Is The Body Of Alexander The Great Actually In Saint Mark’s Tomb?

The tomb and body of the great conqueror, Alexander the Great of Macedonia, have been lost for millennia. Could they be hiding at the heart of Saint Mark’s in Venice?

Mar 15, 2021By Marian Vermeulen, BA History and Philosophy
bust of alexander
Bust of Alexander, in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek; with an interior image of Saint Mark’s looking toward the high altar


According to an intriguing theory, the key to one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times, the location of Alexander the Great’s tomb could be hiding in Venice. 


In June of 323 B.C. Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, fell terribly ill. He had conquered much of the ancient Mediterranean world, and he had no intention of stopping. Yet that spring, he had journeyed into the swamps surrounding Babylon, and shortly after was battling a severe fever. 


The Death of Alexander the Great, attributed to Dominicus Stainhard, c. 1680-1690, Art Gallery of Ontario; with the Death of Alexander the Great, by a follower of Jean Restout II, c. 1692-1768, private collection.


Despite the illness, he continued the planning for his next campaign – the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula. However, his condition only worsened. Soon he was periodically losing the ability to speak and falling in and out of consciousness. After twelve days of fighting, he lost the battle on the 11th of June and never woke again. He was only thirty-two years old.  


Alexander The Great’s First Tomb 

The Death of Alexander the Great, by Karl Theodor Von Piloty, c. 1885-1886, Alte Pinakothek


Alexander’s top generals had been his closest friends since their childhoods together in the Macedonian court. Ten years of constant military campaigning had only strengthened that bond. They were grief-stricken over the loss of their king. In a strange twist of fate, Alexander may have still been alive, in a coma, even as his friends began to mourn. The ancient historians reported that his body remained perfect and unspoiled for over a week in the hot Babylonian summer. The most likely explanation is that he was suffering from a form of malaria that frequently ends in a coma.

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The funeral procession of Alexander the Great, by André Bauchant, 1940, Tate Collective


Regardless, Alexander’s fate was sealed, and eventually, he did die. His friends commissioned a gold sarcophagus and gold casket to hold Alexander’s body, as well as a massive, ornate funerary cart to carry the casket back to Macedonia for burial. The procession never completed its journey. While still on the road, one of Alexander’s successors, Ptolemy, seized the body and interred it in Memphis, Egypt. Later, his son moved Alexander the Great into a lavish tomb in the city of Alexandria.


Alexander’s Tomb Disappears 

Augustus before the tomb of Alexander, by Sébastien Bourdon, c. 1642-1652, State Hermitage Museum


Alexander’s body remained in his magnificent tomb for centuries, a fact well documented by ancient sources. Cleopatra angered the inhabitants of Alexandria by taking gold from Alexander’s tomb to finance her wars with Octavian Augustus. Records detail visits to Alexander’s tomb by several Roman emperors, including Julius Caesar, Augustus, Caligula, Septimius Severus, and Caracalla. Yet by 400 A.D., John Chrysostom visited Alexandria and hoped to see the famous tomb, but its location was lost. The very last reference to Alexander the Great’s tomb came only ten years earlier, circa 390 A.D., from Libanius. He commented on “Alexandria where the corpse of Alexander is displayed.”


Missorium of Theodosius, ceremonial plate, 4th-5th century A.D., Real Academia de la Historia


The short span of time in which Alexander’s tomb disappeared from the written record was a time of great turmoil in the ancient world. Between 389 and 391 A.D., Emperor Theodosius issued the “Theodosian Decrees.” These documents established Christianity as the only legal religion and banned pagan practices. In the following years, he oversaw and authorized the destruction of numerous pagan temples and holy places. Alexander, whose cult had worshipped him as a god since his death, would have been a prime target of this destruction. It may well be that Alexander’s tomb and remains fell victim to these purges. However, the sudden and somewhat unexplained appearance of another famous corpse in the city of Alexandria suggests a tantalizing alternative…


The Body of Saint Mark

The martyrdom of Saint Mark the Evangelist, by Guglielmo Cortese, c. 1628-1679, Museum of Fine Arts


In the late 4th century A.D., ancient sources began to reference a tomb of Saint Mark in Alexandria. The first mention comes from Saint Jerome in 392 A.D., just two years after the last record of Alexander the Great’s tomb. The existence of a body of Saint Mark is itself mysterious. According to Christian tradition, Mark was martyred by pagans in 68 A.D. in the city of Alexandria. Dorotheus, Eutychius, and the Chronicon Paschale state that Mark’s killers burned his body as a final snub to Christians. No mention of a sacred body of Mark exists for over three hundred years.  


