April 20, 2003
Although Alexander the Great was a Macedonian, who were a people who were notorious for drinking, as well as a devoted member of the cult of Dionysus, Alexander spurned the over consumption of alcohol early on in his life. However, with his rise to power came an increasingly frequent consumption and abuse of alcoholic beverages, abuse that finally resulted in his demise. As his pothos drove him to unimaginable conquest and power, a certain void of loneliness developed in him that could only be filled with a dependence on alcohol and its mood altering effects. As Alexander’s use of alcohol amplified, his mood and temperament became progressively more violent and unstable, which caused his companions to fear him and the repercussions of his anger. During the last half of his journey, alcohol played a major role in the decisions, actions, and frame of mind of Alexander during his campaign.
Alexander came from Macedonia, a place where the consumption of alcohol was not only common, but was a daily activity practiced by all. The Greeks, who were cousins and neighbors of the Macedonians, diluted their wine and drank in moderation, were very scornful of Macedonian drinking practices. To them, “moderation was the hallmark of the civilized,”(O’Brien p 6) and the way the Macedonians drank could only be described as barbaric. Macedonians did not dilute their wine, and drank to get drunk, sometimes when dining even before their meal was served. In Macedonian culture, intemperance was sign of strength and manhood. Drinking contests were a common form of entertainment, although in some cases the victor would end up dead from his overindulgence.1
One theory among scholars, such as John Maxwell O’Brien, who study the role of alcohol in the life of Alexander, is that Alexander’s drinking was largely due to his being a member of the cult of Dionysus, who was the God of wine. Throughout O’Brien’s book, Dionysus is often blamed for a large part of Alexander’s apparent over consumption of alcohol, and the book The Invisible Enemy, is aptly named to show the negative influence of Alexander’s devotion to the God on his alcohol consumption. However, one reviewer of O’Brien’s book, Waldemar Heckel, finds O’Brien’s focus on Dionysus to be distracting from the truth behind Alexander’s possible alcoholism. He claims “O’Brien, with his desire to link Alexander with his mythical past strains the evidence and finds connections everywhere.”2 I tend to agree with Heckel, and feel that this is a topic that strays to far into the divine and mystical nature of Alexander to have much relevance to my topic. Although it is an issue that has importance in understanding the nature of Alexander, it would impede rather than support the topic of this paper.3
Because Alexander came from a society where alcohol was consumed regularly and in such high quantities, and was a member of a cult that worshipped the God of wine as well, it is difficult to assess whether Alexander drank more than the common Macedonian. It is also impossible to determine whether or not he was unquestionably an alcoholic, given the fact that he would be judged by modern standards and it almost unfeasible to do so given the difference of cultural norms and practices between antiquity and the present day. Some scholars, such as John Maxwell O’Brien, have tried to view the life and actions of Alexander through the pretense that every decision he made was through the veil of intoxication. Yet this approach to understanding the life of Alexander through one aspect of his being is unfair, and leaves out a big part of who Alexander was. It is not just or historically accurate to take every antidote of Alexander’s life and try to prove its relevance to his possible alcoholism.4 Rather it is much more useful to look at certain incidents of Alexander’s life in which the presence of alcohol seems to have greatly effected his actions. Furthermore, while it is not viable to undoubtedly conclude that Alexander was an alcoholic, it is possible to study his actions and behaviors as well as the presence of alcohol as recorded by the primary sources to try to determine how much alcohol affected his life. These behavioral characteristics can then be studied and compared to what contemporary researchers know about alcoholism, and a hypothesis can be drawn about whether the manners of Alexander was similar to the manners of someone who in our society would be deemed an alcoholic.
