Alexander the Great is one of the greatest names in history. He fascinates historians and inspires leaders. Visionary, modern, magnificent, fearless and courageous, Alexander is often considered a model of military and political strategy. Less talked about, however, is Alexander the Great’s love of banquets, parties and good wine.
Macedonia: no place for water drinkers
First of all, it’s essential to clarify to avoid any confusion: Alexander isn’t Greek, he’s Macedonian. This makes a huge difference, as Macedonians have been mocked by Greeks for centuries because of their accents and customs. It’s not exactly a love story between Greeks and Macedonians. They look very much alike, but the Greeks are prodigiously racist and consider anyone who doesn’t speak Greek to be a barbarian, i.e. they go “ba ba ba”.
However, Macedonians do speak Greek. They worship the same gods, speak the same language and read the same philosophers. One of the greatest Greek authors, Euripides, even found refuge in Macedonia because he didn’t feel sufficiently appreciated at home in Greece.
In the time of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, Macedonia had a great admiration for Greece. The children of the aristocracy were educated in Greek, and Greek was used at important meetings.
It’s important to mention one crucial point: Dionysus. This god is often depicted with laurel wreaths and resembles Jesus. Dionysus is the god of folly, fertility, earth and just about anything else that makes you blush. He’s also the god of wine. The Greeks, like the Macedonians, had this strange idea that when you drink wine, you become Dionysus. In other words, when you drink wine, you become divine. Dionysus was therefore the official sponsor of feasts, festivals and banquets. In Macedonia, banquets were taken very seriously. Drinking in honor of Dionysus took place everywhere and in every situation.
For the Greeks, wine is not just a drink, it’s an identity. It was synonymous with civility, common sense and virility. Drinking wine without showing that you’re drunk represents the pinnacle of masculine identity. Those who can drink a lot without appearing drunk are respected. Even one of history’s most famous philosophers, Socrates, was renowned for his ability to drink all night.
For the Greeks, wine wasn’t just a drink, it was an identity. It was synonymous with civility, common sense and virility. Drinking wine without showing that you’re drunk represents the pinnacle of masculine identity. Those who can drink a lot without appearing drunk are respected. Even one of history’s most famous philosophers, Socrates, was renowned for his ability to drink all night.
Oaths were also taken on alcohol. Those who abstained from alcohol were ridiculed, marginalized and not trusted. They were called “water drinkers”.
Philip the Second: fighter, diplomat, and hardcore drinker
But where does Macedonia fit in the picture? Macedonia is a small country, weak and surrounded by enemies, fragmented and fragmented. To understand this, you need to know that Macedonia has enormous strategic advantages: vast fertile plains, plenty of woodland and mineral deposits. Just to the south, Greece is predominantly mountainous, with almost no forests and very little ore. Everyone around Macedonia is trying to grab its riches. As Macedonia is made up of small rival kingdoms, it’s almost always war, just like in Greece.
Alexander’s father, Philip II, inherited the crown when his brother died at the age of twenty, a difficult period. However, the young king quickly succeeded in creating a veritable empire thanks to his dazzling successes.
Firstly, Philippe changed the game by creating a professional army. One of his greatest achievements was the creation of a loyal, professional army. Philip is brilliant. He understands that Macedonia cannot afford to have professional soldiers armed to the teeth. So he recruited peasants and farmers and gave them a huge spear, called a sarissa, about 5 meters long.
These soldiers form compact formations and advance towards the enemy. They are like tanks. No one can stop them. Even if the first spear is broken, there are four more ready to impale you in a whirlwind of screams and external bleeding.
Secondly, Philippe is fully committed to diplomacy. Through embassies, banquets and hostage-taking, he succeeded in gathering many of the most important personalities of the time under his tent, which considerably strengthened his legitimacy in the eyes of the Macedonians and Greeks.
Thirdly, Philip II used the diplomacy of marriage. Philip married at least seven wives, which should come as no surprise, since polygamy was commonplace in his family. The goal is to create alliances with distant regions, former enemies and potential sponsors for his wars.
Banquet diplomacy…and court jealousies
One of these women was Olympias. It seems that Philip II sincerely loved Olympias, but things turned sour when he started getting involved with other women. By the time Alexander was born, their relationship was poisoned. They hated each other deeply and Olympias began to fear for her life. As a foreigner, she is not appreciated by the Macedonians. She is believed to have magical powers.
She belongs to a secret society as a praetress of Orpheus, a cult of Dionysus. Olympia also charms snakes and often walks around with one or two garlanded snakes around her. She even sleeps with snakes in her royal bed. The situation deteriorates for Philippe, who has a phobia of snakes. One day, on entering the room, he sees Olympias with a snake in her bed, which literally makes him lose his head.
However, it’s essential to note that Olympias is a powerful, intelligent and well-connected woman. Her most valuable asset is her son, Alexander.
