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Toxic Wine Might Have Killed Alexander the Great

A poisonous plant fermented into wine may have killed the Macedonian leader in 323 B.C. Continue reading →

Toxic wine made from a harmless looking plant might have been the culprit for Alexander the Great's untimely and mysterious death more than 2,000 years ago, new research claims.

Published in the medical journal Clinical Toxicology, the study points to a white flowering plant, Veratrum album, more commonly known as white hellebore and a fabled poison, as the most likely candidate to have killed the Macedonian king in 12 days.

"If Alexander the Great was poisoned, Veratrum album offers a more plausible cause than arsenic, strychnine, and other botanical poisons," wrote New Zealand researchers Leo Schep, of the National Poisons Centre, Pat Wheatley, a classics expert at Otago University, and colleagues.

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The researchers reviewed ancient literary evidence associated with the Macedonian leader's demise in 323 B.C.

Indeed, there are basically two divergent reports of Alexander's death. The first originated in the Royal Diary, allegedly kept in Alexander's court. The second account survives in various versions of the Alexander Romance, a collection of texts and manuscripts about the exploits of the Macedonian king.

"The Royal Diary describes a gradual onset of fever, with a progressive inability to walk, leading to Alexander's death, without offering a cause of his demise," Schep and Wheatley said.

"In contrast, the Romance implies that members of Alexander's inner circle conspired to poison him," they added.

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Alexander fell ill at one of many all-night drinking parties in Babylon, in modern Iraq. The overlord of one of the largest empires in the ancient world, stretching from Greece to India and Egypt, was taken to bed with severe stomach pain and fever.

Over the next 12 days, he worsened. Alexander could only move his eyes and hands and was unable to speak. He later fell into a coma.

The Macedonian king was pronounced dead on June 11, 323 B.C. - just before his 33rd birthday.

According to the researchers, white hellebore, a plant well known to the Greeks as a herbal treatment for inducing vomiting, could have been fermented as a wine that was given to the leader during the banquet.

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The drunk general probably wouldn't notice the bitterness of the herb, which was sweetened as wine.

The researchers noted that Veratrum poisoning matches Alexander's symptoms and course of illness, beginning with "a sudden onset of epigastric and substernal pain."

They added that nausea and vomiting may follow, along with by bradycardia and low blood pressure, with severe muscular weakness.

"Of all the chemical and botanical poisons reviewed, we believe the alkaloids present in the various Veratrum species, notably Veratrum album, were capable of killing Alexander with comparable symptoms to those Alexander reportedly experienced over the 12 days of his illness," Schep and Wheatley said.

Other scholars disagree with the hellebore poisoning theory. According to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's Departments of Classics and History of Science, the symptoms of an overdose of hellebore were very well known in antiquity.

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"The harsh gastrointestinal effects are immediate and an overdose would have been distinctively violent. I think the symptoms would probably have been recognized by Alexander's doctors and his companions," Mayor, author of the Mithradates biography "The Poison King," told Discovery News.

She noted that hellebore not only induces vomiting but always causes severe, profuse diarrhea, which doesn't appear to be mentioned by any of the ancient sources who described Alexander's death.

"If Schep now proposes that Alexander was secretly and deliberately poisoned with ‘hellebore wine' mixed with regular wine, is there any evidence that hellebore was ever fermented into a bitter wine in Alexander's day?" she asked.

Alexander's agonizing death has long puzzled scholars.

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Retrodiagnoses have included poisoning from a deadly bacterium found in the River Styx, complications from heavy drinking, septicemia, pancreatitis, an unhealthy environment in Babylon possibly exacerbated by malaria, West Nile fever, a typhoid fever or some other parasitic or viral illness.

But with no corpse to examine, any hypothesis is pure speculation and Alexander's fate remains a very cold case.

The researchers admitted it's impossible to establish whether he was really poisoned.

"We'll never know really," Schep said.

Photo: Alexander the Great is depicted in a third century B.C. statue at Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Credit: Giovanni Dall'Orto/Wikimedia Commons

Sept. 12, 2011 --

 In the search for buried history, archaeologists pour their resources into uncovering the remnants of the distant past. With know-how, persistence and a little luck, archaeologists can push aside dirt and rock and find an artifact of historical significance. Although chance plays a big role in unearthing history, archaeological treasures have been stumbled upon purely by accident, often by those outside the scientific community. In these photos, explore several particularly serendipitous finds of unique artifacts, some of which reach as far back as prehistory.