Contemporary psychologists and researchers of addiction have studied alcohol dependence and struggled to define it as one encompassing problem. However, because this disease manifests itself in many different ways and through a variety of people, no one definition can be used to describe alcoholism. Instead, researchers rely on a set of characteristics of alcoholism “based on a collection of signs, symptoms and behaviors that help us make the diagnosis.”5 Researchers have however identified two types of alcoholics. These two kinds of alcoholics are known as type one and type two alcoholics. Type one alcoholics usually develop problems with alcohol later in their lives, after the age of 25. After their drinking problem becomes prevalent, type ones usually cannot abstain from drinking if they wish. These people are usually non-violent and non-confrontational when under the influence, and often regret their drinking when sober. Type one alcoholics tend to be low profile people, and use alcohol to ward off negative feelings. Genetics only play a moderate role in development of type one alcoholics, and ones environment has a high influence on a type one’s drinking escalation. Type two alcoholics exhibit very different symptoms and behavioral characteristics than type one alcoholics. Where type one alcoholics usually develop their addiction later in life, type two alcoholics become addicted to drinking early in life, usually before the age of 25. Where types ones are docile when drinking, type two’s are often violent, impulsive, and aggressive when under the influence, and experience a psychological loss of control when intoxicated. Type two’s can often abstain from drinking when they feel the need to, and use alcohol to create positive feelings. Type two’s usually have high profile personalities, rarely feel guilt or anxiety about their drinking, and most type two alcoholics are male. It has also been found that genetics plays a large role and environmental factors a small one in the development of a type two’s alcoholism.6
The characteristics exhibited by a type two alcoholic are all character attributes that Alexander the Great exhibited frequently throughout his lifetime. Through the sources, we know that he was often violent and impulsive, especially in battle. His father, Philip was also known to be drunk often, so genetics probably played a role in Alexander’s drinking problem. If Alexander was indeed a type two alcoholic, his environment, that of a place where drinking was part of daily life, would not have a great impact on his choice to drink. Although the sources record instances of Alexander regretting some of his actions that were done when he was believed to be drinking, not one of them ever records him having feelings of guilt or worry about his drinking itself.7 I intend to assert through historical evidence that Alexander exhibited clear characteristics of Type Two alcoholic, and this disease of “total personality,”8 did indeed have a great affect on his actions and behavior while on campaign.
Philip, Alexander’s father, is known to have been one of the greatest drunks of antiquity. Peter Green describes Philip as a “strong, sensual heavily bearded man who was much addicted to drink, women, and (when the fancy took him,) boys.”9 Philip, who was notorious for his drinking, often gave “protracted drinking parties, engaged in drinking bouts, and got drunk with predicted regularity.”10 Demosthenes, an ancient Athenian orator, once even described Philip as a sponge. However, Philip was neither a violent or impulsive drunk. He favored drinking after great victories, or sometimes even before the battle. He could sober up pretty quickly when necessary, and could take criticism and laugh at his sometimes foolish drunken behavior with ease. It seems that Philip favored the pomp and celebration that defined an ancient drinking party, or symposium, and often liked to surround himself with individuals who enjoyed the celebration of drink as much as he did.11
Assuming that Philip was indeed an alcoholic, the role of genetics is something that has to be considered when trying to establish whether Alexander was an alcoholic. It has been proven through many scientific studies that alcoholism is sometimes passed through genetics. It has been found that, “Type one alcoholics show little heritability, whereas type two alcoholics have shown substantial father-to-son transmission of alcoholism and antisocial characteristics.”12 One study done in 1981 in Sweden looked at adopted children whose biological parents were alcoholics but whose adoptive parents were not. It was found “that a larger percentage of these children became alcoholic themselves than would be seen in the general population.”13 Even children who had been raised by their adoptive parents from birth still had a high occurrence of alcoholism. For these children, who are mostly type two alcoholics, their genetics played a much larger role in the development of their alcoholism than their environment did.14 James Graham, the author of a book entitled The Secret History Of Alcoholism, which explores the nature of alcoholism and its effect on people, asserts that “We know that it is transmitted genetically; not through the mind or the environment but through the body chemistry...one becomes an alcoholic because one is biologically vulnerable, and tests this vulnerability by drinking.”15 If Alexander was indeed a type two alcoholic, living in a culture where overindulgence in drink was common would have had much less of an affect on the development of his addiction than his relation to Philip would have.
