Could wine containing a potentially lethal dose of a white flowering plant have caused the death of one of the world's most fearless leaders?
Researchers have long pondered over the unexplained death of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian military leader who conquered a vast swathe of territory between the eastern Mediterranean and India before dying in Babylon in 323 B.C.
After his death, Alexander's military exploits were embellished to the point of legend, as were the many suggested causes of his untimely passing at about age 33. But now a new journal article analyzing the king's demise suggests a poisonous wine may have been the culprit.
The article, published this month in the journal of Clinical Toxicology, was co-authored by the University of Otago's Dr. Leo J. Schep, who has been studying Alexander's death for almost a decade. The researcher, from the National Poisons Centre in New Zealand, theorizes that Alexander was killed by a toxic wine created using a fermented form of Veratrum album (also known as white hellebore) sometimes used to induce vomiting, the New Zealand Herald reports.
That mixture could have contained a fatal dose. Indeed, the study authors detail the potential deadliness of the plant in the study abstract:
Veratrum poisoning is heralded by the sudden onset of epigastric and substernal pain, which may also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, followed by bradycardia and hypotension with severe muscular weakness.
After evaluating a wide variety of potential poisons, the paper's authors concluded that the white hellebore idea was the most plausible theories involving poison, given that the leader's alleged symptoms matched the kind the plant would have produced, Schep told The Huffington Post in an email.
"Exposure to extracts from this plant causes clinical effects similar to [Alexander's] reported signs and symptoms," he told HuffPost. "Of note was the duration of symptoms, which could continue for more than 12 days if intoxicated patients are not treated."
As to how the wine may have been administered, Schep told HuffPost that the "medicinal properties" of Veratrum album were well known at the time. Therefore, "someone with such knowledge, who was able to obtain the plant extract, and had access" to Alexander or his chalice could have poisoned him. Schep singled out Alexander's cup bearer as a possible suspect in such a scenario.
Schep was first asked to participate in the investigation into Alexander's death ahead of a BBC documentary on the subject back in 2003, the New Zealand Herald reports.
"They asked me to look into it for them and I said, 'Oh yeah, I'll give it a go, I like a challenge' - thinking I wasn't going to find anything," Schep said, per the outlet. "And to my utter surprise, and their surprise, we found something that could fit the bill."
Of course, poisoning is not the only theory surrounding Alexander's death. Researchers have offered up many different hypotheses, ranging from a deadly bacterium found in the "River Styx" to typhoid fever to excessive drinking.
But all of these theories are missing a key piece of evidence: Alexander's remains.
In a 2011 conversation between historians James Romm and Paul A. Cartledge, the experts noted that while several theories including Schep's are intriguing, until the missing corpse of Alexander is discovered -- and possibly autopsied -- it will be almost impossible to prove any cause of death definitively.