Alexander’s father is a functional alcoholic with hundreds of enemies who want him dead. Philip 2 is an absent mother who is at best indifferent, and at worst extremely stern. His mother, Olympias, is paranoid, sees plots against her everywhere and tries to turn Alexander against his father. She tells him that he is the son of Jupiter, the most important god. From childhood, Alexander’s ambitions for greatness are immense, his parents’ expectations impossible to fulfill, and he finds himself caught between two parents who despise each other.
Hammered by dreams of greatness
Professor John Maxwell O’Brien of Queen’s College, City University, New York, concluded that Alexander frequently turned to the bottle to dilute his feelings of inferiority and anxiety. This is the only historian I’ve found who refers to Alexander as an alcoholic: classical authors tend to want to defend Alexander the Great by saying that there is no definitive proof. On the other hand, you have to give Caesar what he deserves. In Macedonia, everyone drank wine, especially at banquets in the capital, Pella.
After hunting and training, the banquet is a veritable institution. It’s not a 5 à 7 like we poor moderns. A proper banquet can last three days. It’s an eloquence contest, an important morale-boosting party, a kind of carnival where people say things they wouldn’t otherwise say, AND it’s also a drinking party. Being drunk is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. In fact, in the eyes of this macho bunch, the problem isn’t so much being drunk as looking drunk.
Drinking is a matter of honor. The Greeks, who think they’re better than everyone else, often mock the Macedonians for drinking their wine undiluted. They regard them as Barbarians. And according to Alexander’s biographers, it seems that Macedonians do indeed often drink their wine without mixing it with water.
And that can be a problem. Classics professor Carl A.P. Ruck in the U.S. believes that the Greeks put powerful hallucinogenic drugs in their wine, including belladonna, henbane, datura and mandrake. Keep this in mind, as it may explain the celebrations we’re about to talk about…
A potentially momentous event occurs when Philip marries a general by the name of Attalus. On the wedding night, Philip 2 holds a banquet. Olympias is furious, but Philip 2 doesn’t care because he’s the boss. So they throw a banquet and drink like pigs.
We make endless toasts. Alexander also toasts and has a few glasses up his nose. Suddenly, General Attalus takes the floor, makes a great speech and says: “At last, Macedonia is going to have a real Macedonian prince born of a real Macedonian woman.” Alexander stands up, throws his glass at Attalus’ head and says, “Are you insinuating that I’m a bastard?”
Everyone starts insulting each other and a fight is narrowly avoided. But Philip 2 isn’t happy. He pulls himself up on a couch and asks his son to mind his own business. The war between father and son begins. Alexander is almost exiled. Philip 2 never wants to see his son again. Discreet negotiations for the prince’s return take place immediately, but from then on, the relationship between father and son is icy.
During another drunken evening, Philip is assassinated. Alexander is proclaimed king and finally turns his attention to the most formidable enemy of the age, Darius, king of the Persians. Alexander has been dreaming of glory since he was a boy, and now he’s at the head of a 50,000-strong army to attack the largest empire of the age: Persia.
Who’s idea was it to burn down Persepolis?
After three dazzling assaults against Persian troops, Alexander the Great finally entered the Persian capital: Persepolis. It’s an incredibly rich city in the middle of the desert, built solely to house the king of kings. It’s grandiose, magnificent and glorious. Alexander’s entrance is triumphal, and as a bonus, he discovers the most gigantic treasure of the time in the city, equivalent to around one hundred tons of pure silver, or 120,000 silver talents, a kind of ingot weighing 28 kilos of pure silver.
But that’s Alexander’s point of view. From the population’s point of view, things aren’t going so well… After having prevented his troops from pillaging the fortified cities of Gaza and Tyre, Alexander this time granted them the right to plunder without restriction for a whole day. For the population, it’s total horror: looting, gang rapes, gratuitous murders. Not a good day for Persepolis.
Like his father Philip, Alexander liked to organize sumptuous banquets during military campaigns. So the amphorae of wine are brought out and the party begins. At one point, one of the Greek courtesans following the army starts to get excited and talks about burning Persepolis. The Persians had burned Athens, Greece’s most important city, so she says, “Wouldn’t it be nice to avenge Athens by burning Persepolis?” According to Plutarch, Alexander replied, “OK, let’s do it”, and descended on the streets of Persepolis, setting everything on fire.
However, there’s a small caveat. Serious historians, unlike myself, believe that the destruction of Persepolis was premeditated. Alexander saw the city as the ultimate symbol of Greece’s enemy, and as a vengeful Greek hero, he would have wanted to destroy the capital to show once and for all that Persia was finished.
What everyone agrees on is that Alexander and his army couldn’t care less about Persepolis. The city is in the middle of the desert, it’s useless and they don’t know what to do with it. There’s already an economic capital in Persia, Babylon, and they’ve already got it. So setting fire to Persepolis is no great loss.