The sources agree that Alexander the Great thoroughly disapproved of extreme drunkenness as a young man. Plutarch tells us “In spite of his vehement and impulsive nature, he showed little interest in the pleasures of the senses and indulged in them only with great moderation.”16 He especially held great disdain for his father Philip’s often-apparent drunkenness. Relations between father and son were strained anyway, and tensions surrounding competition between the two as well as the issue of the inheritance of Philip’s throne often caused their tenuous relationship to become even shakier.
One such incident that echoes not only the fragile relationship between Philip and Alexander, but also the contempt Alexander held for his father’s often intoxicated state, is the wedding of Philip and Cleopatra. Philip had taken numerous wives either than Olympias, Alexander’s mother, but this marriage proved to be a particularly uncomfortable situation for all involved. Philip knew that marrying Cleopatra would be a smart political move that would unite Macedonia through marriage ties. Attalus, Cleopatra’s uncle, was a popular general, and an excellent ally for Philip to have. Furthermore, with a new united Macedonia in mind, and a new heir to rule it, Philip openly accused Olympias, who he had long been estranged from, of adultery. By doing so, he put Alexander’s legitimacy to the throne into question.17 In addition, it has been claimed by Satyrus that Philip, unlike his other wives who he married for purely political reasons, had fallen in love with Cleopatra, which further insulted Olympias.18 Plutarch agrees that Cleopatra was a “girl with whom Philip had fallen in love with whom he decided to marry,” and that “the domestic strife that resulted from Philip’s various marriages and love affairs…led to bitter clashes and accusations between father and son.”19
The wedding party saw the collision of all the tensions between father and son explode into a near devastating situation. Alexander attended the wedding feast, without the company of his scorned mother. He took the honorary place as Philip’s son right across from him, and made a remark about the deceit he felt was being imposed upon his mother. Finally, after “a great deal of wine was drunk,”20 Attalus, Cleopatra’s uncle, rose to give a speech. During this obviously pointed insult at Alexander, Attalus implored the Macedonians to “pray to the gods that the union of Philip and Cleopatra might bring forth a legitimate heir to the throne.”21 Alexander, understanding the implications of this insult immediately, threw his drinking cup at Attulas’ head. Philip, rose without delay, and in his drunken confusion and anger drew his sword on Alexander but “fortunately for them both he was so overcome with drink and with rage that he tripped and fell headlong.”22 If Philip had not been so overcome by wine, he most likely would have run Alexander through. However, Alexander, still intact and seemingly quite sober, could only look at his father with great disdain, remarking “Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one table to another without losing his balance.”23 It is clear that Alexander is making a clear reference to Philip’s intoxication, and is viewing his father’s drunkenness as a fault and a weakness. Alexander was only sixteen when this incident occurred, and had not yet met the demons that plagued his father.
Despite his early disrespect for intoxication, Alexander seems to have undergone a transformation or “metamorphosis,”24 as he grew older and became more and more powerful. In most type twos, alcoholism develops early in life, usually by the age of twenty five. By the time Alexander was twenty five years old, he had already achieved greater glory through conquest than most men achieve in their lifetimes. However, with power often comes mental unrest. All the primary sources agree that Alexander, in his later years, was enjoying his wine a little too much. In book five of Quintus Curtius Rufus’ History Of Alexander, Curtius praises the many attributes of Alexander’s character, but goes on to relate how they “were marred by his inexcusable fondness for drink.”25 Even Arrian, who is often known to defend Alexander’s actions, comments on how Alexander’s drinking had become “another innovation in drink too, he now tended in barbaric excess.”26 Alexander was also known to host uproarious symposiums in his later years. For Alexander, the “Symposium offered an arena in which Alexander could critically measure the usefulness and loyalty of others while eliciting responses that would assure him of his own worthiness.”27 The symposium offered Alexander a chance to get some insight into the minds of his companions, as well as offering a sort of bonding that could only come through celebration and intoxication. This is a drastic change from the Alexander of ten years earlier, who openly thumbed his nose at his father’s own penchant for drink.
