This artwork by Benjamin West (c. 1738-1820), painted with earth tone washes and highlighted with bright shades of gouache, depicts a specific tale about Alexander the Great that was said to have occurred around the year 333 BCE. As the story goes, Alexander fell terribly ill that year and his life rested in the hands of his physicians. Among the healers in the king’s entourage, an honorable man named Philip of Acarnania was bold enough to develop a medicine that he swore would heal Alexander of his illness. While the sickly king deliberated whether or not to take the mysterious potion, a letter from one of his generals arrived, warning Alexander the Great that the healer’s medicine might be poisoned. This event, and what happened next, was recorded by the Greek-Roman historian Arrian (c. 90-173):
“About this time Alexander had a bout of sickness. The cause of it, according to Aristobulus’ account, was exhaustion, but others say that he plunged into the river Cydnus for a swim…the result was that Alexander was seized by a convulsion, followed by high fever and sleepless nights. All his doctors but one despaired of his life; but Philip of Acarnania, who attended him and was not only a trusted physician but a good soldier as well, proposed to give him a purgative. Alexander consented to take it, and just as Philip was preparing the draught, Alexander was handed a note from Parmenio. ‘Beware of Philip,’ the note read; ‘I am informed that he has been bribed by Darius to poison you.’ Alexander read the warning, and with the paper still in his hand took the cup of medicine and then passed the note to Philip. Philip read it, and while he was reading Alexander swallowed the dose. It was immediately clear that there was nothing wrong with Philip’s medicine” (Anabasis of Alexander, 2.4).
The consequential life-and-death scene of Alexander choosing to trust his own instincts about Philip instead of listening to the dubious intelligence report mailed in by Parmenio is what Benjamin West depicts in the artwork above. It shows the physician begining to read the general’s warning, while Alexander looks on to gauge Philip’s reaction for signs of innocence or guilt. Satisfied with the physician’s demeanor, Alexander took the medicine and his instincts were validated by a subsequent quick recovery. Philip of Acarnania and his medical techniques were said to have elevated Alexander the Great to a functioning state within three days, at which point the king was able to resume leading his military in the field.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.