The removal of the body of Saint Mark, by Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1562-1566, Galleria dell’Accademia


A text called “the Acts of Saint Mark” gives the explanation that a miraculous storm put out the flames and the Christians were able to snatch the corpse from the pyre. However, the earliest dating of this document also places it in the late 4th century A.D., hundreds of years after the death of Mark and in the middle of the chaotic period which saw the disappearance of Alexander. Author Andrew Chugg proposes that the supposed body of Saint Mark actually is that of the famous Alexander the Great, rebranded as Mark in the midst of the Theodosian Decrees in order to save the famous conqueror from destruction by Christians.


A Second Corporeal Heist 

Mosaic image of the theft of Saint Mark’s body from Alexandria, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, via Boston College Libraries


Ironically, if this theory is true, the very rebranding brought the corpse into danger once again. By the late 7th century A.D., Arab forces had conquered much of North Africa, including Alexandria. Tensions between Muslims and Christians in the region were rising. In 828 A.D., two Venetian merchant ship captains made a deal with local Christian authorities to take the supposed body of Saint Mark to safety. They removed the corpse from its tomb, laid it in a wagon covered with pork to forestall any close inspection of the contents, and successfully smuggled it aboard their ship, bound for Venice.  


Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, via Basilica San Marco


A smaller church initially housed the remains. In 1063 A.D., Venetian officials commissioned the magnificent Basilica di San Marco which still stands today. On October 8th, 1094, the body was laid to rest in the crypt under the church. There it remained for almost eight hundred years until frequent flooding began to threaten the safety of the corpse. In 1811, the church removed the remains and re-interred them in the high altar on the main floor. 


Is there a Mummy in Saint Mark’s? 

The tomb at the high altar purported to hold the remains of Saint Mark, via Walks of Italy 


Several tidbits of information hint that the body in Saint Mark’s may have initially been mummified. There are no circumstances under which ancient Christians would have followed pagan mummification practices. Therefore, mummification points to a different occupant of Mark’s tomb. Martino da Canale in La Cronique des Veniciens from 1275, related that “If all the spices of the world had been gathered together in Alexandria, they could not have so perfumed the city” as did the aroma of spices coming from the corpse – consistent with mummification.  Additionally, records indicate that linen wrappings sealed the corpse at that time. 


Mosaic of Saint Mark’s body being venerated from the exterior of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, via Aleteia


Mosaics in the Basilica depict the body as an intact corpse rather than a skeleton. This could simply be artistic license, but perhaps it reflects that a mummified body did initially arrive in Venice. Further hints come from the transfer of the remains to their current location at the high altar. Leonardo Conte Manin documented the event. His observations contain no evidence to suggest that the skeleton showed damage from fire, as Mark’s should. His assertion that skeleton stuck to the cloth in certain areas is consistent with the expected state of a former, now decomposed, mummy.  


Alexander’s Tomb at the Heart of Saint Mark’s?

The Macedonian funerary block found near Saint Mark’s body in the Basilica crypt, now on display in the Cloister of St. Apollonia, Venice, via Ancient Origins


A final piece of sculpture provides the most intriguing and unanswered questions as to the origins of the body in the tomb of Saint Mark. A large piece of carved limestone, a broken portion of a larger original, was found only a few meters from the site of Mark’s original tomb in the crypt of the Basilica. The block, now on display at the Cloister of St Apollonia in Venice, depicts a relief of shield, greaves, sword, and portion of a spear. These armaments are consistent with Macedonian styles, a fact independently asserted in a study by Eugenio Polito in 1998, years before Andrew Chugg began his research. 


