In 30 BC, great change was coming to the city of Alexandria. The death of Cleopatra that year signalled the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, which had begun in the late 4th century BC with Alexander the Great’s successor Ptolemy. With the dawn of Roman Alexandria, Rome acquired not just a city, but ownership of Alexander the Great’s body.
Just as it had under Perdiccas and then under the Ptolemies, the symbolic power attributed to the body underwent a transformation. How great was this change? And why did the body, an entity so important to Alexandrian life, later vanish without a trace? This is the story behind Alexander’s body and his tomb.
Alexander and Rome
The story of Alexander had always fascinated the Romans. Questions of who would have emerged victorious if Alexander had faced them in battle had dominated much scholarly thinking for centuries.
Yet Alexander also divided Roman opinion. To some, he was a drunk, decadent megalomaniac. To those Romans who desired great power, Alexander was something quite different. He epitomised world power: he was a man to admire and emulate. First Julius Caesar and then his adopted son, Augustus, visited Alexander’s tomb to pay their respects. According to one account, Augustus broke off Alexander’s nose by accident.
Neither ruler showed corresponding courtesy to the nearby Ptolemaic tombs. In their eyes, only Alexander was worthy of admiration. “I came to see a king, not a bunch of corpses,” stated Augustus.
Seeing themselves as Alexander’s true successors, the Romans showed contempt for the Ptolemaic link with Alexander. Some suggested they even had the Ptolemaic tombs removed from the complex. With such an act, the Romans would have severed the link between the Ptolemies and Alexander.
Throughout the Roman Imperial period, many emperors would visit Alexander’s tomb. For emperors Augustus, Caligula, Vespasian, Titus and Hadrian, the body symbolised the zenith of power.
Many power-hungry figures associated themselves with Alexander, some more obsessively than others. The emperor Gaius ‘Caligula’, for instance, is supposed to have looted Alexander’s tomb for his breastplate. Yet no emperor was as fixated as Caracalla. After viewing Alexander’s body, the power-crazed son of Septimius Severus believed he was the conqueror reincarnated.
So insistent was his belief that he called himself the ‘Great Alexander’. He equipped Macedonian levies as Alexander’s infantrymen, arming them with deadly sarissae spears and naming them for Alexander’s phalanxes. It is unsurprising that Caracalla was murdered soon afterwards.
Surviving the turmoil
For the next hundred years, as the Crisis of the Third Century raged, Alexandria endured numerous riots, rebellions and sackings. Among them were those perpetrated by the Palmyrene Queen Zenobia as well as the Roman emperors Aurelian and Diocletian. Through all this turmoil, Alexander’s tomb survived, though mention of it is sparse.
In 390 AD, another reference to Alexander’s tomb emerges. The pagan writer Libanius mentions Alexander’s body being on display in Alexandria. His would be the last known written account to mention Alexander’s body in Alexandria.
The body disappears
After Libanius, all references in the historical record to the corpse that had been a focal point of the city for nearly seven centuries abruptly cease. Within 10 years, knowledge of the whereabouts of Alexander had vanished. In around 400 AD, the Christian priest John Chrysostom went so far as to taunt the disappearance of this pagan body.
So what happened? The answer likely lies in the religious context of late 4th century AD Alexandria. At the beginning of the century, a powerful force took root in the city: the followers of Christ.
The rise of Christianity
Jews and Christians had long lived in Alexandria as minor sects of the mainly pagan population. Yet by 330 AD, following the rise of Constantine and the split of the Roman Empire, the Christian sect was growing. Christian zealots soon appeared throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, on many occasions violently tearing down pagan buildings.
Alexandria was not spared this fervent Christian zeal. In 391 AD, barely a year after Libanius’ account, the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius decreed that paganism be banned throughout the Empire. All symbols of paganism were to be eradicated. The Christians in Alexandria happily obliged. They destroyed pagan places of worship, most notably the Serapeum, the Ptolemaic temple to Serapis.
Many believe Alexander’s tomb suffered a similar fate in 391 AD. To the early Christians, Alexander’s tomb was more than just a monument. The pagans worshipped Alexander as a god and his tomb had been a place of pilgrimage and worship for centuries. If left untouched, it could easily become a focal point for pagan resistance.
Destroyed? Or converted?
As for Alexander’s body, it may have been buried beneath the rubble or smuggled away before the destruction could take place. No evidence has yet been found. There is another possibility. The Christians did not always tear down pagan sites. Sometimes they simply converted these places into Christian churches. It is therefore possible that Alexander’s tomb was converted.
One theory advanced by Andrew Chugg, author of The Lost Tomb of Alexander The Great, suggests Alexander’s tomb may have been converted into the Church of St Mark, the founder of Christianity in Alexandria. This church is first mentioned in the 390s, around the same time as the last recorded words on Alexander’s body. It was also located in the centre of Alexandria. In some accounts St Mark’s body was also mummified.
The story gets even more interesting. In 828 AD, Venetian traders smuggled a body, alleged to be Mark, from the church. They sailed back to Venice and placed the body in the Basilica of St Mark, where it remains to this day. The notion that this might be Alexander’s final resting place, highly visible in the centre of Venice, has obvious appeal.
The hunt continues
Attempts to locate Alexander’s tomb have taken place since the Muslim occupation of Alexandria in 640 AD. To this day, sarcophagus discoveries are being uncovered. None so far have been proven to be Alexander’s. There have been some interesting finds, however, one of which stands out above the rest.
In 1798, the French Emperor Napoleon arrived in Alexandria at the beginning of his Egyptian campaign. His men made a startling discovery. In a mosque courtyard, they discovered an ornate Egyptian sarcophagus claimed to be the empty sarcophagus of Alexander the Great.
This sarcophagus later fell into the hands of the British following their military victory at Alexandria in 1801. They took it to London and had it displayed at the British Museum. Disappointment followed. The hieroglyphs revealed that it was in fact the tomb of Nectanebo II. But this is not to say that the sarcophagus had never housed Alexander’s body.
A temporary tomb
Ptolemy I may have placed Alexander’s body in the empty sarcophagus of Nectanebo II. It was in this act that fabulous Egyptian tales of Alexander being the son of Nectanebo could have taken root.
It’s plausible that Ptolemy used this coffin to transport Alexander’s body to Alexandria from Memphis, before he later had it replaced, and that therefore this tomb may once have housed Alexander’s mummified body. In the city of Alexandria, the hunt continues for the eternal conqueror’s remains. But perhaps part of the puzzle has already been uncovered.