Plutarch on the Death of Alexander (323bc)


This is your set-text on the death of Alexander. 
Text in black is the Board's set text.  Text in italics is the Board's optional extras.  
 Text in light blue I have added.
Mouse-over the emboldened words to read the glosses. 
Where words are blue and underlined, there is also a hyperlink to another site.

(You may wish to compare Plutarch's account below with those of Arrian and/or Diodorus)
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 73-77
As Alexander was travelling to Babylon, Nearchus came to accompany him, after he had sailed to the Euphrates through the great sea, and he told the king that some Chaldaeans had met him who advised that Alexander should keep away from Babylon. Alexander was not concerned about this, and carried on his way.
When he came to the walls of Babylon, he saw many ravens flying around and striking each other, some of which fell at his feet.
Later he was informed that Apollodorus, the general in charge of Babylon, performed the sacrifice to find out about the king’s future, and so he summoned Pythagoras the seer. Pythagoras did not deny that this was happening, so Alexander asked him what the sacrifice showed. When he was told that the liver of the victim had no lobes, he said, “Alas, this is a powerful sign.” He did not harm Pythagoras. He was annoyed that he had not followed Nearchus’ advice, and he spent most of his time in his tent outside Babylon or sailing on the Euphrates.
Many omens troubled him: for example, a tame ass set upon the largest and most noble lion in his collection and kicked it to death.
On another occasion, when he stripped for exercise and was playing ball, when it was necessary to get dressed again, the young men who were playing ball with him saw a man sitting silently on his throne, wearing his crown and his royal robes. When this man was asked who he was, for a long time he did not speak. When he came to his senses, he said that he was called Dionysius, and was born in Messenia; he had been brought to Babylon from the coast because of some accusation made against him, and had been a long time in chains; just recently the god Serapis had visited him and loosened his chains, and sent him to this place, telling him to take the robe and the crown and sit silently on the throne.
When he heard this, Alexander did away with the man, just as the seers told him to; but he became low-spirited and now had little expectation of divine support and was suspicious of his friends. He was fearful of Antipater and his sons; one of them, Iolas, was his chief cup-bearer, while Cassander had just recently arrived in Babylon.
Cassander had seen some barbarians performing obeisance, and as he had been brought up as a Greek and had never seen such a thing before, he laughed out loud rather rashly. Alexander was furious, and grabbing him by his hair with both hands he banged his head against the wall.
On another occasion, when Cassander wanted to say something against those who were making accusations against Antipater, Alexander stopped him and said, “What do you mean? Would men come on such a long journey if they did not have real grievances, but were bringing false charges?” When Cassander said that this very thing was a sign that the charges were false, because they were a long way from any proof, Alexander burst out laughing and replied, “These are the famous arguments of the followers of Aristotle which can be used on either side of a question; you will suffer for it, if it appears you have wronged these men in any way.”
Those who were there say that a terrible and deeply ingrained fear overwhelmed the spirit of Cassander, to such an extent that, many years later, when he was now king of the Macedonians and in control of Greece, while he was walking around in Delphi and looking at statues, he suddenly caught sight of a statue of Alexander and at once he was struck with a shuddering and suffered physical distress, and with difficulty recovered himself, as he had become faint at the sight.
Alexander, since he had become troubled about divine matters and fearful in his mind, now treated everything unusual or strange, however insignificant, as a portent or omen. The royal palace was full of people sacrificing and purifying and making predictions of the future. It is true that disbelief in divine matters and contempt for them is a terrible thing, but terrible also is superstition, which, just as water always flows down to the lowest point, now filled Alexander’s fearful mind with foolishness.

In spite of this, when some answers from the god were brought to him about Hephaestion, he put aside his grief, and again took part in sacrifices and drinking parties. He gave a magnificent banquet for Nearchus and those who had sailed with him, then he washed, as he was accustomed to do before going to sleep; but Medius invited him out, so he went out drinking with him. After drinking through all of the next day, he began to suffer from a fever; this did not happen when he drank from a cup belonging to Heracles, nor did he get a sudden pain in his back as if he had been struck by a spear, as some authors think they must write, as if they were inventing the tragic and moving finale of a great event. Aristobulus says that he got a maddening fever, and when he was very thirsty he drank wine; after this, he became delirious and died on the 30th day of the month Daesius.
The following details about Alexander’s illness are recorded in the court journals. On the 18th day of the month Daesius Alexander slept in the bath house because he had a fever. On the next day, he washed and went to his bedroom, where he spent the day playing dice with Medius. Then he washed late and performed his sacrifices to the gods; he ate and suffered a fever through the night. On the 20th day, he washed again, and performed his usual sacrifices; then he lay in a bathhouse, and spent time with Nearchus and his companions, listening to what they had to say about the voyage and the great sea. The next day he did the same, but was more inflamed, and he suffered badly during the night; the following day, he ran a very high fever. He was carried out and spent the day beside the great bath; he spoke with his commanders about the posts that needed filling in the army, and how they might fill these posts with reliable men. On the 24th day of the month, his fever was again very high and he was carried outside to offer sacrifice. He told the most important of his commanders to wait in the courtyard, and they spent the night there outside. He was carried to his palace on the other side of the river on the 25th day, where he slept a little, but the fever did not lessen.

