Thursday, March 10, 2016

Head to head with Alexander the Great | Lewisboro Ledger

Head to head with Alexander the Great

Alexandra Morris will be traveling to Athens, Greece, in June to present her research on Alexander the Great and his disabilities. — Jane K. Dove photo

Alexandra Morris has been fascinated with all things ancient since she was a little girl growing up in South Salem.

“My earliest books were about things like the wonders of the ancient world, King Tut’s tomb, mummies, and ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology,” she said. “Anthropology was another major interest.”

Now 25, Morris has come a long way from her children’s books. After graduating from John Jay High School in 2008, she received her bachelor of arts degree in archaeology/anthropology/art history from SUNY at Potsdam and her master’s degree in Egyptology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, writing her thesis on The Physically Disabled of the Ancient World, Particularly in Greece and Egypt.

Alexander the Great and brain injury

She is now working on a paper that finds evidence that Alexander the Great’s previously unexplained behavioral shifts and poor decisions, usually attributed to alcoholism, were actually the result of chronic brain injuries from repeated concussions suffered in battle, noted in the historical record.

Morris has been invited to present her findings at the Athens Institute for Education and Research: Symposium on Alexander the Great, to be held from June 27 to 30 this coming summer in Athens, Greece.

Her paper is titled Alexander the Great: Head to Head with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy.)

“His behavior and mood changes were identical to those seen in many football players today,” she told The Ledger. “Alexander the Great has always been a passion of mine, maybe partly because of our similar names, and I always found him fascinating. It always bothered me that he was portrayed by historians as an alcoholic and a megalomaniac. But I believe his behavior may have come from traumatic brain injury. He took some major hits that were so hard they actually shattered his helmet.”

Morris said that toward the end of his life, Alexander the Great also suffered from very poor impulse control and would often show irrational anger toward people.

“He actually murdered one of his closest mentors, a General Kleitus, at a dinner party,” Morris said.  “Apparently words were uttered that drove him into a rage and he impaled General Kleitus with his sword.”

Another instance of irrational behavior was his marching his forces through the Gedrosian desert when traveling from India to Babylon.

“The soldiers had little food or water and many perished. But he sent other troops back by boat. Historians say he did this to punish his men, but he had never behaved like this before. He was always a good leader,” she said.

Morris believes firmly that Alexander the Great’s behavior closely fits the classic traumatic brain injury profile.

“He exhibited poor impulse control, unrestrained anger, and a lack of good judgment in critical instances,” she said.

Pursuing her goals

Morris was born with mild cerebral palsy but has not let it stop her from pursuing her goals. Instead, it has sparked her interest in scholarly pursuits of the ills of the ancients.

“Having cerebral palsy gave me an added impetus to turn toward research on prominent  historical figures with physical disabilities in ancient times from an archaeological/anthropological viewpoint. Alexander the Great is not the first,” Morris said. “My master’s thesis looked at Tutankhamun, ‘King Tut,’ the child king of Egypt, and the evidence found within his tomb of his many physical disabilities, which had been overlooked. This was confirmed by a team whose findings, based on scans of Tut’s mummy, came out after my paper was written.”

Morris said King Tut’s tomb contained 130 walking sticks and canes. “The tomb was also filled with painkillers and a large number of chairs, some designed to be carried. In ancient art, he is often seen as being physically supported, using a cane or sitting down.”

Now that Morris is putting the finishing touches on her thesis on Alexander the Great, she is in the process of applying to doctorate programs at several prominent universities, including Syracuse, Harvard, Yale, New York University, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.

Morris believes her work is important to the scholarly community.

“I believe Alexander deserves better than to be thought of as an out-of-control drunk,” Morris said.  “A lot of warriors probably had this type of injury. At present, I am probably the only person in the world working on this thesis. Everyone thinks Alexander was an able-bodied warrior, but he wasn’t.”

To learn more about Morris and her scholarly pursuits and to support her trip to Athens this summer, visit

Editor’s note: Alexandra Morris is the daughter of Ledger correspondent Jeff Morris.