Dead Links Four: The Body of Alexander the Great

I knew when I was starting the research for this post that it would ultimately be a review of The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great by Andrew (Periplus, 2004), primarily because Chugg presents such a tantalizing theory about what happened to the body of Alexander the Great after it vanished from history. In fact, my own research into Alexander stems from this piece of amateur historical sleuthing. I cannot fault the extent of Chugg’s research here, and have used his text to refer back to the original sources he uses to build his argument. However, wanting to believe his theory and being able to believe it are two entirely different things that I’d like to dig down into here.

To begin with, a somewhat brief chronology to get everyone on the same page:

  • Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BCE after a short illness, and his body was embalmed and prepared for its intended burial site at Pella, the capital of Macedonia
  • Alexander’s famous instruction to his generals that his empire would go “to the strongest” created a massive power vacuum in an empire stretching from Greece to India, and the leading generals – known as the diodochi – began consolidating power in different geographical regions (and thus usher in the Hellenistic World proper to the Mediterranean and Asia)
  • On the way to Pella, Alexander’s body was diverted to Memphis in Egypt. In all likelihood this was done by Ptolemy, one of the diodochi, and a childhood friend of Alexander’s, as a way to validate his own claim to power (the Ptolemies would rule Egypt for another 300 years until its most famous daughter, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide rather than be captured after the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE)
  • In 290 BCE or thereabouts (about 30 years after Alexander’s death) the body was moved from Memphis to Alexandria where, with the addition of a tomb complex that grew over time, Alexander’s body would remain until at least 215 CE and likely until 365 CE
  • In 365, a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami destroyed much of Alexandria’s buildings, including the tomb of Alexander the Great.

After this, things get very hazy very quickly. Paganism was outlawed in the Roman Empire by Theodosius I in 391 and many pagan temples and other buildings were destroyed by the people of Alexandria and elsewhere as a result. The earthquake and tsunami decimated the city and reconstruction efforts were slow. By the time of the Arab Conquests in the 640s CE, there was less to rebuild and more to co-opt for new purposes as Islam settled in as the major religion of Egypt. By the time of Napoleon, interest was focused on the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, particularly after hieroglyphics were deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion with the help of the Rosetta Stone. In short, after eight centuries, the body of Alexander the Great had disappeared from history never to be seen again.

The main sources we have for the life and death of Alexander the Great are varied and questionable (as I’m sure you’re starting to realize is a description of all ancient sources). Diodorus Siculus and Pompeius Trogus were two 1st century BCE writers and both were contemporary with Livy. Pompeius Trogus is quoted in Justin’s Epitome of Philippic History, Book XI and XII as well as in excerpts in Jerome, Augustine, and Vopiscus (one of the purported authors of the Historia Augusta). Quintus Curtius Rufus wrote a History of Alexander in the 1st century CE, his only known surviving work. From the 2nd century CE, there is Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri and Plutarch’s biography of Alexander. Plutarch’s work survives in its earliest form as a 10th or possibly 11th century CE manuscript from Florence. Additionally, there is the famous Alexander Romance, a collection of several manuscripts falsely attributed to Alexander’s court historian Callisthenes (and so, aptly, this anonymous author is now called Pseudo-Callisthenes), that date to the 3rd century CE and survive in versions from the 4th to the 16th centuries in Medieval Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew, and various European vernaculars. There are also minor references in Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, XI), the Talmud 31b and 32a, and, last but not least, the Quran, surah 18, where an oblique reference to Dhu-l Qarnayn (meaning the “Two-Horned One” in Arabic) may refer to Alexander.

From these sources Chugg determines that Julius Caesar viewed the body of Alexander in its glass or crystal sarcophagus in Alexandria in the early 60s BCE and that Caracalla was the last Roman Emperor to see the body and the tomb together in or around 215 CE (1). Libanius of Antioch wrote an oration addressed to Theodosius dating between 388 and 392 CE where he discusses the body on display in Alexandria (Oration XLIX, 11-12), from which Chugg argues the body survived the earthquake*. We also know that, by the 5th century CE, the whereabouts of Alexander’s burial were unknown according to Theodoret (2).

Chugg refers to an anonymous manuscript for the evidence of Caracalla viewing the tomb as the last “definitive mention of the existence of the tomb and the body in recorded history” (3). However, this manuscript – the Epitome de Caesaribus – was falsely attributed to Aurelius Victor who was writing in the 4th century CE, and the date of the now-lost manuscript has therefore been conflated with an incorrect author. So, right around the time that the body of Alexander the Great goes missing so too does the logical rigour of Chugg’s supporting evidence. From here on, he makes associations between Alexander’s body and the mummy of Nectanebo II, the last Egyptian pharaoh prior to the Macedonian takeover as well as the various churches and mosques that purport to be the burial site of that Macedonian king which, although also tantalizing, do not hold up under scrutiny.

Chugg’s theory rests on two BIG assumptions: 1) that the body survived the likely collapse of the tomb during the earthquake and tsunami in Alexandria in 365 CE; and, 2) that there were enough people in the aftermath who were invested in preserving the body that they did so, and continued to do so, for the next SEVENTEEN CENTURIESThe Da Vinci Code before The Da Vinci Code, don’t you think? That’s like all the pieces of the Berlin Wall being preserved, restored, and maintained into the year 3689 CE.

Because, oh yes, Chugg’s theory as to the whereabouts of Alexander’s body? It’s what the Venetians spirited out of Egypt in 828 CE and installed in their largest Basilica as the relics of Saint Mark. Again, the idea that a group of people in 4th century CE Egypt would choose to protect something that the Christians were intent on destroying by disguising it as something the Christians would actively try and preserve, and then allowing it to be removed from a predominantly Muslim country by devout Medieval Christians and deposited in the Basilica of St Mark in Venice does stretch the imagination somewhat. It also doesn’t help to know that Mark’s body was said to have been cremated when he died in 68 CE in Cyrene, but perhaps I’m knit-picking at this point.

 

REFERENCES:

(1) Epitome de Caesaribus Sexti Aureli Victoris 21.4

*I have been unable to read an original version of this oration as of the date of this publication, so I cannot speak to its authenticity or any grains of salt that should be taken when considering Libanius in general.

(2) Theodoret Graecarum Affectionum Curatio, 8.61

(3) Chugg, p.135

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