The year 330 BC saw one of the earliest manifestations of Alexander’s metamorphosis from ridiculer of intoxication to destructive lover of drink. During this year, Alexander entered Persepolis, one of the grandest and most decadent cities of the Persian Empire. Persepolis was not only filled with innumerable works of art, but was “a Holy City, akin to Mecca or Jerusalem, and equally rich in solemn rich associations.”28 However, despite, or maybe because of the riches that filled Persepolis, Alexander let his men sack the city, a privilege they had been denied earlier at Susa and Babylon. After doing so, Alexander left the city for the field, but returned to the great city in a month’s time, in full celebration of his victories. What happened next is an issue that not only the ancient sources but most modern Alexander scholars have debated over for centuries. Persepolis was burned to the ground, but the motives, reasons, and causality of the burning has never been agreed upon. The first story of the incident, as recorded by Quintus Curtius Rufus, Plutarch, and Diodorus, claim that the burning was the result of drunken revelry turned bad. These sources agree that Alexander and his friends were celebrating his victories in true Macedonian fashion by having a symposium, where as usual, the wine ran freely. Soon, they were joined by a number of courtesans, the most famous an Athenian who was named Thais. In the words of Diodorus, “While they were feasting and the drinking was far advanced, as they began to be drunken a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests.”29 According to these sources, Thais, in her drunken state, rose and gave a stirring speech imploring Alexander to destroy the city by burning it to the ground, in retribution for the similar injustice the Persians had done to Athens when they had conquered Greece. Quintus Curtius Rufus tells us that “As the drunken whore gave her opinion on a matter of extreme importance, one or two who were the worse for drink agreed with her…they were all excited by the wine, and so got up, when drunk, to burn the city which they had spared while under arms.”30 Alexander, encouraged by wine and Thais, indeed took up a torch and lit the first flame that would destroy one of the most magnificent cities in the East.
The other argument of what occurred at Persepolis is based on the reports of the incident as recorded by Arrian. He tells us that the burning of Persepolis was a calculated decision, and nowhere does he mention the symposium and drunken revelry the other sources agree took place before the incident. Instead he asserts that Alexander intended to burn the city down, “though this act was against the advice of Parmenio…Alexander’s answer was that he wished to punish the Persians for their invasion of Greece.”31 Arrian claims that Parmenio advised Alexander that it would be foolish to burn his own property,32 but Alexander was so intent on revenge for the wrongdoings done to Greece that he ignored Parmenio and exacted his retribution.
It is difficult to argue with certainty about what actually happened at Persepolis, whether it was the result of Alexander’s apparent type two destructive alcoholic nature, or a calculated plot of revenge. Yet, most of the evidence suggests that this destruction was an accident fueled by alcohol. For one, since all the sources but one agree that the symposium did take place and did have an effect on Alexander’s actions, it is most likely that this version of the story holds some truth. This does not necessarily mean that the story is true, for these sources might have all gotten their information from one common source. However, since the story exists in the first place, and since these three sources all deem it to be true, it probably has some credibility. Furthermore, the only source to disagree, Arrian, is a primary source who is known by scholars to romanticize and be very forgiving of the darker side of Alexander. As O’Brien states “Arrian’s brief treatment of Alexander’s stay in Persepolis may reflect the historian’s own discomfort with what transpired there.”33 However, even Arrian agrees that Alexander did not show “good sense in this action.”34 Another dynamic that points to the burning being a result of a drunken accident are the reactions of Alexander’s troops once the fire had started. Quintus Curtius Rufus tells of how “The army, encamped not far from the city, caught site of the fire and, thinking it accidental, came running in a body to help.”35 If Alexander had been planning to burn the city all along, he would have most likely informed his own men beforehand, in order to keep them out of harms way as well as to help facilitate his plan. O’Brien concurs that “It remains difficult to defend the thesis that Alexander’s actions at Persepolis were premeditated…Known as a meticulous planner, Alexander would have taken the necessary precautions to minimize the chance of injury to himself and others.”36 Additionally, if Alexander were intending to completely destroy the city through means of fire, he would have most likely done so when his troops had ransacked the place one month earlier. If the burning was a deliberate act of revenge, he would have told his troops that they had full liberties of destruction during the sacking. This way, his troops would have been aware of what was going on, and the destruction would have been complete, swift, and absolute, which would have been a more effective way of punishing the Persians.
