What a subject for discussion! Well anyway, I want to share my opinion on this matter that seems to have occupied the mind of many ancient and modern authors alike.
Time and again, I read how people around Alexander were surprised by his body fragrance and many ancient writers find it exceptional enough to mention it. But then Alexander is known to have taken a bath whenever possible, using a nearby stream or lake when the comforts of home were not at hand. Examples are plentiful.
Plutarch is by far the most informative on this subject and talks about it at the very beginning of his book “The Life of Alexander the Great”, where he gives us a detailed description of Alexander’s appearance. “… he was fair and of a light colour, passing into ruddiness in his face and upon his breast. Aristoxenus in his Memoirs tells us that a most agreeable odour exhaled from his skin, and that his breath and body all over was so fragrant as to perfume the clothes which he wore next him; the cause of which might probably be the hot and adust temperament of his body.” He proceeds with a rather questionable theory developed by Theophrastus about sweet smells in hot temperatures that doesn’t sound very convincing and then he continues “His temperance, as to the pleasures of the body, was apparent in him in his very childhood, as he was with much difficulty incited to them, and always used them with great moderation; though in other things he was extremely eager and vehement, and in his love of glory, and the pursuit of it, he showed a solidity of high spirit and magnanimity far above his age”. It seems that Plutarch has been widely quoted on this subject, from antiquity to modern times and may well be the only description of Alexander that has come to us.
And then there is the by far best known episode of Alexander bathing in the cold waters of the Cydnus River near Tarsus, in today’s southeastern Turkey. Plutarch tells us that he caught a “sickness that detained him”, “which some say he contracted from his fatigues, others from bathing in the river Cydnus, whose waters were exceedingly cold”.
Arrian in his Campaigns of Alexander the Great (Book 2, 4) is more informative about this episode, which he draws from Aristoboulos. “About this time Alexander had a bout of sickness. The cause of it, according to Aristoboulos’ account, was exhaustion, but others say that he plunged into the river Cydnus for a swim, as he was sweating with heat and could not resist the pleasure of a bathe. The Cydnus runs right through Tarsus, and as it rises in Mount Taurus and flows through open country, its waters are clear and cold; the result was that Alexander was seized by a convulsion, followed by high fever and sleepless nights.”
And finally our newspaper reporter from antiquity, dear Quintus Curtius (History of Alexander, Book 3,14-15), writes a nice story about this event: “The river Cydnus, …, flows through the middle of Tarsus; it was then summer, the heat of which burns no other shore more than that of Cilicia with the sun’s fires, and the hottest time of the day had begun. The clear water of the river tempted the king, who was covered with dust and at the same time with sweat, to bathe his body when it was still heated; accordingly, laying off his clothing in the sight of the army – thinking that it would also be fitting if he should show his men that he was content with attention to his person which was simple and easily attained – he went down into the river. But hardly had he entered it when his limbs began to stiffen with a sudden chill, then he lost his colour, and the vital warmth almost his entire body. His attendants caught him in their arms, looking like a dying man, and carried him almost unconscious into his tent.” The story continues in the same theatrical style, of course.
Whatever the reason for Alexander’s sickness (often assimilated to malaria which prevailed in this area till early 20th century) the fact is that Alexander did plunge into the river. Someone who is not accustomed to it would not have even considered setting a foot in that icy stream.
Plutarch treats us also to another story when Alexander marched from Babylon to Ecbatana and saw “the place where fire issues in a continuous stream, like a spring of water, out of a cleft in the earth, and the stream of naphtha … . This naphtha, in other respects resembling bitumen, is so subject to take fire …”. This was something new and I’m sure everyone in Alexander’s army wanted to play with this fire, although Plutarch blames “the barbarians” for turning the whole street in one continued flame. The interesting passage for me is where he says, “Among those who used to wait on the king and find occasion to amuse him when he anointed and washed himself, there was one Athenophanes, an Athenian, who desired him to make an experiment of the naphtha upon Stephanus, who stood by in the bathing place…”. Well, he set the poor man on fire with one single drop of the stuff causing that “Alexander was in the greatest perplexity and alarm for him, and not without reason; for nothing could have prevented his being consumed by it, if by good chance there had not been people at hand with a great many vessels of water for the service of the bath…”. So here once again, everything was made ready for Alexander’s bath, not just one single jar of water by the way!
It is this repeated bathing and extreme cleanliness that made me think of Alexander’s pleasant body odor. He definitely was an exception and must have been perceived as an eccentric to his servants and army alike. I have never heard of any Macedonian soldier bathing or enjoying a refreshing swim in some river or at the seaside although Alexander’s father, King Philip, had decreed that his men should use cold water only – hot water being the privilege for women who had just given birth (see Ian Worthington – Philip II of Macedonia). This being the case, I doubt that many would have ventured in the cold rivers of Macedonia or Thracia. Most would have stayed out of the water as armies have done over the centuries, only washing up by the time they went home, for instance.
So, in the end, my belief is that Alexander did not have an especially fragrant skin but that because of his regular bathing, he simply carried a pleasant smell among the generally unwashed bodies of his entourage. That even his clothes were impregnated with his body odor is only normal, but it must have been a striking phenomenon in his days.