Rumor Has It?

Dimitrios Xanthopoulos, Class of 2017, UMass History

With the school year about to begin, stories of teens and young adults will begin to circulate around their respective campuses. Whether or not these stories are true, it can be safe to assume that they will blossom into rumors that will dominate the social life of students. The truth is quite easy to come by nowadays with the help of social media guiding many to converse with one another, but imagine you are presented with a rumor and have no way to delve into its origins. I spent the past spring semester working with Professor Moralee of the history department on a research project that focused on an ancient fabrication. I decided to analyze this fabrication, which described the enigmatic death of one of history’s most important men, Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great mosaic detail, originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. <a href=

Alexander the Great mosaic detail, originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. Image Source

There are numerous explanations one can use to describe Alexander’s decline in health; malaria, alcohol poisoning, West Nile Virus, even depression. All are suitable causes, which can be used to explain the demise of Alexander, but the one cause, which tends to lurk in the shadows of history along with kindling my interest in Alexander’s final days, is that of poisoning. Prominent authors of antiquity including Arrian of Nicomedia, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus, and Diodorus of Sicily each mention a rumor that states Alexander was poisoned and eventually died due to complications from a fatal drug. What fascinated me the most was that Aristotle, Alexander’s teacher during his youth, is labeled within this rumor as one of the prime perpetrators of an assassination plot targeted towards Alexander. Now why would Aristotle be accused of committing such a heinous crime? What were his motives, if any?

It is said that Aristotle created the drug to end Alexander’s life because he feared for his own since Alexander had Kallisthenes, the grand nephew of Aristotle, executed for participation in a separate conspiracy. The drug Aristotle created was to be administered to Alexander, but how would one go about doing that and not get caught? Like every well-crafted rumor, many characters are involved.

The rumor includes additional characters such as Antipatros; the regent of Macedonia while Alexander was on campaign, and his two sons Kassandros and Iollas. Antipatros was given the drug by Aristotle who in turn gave it to his son Kassandros, who then gave it to his brother Iollas. This chain of events slightly parallels reality because Antipatros was summoned by Alexander to reinforce him with fresh troops in Babylon, but sent Kassandros in his stead due to a deteriorating relationship between himself and Alexander, possibly caused by complications amongst Antipatros and Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Kassandros gives the drug to his brother Iollas, who is the royal wine pourer of Alexander. The rumor now provides an event, which has produced two accounts of Alexander’s death and is where I believe things gets interesting. The setting is a party hosted by Medius, Alexander’s most trusted companion at the time of his death, but also the lover of Iollas. The first account portrays Alexander drinking copious amounts of wine with Medius, and as he leaves, takes his bath and makes his daily sacrifices, he slowly begins to decline in health. The second account depicts Alexander drinking wine at the party of Medius, feeling a sharp pain strike his body, an ancient phenomenon associated with being poisoned, and dying several days later. This is where the rumor ends.

The Funeral of Iskandar from a Khamseh of Nizami, ascribed to Salim Quli; Mughal India, c. 1610. <a href=

The Funeral of Iskandar from a Khamseh of Nizami, ascribed to Salim Quli; Mughal India, c. 1610. The British Museum. Image Source

A confusing and complex rumor for today’s standards, the validity of its content does not suit my interests. Instead I am testing the believability of this rumor as is circulated around the time of the aforementioned authors. The amalgamation of these men seems too perfect to be legitimate. While this project is still a work in progress, I have gone through the accounts of the aforementioned characters and analyzed each one to the point where I have been able to name possible motives that each character may have possessed. Once again, whether or not each motive is authentic is up for interpretation, but through my research I have come to the conclusion that a rumor of this caliber can be nothing more than a simple fabrication.

The origin of this rumor is one that has puzzled researchers and historians for hundreds of years, so finding it would be groundbreaking. For the time being I will continue to test the believability of this rumor by comparing and contrasting interests and motives of the aforementioned characters and others I may come across.

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