The bulk of the fighting is over. Persia is defeated, the camps are tired. The soldiers want to go home. There’s grumbling in the Macedonian tent. And it’s not just because of the length of the campaign. It’s that Alexander has changed. He took foreign wives, he sympathized with the Persians and, above all, he adopted local habits.
Let me quote Adrian Goldsworthy: “Many Macedonian aristocrats were very uncomfortable with the way Alexander adopted the Asiatic dress, harem, eunuchs and ceremonial of the Persian court. They resented him for appointing former enemies to important and honorary positions.”
Alexander the Great’s transformation can be likened to that of Walter White in Breaking Bad. The young man once beloved by his peers becomes increasingly tyrannical, intoxicated by success and intoxicated by fame.
As Alexander sinks deeper and deeper into vast Asia (insert quotation marks), he sinks deeper and deeper into paranoia. There are more and more quarrels with his comrades, and it seems that his drinking becomes more and more excessive. O’Brien says that in the last years of his life, Alexandre becomes increasingly paranoid and unpredictable. Alexander already had an excessive and impatient temperament.
This is when Alexander starts becoming megalomaniacal, nasty and unpredictable. Let me quote Adrian Goldsworthy: “Whenever he had the opportunity, Alexander organized one of those drunken banquets he and his father were so fond of, as was the case with the Macedonian aristocracy in general. However, occasions arose much more frequently during the lulls between campaigns, accentuating the difference between these rare intervals and the normality of marching, fighting and killing.”
A Fatal Drunken Fight
An evening of drinking ended tragically when Alexander shot through and through one of his generals, Cleitos. Cleitos was one of Alexander’s closest and most loyal officers, often referred to as Cleitos the Black because of his dark skin.
The incident took place at a banquet in Samarkand, Sogdiana (now Uzbekistan). Alexander and his generals were celebrating their recent victories in the region. The atmosphere was festive and the alcohol flowed freely. Over the course of the evening, the men began to discuss Alexander’s achievements and the importance of his command.
As the conversation progressed, Cleitos criticized some of Alexander’s decisions, notably his tendency to adopt Persian customs, which had been frowned upon by some Macedonians.
The discussion quickly degenerated into a violent argument. Cleitos accused Alexander of favoring the Persians at the expense of his fellow Macedonians. In return, Alexander, intoxicated and irritated by the criticism, allegedly threw a javelin at Cleitos. The javelin mortally wounded him, killing him instantly.
Selon différentes sources historiques, Alexandre a immédiatement regretté son geste et aurait été profondément attristé par la mort de son ami proche. Il aurait été inconsolable après cet acte impulsif et aurait regretté sa décision pendant le reste de sa vie. Certains récits suggèrent même qu’Alexandre aurait voulu se suicider à la suite de cet incident, mais ses hommes l’en ont empêché.
The worst party in History
However, the most shocking story is that of the funeral of his friend Calanus, an Indian sage who had accompanied the army for two years. On his death, Alexander the Great organized a contest “to determine who could drink the greatest quantity of unmixed wine”. According to Chares of Mytilene, 35 people died before midnight, and a further six from various complications in the days that followed.
The winner himself did not survive more than four days after the event. Promachos, who drank an impressive 13 liters of wine, received the prize. The wine was Macedonian, which means it was a strong spirit. For his efforts, Promachos received the prize, only to die three days later, also of alcohol poisoning. This means that perhaps all the competitors in the drinking festival at Calanus’ funeral are dead.
How did Alexander the Great Die?
One evening in June, after drinking an entire amphora of pure wine, the so-called “chalice of Heracles” (over 5 liters of pure wine), Alexander suffered severe back pain. A sharp pain, as if a spear had pierced him, followed by nausea. Soon afterwards, feeling better, he started drinking again. After a day of enforced rest and a cold-water bath to help cope with the fever that had taken hold of him in the meantime, Alexander attended a symposium at the Mediacs and got drunk in an attempt to quench his infernal thirst.
In the days that followed, with his temperature rising, he attempted to perform his royal duties, but on the 24th of the month of Desio (in the Macedonian calendar, this corresponds roughly to June 9), his condition worsened and he was bedridden. The following day, he first lost the ability to speak, then his consciousness, until the 28th of Desio, and finally died in the evening.
Alexander the Great’s death triggered typical reactions to the loss of a celebrity. People wept and shaved their heads, while the most devoted admirers starved themselves to death, at least according to the sources that have come down to us, all of which are likely to exaggerate the event for political reasons.
Alexander, a brilliant general, a wise leader and at times magnanimous towards his subjects and enemies alike, was a superstar of the Ancient World. However, his swift and tumultuous life was overshadowed by self-destruction, a sad reality shared by many celebrities throughout history. The world thus said farewell to Alexander the Great, an icon of antiquity marked by his self-destructive nature.
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