June 11 323 B.C., Alexander the Great Dies from (Possible) Overconsumption of Alcohol


Cleitus the White Loses his Epithet

The omens were not kind that year to Alexander of Macedon (aka: “the Great”). They bespoke of death and decline, and warned him not to enter Babylon. Under the pressure from the looming threats of supernatural comeuppance, he naturally embarked upon a month-long drinking binge.

That binge was capped off with a two-day bender. He threw a party for one of his admirals, Nearchus. While he was running off to bed, his friend Medius invited him to keep drinking at his place. After what was probably very little arm twisting, Alexander rehoisted his wine bowl and drank the next day away with Medius. Later he felt sick, at which time he downed a jug of wine to ward off a fever, which you’ll be shocked to know didn’t work. He was stricken ill for 10 days and died.

The world reacted the way it always does when a celebrity does. People wept and shaved their heads; the more disturbingly devoted starved themselves to death. (It’s also possible they just couldn’t find any food.) Alexander was a brilliant general, an astute leader and politician, and (sometimes) magnanimous towards his people and enemies. But more, he was larger-than-life, a superstar of the Ancient World. And like many superstars before and since, his fast and furious life was shadowed by self-destruction. And so, the world said goodbye to Alexander the Great: Ancient World Wild Child.  

Alexander was from the drinking part of Greece. While wine held a big place in Greek culture at the time, drunkenness was viewed as vulgar. Someone who committed a crime or a faux pas while inebriated was punished more harshly than someone committing the same crimes sober. The opposite policy seemed to apply in Macedon, where Alexander was born. Macedonian nobles drank their wine akratos (undiluted by water) a practice considered barbaric by Greek standards. Drunken fights and murder seemed less a crime as much as a way to pass the time before getting drunk again. To boot, in Macedonian military culture, drinking to excess was not only accepted, but admired and considered a far better way to gauge manhood than say walking into combat with a sword. Alexander was beloved by his men for his abilities in both.  

Moreover, Alexander’s model for drunken behavior was his father. King Phillip was also a great general and a noted philopotes (a lover of drinking sessions). He was hot-tempered, paranoid, and rash, dangerous faults when you have an army and a drinking problem. At a feast, he once tried to run Alexander through with a sword, but was too drunk and tripped up by a couch. Similarly, Alexander often drank to incapacity, acted rashly while drunk, and then deeply regretted his actions when sober, like the time he woke up to find that he had burned down Persepolis. Unfortunately, he also took after his father in the realm of stabbing people at banquets. At a feast years later, he ran through Cleitus the Black in a drunken rage. Not having the good fortune to trip over a couch, he profoundly regretted murdering Cleitus, who had served in his father’s army and who had saved Alexander during the battle of Granicus. A minor bright side was that Cleitus the White could finally drop the epithet from his name. 

Alexander’s life is glamorous in the overview. By the age of 20 he had become king of Macedon and by 30 he had conquered most of the (known) world. He had picked up the epithet “The Great” somewhere along the way. He lived in palaces and had a hareem. But though he was young, he had crammed a lot into those days. He had taken part in countless battles, witnessed thousands of deaths, dealt with almost constant political strife and rebelling territories. It took its toll. Alexander became unhinged and paranoid.  

The straw that broke the philopotes’ back was the death of his best friend Hephaestion, who had tried to medicate a painful intestinal issue with the lesser-known remedy of boiled chicken and a gallon of wine. Perhaps mercifully, this combo killed him. The death of a friend often forces us to consider our lives and our choices. And so when Alexander heard of his friend’s death, he understandably retreated to his tent for a period of grieving and personal reflection. When he came out, he hadn’t so much decided to take up yoga or put a tributary decal on his Ford Bronco, but rather had Hephaestion’s physician crucified and had the temples to local gods razed. He then massacred a small local tribe called the Cosseans and dedicated their deaths to his friend. In another event of peculiar tribute, Alexander put on a drinking game to mark the death of a philosopher friend. During the games, 42 people died of alcohol poisoning and Alexander’s friend, Promachus, died three days later, having downed 13 liters of unmixed wine. But Promachus had won the contest, which was hopefully some solace for being dead.   

Alexander never really stood a chance. Maybe those omens should have told him to quit drinking. Had he been born in the mid-1900s, Alexander might have been a drummer for a 60s British rock band and a consistent sunglasses-at-night face in tabloids. He would have lived an unapologetic fast and crazy life until he either died young and drunk or had a moment of clarity and cleaned up. He would appear on a variety of talk shows to talk about his struggles with addiction while holding the hand of his “roommate” Hephaestion. We hope he might have avoided the arson and the slaughter of local peoples and settled for a few harmless DUIs and public intoxication arrests. He then might have lived to a ripe old age when he and Keith Richards could trade good-natured self-deprecating barbs about their previous lifestyles on Graham Norton. But we’ll never know and that all plays into the tragedy of Alexander the Great: Ancient World Wild Child.

So, what to drink to celebrate the death of Alexander the Great? Wine. As mentioned, the Ancient Macedonians drank their wine unmixed, so make Alexander proud by not adding sparkling water and make the whole world proud by not adding diet coke. Alexander was from the Pella, which is in Central Macedonia. So why not drink a robust red from an indigenous and noble grape from that region – the Xinomavro. Xino (meaning sour) and Mavro (black) produces a richly-flavored wine with strong aromas combining red fruits (like gooseberry) with hints of olives. But please resist the urge to stab a friend at a party, and no drinking contests, OK? And if you feel a fever coming on, go to a doctor.

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