lover the year before, the researchers said.

Shallow breathing

Oldach and his team said typhoid fever can cause a paralysis that spreads from the feet toward the head. The shallow breathing it causes can make a person appear dead. That may be why Alexander's body did not appear to compose, according to Oldach.

Historian Eugene N Borza of Pennsylvania State University noted some circumstances surrounding Alexander's death may have been exaggerated.

Just as the unpopular Roman dictator Sulla was depicted as being eaten alive by worms and other vermin, even though he probably died quickly from massive bleeding, those who sought to glorify Alexander may have wanted to evoke a minor miracle by claiming that his body did not deteriorate after death.

Hijacked corpse

It is doubtful this latest theory can ever be proven.

Alexander's embalmed corpse was hijacked while en route to Macedonia, and displayed in a glass sarcophagus in Alexandria for 550 years, before its whereabouts became uncertain.

Legend says the body is in a crypt beneath an early Christian church.

"The possibility that one might gain permission to excavate this site in search of the remains of an ancient Macedonian king is remote," said Borza.



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The New England Journal of Medicine on Alexander

Typhoid fever

Biography of Alexander the Great


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