16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World

Khalid Elhassan - October 3, 2018

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Chrysippus. Vintage News

12. Hellenistic Philosopher Laughed Himself to Death

Chrysippus (circa 279 – circa 206 BC), one of the most influential intellectuals of the Hellenistic era, might disagree with the adage “Laughter is the best medicine“, seeing as how laughter killed him. Chrysippus greatly influenced Stoicism, and later Stoic philosophers credited him with laying much of the groundwork upon which they built. He also did much to shape his era’s intellectual landscape by offering alternatives to the theories of Plato and Aristotle. Despite all that, he is probably best known as the philosopher who laughed himself to death.

Chrysippus was born in Soli, near today’s Mersin, Turkey, and was an athlete in his youth, dedicated to long distance running before he turned to philosophy. He moved to Athens, where he studied Stoicism under Cleanthes, head of the Stoic School, and became the school’s most gifted student. When Cleanthes died, Chrysippus succeeded him as head of the establishment.

He was a prolific writer who wrote over 700 books, and although no full treatise remains, fragments of about 475 of his works have survived. They include summaries and critical evaluations of the Hellenistic schools, and it is mostly from those sources that scholars have assembled the materials for a coherent picture of Stoic philosophy and philosophers.

However, Chrysippus was not just about egghead pursuits: he liked to party, and partied hard, well into old age. When he was around 73 years old, he got drunk at a party on undiluted wine (Greeks of the era mixed wine with water), then saw a donkey eating a fig. In his inebriated state, the sight struck him as hilarious, and he went into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, crying out “now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs“, until he fell over dead.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Copy of a third century BC statue depicting ancient Greek pankratists. Wikimedia

13. Arrichion Became Olympics Champion Despite Being Dead

The ancient Greek martial art of Pankration is seen as the forerunner of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It combined wrestling and boxing, and allowed almost everything, except biting and gouging, or going after the genitals. Arrichion of Phigalia had won the pankration championships in the 572 BC and 568 BC Olympics, and sought a threepeat in the 564 BC Olympiad.

He advanced through the early rounds, and worked his way until he reached the title fight. There, with age perhaps catching up with him and slowing him down, Arrichion got into trouble. His opponent outmaneuvered him, managed to get behind him, and with legs locked around the reigning champ’s torso and his heels digging into his groin, applied a chokehold.

Arrichion pretended to black out, tricking his opponent into relaxing a little. The wily title holder then snapped back into action, and snapped his opponent’s ankle while shaking and throwing him off with a convulsive heave. The sudden and excruciating pain induced Arrichion’s opponent into the Ancient Greek equivalent of tapping out, and he signaled his submission to the judges.

Unfortunately, by throwing off an opponent who still had him in a powerful chokehold, Arrichion ended up with a broken neck. However, since his opponent had conceded, the dead Arrichion was declared victor – perhaps the only time in Olympics history that a corpse was crowned a champion. He went the athletic ideal of “victory or death” one better, by gaining victory and death.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
‘Zeuxis Choosing His Models’, by Victor Mottez, 1858. Pintrest

14. Great Greek Artist Dies of Laughter

In his day, the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis (flourished 5th century BC) of Heraclea in Magna Graecia, was deemed by his fellow Greek contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived. His paintings were in high demand, and he was widely praised for popularizing a trend toward illusionism and raising it to new heights.

An innovative talent who broke with tradition, Zeuxis departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color, and relied instead upon a creative manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works. He preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and he usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure.

Historical records describe his paintings as extremely lifelike. In his Natural History, Roman writer Pliny the Elder tells of a competition between Zeuxis and a rival painter named Parhassius, to see who could create the most realistic painting. When Zeuxis unveiled his entry, the grapes that he painted were so life-like, that birds flew down to peck at them.

Nonetheless, Zeuxis was trumped that day when his rival invited him to examine the competing painting. When Zeuxis tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, he discovered that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that he had lost, stating: “I have deceived the birds, but Parhassius has deceived Zeuxis“. Centuries later, that rivalry over realism between Zeuxis and Parhassius was viewed by Renaissance painters as a challenge in their quest to surpass the ancients.

Zeuxis’ death came about when a wealthy patroness, an elderly widow, hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting made in her own likeness, and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman posing as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, that did not cease until he keeled over, dead.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Death of Aeschylus. Made Man

15. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Dramatist Tries to Escape His Fate… But Fails

Ancient Athens’ Aeschylus (525 – 455 BC) was a farm laborer, until he had a vision in which the god Dionysius ordered him to write plays. He did, and ended up becoming Ancient Greece’s greatest playwright, penning over 90 plays during a long and productive career. Most of Aeschylus’ plays won prizes in Athens’ great drama festivals, and many of them are still performed around the world to this day. He is credited with founding serious drama, and is frequently referred to as the “The Father of Tragedy”.