When his commanders came to his bedside, he was unable to speak, and he was the same the next day; because of this the Macedonians thought that he had died, and they came shouting to the doors of the palace, and they began to threaten his companions until they overwhelmed them. The doors were thrown open for them, and all the Macedonians, one by one, without their weapons, filed past his bed. On this day, companions of Pytho and Seleucus were sent to the Temple of Serapis to ask if they should bring Alexander there; the God replied that they should leave him where he was. On the 28th day, towards evening, he died.

Most of this is word for word as it is written in the court journals. At the time of Alexander’s death, no one had any suspicion of poison, but it is reported that five years later Olympias, after receiving information, put a number of men to death and scattered the ashes of Iolas, on the grounds that he had administered the poison.
Those who claim that Aristotle advised Antipater to arrange Alexander’s death and that the poison was provided entirely through his efforts provide as proof of this a certain Hagnothemis, who claimed to have heard it from King Antigonus; according to this story, the drug was icy cold water from a particular cliff in Nonacris, which was gathered up like a light dew and carried in an ass’s hoof; no other container would hold the water, but it would cut through them because of its coldness and pungency. The majority of historians consider this story about the poison to be completely made up; strong support for their view is given by the fact that during the strong disagreements between the commanders over many days after Alexander’s death his body lay unattended in a stifling hot place, and showed no sign of such a drug, but remained pure and undefiled.

Roxana happened to be pregnant at this time and was honoured by the Macedonians because of this. She was jealous of Stateira and deceived her through a letter she forged; when Stateira came to where Roxana was waiting for her, she killed both her and her sister and threw the dead bodies into a well; Perdiccas knew what she was doing and helped her. Perdiccas held the greatest authority in the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death, and took Arrhidaeus around with him as a token of the royal power; he was Alexander’s brother, though his mother was a common woman of no reputation, and he was lacking in intelligence because of a disease which afflicted him; this did not affect him through nature or of its own accord, as it is reported that when he was a child he displayed a pleasing and a noble character. Later he was ruined by drugs given to him by Olympias which ruined his mind.

Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 7.24-27
BUT Alexander's own end was now near. Aristobulus says that the following occurrence was a prognostication of what was about to happen. He was distributing the army which came with Peucestas from Persia, and that which came with Philoxenus and Menander from the sea, among the Macedonian lines, and becoming thirsty he retired from his seat and thus left the royal throne empty. On each side of the throne were couches with silver feet, upon which his personal Companions were sitting. A certain man of obscure condition (some say that he was even once of the men kept under guard without being in chains), seeing the throne and the couches empty, and the eunuchs standing round the throne (for the Companions also rose up from their seats with the king when he retired), walked through the line of eunuchs, ascended the throne, and sat down upon it. According to a Persian law, they did not make him rise from the throne; but rent their garments and beat their breasts and faces as if on account of a great evil. When Alexander was informed of this, he ordered the man who had sat upon his throne to be put to the torture, with the view of discovering whether he had done this according to a plan concerted by a conspiracy. But the man confessed nothing, except that it came into his mind at the time to act thus. Even more for this reason the diviners explained that this occurrence boded no good to him. A few days after this, after offering to the gods the customary sacrifices for good success, and certain others also for the purpose of divination, he was feasting with his friends, and was drinking far into the night. He is also said to have distributed the sacrificial victims as well as a quantity of wine to the army throughout the companies and centuries. There are some who have recorded that he wished to retire after the drinking party to his bed-chamber; but Medius, at that time the most influential of the Companions, met him and begged him to join a party of revellers at his residence, saying that the revel would be a pleasant one.

