Study: Alexander the Great Felled by Toxic Wine

Scientist theorizes Veratrum album did him in

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Jan 16, 2014 8:45 AM CST

(Newser) – One of the greatest mysteries surrounding Alexander the Great—namely, why he died at age 32—may finally have been solved, with a scientist who has been researching the question for a decade now theorizing that he was done in by wine made from an innocent-looking but poisonous plant, reports the Independent. Poison has long been named as his possible killer (along with pancreatitis, a deadly River Styx bacterium, typhoid fever...), but New Zealand toxicologist and study co-author Dr. Leo Schep easily ruled out speedy killers like arsenic, strychnine, and "other botanical poisons" like hemlock, Discovery News reports, based on what's known about Alexander's death: That it came in 323 BC after a 12-day illness, in which he had a fever and eventually lost the ability to speak and walk.

Schep now believes Veratrum album, a member of the lily family, was the culprit, writing in the journal Clinical Toxicology that "Veratrum poisoning ... may also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, followed by bradycardia [a heart-rate below 60 bpm] and hypotension with severe muscular weakness. Alexander suffered similar features for the duration of his illness." The determination also jibes with one written account of his death, with Greek historian Diodorus noting that pain set in after Alexander consumed a large bowl of wine in Hercules' honor. Schep notes the wine would have been "very bitter," but could have been mixed with sweeter wine, reports the Herald. But a Stanford research scholar sees a problem with the theory: the lack of a mention of intense diarrhea, which is always present with Veratrum album poisoning. Even Schep admits "we'll never know really" what killed Alexander (unless, perhaps, his long-lost tomb and remains are discovered.)

A 2nd century AD bust of Alexander the Great is seen from the first floor of the Museum of the ancient Agora, Stoa of Attalos, in Athens.
A 2nd century AD bust of Alexander the Great is seen from the first floor of the Museum of the ancient Agora, Stoa of Attalos, in Athens.   (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
A marble statue from Egpyt, of Alexander the Great, dating back to approximately 300 BC, is seen as part of the Babylon exhibition at the Louvre museum in Paris, Monday March 10, 2008.
A marble statue from Egpyt, of Alexander the Great, dating back to approximately 300 BC, is seen as part of the Babylon exhibition at the Louvre museum in Paris, Monday March 10, 2008.   (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
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