Alexander The Great Could Have Died From Toxic Wine; Ancient Ruler May Have Been Poisoned By Little White Flower

By Ben Wolford on January 11, 2014 12:36 PM EST

New research sheds light on the potential cause of Alexander the Great's death — poisonous wine. (Photo: Shutterstock)
New research sheds light on the potential cause of Alexander the Great's death — poisonous wine. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Historians have long assumed Alexander the Great died from typhoid fever or malaria. But there might be a more sinister explanation: He could have been poisoned by the toxic wine of a little white flower.

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New research by toxicologists in New Zealand and the U.K. argue that the symptoms described in ancient texts are consistent with poisoning by Veratrum album, also known as white hellebore. Ingesting the plant causes fever, pain, vomiting, and paralysis, which Alexander was said to have suffered in the days leading up to his death at age 32 in Babylon. If these scientists are right, it could mean the resolution of a mystery lasting two millennia.

"Of all the chemical and botanical poisons reviewed," wrote Dr. Leo J. Schep and his three colleagues, "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." Their paper appears in this month's issue of the journal Clinical Toxicology. Though the fermented plant would've tasted bitter, Schep says whoever poisoned him may have masked the flavor with sweeter grape wine.

Schep tells The New Zealand Herald that he began investigating the notion of Alexander being poisoned after a documentary film crew for the BBC asked him whether it was possible. "I'll give it a go," he said. "I like a challenge." As he began testing the symptoms of various toxins against the trace historical record, he quickly ruled out common poisons like arsenic and tree-borne strychnine. White hellebore, though, was a hit. "To my utter surprise," Schep said.

If he's right, the knowledge would have huge implications for historians, who have generally viewed Alexander's death as natural. When Alexander died, his officers couldn't maintain unity throughout his Macedonian empire — the largest kingdom the world had known — and it fell back to the nations he had conquered. But if Schep is wrong, then Alexander probably died from one of the causes many others have put forward: liver complications related to near-constant drunkenness; typhoid fever, which was spreading around Persia at the time; malaria, and several others.

Schep's paper doesn't actually say definitively that Alexander was poisoned. It just says, "If Alexander the Great was poisoned," then white hellebore probably did it. "We'll never know, really," Schep told The Herald. What makes it so difficult to know is the scant record, which is actually a record of records that may or may not have any basis in fact. The sources are a diary and an oral tradition. Britannica calls the latter "a body of legends." The former only exists as summarized by ancient historians, who decided vague narrative was the best way to document the last moments of the most powerful man in the world.

For example, to surmise that Alexander was paralyzed in his last hours, we rely on the Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia, who wrote: "Lying speechless as [his officers] filed by, [Alexander the Great] yet struggled to raise his head, and in his eyes there was a look of recognition for each individual as he passed."

Even if Alexander were poisoned, there's no proof that he was murdered by conspiring generals. There have been documented cases of people accidentally poisoning themselves with Veratum album. In 2010, Clinical Toxicology published a paper about four people in Central Europe who thought they were eating wild garlic. In about 30 minutes they were throwing up, in pain, partially blind, and confused. Unlike, perhaps, Alexander, they all survived.

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