Monday, January 13, 2014

Killer wine

Not more than a week ago I finished a superb, (and free!) on-line course from Yale University.  It was on Ancient Greece and was taught by one of the world's leading classicists, Donald Kagan (I can't recommend this course too highly.  You can find it, here).  So, I was pretty excited when I read this article about the death of Alexander the Great.  Given the fact that he was the greatest battle general in all of ancient history, one might have reasonably expected to learn that he died on the battlefield or under some other glorious circumstance.  But though his demise has been somewhat of an historical mystery, it clearly was not a glorious, noble death.   And according to recent research, the mystery may now have been solved:
His death in 323BCE came at the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon after he developed a fever and soon became unable to speak and walk. He was ill for 12 days.

Dr Leo Schep, a toxicologist from New Zealand’s National Poisons Centre says it is impossible that poisons such as arsenic were to blame - as cited in some theories - as death would have come too fast.  Instead, in his new research, Dr Schep argues that the most likely culprit was Veratrum album, a poisonous plant from the lily family also known as white or false hellebore.  Often fermented by the Greeks as a herbal treatment for inducing vomiting, importantly, it could account for the 12 days it took for the leader to die.

It would also match an account of Alexander the Great’s death written by ancient Greek historian Diodorus, who said he was struck with pain after drinking a large bowl of unmixed wine in honour of Hercules.
You can read the rest of this fascinating article, here.