Upon the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Macedonian general, Ptolemy, took possession of the conqueror’s body and brought it to Egypt, where a Ptolemaic dynasty would arise. Alexander’s body was first taken to Memphis, then to Alexandria, where the king’s remains were entombed in a mausoleum. For centuries, the tomb of Alexander was a place of pilgrimage for the mighty of the ancient world, with Roman dictators and emperors often showing up to pay homage to the famous king. The tomb remained a popular site—at least for the wealthy and powerful—until the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the 4th century CE, by which time the tomb had been mysteriously misplaced or hidden.
Octavian (known after 27 BCE as Augustus) was one of the many people who went to see the tomb of Alexander while its location was still commonly known. This event occurred in 30 BCE, shortly after the deaths of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman historian, Suetonius (c. 69-122 CE), wrote that Octavian had Alexander’s sarcophagus opened so that he could look at the body. He then placed a golden crown upon the head of the corpse and also scattered flowers over the opened sarcophagus. Decades after the death of Suetonius, the Roman statesman and historian, Cassius Dio (163-235 CE), added an additional piece to the story. From whatever sources he had as a senior senator of Rome, or possibly just from common rumor and folklore, Dio claimed that Octavian was not satisfied with looking at Alexander’s remains, or even crowning it with gold. Instead, according to Dio, Octavian ran his hands over the mummified flesh of the great King. He apparently was not gentle enough with the centuries-old body, for a section of Alexander’s nose broke off at Octavian’s touch.
Despite the obvious frailty and decay of Alexander’s remains, Roman emperors kept arriving at the tomb to leave new gifts on top of the frail remnants of the king. The last major figurehead believed to have viewed the corpse of Alexander is thought to have been Emperor Caracalla. The emperor entered Alexandria in 215 CE and giddily went to see the tomb of Alexander the Great, who was his hero, idol and obsession.
Top Picture attribution: (Alexander the Great, c. 1st century BCE, found in Pompeii, poked in the nose by Augustus statue of Prima Porta, c. 1st century CE, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Roman History (Book 51, chapter 16) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.