Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC)
For all of his many achievements, Alexander was never famed for his moderation. After capturing the city of Tyre in 332 BC, he was ruthless with its inhabitants, crucifying 3,000 of them on the beach as a macabre reminder of what happened to those who opposed him and selling another 300,000 into slavery. But it wasn’t just militarily he went to the extremes. Like his father Philip, Alexander was thoroughly Macedonian in his approach to drinking. And while anecdotes about his alcoholic indulgences are plenty, there are two moments that stand out about all others.
The first was his burning of the recently captured city of Persepolis in 330 BC. Some suggest he did so out of revenge for the Persian’s burning of the Athenian Acropolis over a century before; others that it was strategic, denying the enemy a stronghold in which to reconsolidate. But most ancient authors agree that Alexander was stinking drunk, and that his order to have the once great city burnt to the ground was impulsive and—to history—regrettable.
The second event that saw the inebriated Alexander lose complete control with himself came in 328 BC Marakanda (modern day Samarkand in Uzbekistan). Alexander had just assigned his friend and companion Cleitus the Black to take charge of Bactria. But Cleitus was deeply unhappy; to his mind he was being excluded from the king’s circle and sent to rule over a barbarian backwater. During a banquet Cleitus taunted Alexander, saying he wasn’t the legitimate king of the Macedonians and that he rode on his father’s success.
Furious, the drunk Alexander threw an apple at Cleitus’s head, escalating the argument until both men had to be restrained. Exactly what happened next is rather murky, but Alexander managed to break free, grab a javelin and throw it through Cleitus’s heart, killing him instantly. For days, Alexander grieved the death of Cleitus. In all likelihood, he also grieved this shocking display of kingship in front of his men.
Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC aged just 33. Various causes have been attributed to his death: malaria, typhus, even poison. But one theory, seized upon by later Roman writers like Cicero and Seneca, was that Alexander died from alcohol poisoning or sclerosis of the liver. We’ll never know of course. But knowing the kind of life he led, there’s no reason to rule it out.