Alexander the Great is without a doubt one of the greatest conquerors in history. His empire spread from the Danube river north of the Balkans to Egypt in the south and modern day Pakistan in the east. But he was also known as an excessive drinker. Multiple studies describe his alcohol use and some of them claim Alexander III was an alcoholic. It has also been suggested that alcohol may have played a role in his early death at age 32. Although the counter argument has always been that this rumors were spread by his enemies to cover up the fact that Alexander was actually poisoned. Fact is that on his sick bed he still refused to drink water and stuck to wine. And all through his short life he made a death by alcohol seem pretty plausible for most people.
Let’s start with a short summary of how this conqueror got his nickname The Great. The legend of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) was born as the son of king Philip II in the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, He succeeded his father at age 20. From then on he started an incredible military campaign. After defeating all tribes (amongst whom the Thracians) between him and the Danube river he expanded his empire towards the South and East. With every new tribe he defeated his army of mercenaries kept growing since former enemies were gladly accepted as allies. With the mighty Persian Empire as his main rival in the East he first conquored Minor Asia (modern day Turkey). Soon Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) would follow. But even after conquoring Persia itself his hunger for adventure and battle wasn’t stilled. He wanted to take India too, but his men who literally got sick and tired of traveling convinced him to go back. At age 32 he died in Babylon, the new capital of one of the biggest empires in the history of men.
The real cause of Alexander’s death is still a mystery. Fact is that he was sick and spent several days (one story says 11, another 14) in bed before dying. In both stories the complains started after drinking a lot of wine. As natural causes malaria, typhoid and even leukemia have been suggested for his death. And then of course there were a lot of conspiracy theories that Alexander the Great was poisoned, which was a pretty common thing in those days. Another fact is that even when Alexander was quite ill he refused to trade in his wine for water, which according to some made matters worse.
History professor John Maxwell O’Brien at the Queens College, City University in New York wrote a book in 1992 called Alexander the Great: The Invisable Enemy. In there he explains Alexander’s behavior according to modern theories on alcoholism. For instance that his parents drove him towards the bottle. His father was a rather unpleasant man, who never gave his son the aproval he was desperately searching for. While his dominant mother pushed and pressured her son to still her own lust for power. O’Brien claimed alcohol may have given Alexander peace of mind. In the last years of his life the emperor was showing classic signs of an alcoholic according to O’Brien: “Alexander became increasingly unpredictable, megalomanical and paranoid. He was driven to extremes of behaviour, followed by intense remorse.” The best example is when Alexander killed one of his best friends Cleitus in a drunken rage and then cried for 3 days.
Another study by the Greek professors Liappas, Lascaratos, Fafouti and Christodoulou that examined Alexander’s relationship with alcohol concludes the following: “Alexander consumed large quantities of undiluted wine periodically, reaching pathological intoxication. However, the existing data do not provide convincing evidence that Alexander the Great manifested abuse of or dependence on alcohol according to DSM-IV or ICD-10 criteria and it seems unlikely that alcohol was involved in his untimely death.” In reaction to O’Brien’s theory Dr. Simon Hornblower of All Souls College in Oxford also says there is not enough medical evidence Alexander was an alcoholic. “He may just have drunk through boredom.”
Alcoholic or not, Alexander was for sure a workaholic. In ancient times he built himself an enormous empire in just ten years time. And all of this while he drank a lot more than most (boring) world leaders in modern times. Let this be a lesson for them.