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A contemporary account of the death of Alexander

Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). On the last day of the month Aiiâru in the fourteenth year of his reign, Alexander died in Babylon. The only contemporary source describing the event is the Astronomical Diary, a day-by-day account of celestial phenomena, written by the officials of the Esagila temple complex. The diary mentions other events as well, e.g., the level of the Euphrates, the weather, the food prices, incidents concerning Babylon and its temples, and political events - after all, the celestial phenomena were omens of important political changes.

The following is the Diary of the second month, Aiiâru, of 323 BCE. Unfortunately, the death of Alexander occurred in a clouded week; there are almost no observations. Because the tablet, which is now in the British Museum,  is a bit damaged, entire days are missing. Still, this is the only contemporary source for the death of Alexander.

More information about Alexander's death can be found here.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

[Year fourteen of Alexander, Month Two]

[The first part is missing.]

Night of the fourteenth, beginning of the night, the moon was [lacuna] in front of Theta Ophiuchi.[1]

[Night of the eighteenth,] first part of the night, Mercury was fourteen fingers above Saturn.

[lacuna] crossed the sky.

The twenty-first: clouds crossed the sky.

Night of the twenty-second: clouds [crossed the sky; lacuna]

[Night of the twenty-third: lacuna] 2 2/3 cubits; clouds were in the sky.

The twenty-fourth: clouds [were in the sky].

[lacuna] clouds crossed the sky.

Night of the twenty-seventh: clouds crossed the sky.

The twenty-seventh: [lacuna]

[The night of the twenty-eighth?; lacuna] stood to the east.

The twenty-ninth: The king died. Clouds [were in the sky].[2]

[That month, the equivalent for 1 shekel of silver was: lacuna; 3] cress, 1 sût 4 qa; sesame 3 1/2 qa.

[At that time; lacuna] Saturn was in Gemini, at the end of the month in Cancer; Mars was in Virgo.

[lacuna] the Gate of Bêl [lacuna] [4]

Note 1:
This observation can be dated on 26 May 323 BCE.

Note 2:
The twenty-ninth of Ajaru is the period between the evening of 10 June nd the evening of 11 June 323 BCE.

We can, however, be more precise. There are two kinds of entries in the Astronomical diary: some are introduced with words like 'Night of the twenty-seventh', others with 'The twenty-seventh'. In the first case, the entry starts with observations made in the night (and may or may not continue with the observations made during the day), in the second case, we find only observations made during the day. Since the entry of 29 Ajaru is one of the second type, we can be certain that Alexander died on 11 June, between morning and evening.

It is possible to be even more precise. According to the Life of Alexander by the Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea (section 76.9), the Macedonian Royal Diaries reported Alexander's death pros deilên. Although deilê is sometimes translated as 'evening', it is in fact an indication of the ninth and tenth hours of the day - that is, in the week of the summer solstice, between three and six o' clock.

There is one other possibility. That is that Alexander died on 10 June before six o' clock, and that the astronomer heard the news after dawn on 11 June. In view of the fact that the man had to stay awake all night, and was working in the religious center of the city, where prayers for the dead king had to be said, the author of this web-article supposes that this is less likely, although it can not be excluded completely.

Note 3:
At the end of the month, the author of the Astronomical diary sums up the prices of important commodities.

Note 4:
The Gate of Bêl was situated in the east. The Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia tells us that the Babylonian astrologers (which he calls Chaldaeans) advised Alexander not to enter the city through this gate (more). The Astronomical diary seems to have contained a reference to this incident.


  • Paul Bernard, 'Nouvelle contribution de l' épigraphie cunéiforme à l' histoire hellénistique' in: Bulletin de correspondance Hellénique 114 (1990) pages 514-541
  • Leo Depuydt, 'The Time of Death of Alexander the Great: 11 June 323 BC, ca. 4:00-5:00 PM' in: Die Welt des Orients 28 (1997) 117-135
  • Abraham Sachs and Hermann Hunger, Astronomical diaries and related texts from Babylon, volume I, 1988 Vienna

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