The year was around 333 BCE. Alexander the Great had led an army from Greece into Anatolia, had defeated the Persian forces multiple times and had brought numerous cities under the control of his growing empire. He even captured the narrow Cilician Gates, which gave Alexander a route to march into Syria.
The king of Macedonia marched south from the Cilician Gates to reach Tarsus. Here, however, one of those odd (but dramatic) events that were scattered throughout Alexander’s life occurred which delayed the Macedonian army for several agonizingly tense days.
The weather was brutal when the Macedonian army entered Tarsus. The heat was nearly unbearable, so you can imagine the relief when Alexander spotted the Cydnus River. In addition, the water from the river was supposedly imbued with some health benefits. Suffice it to say, Alexander the Great stripped down naked and plunged into the river. In his desperation to cool off, however, the Macedonian king had overlooked something—the Cydnus River was largely fed by snowmelt.
Despite the air being uncomfortably hot, the water was dangerously cold. The freezing water affected Alexander quickly—he went into shock and his body began to lose function. Fortunately, Alexander’s companions were able to swiftly pull the king from the icy water.
Nevertheless, Alexander had been in the river long enough to fall seriously ill. There is rarely a convenient time to be sick, but it was even more so for Alexander—Darius III of Persia was closing in with an army to crush the young upstart king. With this danger in mind, Alexander questioned his physicians for a quick remedy for his illness.
One man, Philip of Acarnania, had a suggestion that fit Alexander’s bill. His proposal was a strong purge to jolt Alexander out of his illness. The purge would be dangerous, and it would cause the king to deteriorate further before he finally recovered. Despite the danger, Alexander accepted the proposal and agreed to undergo the risky treatment.
As the legend goes, while Philip was preparing the medicine for the purge, Alexander received a warning from his powerful general (and potential rival), Parmenion. The general’s note claimed that Philip had been paid by Darius III to poison Alexander the Great. The message put the king in a great dilemma. On the one hand, Darius III did, indeed, offer a reward to any would-be assassins willing to take down Alexander. Conversely, Philip was basically a family doctor who had treated Alexander since the king’s childhood.
Alexander weighed his options until Philip arrived with the medicine. The two did a hand-off—Alexander accepted and drank Philip’s concoction, while the physician was given Parmenion’s letter. Philip reportedly just shrugged off the accusation of the letter and calmly informed Alexander that the medicine would soon begin to work.
The physician stayed with the king, applying new medications and keeping an eye on Alexander’s recovery. Within hours, there were signs of improvement. Around three days later, Alexander the Great burst from his sickroom and readied his army to continue their march.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Plutarch’s Life of Alexander in The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. London: Penguin Classics, 1973, 2011.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.