Chapter 8

Doomed to die: Alexander in Babylon

The final chapter of Alexander’s life was set in Babylon. He had spent a short time there earlier in his campaign, and it had been the first Achaemenid royal centre that he had visited. We have already come across the fragment of a Babylonian astronomical diary that reports Alexander’s victory at the battle of Gaugamela, and refers to him as ‘King of the World’. That diary goes on to report his negotiations with the governor of Babylon, his promise to restore Esagila, the sanctuary of the god Marduk, and his entry into the city of Babylon itself on 20 October 331. Alexander was to return to Babylon nearly eight years later, in Spring 323, and it was there that he died. Babylonian documents can illuminate important aspects of Alexander’s actions in the city and his relationship with its scholar-priests. They can also help us make sense of some puzzling stories in the Greek and Roman accounts.

Babylonian scholarship

The scholars who produced the astronomical diaries were also responsible for composing the Babylonian royal chronicles. Like the diaries these record significant historical events, without commenting upon them, and they therefore differ from the royal inscriptions, which were designed for public consumption and which emphasize the virtues and power of the king. The sequence of chronicles starts at the accession of king Nabonassar (747–734), and is known to carry on at least into the later 2nd century BCE. The eight years during which Alexander was king, though they were important in Babylonian history, are only a brief moment in this context.

As well as making records of the present, the Babylonian scholars also created works of guidance based on past events. These included the Enūma Anu Enlil, which listed celestial events, in particular eclipses, with guidance as to what they portended. The aim of all this was to support the king, so that his reign would be long and the city of Babylon would benefit from it. So as well as recording celestial events and identifying potential threats to the king, the scholar-priests would advise him on what actions to take to avoid the predicted dangers.

Alexander’s entry into Babylon, 331

When Alexander entered Babylon after his victory at Gaugamela, he was following in a line of previous victorious new rulers that included Sargon II of Assyria (722–705) and Cyrus the Great of Persia. The account of Alexander’s entry into Babylon recorded by Curtius follows a pattern known from official documents produced by these earlier kings. The people of the city are described as rejoicing, and the new king in turn sacrifices to the gods and promises to restore their temples. The promise to restore the temples did not necessarily indicate that they had been damaged earlier: large brick-built buildings were in need of constant attention, and kings could improve them as well as keep them standing: the king’s concern for the fabric of the city was a sign of his virtue. Arrian claims that Xerxes had destroyed the temples of Babylon, but there is no mention of this in any Babylonian documents.

None of the surviving narratives mentions a coronation of Alexander in Babylon, but he was certainly recognized as king from the time of his arrival, and described as such in Babylonian documents from this time and afterwards. For Plutarch, the fact that Alexander was prepared to surround himself with Babylonian soothsayers was a sign that he was becoming enmeshed in superstitious practices, but it was an inevitable consequence of his position as king that the religious-administrative organization of the city would be deployed to advise and support him. He did not stay long in Babylon on this occasion, moving on to the other Persian royal centres at Susa and Persepolis. But Alexander was to return to Babylon at the end of his life, and once again he would follow the guidance of its priests.

On 20 September 331, the 13th day of the month Ulūlu in the Babylonian calendar, 11 days before the battle of Gaugamela, there had been a lunar eclipse. Saturn was in the sky, and Jupiter had set. This is recorded in the astronomical diary already discussed, and the eclipse is mentioned by the surviving Alexander historians. In the Enūma Anu Enlil there is an explanation of the meaning of an eclipse on that day. Not only does it foretell the death of the current king, but also that his son will not inherit his throne, and a new ruler will come from the west and rule for eight years. The battle that followed the eclipse in September 331 did indeed ensure the end of Darius’ reign, and sometime after that of his life. He was indeed succeeded by a ruler from the west, Alexander. But October 323 would mark the end of eight years of Alexander’s reign. Unless fate could be avoided, Alexander’s future was looking bleak.