Despite all the evidence for alcohol being a major factor in the destruction of Persepolis, most Alexander scholars continue to struggle with the disagreement of the sources about what happened at Persepolis. The most effective way to deal with the conflicting stories is to find a middle ground as to what really happened. Perhaps Parmenio did indeed warn Alexander not to destroy Persepolis, but as we have seen before, Alexander often ignored his general’s advice. Furthermore, it is probable that Alexander was already under the influence when Parmenio gave that advice, and for his own reasons Arrian chose to leave the story of the symposium and aftermath out of his own version. As Mary Renault, an Alexander scholar, has concluded “Parmenio’s objections are no doubt historically true. He may have even been reminding Alexander of intentions which he himself had expressed at soberer moments. On the whole, it is not hard to conclude that, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”37 Following the line of Renaults argument, the evidence seems to affirm that the burning of Persepolis was indeed an accident stimulated alcohol, and that Arrian chose to omit this fault of Alexander’s for his own purposes.
Another incident where Alexander showed extreme aggression and destruction when alcohol was being consumed was in the Autumn of 328, only two year after the destruction of Persepolis38 Alexander and his troops were in Maracanda, and the heat and growing animosity between Alexander’s Macedonian troops and his new Persian courtiers spurned short tempers.39 “Maracanda sweltered dustily under a burning sun. Everyone, Alexander included, had begun to drink rather more than was good for them.”40 One night, a celebration was held most likely to honor Alexander’s friend and soldier, Cleitus the Black, a man who had once saved Alexander’ life41, on his appointment as governor of Bactria. Pretty soon “the banquet degenerated into the usual uproarious drinking party.”42 Alexander soon began to boast of his awesome achievements, and “court flatterers excelled themselves in praise of Alexander and the denigration of his father.”43 Cleitus who was already annoyed at Alexander’s growing orientalism, found these remarks, as well as the extreme sycophantism of the Persian flatterers, and the unkind words about Philip, very upsetting. The sources disagree as to what was actually said by whom, but according to Bosworth, this inconsistence is largely due to the fact that “the very nature of things must have been imperfectly recollected by participants after they regained sobriety.”44 Source disagreement over authentic words aside, it is believed that Cleitus defended Philip and remarked that Alexander could not have achieved his greatness without the Macedonian soldiers. By now, tempers on both sides were high, and soon the old guard and the Persian soldiers were engaged in a great debate. It seems that these issues, of orientalism, sycophancy, and the general discomfort of Alexander’s Macedonian troops as they moved farther and farther away from their home, were matters that were on many people’s minds. Bosworth reminds us that “We cannot penetrate beneath the evidence of the sources, that Cleitus had been alienated by the increasing oriental despotism at court…[and] his combativeness fortified by alcohol, he gave expression to the general disquiet.”45 Because Cleitus was drunk, and his temper fired up, he was able to say what others might have feared to speak of in more soberer circumstances.
