22 April 2007

Book Review: Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon by Graham Phillips

Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon By the summer of 323 B.C., Alexander the Great has lived up to his title. Aged 32, he has gone from the young king of a small country, to the most successful soldier history has seen. His empire - the largest the world has ever known - stretches from eastern Europe to the western edge of India and down into Egypt. All this falls apart in early June at a banquet in Babylon, where the Macedonian conqueror collapses in agony. He recovers, only to be struck down again and within days Alexander is dead.

Over the years historians have offered a number of theories as to what killed Alexander. But none seem to have seriously considered the explanation put forward by Alexander’s mother - poison. Taking Olympias’s accusations as his starting point, Phillips sets out to discover what, and who, could have deliberately done in history’s most famous warrior.

The organisation is brilliant; first putting the whole thing into a historical context by describing the world of 323 B.C., then going through the evidence for poison and eliminating suggested natural causes. Next was the narrowing of the suspect list by ruling out the implausible and the impossible. The final list received a chapter each, dedicated to outlining their relationship with the victim and their likely motives for wanting him dead. These were arranged in chronological order, so that they doubled as a history of the life and times of Alexander himself. Finally, events subsequent to Alexander’s death were examined to see if they could help identify the killer; and like all good murder mysteries this one had a twist at the end, with Phillips realising that he had overlooked several small but crucial points that put a different spin on the case. Each chapter ended with a dot-point summary of its contents; while repetitive, these were very useful for cementing the key facts in my head. The whole book was a great education in ancient history, so there was a lot of information to absorb and the recaps were helpful.

Readability is one thing; plausibility is another. For much of the book I remained sceptical as to whether Alexander had been poisoned at all; I couldn’t help feeling that Phillips had set out to prove murder, rather than trying to disprove natural causes. Sure, he ruled out diseases previously suggested as cause of death, but part of my mind kept wondering if there wasn’t something else that might have produced those symptoms. There was also the fact that the main reason for suspecting poison, aside from Olympias, depended on the accuracy of ancient sources regarding the condition of Alexander’s body post-mortem. It was said to have failed to decay even after six days in a ‘close, sultry place’, which was taken as meaning that something - like a toxin - must have killed off the bacteria. But I remembered that desert conditions are ideal for mummification; so did close and sultry really mean humid? And speaking from experience humidity is relative; to someone not used to it, even low levels might feel like a lot.

But after reading an excerpt from a dictionary of toxicology that was included after the cause of death had been rethought I became almost totally convinced; the similarity of symptoms was that striking (and I am convinced that Alexander’s friend Hephaestion was murdered). The identity of the poison narrowed the suspect list, but I’m not sure about the identification of the killer. It depends on a conclusion drawn from circumstantial evidence, and several assumptions about character. Would Phillips’ prime suspect really have chosen to strike then? Would the runner-up really not have known about the murder weapon? And was there a third murder as he claims? It didn’t help that it reminded me of local history potboiler The Mayne Inheritance, in which Rosalind Siemon drew a similar conclusion with even less to go on. There was also one suspect eliminated early on the grounds that it would have been stupid of him to strike at a feast that he hosted; but people do stupid things all the time.

For lovers of history, this is a great read. As for the murder mystery ... I’ll call it a definitely maybe.

Rating: A-

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