Alexander’s entry into Babylon, 323

Alexander had returned from his Indian campaign at the end of 325. After spending the summer of the following year in Ecbatana in Media, and campaigning against the Cossaeans in the northern Zagros Mountains in the autumn and winter, Alexander made his way to Babylon in the spring of 323. There, according to Arrian and Diodorus, he was discouraged from entering the city by the Babylonian priests, on the grounds that it would be dangerous for him. Possibly they were influenced by two eclipses, one lunar, one solar, that had occurred the previous May. The meaning of the lunar eclipse on that particular day was that ‘the King of the World would die and his dynasty would come to an end’. Such predictions were supposed to come true within 100 days, but occasionally came into effect later. It is also likely that the priests were expecting solar eclipses in April and May 323, although these turned out not to be visible. Arrian says Alexander was advised not to enter the city from the west, and he adds that according to Aristobulus, who was with Alexander at the time, the king attempted to follow this advice, but was prevented from getting round the city because the ground was waterlogged and marshy. It is common in narratives involving prophecies of misfortune that the central character tries to avoid ill luck, but is prevented by circumstances beyond his control, and Arrian is clearly conscious that this is the message of this story, but that does not mean that it is not a basically accurate account.

It seems likely that, either after Alexander had entered Babylon against advice, or while he was waiting to enter the city, another ritual was performed to protect him from ill fate. This was the ‘substitute king ritual’, which is known from Assyrian texts. The ritual involved the temporary abdication of the king, usually for 100 days, with a criminal or madman being made king in his place. The idea was that any misfortune would fall on the substitute instead of the real king. Once the predicted risk period was over, the substitute would be executed, and the real king would resume his reign. There are no Babylonian documents that refer to this ritual, but the Greek writer Dio Chrysostom, a contemporary of Plutarch, makes a confused reference to it as a Persian custom. It was probably taken over by the Babylonians from the Assyrians, and used by them into the Persian period and beyond. In the narratives of Diodorus, Plutarch, and Arrian, stories are told about a madman or lunatic being found sitting on the throne, wearing Alexander’s royal gown and diadem. In the stories this is presented as an omen of Alexander’s impending death, and it is suggested that the man went to the throne of his own accord. However, the similarities to the elements of the substitute king ritual are too close to be coincidental, so they may be taken as evidence for Alexander undergoing such a ritual in 323. However, he was clearly back on the throne by June.


Plutarch and Arrian both give quite detailed accounts of the last days of Alexander’s life. They based these on what they believed to be genuine reports of his daily activities recorded in the so-called ‘Royal Journals’. While it is not unlikely that such records might have existed, most scholars doubt that what was available to writers of the 2nd century CE bore much of a relationship to them. Following the account in these journals, Plutarch and Arrian describe how Alexander caught a fever and spent the last few days of his life mainly lying on his couch, conducting the religious rituals required of him as king and giving instructions to his officers about a planned invasion of Arabia. He gradually weakened, and sometime before he died he lost the ability to speak. None of this is implausible. Although Alexander was only 32 years old, he had suffered a number of injuries, including a severe chest wound in the Punjab. He also drank alcohol heavily. His companion Hephaestion had died under similar circumstances in Ecbatana the previous year, with no foul play suspected.

Inevitably, however, within a few years of his death, stories began to circulate that claimed that Alexander had been poisoned. The version we find in most of the Alexander historians claims that Alexander’s regent in Greece, Antipater, organized the assassination, sending his sons Cassander and Iollas to Babylon with poison provided by Aristotle. It is most likely that this story was invented to damage the reputation of Antipater and Cassander in the conflicts between Alexander’s successors that broke out immediately after his death. Alexander’s mother, Olympias, working in the interest of her grandson, Rhoxane’s infant son Alexander IV, found herself in opposition to Antipater and Cassander and may have been the source of the story.

The most widespread story about Alexander’s death, however, concerns his supposed last words. Arrian reports, on the basis of the supposed ‘Royal Journals’, that Alexander lost the power of speech a few days before he died, but, because the story was too well known to be ignored, he also notes that some writers said that Alexander’s companions asked him to whom he left his kingdom, and that Alexander’s reply was ‘to the strongest’. The events of the years following Alexander’s death made such a response seem prophetic. Alexander’s generals fought among themselves over the next decades, attempting either to take control of his whole empire or, eventually, to carve out kingdoms for themselves. Even when he was dead, Alexander was still a part of this conflict. As we have seen, his body, which was being sent back to Macedonia to be buried in the royal tombs at Vergina, was diverted to Egypt, where Ptolemy, who made himself first satrap and later pharaoh in Egypt, used it to legitimize his rule.

The empire which Alexander had created began to fall apart even before his body had been properly buried. There is no space in a book of this size to tell the story of the following years, which has in any case been told often before. What remains is to look at how the historical Alexander, whom we have glimpsed through the fragmentary contemporary evidence, and through the distorting lens of later historical tradition, reached the position he occupies in the imagination of the modern world.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!