For the past year, I’ve studied two sources about Alexander the Great for my Classics A-Level – The Age of Alexander by Plutarch and The Anabasis (Campaigns) of Alexander by Arrian. Although I’ve mostly been looking at Alexander’s battles and his character, both sources are full of… interesting anecdotes in which Alexander’s enemies (and sometimes his friends) die in brutal ways. Brutal, but morbidly fascinating nonetheless.
So, in order to entertain you by combining my love of weird, gross things with my passion for history, I’ve ranked the Top 5 Most Disgusting Deaths from Alexander’s campaigns.
5. Cleitus the Black, who was only trying to be a good friend
I’ve ranked this fifth because, while it’s not what you might call a creative way to go, it’s actually pretty heartbreaking. Cleitus had saved Alexander back in 334BC at the Battle of the Granicus, slicing off the arm of a Persian soldier (Spithridates) who was about to attack him. You might think that this incident would obviously leave Alexander indebted to him.
You would be wrong, because this is Alexander the Great we’re talking about. What better way to reward your friend for saving your life than murdering him with a spear six years later? Cleitus took issue with Alexander’s “Medizing” – his adoption of Persian customs – and the famously short-tempered king responded to criticism by killing him.
Cleitus did manage to get one sick burn in there before he was stabbed, reciting a line from Euripides’ tragedy Andromache: “Alas, what evil customs reign in Greece!”
4. The Macedonian Hostages at Tyre
In 333BC, Alexander embarked on a siege of the island fortress of Tyre, which lasted for seven months. The island was out of range of his siege artillery, so Alexander and his engineers had to rely on technical innovations and new strategies to attack it.
Tyre was not only an island, but it was an island with fortified walls of about 150ft. This presented problems for Alexander; however, these walls were ideal for the Tyrians to make a show of strength and make their rebuke of Alexander’s negotiations clear… by throwing Macedonian ambassadors off them in full view of Alexander’s army.
In the long term, this was not a wise decision. When the Macedonians eventually broke through the walls, they had grown tired after the long siege and were ready to have their revenge for the deaths of the hostages. An estimated 8000 Tyrians were slaughtered and a further 30,000 were sold into slavery.
3. Calanus, the fiery philosopher
Alexander met the elderly philosopher Calanus while in India and was impressed by him, especially by an analogy Calanus made using a piece of animal hide to advise Alexander on effective governance (new party piece, anyone?). Calanus subsequently joined Alexander’s entourage on their return journey to Babylon, but fell ill along the way. At Susa in 323BC, the dying man decided he would cut his own suffering short via self-immolation – burning himself alive.
Arrian writes that there was “a solemn procession” accompanying Calanus to his funeral pyre, although in Plutarch’s account, there was a raucous drinking party in his honour. Knowing Alexander, I’m tempted to go with the latter option. Either way, Calanus went out with a bang, or at least a nice crackle (I’m so sorry).
Fun fact: Calanus’ final words to Alexander before he went to his pyre were allegedly that they “(would) meet again in Babylon”. Alexander later died in Babylon. Spooooooky.
2. Anaxarchus, philosopher and gobshite
Anaxarchus was one of two key philosophers in Alexander’s entourage who fought for his attention. The other was Callisthenes, who was implicated in a conspiracy against Alexander and arrested. Following Callisthenes’ arrest, Anaxarchus became the favoured philosopher, despite having views which conflicted with Alexander’s own – he was sceptical of Alexander’s status as a demi-god and had a theory of infinite worlds (an early variant of the parallel universe idea), which upset Alexander because he had not yet conquered even one world.
The philosopher finally met his demise at the hands of Nicocreon, the tyrant of Cyprus, in around 320BC. He had insulted Nicocreon once during a visit by the Cypriot leader to Alexander, and Nicocreon clearly took offense. Anaxarchus was pounded to death in a giant pestle and mortar (don’t worry, I don’t know how they managed that either).
Callisthenes – Anaxarchus’ rival philosopher. Allegedly died of “excessive corpulence” in prison, which is paradoxical but also a horrific mental image. Imagine it. Go on. Gross, isn’t it?
Batis – a eunuch (I don’t know why this information is supplied to us by the authors) and the ruler of Gaza, a settlement Alexander encountered on his way to Egypt. After the city’s capture, Alexander had Batis attached by his ankles to a cart and dragged round the city’s perimeter several times, à la Hector in The Iliad.
The People Who Drowned In The Desert – in 325BC, Alexander decided to make his way back to Babylon by crossing the Gedrosian Desert. Arrian relates the difficulties of this journey in his account. On one occasion, heavy rainfall – they were crossing during monsoon season – made a stream burst its banks next to their camp, resulting in a huge loss of life. The majority of those who drowned were women and children rather than members of Alexander’s army.
And one close-call (spoiler: he doesn’t die) – Stephanus, a boy known only for being remarkably ugly but astonishingly brave, who allowed himself to be set alight with naptha as an experiment for Alexander’s entertainment. He survived but was badly burned. And that’s how he earned the nickname Disco Inferno.
1. Bessus, the one that (nearly) got away
Bessus was a relative of the Persian king Darius III. After the Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander defeated Darius for the final time, Darius escaped but was kidnapped by Bessus and his accomplices. Bessus declared himself king and fled with his hostage, which was followed by a lengthy pursuit by Alexander across the empire. By the time Alexander caught up with them, Darius had been murdered and abandoned in the back of a wagon. Such a nondescript demise for his arch nemesis was not what Alexander wanted.
When Bessus was eventually captured by Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s companions, his execution had to send a message about the status of a king, suitably avenge Darius to please the people of Persia and
get Alexander’s rocks off demonstrate Alexander’s ruthlessness towards those who would challenge his throne.
There are two stories about how Bessus was executed. In Arrian’s version, Bessus had his nose and lips cut off, was paraded around in a collar and then finally executed. But in Plutarch’s version – the version which places so high on this list – Bessus’ limbs were tied to trees which had been bent over. When the trees were released, the attached limbs were torn off. 😦
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For more about Alexander:
- Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander – the funniest book you’ll ever read.
- Plutarch, Lives: The Age of Alexander (I’d recommend getting this in physical format, but it’s shorter than Arrian’s account so you could probably get away with reading it online. Here’s the contents page and here’s the first section, provided by Lacus Curtius (University of Chicago).)
- Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great
- Livius.org, Macedon (masterlist of all their Alexander articles)
- Ancient History Encyclopaedia, Alexander the Great