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
Eleazar Maccabeus. Wikimedia

9. Eleazar Maccabeus Had an Elephant Fall on Top of Him

Eleazar Maccabeus (died 162 BC) was the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, leader of the 167 – 160 BC Maccabean Revolt against the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. The revolt stemmed from a ban on Jewish religious practices by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who ordered Jews to worship Zeus instead. The rebellion began when Eleazar’s and Judas’ father killed a Hellenized Jew who sacrificed to Greek idols, then fled into the wilderness with his five sons and launched a guerrilla campaign. Judah took over the revolt after the father died, and in 164 BC, he entered Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship at its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukah.

Eleazar’s bizarre death came at the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC, two years after his older brother Judas had captured Jerusalem. The conquest was incomplete, however, as a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress inside the city. Judas besieged the fortress, but a Seleucid army of about 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. Judas lifted the siege and marched out at the head of 20,000 men to meet the Seleucids.

Judas formed his men to meet the enemy in formal battle, abandoning the guerrilla tactics that had won him victories and served him well until then. It was a mistake, as Judas’ forces proved no match for the Seleucid heavy infantry phalanx, professional cavalry, and armored war elephants. The latter in particular unnerved the Jewish defenders, who began to panic and break in fear of the pachyderms.

Eleazar sought to encourage his comrades by demonstrating the elephants’ vulnerability. So he charged at the biggest elephant, got beneath it, and thrust his spear into its unarmored belly. He killed the beast, but did not get to savor his success for long: the dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar, and crushed him to death. His comrades did not rush in to emulate him, and the demonstration did not keep the Jewish army from breaking apart and fleeing soon thereafter.

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

10. Miltiades Saved Athens But Got No Love From the Athenians

Ancient Athens’ Miltiades (550 – 489 BC) was a general best known for his victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC – an upset victory against a numerically superior force, which saved Athens from Persian conquest. He was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, which owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula), and which Miltiades inherited in 516 BC. When Persia’s king Darius I invaded the Chersonese in 513 BC, Miltiades submitted and became a Persian vassal.

In 499 BC, the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule. Miltiades marched against the rebels, but secretly supported their cause and helped funnel them aid from Athens. Athens sent an expeditionary force which joined the rebels in marching to the Persian governor’s seat in Sardis, putting it to the torch. The Persians eventually crushed the revolt in 495 BC, and discovered Miltiades’ betrayal. He fled to Athens, where he was elected one of its ten generals.

The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians, and sent a punitive expedition that landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC. The Athenians marched out with a force of about 10,000 hoplites – heavily armored infantry – with no cavalry or archers. They faced a Persian force of at least 25,000 infantry, plus thousands of archers and 1000 cavalry.

The Athenians, who had ten generals and a rotating command system, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights overlooking Marathon, until Miltiades’ turn to take command. He convinced a closely divided war council to give battle. Descending from the heights, Miltiades assembled the army with reinforced flanks and a weakened center, and advanced. Once they got within Persian archery range, he ordered his men to charge at a full run.

They rapidly closed the distance, and smashed into the lightly armed Persians. The Athenians’ reinforced flanks pushed back their opposition, then wheeled inwards to attack the Persian center, which panicked, broke, and fled in a rout to the safety of their beached ships. It was a stunning victory, with the Athenians and their allies losing about 200 dead to the Persians’ 6400.

Miltiades returned to Athens in glory, but it would not last. A year later, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but it turned into a fiasco, in which he also sustained a severe leg wound. Miltiades’ failure seemed so absurd to his fellow citizens, that they figured it could only be explained by deliberate treachery. So the Athenians, whom he had so recently saved, tried him for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. While locked up, pending payment of the fine, he died in prison when his leg wound became infected.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Philip II of Macedon. The Famous People

11. Philip II Led a Glorious Life, Only to Die a Sordid Death

Greeks viewed Macedon as a barely civilized kingdom that spoke a barely intelligible Greek dialect. The kingdom had a lot of potential, both in manpower and resources that far exceeded those of any Greek city state, but had yet to realize that potential. It was realized when 23 year old Philip II (382 – 336 BC) ascended the throne of Macedon in 359 BC. Within two decades, he would change the face of Greece.

Philip unified Macedon’s fractious tribes, and transformed them into the world’s most respected and feared military machine. Greek city states relied on citizen armies of de facto reservists, but Philip made soldiering a full time professional occupation. That enabled him to drill his men regularly, ensuring discipline and unit cohesion. He built upon newly emergent deep phalanx innovations, and improved upon them by arming his men with a long spear, the sarissa, whose reach greatly exceeded that of neighboring Greeks. Philip also increased mobility by reducing his men’s armor, and furnishing them with smaller and lighter shields. That gave them a marching speed that few other armies could equal.

He also made Macedon’s cavalry the world’s best, by recruiting the sons of the nobility into what came to be known as the Companion Cavalry. He gave them long lances that afforded them greater reach than their opponents, and trained them in shock tactics. To break enemy lines, Philip taught the Companion Cavalry to ride in wedge formations that were well suited to penetrate enemy lines, in addition to being highly maneuverable.

Philip also created a corps of engineers to design and build new instruments of war. He further revolutionized warfare by perfecting the coordination of different types of troops in a battlefield synergy that enabled them to support each other – the birth of combined arms tactics. Heavy infantry, light infantry skirmishers, archers, slingers, cavalry, and engineers, all worked together, their mutual support making their collective whole greater than the sum of their individual parts. His signature combined arms tactic came to be known as the “hammer and anvil”, with the phalanx acting as an anvil by fixing a foe in place, while the cavalry acted as a hammer by closing in with shock tactics to shatter the opponent.

His military machine was unstoppable, and by 338 BC, Philip had mastered Greece. He then began preparations for his life’s ambition: invading the Persian Empire. However, just before setting out to conquer Persia, Philip’s ambitions, and life, were cut short by a sordid court dispute. One of his bodyguards quarreled with one of Philip’s in-laws, and it ended with the in-law getting the bodyguard drunk, and having his attendants gang rape him. When the bodyguard turned to Philip for justice, the king failed to offer him redress, so the bodyguard assassinated Philip during the king’s wedding to a new bride. It would be his son, Alexander the Great, who would use Philip’s military machine and tactics to become the Ancient World’s greatest conqueror.

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