Aeschylus practically invented acting. Until he came along, theater consisted of a narrator telling a story, interrupted at intervals with a chorus performing a song and dance. Not satisfied to simply let a narrator recount his plays, Aeschylus used actors to play out the story with distinct roles and an exchange of dialogue. He also raised production values with extravagant costumes and striking imagery, and came up with innovations such as a wheeled platform to change stage scenery. Aeschylus also used a crane to lift actors in scenes involving flight or descent from the heavens.

His main themes were conflicts between men and the gods, between the individual and the state, and the inevitability of divine retribution for misdeeds. In Ancient Athens, playwrights submitted three tragedies for competitions at drama festivals, and Aeschylus became the first to link his three plays into a single trilogy. His trilogies usually followed a family over several generations, such as the Oresteia, about king Agamemnon during the Trojan War, and his descendents in its aftermath.

Aeschylus was also a citizen-soldier, and he fought in the Battle of Marathon, in which his brother was killed, as well as in the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis. His wartime experiences found expression in his play, The Persians. For all his accomplishments, Aeschylus’ self penned epitaph did not mention his success as a playwright. Instead, it contained what he most wanted to be remembered for and what he had been proudest of in life: that he had fought in the Battle of Marathon.

His dramatic life came to a dramatic end in 455 BC, while visiting Gela, in Sicily. Aeschylus received a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object, so he left the city and stayed outdoors to avoid that fate. A common theme in Greek drama is the futility of trying to avoid one’s fate, and Aeschylus’ attempt to avoid his prophesized destiny proved futile as he sat in a field outside Gela. An eagle, flying with a tortoise in its talons and looking for something with which to break the shell, mistook his baldheaded dome for a rock, and dropped the tortoise on his shiny head, killing him instantly.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
‘The Sacrifice of Iphigenia’, by Carle van Loo. Greek Legends and Myths

16. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Seer Laughs Too Soon at a Rival’s Failure

Calchas, in ancient Greek mythology, was a seer who had been blessed with the gift of foretelling the future from the flights of birds. He could else soothsay by interpreting the entrails of enemies during battle. He accompanied the Greeks when they invaded Troy, and Homer extolled his skills in the Iliad, stating that: “as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp“.

Before the Greeks could get to Troy, their assembled army was stuck on a beach, prevented from sailing by contrary winds. Calchas prophesied that the winds had been sent by the god Artemis, who had been offended by Agamemnon, the Greek high king and army leader. The only way to appease Artemis, Calchas advised, was for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. It was done, the winds shifted, and the Greeks were finally able to sail.

When the Greek armies were struck with a devastating plague during the Trojan War, they sought Calchas’ advise. He divined that it had been sent by the god Apollo, who had been angered by Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo, and his refusal to allow her father to ransom her. Agamemnon was forced to send Chryseis back to her father, but then compensated himself by seizing from Achilles a princess whom the Greek hero had captured as a war prize. That triggered a feud between king and hero that drove much of the Iliad.

The soothsayer also lent his support to Odysseus’ Trojan Horse stratagem, predicting that it would succeed in infiltrating the besieged city. Centuries later, the Romans incorporated Calchas in their national origin story, and ascribed to him a prophecy that the Trojan prince Aeneas would survive the city’s fall, and go on to lay the foundations of Rome.

Calchas reportedly ended his days by laughing himself to death at what he believed to be a rival soothsayer’s incorrect prediction. Calchas had planted some grape vines, but the rival prophesied that Calchas would never drink wine produced from those grapes. The grapes ripened, however, and were made into wine. Calchas then invited his rival to the first tasting, and lifting a cup of wine made from the grapes in question, he started laughing at the failed prophecy. He ended up laughing so hard that he choked to death.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Philip II of Macedon

Ancient Origins – The Brutal Draconian Laws of Ancient Greece

Ancient Origins – Thucydides: General, Historian, and the Father of Scientific History

Bleacher Report, April 11th, 2011 – MMA History: How Pankration Champ Arrichion Won Olympic Crown After His Death

Chrystal, Paul – In Bed With the Ancient Greeks (2016)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Milo of Croton

Encyclopedia Britannica – Pyrrhus, King of Epirus

Greek Mythology – Calchas

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Empedocles

Listverse – 10 Incredibly Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece

Livius – Miltiades

Brown University – Zeuxis and Parrhasisus

Perseus Encyclopedia – Thucydides

Quirkality – The Curious Death of Chrysippus of Soli

Ranker – The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World

Wikipedia – Aeschylus

Wikipedia – Heraclitus

Wikipedia – Philitas of Cos