What happened next was surely the result of rage fueled by too much wine. Quintus Curtius Rufus tells us that by this time “Alexander’s temper was such that even sober he could hardly have controlled it.”46 Both men exchanged more drunken angry words. Alexander, now beyond any sense, looked for his sword, which had wisely been removed by one of his men, and instead threw an apple at Cleitus. The two men were finally separated but unfortunately met up again outside the tent, where Cleitus recited some provoking lines from Euripides’ play Andromache.47 This was the breaking point for Alexander’s anger, and in his drunken and angry state he “seized a spear from one of his guards, faced Cleitus as he was drawing aside the curtain to the doorway, and ran him through.48 Both Arrian and Plutarch defend the actions of Alexander in this incident. Plutarch says that “it was misfortune rather than a deliberate act, and that it was Cleitus’s evil genius which took advantage of Alexander’s anger and intoxication to destroy him.”49 Arrian reiterates that Alexander was “deeply hurt,” by Cleitus’ comments and that he himself “strongly deprecate Cleitus’ unseemly behavior to his sovereign, and for Alexander I feel pity, in that he showed on this occasion the slave of anger and drunkenness.”50 While both sources try to absolve Alexander of his guilt, they both also admit that Alexander’s actions in this situation were greatly influenced by his intoxication. Although both men were angry and drunk, only Alexander turned his rage and intoxication into physical violence.
Type two alcoholics are known for their extremely aggressive and destructive behavior when under the influence. Many researchers, such as R.O. Pihl and David Lemarquand of the psychology department at McGill University, have concluded through extensive study that “The consumption of an intoxicating dose of alcohol increases the likelihood of violent behavior…[and that] the consumption of alcoholic drinks, typically in large quantities, occurs prior to and in close temporal proximity to most forms of violence.”51 In both the burning of Persepolis and the killing of Cleitus, Alexander exhibited extreme levels of violence and destruction when under the influence. Type two alcoholics are known for experiencing a psychological loss of control while drinking, and often are arrested for getting into fights and other violent situations when drunk.52 Alexander’s combination of drinking and aggression could be an indication of his possible type two alcoholism. James Graham writes about the problem with type two alcoholics, how their alcoholism drives them to seek positions of power, and how this power is often abused because of their aggressive nature. He writes, “A young alcoholics thirst for power is never quenched by mere success. The sick need for ego satisfaction that puts them on a life long power trip also causes them to abuse power.”53 Graham asserts that alcoholism can influence a person even before they are actually drinking, that this inherent “disease inflates the ego at an early age and the inflated ego influences the selection of a career.”54 On of the main characteristics of a type two alcoholic is that they exhibit high profile and “novelty seeking personalities.”55 Could this drive for power and success fueled by alcoholism have contributed to Alexander’s unrelenting pothos? Graham believes that Alexander was indeed a type two alcoholic, and this disease drove him to unimaginable conquest. He writes, “Alexander the Great was an alcoholic. The same alcoholism-created egotism that led him to murder trusting subordinates…also drove Alexander to conquer the world.”56 Although Alexander did show clear sign of type two alcoholism, and this disease probably did have an effect on his power drive, it is narrow minded to believe that Alexander was only driven by his alcoholism. The character of Alexander is one of extreme complexity, and to pass off his pothos as a result of only alcoholism would be in bad judgment. There are too many other factors that might have contributed to his love of conquest.57 However, while alcoholism is most likely not the only reason behind his motivation to conquer the world, it might have indeed have had an influence on his thirst for power.
