From The Daily Telegraph August 3 2010
Alexander the Great was killed by a deadly bacterium found in the River Styx, rather than by a fever brought on by an all-night drinking binge in ancient Babylon, scientists believe.
by Nick Squires in Rome
American researchers have found a striking correlation between the symptoms suffered by Alexander before his death in 323BC, and the effects of the highly toxic bacterium.
They have speculated that the Macedonian king, who conquered vast swaths of territory between Greece and India, could have been poisoned with a vial of water from the River Styx in Greece.
The river was the mythical entrance to the underworld but is believed to have been based on a real stream now known as the Mavroneri, or Black Water, which springs from mountains on the Peloponnesian peninsula.
The ancient Greeks maintained that its waters were so poisonous that they would dissolve any vessel, except those made of the hooves of horses or mules. Alexander fell ill during an all-night drinking party at the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon, in modern Iraq. He complained of a "sudden, sword-stabbing agony in the liver" and had to be taken to bed, where over the next 12 days he developed a high fever and excruciating pains to his joints. His condition worsened, he fell into a coma, and is believed to have died on June 10 or 11, 323BC – just shy of his 33rd birthday.
Historians have speculated that his death was brought about by heavy drinking, typhoid, malaria, acute pancreatitis, West Nile fever or poisoning – either accidental or deliberate. However, experts who have reviewed the circumstances of his death believe instead that he may have died from calicheamicin, a dangerous compound produced by bacteria.
"It is extremely toxic," said Antoinette Hayes, co-author of the Stanford University research paper and a toxicologist at Pfizer Research in the US. "It is a metabolite – one of hundreds produced by soil bacteria. It grows on limestone, and there's a lot of limestone in Greece." In ancient Greek mythology, gods were made to swear sacred oaths on the banks of the Styx by Zeus.
If they lied, the "king of the gods" forced them to drink the river water, which according to legend deprived them of the powers of speech and movement for a year. "Such a sacred poison, used by the gods, would be appropriate for Alexander, who was already being thought of as semidivine," Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's departments of classics and history of science who also worked on the paper, said.
"Notably, some of Alexander's symptoms and course of illness seem to match ancient Greek myths associated with the Styx. He even lost his voice, like the gods who fell into a coma-like state after drinking from the river."
The Styx's ancient reputation for deadly toxicity bolstered the thesis but it remained unproven, historians said.
"I personally think that Alexander probably died of natural causes – either typhoid or an overdose of the hellebore used to treat his illness – but other views are possible," said Richard Stoneman, the author of Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend.