The biography of Alexander the Great is certainly one of the most incredible biographies that I have ever read. But the story of Alexander the Great`s body is almost as incredible as the story of the living Alexander.
The following article will present the fate of the body of Alexander the Great immediately after Alexander`s death, why he was stolen during the funeral procession, and how several Roman emperors (mis-)behaved around the mummified body of Alexander the Great.
After his death in June of 323 BC, the body of Alexander the Great was embalmed by Egyptian and Chaldean priests. Two years later, in the fall of 321 BC, the funeral procession that should bring the mummy to the old royal Macedonian burial place in Aigai (Macedonia) started but was intercepted by Ptolemy (a general of Alexander) in Damascus (Syria). He brought the body to the Egyptian capital Memphis from where it was later transferred to a tomb in Alexandria.
Let`s find out more!
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What happened to the body of Alexander the Great immediately after his death?
Alexander the Great died on 11 June 323 BC between 4:00 and 5:00 PM in his palace in Babylon after having been severely ill for more than a week. Please check out my article here (Link zu 3 causes Alex death) for more information on the 3 potential causes for the fever that would eventually kill Alexander.
Right after his death the body of Alexander was embalmed by Egyptian and Chaldean priests and not cremated like the Macedonian traditions would have demanded.
Preserving the body by mummification had several advantages. Not only did it make the funeral procession much more impressive, but a mummified body in a golden sarcophagus represents the significance of Alexander much better than a small urn, the mummified body would also soon get reliquary status and would become an important tool of legitimation for Alexanders successors.
During the Partition of Babylon a Macedonian named Arrhidaeus was tasked with preparing the transfer of the mummified body.
But the final destination where the body of Alexander the Great should be buried was up to debate.
According to sources that were heavily influenced by Ptolemy, the same Ptolemy who would soon take over Egypt, Alexander had wished to be buried in the Oasis of Siwa (Egypt). However, it seems highly unlikely that the men who would rule the empire immediately after Alexander`s death would have allowed the valuable body to be buried in the periphery of the empire and not in Aigai (today Vergina), the old Macedonian capital and the burial place of the Macedonian kings.
Here you can find more information on the 3 men who would take over the rule immediately after Alexander died.
But Ptolemy had a good reason to claim that Alexander had wished to be buried in Egypt since he, Ptolemy, would soon take over Egypt and found his own dynasty. By the way, the dynasty that Ptolemy, the Macedonian general of Alexander the Great, founded in Egypt would eventually bring forth Cleopatra.
Why was the body of Alexander the Great stolen by Ptolemy?
The reason for the fact that two different burial places are mentioned is simple.
In the fall of 321 BC, the wagon that would transport the body of Alexander was finally finished.
The mummified body of Alexander was put into a golden, human-shaped sarcophagus and put on a hearse that was pulled by 64 mules. In addition to the golden sarcophagus, the hearse also transported a golden throne, Alexander`s weapons, as well as 4 giant pictures that showed Alexander with different units of his army. A lot of bells were fastened to the wagon and announced the arrival of the procession.
Speaking of the different units in the army of Alexander the Great, you can find out more about them and how they interacted on the battlefield in my article here.
The procession started in Babylon in the fall of 321 BC, two years after the death of Alexander, and most likely had Aigai in Macedonia as its destiny.
But the procession that would bring the body of Alexander to his grave, most likely in Aigai (Macedonia), was interrupted by Ptolemy at the Syrian city of Damascus. Ptolemy took over the procession and brought, one could also say abducted, the body to the Egyptian capital of Memphis!
The reason for that can be found in the legitimation that the generals of Alexander would need as soon as they had started to carve out their own kingdoms from the empire of Alexander. More on that process here.
The Diadochi, the former generals of Alexander who would now succeed him, mostly legitimized themselves and their rule by pointing out their closeness to Alexander while he was still alive. But having the body of Alexander and being able to bury him was an additional, special legitimation. Especially since one of the duties of both the Macedonian and the Persian kings was the proper burial of their predecessors.
That by the way is why Alexander himself had buried the last Persian king with all honors even though he had been his enemy. And he also adopted several Persian customs and insignia of domination (like the diadem), more on that here.
Where did Ptolemy bury the body of Alexander the Great?
So Ptolemy stole the body of Alexander the Great at Damascus while the funeral procession was most likely on its way to the old Macedonian burial place of the Macedonian kings in Aigai, Macedonia.
But what happened then?
Ptolemy would bury the body of Alexander the Great with Macedonian customs in the Egyptian capital of Memphis. The grave would later be equipped with a glass sarcophagus. Ptolemy IV Philopator (244-204 BC) would later transfer the body to Alexandria where he was buried in a new tomb called Sema together with the bodies of the Ptolemaic kings including Alexander`s general Ptolemy, the founder of that dynasty.
Over time the body of Alexander the Great would get a reliquary status and would become a popular travel destination for Roman emperors.
What happened to the body of Alexander the Great during the time of the Roman Empire?
The grave of Alexander the Great in Alexandria was a popular spot that was visited by many Roman emperors, although some of them misbehaved pretty badly around the body.
It is said that the Roman emperor Augustus accidentally broke off the nose of Alexander the Great`s mummy when he visited the tomb. Caligula supposedly stole the armor of Alexander, while Domitian supposedly saw stark visual similarities between himself and Alexander. Septimus Severus would order the tomb to be definitely closed.
The tracks of the tomb of Alexander the Great disappear during late Antiquity. And while news that the grave of Alexander the Great has been rediscovered sporadically appear in the news the location of the body and the grave of Alexander the Great is unknown today.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the fascinating story of what happened to Alexander`s body. Should you also be interested in the life of Alexander, narrated by an ancient Roman writer, then you might want to check out the biography of Alexander the Great that you can find here* on Amazon.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
G.R Bugh: The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World (Cambridge 2006).
R. Malcom Errington: A History of the Hellenistic World (Malden 2008).
G. Shipley: The Greek World after Alexander (London, New York 2000).