THE Royal Diary gives the following account, to the effect that he revelled and drank at the dwelling of Medius; then rose up, took a bath, and slept; then again supped at the house of Medius and again drank till far into the night. After retiring from the drinking party he took a bath; after which he took a little food and slept there, because he already felt feverish. He was carried out upon a couch to the sacrifices, in order that he might offer them according to his daily custom. After placing the sacrifices upon the altar he lay down in the banqueting hall until dusk. In the meantime he gave instructions to the officers about the expedition and voyage, ordering those who were going on foot to be ready on the fourth day, and those who were going to sail with him to be ready to sail on the fifth day. From this place he was carried upon the couch to the river, where he embarked in a boat and sailed across the river to the park. There he again took a bath and went to rest.On the following day he took another bath and offered the customary sacrifices. He then entered a tester bed, lay down, and chatted with Medius. He also ordered his officers to meet him at daybreak. Having done this he ate a little supper and was again conveyed into the tester bed. The fever now raged the whole night without intermission. The next day he took a bath; after which he offered sacrifice, and gave orders to Nearchus and the other officers that the voyage should begin on the third day. The next day he bathed again and offered the prescribed sacrifices. After placing the sacrifices upon the altar he did not yet keep quiet though suffering from the fever. Notwithstanding this, he summoned the officers and gave them instructions to have all things ready for the starting of the fleet. In the evening he took a bath, after which he was very ill. The next day he was transferred to the house near the swimming-bath, where he offered the prescribed sacrifices. Though he was now very dangerously ill, he summoned the most responsible of his officers and gave them fresh instructions about the voyage. On the following day he was with difficulty carried out to the sacrifices, which he offered; he none the less gave other orders to the officers about the voyage. The next day, though he was now very ill, he offered the prescribed sacrifices. He now gave orders that the generals should remain in attendance in the hall, and that the colonels and captains should remain before the gates. But being now altogether in a dangerous state, he was conveyed from the park into the palace. When his officers entered the room, he knew them indeed, but no longer uttered a word, being speechless. During the ensuing night and day and the next night and day he was in a very high fever.

SUCH is the account given in the Royal Diary. In addition to this, it states that the soldiers were very desirous of seeing him; some, in order to see him once more while still alive; others, because there was a report that he was already dead, imagined that his death was being concealed by the confidential body-guards, as I for my part suppose. Most of them through grief and affection for their king forced their way in to see him. It is said that when his soldiers passed by him he was unable to speak; yet he greeted each of them with his right hand, raising his head with difficulty and making a sign with his eyes. The Royal Diary also says that Peithon, Attalus, Demophon, and Peucestas, as well as Cleomenes, Menidas, and Seleucus, slept in the temple of Serapis, and asked the god whether it would be better and more desirable for Alexander to be carried into his temple, in order as a suppliant to be cured by him. A voice issued from the god saying that he was not to be carried into the temple, but that it would be better for him to remain where be was. This answer was reported by the Companions; and soon after Alexander died, as if after all, this were now the better thing. Neither Aristobulus nor Ptolemy has given an account differing much from the preceding. Some authors, however, have related that his Companions asked him to whom he left his kingdom; and that he replied, "To the best." Others say, that in addition to this remark, he told them that he saw there would be a great funeral contest held in his honour.

I am aware that many other particulars have been related by historians concerning Alexander's death, and especially that poison was sent for him by Antipater, from the effects of which he died. It is also asserted that the poison was procured for Antipater by Aristotle, who was now afraid of Alexander on account of Callisthenes. It is said to have been conveyed by Cassander, the son of Antipater, some recording that he conveyed it in the hoof of a mule, and that his younger brother Iollas gave it to the king. For this man was the royal cup-bearer, and he happened to have received some affront from Alexander a short time before his death. Others have stated that Medius, being a lover of Iollas, took part in the deed; for he it was who induced the king to hold the revel. They say that Alexander was seized with an acute paroxysm of pain over the wine-cup, on feeling which he retired from the drinking bout. One writer has not even been ashamed to record that when Alexander perceived he was unlikely to survive, he was going out to throw himself into the river Euphrates, so that he might disappear from men's sight, and leave among the men of aftertimes a more firmly-rooted opinion that he owed his birth to a god, and had departed to the gods. But as he was going out he did not escape the notice of his wife Roxana, who restrained him from carrying out his design. Whereupon he uttered lamentations, saying that she envied him the complete glory of being thought the offspring of the god. These statements I have recorded rather that I may not seem to be ignorant that they have been made, than because I consider them worthy of credence or even of narration.