The year was 331 BCE—Alexander the Great had recently delivered a humiliating defeat to the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela. As the Persian forces retreated further into the interior of their empire, Alexander the Great seized control of most of Mesopotamia, including the famed city of Babylon.
One of the stranger tales about Alexander’s life occurred while he was marching his forces from the battlefield of Guagamela to the city of Babylon. Apparently, during the journey, Alexander’s forces encountered a town that overflowed with some sort of flammable liquid. Ancient commentators described the petroleum-based substance in different ways. Strabo (c. 64 BCE- 21 CE), in Book XVI of his Geography, wrote that Alexander encountered asphalt or naphtha near the Euphrates River. Plutarch (c. 46-119 CE), in his Alexander (Chapter 35), also identified the flammable material as naphtha. Quintus Curtius (1st century CE), in his History of Alexander (Book V), named the location as the Babylonian city of Mennis and claimed that the liquid was actually bitumen.
Anyway, wherever the location and whatever the flammable substance, the locals were eager to make a spectacle of their oily export. Plutarch (who wrote the most elaborate account of the incident) claimed that the townspeople used their naphtha or bitumen to light a path for Alexander, so that he could easily find his guest quarters for the night. As Alexander followed the flickering flames back to his temporary home, his curiosity about the oily substance only increased. The display left such an impact, that the Macedonian king was still musing about the stuff, even while bathing.
As the story (of Strabo and Plutarch) goes, Alexander’s scientific curiosity got the better of him during his bath, and dangerous ideas began to hatch in his head. Eventually, Alexander and his bath attendants decided to carry out more experiments with the fascinating naphtha or bitumen. According to Plutarch, an unfortunate man named Stephanus was somehow convinced by Alexander and at least one other bath attendant to become a human torch. In Plutarch’s account, Stephanus’ participation in the dangerous experiment was consensual, but in Strabo’s version, the poor man’s willingness to burn was much less certain.
Either way, Stephanus was thoroughly covered with the flammable substance and set alight. From the sources, it seems that Alexander almost immediately regretted his decision—not to mention how Stephanus must have felt. As soon as the bath attendant was engulfed in hungry flames, Alexander tried to douse the inferno with a jar of water, but that did not extinguish the fire. It took several bath attendants splashing water on the burning Stephanus for the petroleum-fueled flames to be finally put out. In the end, Stephanus supposedly survived the ordeal, but he was severely burned.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top Picture Attribution: (Alexander the Great by Placido Costanzi (1702-1759) setting fire to Jan Hus (painted by Spiezer Chronik (1485)), both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.