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by Paul Doherty

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-7867-1340-2

Alexander the Great wasn’t a nice guy.

No, writes historical novelist Doherty (The Gates of Hell, 2003, etc.), he was a wastrel, ill-tempered, a drunk. Reportedly, he conquered most of the known world while snockered, when “he would sometimes become offensive, sneering and arrogant. He would then sleep often until midday and sometimes for the whole of the following day,” as Plutarch noted. He was also drunk, many ancient sources tell us, when he died at the tender age of 33; one of them specifies that, having occupied the great city of Babylon, near modern-day Baghdad, he drank six quarts of wine, began to feel unwell, drank a few more quarts, and then expired. Other sources suggest that Alexander fell ill after being repeatedly bitten by mosquitoes along the swampy Euphrates River, which has led some modern epidemiologists to posit that Alexander died of some ancestral West Nile virus. But Doherty prefers an explanation that few contemporary sources admit. Alexander tempted fate with his desire to prove his invincibility: “Tens upon thousands of men, women and children paid the price for this. Alexander destroyed their cities and their cultures, bringing them to an end in an orgy of rape, torture, killing or slavery.” He thus made plenty of enemies. Worse—for such behavior was common in the ancient world—he taught his lieutenants the fine art of brutality, and they returned the favor by murdering him, whereupon the nicer Ptolemy took over. That there is slender evidence for such a conspiracy doesn’t sway Doherty; nor does the fact that the chroniclers on whom he relies most heavily lived hundreds of years after Alexander’s time. Still, it makes for a good theory, if one that may not sway purists who prefer the wine-and/or-virus take on Alexander’s death.

It’s Alexander fever time, with two new movies and a slew of books celebrating the renowned conqueror. But this is a minor contribution at best, of much less interest than Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great: A New Life (p. 721).