On Sept. 12, 1940, four teenagers followed their wayward dog into a cave complex near the village of Montignac in southwestern France. To their surprise, the caves hosted something remarkable: nearly 2,000 paintings and etchings of animals, humans and abstract shapes on the walls dating back between 15,000 and 25,000 years.  Known as the Lascaux caves, the complex features figures depicted in surprising detail given the age of the illustrations. Animals portrayed on the cave walls included horses, stags, bison and felines.  Archaeologists believed the caves were used for ritualistic purposes. Some parts of the illustrations even appear to construct a narrative, but what they mean exactly has yet to be deciphered. The caves were open to the public in 1948, but closed in 1963 in order to preserve the site from damage.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 800 biblical texts made of animal skin and papyrus. Dating to around 2,000 years ago, between the years 200 B.C. and 70 A.D., the scrolls could well be the oldest such documents in existence and have deepened historians' understanding of religious history. These documents may have been lost to history had a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his cousin not stumbled upon the first manuscripts along the northern shore of the Dead Sea at a remote site known as Qumran in 1947. The last fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection was uncovered in the mid-1950s. Although the scrolls have been extensively studied and translated, one big mystery remains: Who exactly wrote them?

As Napoleon Bonaparte's army marched through north Africa during his campaign in Egypt, they stumbled upon what would become known as the Rosetta Stone, after the town where it was discovered. Within Bonaparte's army was a squadron of scholars called Institute of Egypt, also known as the Scientific and Artistic Commission. As the military settled around the Nile Delta, the Institute explored local ruins and artifacts. After the discovery of the stone in 1799, several copies of the inscriptions on its face were made, since no one could read them at the time. By 1802, the Greek and Demotic portions of the stone had been deciphered by scholars. The hieroglyphics posed a different challenge all together, however, and it would take 20 years before French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced that he had cracked the code. By deciphering the hieroglyphs, Champollion opened a whole new door to understanding the civilization of ancient Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is currently kept in the British Museum. 

In case you don't know what a geoglyph is, ancient Peruvians went through the trouble of leaving a picture-perfect definition. Known as the Nazca Lines, these giant carvings into the Earth were only discovered by airplane in the 1930s. Located in the Nazva desert in southern Peru around 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Lima, the geoglyphs resemble a number of animals including a spider (as seen here), a condor, a monkey, a tree, as well as human figures and geometric patterns. Why exactly indigenous tribes living in the area between 100 B.C. and 650 A.D. felt compelled to produce these works remains a mystery, though archaeologists agree that it is likely tied to religious customs. 

In 1991, German tourists stumbled upon a frozen body in a glacier on the Ötztal Alps between Italy and Austria. Although they originally thought the corpse to be the result of a recent death, the iceman mummy, named Ötzi, in fact dated back 5,300 years. Since Ötzi's discovery, the mummy has been extensively studied. Scientists have learned everything from his last meal to his cause of death to his possible occupation and they have even made reconstructions of his face. Ötzi died in the spring as a result of an arrowhead striking his left clavicle artery. He likely received a ceremonial burial and was found beside tools and other personal items.

Over the years, metal detector enthusiasts, particularly those in the United Kingdom, have uncovered archaeological treasures buried beneath the Earth. In 2009, 30-year-old Nick Davies hauled in 10,000 ancient Roman coins that he had found inside a clay pot buried in Shropshire, U.K. That same year, a trove of 1,500 gold and silver pieces dating back to the Dark Ages were found on a farmer's field in the western region of Staffordshire, England. Last year, 63-year-old David Crisp uncovered 52,000 ancient Roman coins, later given a value of around $1 million, in a clay pot in southwestern England.

In 1986, divers stumbled upon a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck some six miles off the coast of the town of Grado, Italy. Measuring 55 feet long and 16 feet wide, the small trade vessel was stocked with 600 amphorae, or vases, packed with sardines and other fish. Further study of the shipwreck revealed that the ancient Roman engineers also had built in a hydraulic system that allowed the ship to carry an aquarium with live fish.