Remorse is an emotional response that has often been associated with alcoholics. While it is true that type one alcoholics often feel guilty about their drinking, this is not the case for most type two’s. In fact, type two alcoholics have a “low frequency of guilt and fear about [their] alcoholism.”58 However, the sources agree that Alexander showed extreme remorse after both the burning of Persepolis and the killing of Cleitus. Quintus Curtius Rufus claims that both Alexander and his men regretted the burning of Persepolis. He tells us “The Macedonians were ashamed that a city of such distinction had been destroyed by their king during a drunken orgy…As for Alexander, it is generally agreed that, when sleep brought him back to his senses after his drunken bout, he regretted his actions.”59 Even Plutarch, who can’t seem to make up his mind about whether the burning of Persepolis was accidental or calculated, does agree, “Alexander quickly repented and gave orders for the fire to be put out.”60 Alexander shows similar signs of remorse almost immediately after he slaughters Cleitus. Arrian asserts, “ When the deed was done, Alexander immediately felt its horror.”61 Arrian also states that some sources claim that Alexander tried to kill himself over his anguish by falling upon his own spear, but whether this antidote holds truth or not, the sources do agree that Alexander retired to his room and “there he spent the rest of the night and the whole of the following day sobbing in agony of remorse.”62
It is obvious Alexander felt immediate and extreme remorse about both incidents. Yet, we know that remorse was a common characteristic of Alexander’s, even when he was not drinking. For instance, when Alexander destroyed Thebes in 335 B.C.,63 it later came back to haunt him as “one of the worst psychological errors of his time,”64 that he regretted as “some of the most painful experiences of in his life.”65 The remorse that Alexander felt about the destruction of Thebes is the same kind of regret Alexander exhibited over the drunken destruction of Persepolis and the killing of Cleitus. Because it seem to be the nature of Alexander to have feelings of repentance over his actions regardless if they involved drinking, and because type two rarely have feelings of remorse about their drinking, his apparent alcoholism probably had little to do with his regretful nature. It seems to be more of aspect of his character in general, than a facet of his alcoholism.
On June 11, 323 B.C. the man who had conquered most of the known world fell ill and died. His death has been much debated by scholars and sources alike. Alexander became ill, and spent the next few days fighting a high fever, which finally killed him a short while later. Plutarch, Arrian, and Diodorus all attribute his death to poisoning. According to them, Aristotle, Alexander’s old tutor prepared the poison, which was then transported to Babylon by Cassander, Antipater’s son. Then Ioulus, another one of Antipiter’s sons, administered the poison to Alexander, which was possibly “stored in an ass’s hoof.”66 This claim, which is recorded in the diaries of Alexander’s last days, was up until recently dismissed as propaganda. Many believe that this account was written by Perdiccas, one of Alexander’s commander’s, as an attempt to indict Antipater, a long time foe of Perdiccas’. However, to some scholars, such as Brian Bosworth, holding Perdiccas accountable for the false accusations of poisoning seems implausible simply because of the fact “Too many of Perdiccas’ close associates are indicted by name as parties to the poisoning,” and “If the document…is the work of Perdiccas' party, it was framed in a remarkably counter-productive fashion.”67 Other men such as the regent Polyperchon have been accused as creator of this supposed piece of fiction. However, controversy surrounds his probability of being the orchestrater of this poisoning account as well.68 Even more so, it is also argued that “There is, likely the story, no substantial evidence which supports the account and to go beyond…the traditional explanation of fever is mere speculation.”69 On the other hand, some scholars have begun to assert that there is sufficient evidence available to support the account of poisoning. Both Antipater and Aristotle70 had animosity for Alexander for various reasons, and both men greatly disapproved of Alexander’s growing orientalism. Recently, R.D. Milns, a biographer of Alexander, has written about the similarities of Alexander’s final illness to strychnine poisoning. This type of poison is easy to get and can be kept for a long period, possibly even in the hoof of a mule. Even more so, it is best disguised in uncut wine, which is how it is believed Ioulus might have administered the poison. Another theory surrounding Alexander’s death is that he died of some disease that he got on his journey. Malaria and pleurisy are two diseases proposed that fit the symptoms he exhibited in his final days.71 It is very possible that Alexander picked up one of these diseases on his journey, and his immune system, weakened by years of physical and mental abuse, could not sufficiently fight it off.