A sketch by Andrew Chugg depicting the expected dimensions of the star shield block if complete, via Ancient Origins


Polito describes “An unattributed fragment relating to a funerary monument with analogous motifs is today conserved in Venice, but definitely derives from the Hellenistic world: it features a Macedonian shield with a star motif at its center, a pair of greaves and a long lance (a sarissa?) and on the smallest side the remains of a sword…the block must have belonged to a large monument that may generically be placed between the 3rd and the beginning of the 2nd century BC.”


Making Connections to Alexander

A golden box bearing the star (or sun) of Vergina found in the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai


The “star motif” bears a striking resemblance to the Star of Vergina or Star of Macedon. It was a symbol closely associated with Alexander’s family and visible on many related tombs. The sword carved into the block is undisputed as a Greek style kopsis. If one extends the spear at the angle of its descent to its logical conclusion at the base of the stone block, its size matches the distinctive Macedonian sarissa. These deadly weapons, developed by his father, helped Alexander the Great conquer the world. However, Roman military tactics rendered them obsolete, making later Roman carvings of such a spear unlikely. Why was this carving, with clear Macedonian connections, located in the crypt of Saint Mark’s Basilica less than a stone’s throw from the body’s original resting place? 


The sarcophagus of Nectanebo II, 345 B.C., British Museum


Furthermore, Andrew Chugg has made measurements based on an extrapolation of the original stone’s dimensions. He asserts that the slab is a perfect match to be an outer cover of the sarcophagus of Nectanebo II, now on display in the British Museum.  This sarcophagus was long associated with Alexander. Chugg asserts it to be the likely first resting place of the body of Alexander in Memphis. Almost complete, its intended occupant had fled Egypt, and the magnificent tomb lay unoccupied when Ptolemy arrived with Alexander’s body, needing a temporary resting place fit for such a great king. 


How Could We Know?

The crypt of Saint Mark’s Basilica where the body was originally housed and the star shield block was discovered, via Emerisda Project


Both ancient source material and modern scientific techniques offer multiple routes to investigate and identify the body purported to be that of Saint Mark. Multiple carbon-dating, DNA testing, and tooth enamel analysis techniques could be employed. Understandably these might be less attractive as they would require invasive sample removal from the body. However, much could be learned merely from physical examination of the remains.


Alexander wounded by an arrow,  Frans Franken II, c. 1581-1642, private collection; with Alexander the Great wounded after the battle against Aspasioi in India, by a follower of Simon de Vos, c. 1603-1676, private collection


A visual inspection could establish gender and age at the time of death. Ancient historians have recorded two well-known wounds of Alexander’s that struck bone, one in the lower leg and one to his “chest bone,” likely the sternum. Evidence of bone damage and healing in these two locations would be reason to warrant further investigation. Lack of that damage would be sufficient to dismiss theories of the body being that of Alexander. Additionally, Manin’s observations from the 19th century indicated that the skull was intact, leaving facial reconstruction an option. 


An interior image of Saint Mark’s looking toward the high altar, via Italy Magazine


Will Alexander The Great’s Tomb Remain a Mystery?  


Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church has maintained an absolute refusal to investigate further, stating that they remain confident in identity based on the observations of Manin. Yet if the body moved in 1811 was once that of Alexander, that information would have been long forgotten. Manin’s records can assert the authenticity of the body interred at the high altar as being that which was taken from Mark’s tomb in the crypt. Still, he cannot answer the questions about the origin of the body that came from Alexandria. 


Image from diving on the underwater portions of ancient Alexandria, via Alexandria Portal


Perhaps the theory is little more than eager speculation. Perhaps Alexander’s body was destroyed by Christians in the late 4th century, or perhaps it still lies under the waters of Alexandria in the submerged portions of the ancient city. Yet certainly, the mystery is an intriguing one, and the questions and coincidences curious enough to warrant investigation. We can only hope that one day the work will be done to provide answers to the mystery of Alexander the Great’s tomb. 


For further details, check out the book The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great by Andrew Chugg.

Author Image

By Marian VermeulenBA History and PhilosophyMarian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.