Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ

Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ Mobile

Alexander the Great and physician Philip of Acarnania.

Alexander the Great Didn’t Decay Because He Wasn’t Dead Says Clinician


By Dr. Katherine Hall / Science Daily

It may have happened more than 2,300 years ago, but the mystery of Alexander the Great's death could finally be solved, thanks to a University of Otago, New Zealand, academic.

Dr. Katherine Hall, a Senior Lecturer at the Dunedin School of Medicine and practicing clinician, believes the ancient ruler did not die from infection, alcoholism, or murder as others have claimed. Instead, she argues he met his demise thanks to the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).

In an article published in The Ancient History Bulletin, she says previous theories around his death in 323 BC have not been satisfactory as they have not explained the entire event.

Delayed Decomposition

In particular, she claims, none have provided an all-encompassing answer which gives a plausible and feasible explanation for a fact recorded by one source - Alexander's body failed to show any signs of decomposition for six days after his death.

"The Ancient Greeks thought that this proved that Alexander was a god; this article is the first to provide a real-world answer," Dr. Hall says.

Along with the reported delay in decay, the 32-year-old was said to have developed a fever; abdominal pain; a progressive, symmetrical, ascending paralysis; and remained compos mentis until just before his death.

Alexander the Great refuses to take water. (Vissarion / Public Domain)

Alexander the Great refuses to take water. (Vissarion / Public Domain)

Dr. Hall believes a diagnosis of GBS, contracted from a Campylobacter pylori infection (common at the time and a frequent cause for GBS), stands the test of scholarly rigor, from both classical and medical perspectives.

Most arguments around Alexander's cause of death focus on his fever and abdominal pain. However, Dr. Hall says the description of him remaining of sound mind receives barely any attention. She believes he contracted an acute motor axonal neuropathy variant of GBS which produced paralysis but without confusion or unconsciousness.

Breath verses Pulse

“His passing was further complicated by the difficulties in diagnosing death in ancient times, which relied on presence of breath rather than pulse”, she says.

These difficulties, along with the type of paralysis of his body (most commonly caused by GBS) and lowered oxygen demands, would reduce the visibility of his breathing. A possible failure of his body's temperature autoregulation and his pupils becoming fixed and dilated, also point to the preservation of his body not occurring because of a miracle but because he was not dead yet.

The death of Alexander the Great. (Tarawneh / Pubic Domain)

The death of Alexander the Great. (Tarawneh / Pubic Domain)

"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. His death may be the most famous case of pseudothanatos, or false diagnosis of death, ever recorded," she says.

Dr. Hall believes people are still interested in Alexander because he was a psychologically complex and complicated person who was viewed as a warrior-hero.

While more modern analyses have attempted to be broader and more nuanced, whatever way people want to conceive of Alexander there is a desire to try and understand his life as fulsomely as possible.

The enduring mystery of his cause of death continues to attract both public and scholastic interest. 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.

The Tomb of Alexander the Great. (Tarawneh / Public Domain)

The Tomb of Alexander the Great. (Tarawneh / Public Domain)

Top image: Alexander the Great and physician Philip of Acarnania. Source: Fulvio314 / Public Domain.

The article, originally titled ‘New explanation for Alexander the Great's death’ was first published on Science Daily.

Source: University of Otago. "New explanation for Alexander the Great's death." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 January 2019.


Hall, Katherine. 2018. Did Alexander the Great Die from Guillain-Barré Syndrome? The Ancient History Bulletin. Vol. 32: pp. 106-128 [Online] Available at:

ancient-origins's picture


This is the Ancient Origins team, and here is our mission: “To inspire open-minded learning about our past for the betterment of our future through the sharing of research, education, and knowledge”.

At Ancient Origins we believe that one of... Read More

Next article