Alexander’s increasing frequent consumption of alcohol has also been contributed to the cause of his death. Although, his apparent alcoholism is rarely thought to be the only cause of his demise, it is often attributed to the breakdown of his mental and physical health. Most of the sources record Alexander participating in numerous drinking parties in the days before he became very ill and perished. ”The king was now as often as drunk as sober.”72 His best friend and alter ego Hephaestion, had died from a fever very similar to the one Alexander was about to experience a short while earlier, and was known to have drank excessively anyway, despite the doctor’ s orders.73 Alexander was heartbroken by the death of his best friend, but Plutarch tells us “he set aside his grief, and allowed himself to indulge in a number of drinking parties.”74 Diodorus tells of how Alexander was called on by one of his friends, Medius, to take part in a drinking party, where “he drank much unmixed wine in commemoration of the death of Heracles, and…filling a huge beaker, downed it at a gulp,” where he “instantly shrieked aloud as if smitten by a violent blow.”75 It appears that Alexander was drinking quite a bit in his final days, and this consumption of alcohol was obviously aggravating his body and having a negative impact on his health. As Peter Green declares “In either case, advanced alcoholism, combined with the terrible wound he sustained in India, had finally lowered even his iron resistance to the point where he could no longer hope to survive.”76 Alexander’s frequent drinking bouts obviously aggravated his condition, and while his alcoholism probably did not kill him itself, the effects it had on his health most definitely hastened his demise.
In order to understand the change in Alexander, from healthy youth who could bend the world to his wishes, to feared and paranoid abusive drunk, one must first understand the internal workings of Alexander’s mind. Alexander had conquered most of the known world, but in turn the world had claimed him as its victim. “For a decade or more his body had been cruelly overloaded, his mind for much longer.” 77 His pothos continued to drive him to relentless feats of conquest that could never be satisfied, for Alexander there was always more to conquer. Alexander would have tried to conquer the world if his men had not refused to go on. Yet, as he advanced farther and farther Eastward, his mental stability began to break down. He began to assert himself as a God, despite apparent misgivings of his companions. While at first he might have made this claim as a political move78, it is clear that as time went on he truly did believe in his divine existence. “Even recent writers report that during the final stage of his career Alexander lost mental balance, believing that he was not a man but a God.”79 However, it is obvious that the refusal of his men to go any further combined with his failure in “India and the Gerosian Desert had [caused] a severe psychological reaction in Alexander. He had discovered the insecurity of power which all his successful scheming could not overcome.”80 It is during this time that Alexander began to drink much more than was healthy. Among other things, this might have been due to the extreme grief and loss he felt over the death of Hephaestion. Hamilton claims that the death of Hephaestion had a huge impact on Alexander and his mental stability. “In 324 B.C. Hephaestion, the only man he fully trusted drank himself to death. Alexander now approached more and more closely to insanity.”81 In general, Alexander had reached his breaking point, and alcohol, which is used by type two alcoholics to create positive feelings,82 might have been a good outlet for his mental unrest. As Green puts it “In any consideration of his later years, the combined effects of unbroken victories, unparalleled wealth, power absolute and unchallenged, continual heavy physical stress and, incipient alcoholism cannot be lightly set aside. Abstemious as a boy, he now regularly drank to excess.”83 Alexander was lost, his loneliness at the top was finally too much for him, and he chose to drink away his pain. As Hamilton states, “The story of Alexander appears to us as an almost embarrassingly perfect illustration of the man who conquered the world, only to lose his soul.” 84 Alexander had indeed lost his soul, and the alcoholic demons that had once plagued his father, had helped carry it away.
Alexander the Great is still to this day one of the most admired and awe inspiring men of all time. In a miraculously short span of time he conquered most of the known world, and would have gone on if he could. However, there is darker, more menacing side of Alexander, a side that until recently scholars have tried to ignore. He was often impulsive, rash, and especially during his later years prone to acts of violence and the use of fear tactics. The weight of the world and his unchallenged authority was finally too much for him, and he was dead by the age of thirty-three. The cause of his demise is debatable, but it is certain that during his final days he was abusing his body further with frequent drinking. If Alexander the Great was actually an alcoholic is something that is impossible to prove, but through evidence of the sources it is clear he exhibited many characteristics of a type two alcoholic. His violence and destructive nature when under the influence, his genetic vulnerability, as well his increasing dependence on alcohol in his final years are all sign that he was the victim of this disease. It is clear through the evidence of the primary sources that Alexander’s apparent alcoholism did have a large impact on his life and decisions.
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