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We now understand everything about what happens to our bodies when we die. The body temperature begins to decrease shortly after death, signaling the start of the changes. Within a few hours, the movement of injured blood cells produces skin discoloration, and rigor mortis sets in, leaving the body rigid and difficult to move.
The Death of Alexander the Great
While ancient Greeks did not comprehend the science of these changes in the same way that we do today, they did know that the human body did not appear or behave the same after death as it did in life.
So, when Alexander the Great’s body seemed to be unaltered for six days after his death in 323 BCE, his contemporaries could only suggest one explanation.
Alexander the Great initially became ill after a series of days-long festivities, during one of which he fainted, complaining of a searing ache in his back.
According to one probable fictitious tale, this event occurred immediately after he attempted, when challenged, to drink an entire krater of wine in one sitting. After ten days of high fever, Alexander’s men were summoned to visit him one last time.
Centuries later, contemporary historians weighed in with their thoughts. Perhaps he’d caught malaria. It might have been pneumonia or typhoid disease. Perhaps he was murdered. However, none of these hypotheses explain what happened subsequently.
According to Plutarch, Alexander’s body did not begin to decay: “His body, while it lay without special care amid wet and suffocating conditions, showed no indication of such a destructive influence, but remained clean and fresh.” There were no physical changes seen over the six days before the corpse was readied for burial.
Dr. Katherine Hall, a lecturer at New Zealand’s Dunedin School of Medicine, hypothesized in 2018 that Alexander the Great had Guillain-Barré syndrome, an acute autoimmune illness that causes muscular paralysis.
Alexander might have been alive when he was proclaimed dead, an error that could have occurred when doctors mistook a coma patient’s faint breathing for no breathing at all. If this was true, Alexander might have been assassinated during the embalming process, which would have resulted in his disembowelment.
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