New Theory On How Alexander The Great Died Suggests He Was Actually Alive Nearly A Week Following His ‘Death’

Published January 30, 2019
Updated June 24, 2020

A clinician has hailed his death the "most famous case of pseudothanatos, or false diagnosis of death, ever recorded."

Alexander The Great's Death Tomb

How Alexander the Great died may finally be solved nearly two millennia later.

The death of Alexander the Great has flummoxed historians for millennia. The ancient Greeks marveled at how, six days after he was pronounced dead, the ancient king’s body didn’t decompose. His contemporaries ruled him a deity, but a new theory suggests that in reality, Alexander just wasn’t dead yet.

Dr. Katherine Hall, a senior lecturer at the Dunedin School of Medicine at the University of Otago, New Zealand, posits instead that though the ruler wasn’t really dead at first, he certainly appeared to be.

Hall suggested that Alexander, who died in Babylon in 323 B.C., suffered from a rare autoimmune disorder known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). The conqueror exhibited strange symptoms, including fever, abdominal pain, and progressive paralysis that left him immobile but still completely sound mentally just eight days after falling ill.

“I have worked for five years in critical care medicine and have seen probably about 10 cases [of GBS]. The combination of ascending paralysis with normal mental ability is very rare and I have only seen it with GBS,” Hall reported.

Hall posited that Alexander contracted the disorder from an infection of Campylobacter pylori which was a common bacterium of his time, and which today, is treatable with antibiotics.

Other historians have considered typhoid, malaria, assassination or alcohol poisoning as the impetus behind the conqueror’s strange illness prior to his death.

But Hall’s article in the Ancient History Bulletin asserted that the rare autoimmune disorder best explains why Alexander didn’t decompose when he was supposedly dead because he was still mentally competent.

Alexander The Great And His Physician

Alexander the Great and his physician Philip, by Domenico Induno, 1839.

Since doctors in the fourth century had few methods of determining whether a person was alive or dead — besides physical movement and presence or absence of breath — Hall is convinced that the death of Alexander the Great may have been falsely declared nearly an entire week before he actually died simply because the disease had paralyzed him.

“I wanted to stimulate new debate and discussion and possibly rewrite the history books by arguing Alexander’s real death was six days later than previously accepted,” said Hall in a statement from the University of Otago.

This phenomenon of “false diagnosis of death” is known as pseudothanatos, and according to Hall, Alexander the Great’s death may be the most famous case of it “ever recorded.”

The Death Of Alexander Painting

“The Death of Alexander,” Karl von Piloty (1886).

For Hall, all the other predominant theories around the death of Alexander the Great may do a good enough job of addressing some symptoms but they nonetheless ignore others. But the GBS theory, Hall asserted, provides us with an all-encompassing foundation for Alexander the Great’s condition before and after death.

“The enduring mystery of his cause of death continues to attract both public and scholastic interest,” she said. “The elegance of the GBS diagnosis for the cause of his death is that it explains so many, otherwise diverse elements, and renders them into a coherent whole.”

Unfortunately for Alexander though, if Hall’s theory is correct, that means the military genius was still in some state of consciousness while his soldiers prepared him for burial. But who doesn’t want to witness their own funeral, right?

After reading about this new theory on how Alexander the Great died, take a look at declassified satellite images showing the lost city of Alexander the Great in modern-day Iraqi-Kurdistan. Then, read about Alexander the Great’s bad-ass mother, Olympias.

Marco Margaritoff
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.