Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World

Alexander Meddings - September 8, 2017

Overindulgence is nothing new. Since the practice of wine making first made its appearance in Greece in around 2,000 BC, the consumption (and overconsumption) of alcohol across the Mediterranean and, by means of trade, beyond has been rife. Because booze formed such an integral part of ancient life, we shouldn’t be surprised that we have lots of information about it: both biographical, relating to the consumptive habits of individuals, and moralizing, relating to how people should behave while drinking, and how much is too much.

In the fifth century BC, the Greek Philosopher Zeno made the distinction between a drinker—that is someone who likes to get drunk—and a drunkard—someone who is a slave to their need to drink. The Romans, conservative as they were, preached moderation. They viewed heavy drinking negatively and in connection to a person’s other vices; not only did it count among them but, when under the influence, it also exacerbated them.

Of course, recognizing the difference between drinkers and drunkards is as much of a fine line today as it was two millennia ago, and for this reason, we should be careful in trying to diagnose figures from antiquity as alcoholics. This list, however, deals with eight figures who, judging by the herculean standards of their excess, stumble into the second category.

Alcibiades (c. 450 – 404 BC)

One of the Peloponnesian War’s main protagonists, Alcibiades was also one of the most controversial figures of his time for his weakness for excess and ever-changing loyalties. An Athenian orator and politician, he came to prominence during the Peloponnesian War as the city’s general. When his allies brought charges of sacrilege against him, however, he switched allegiance to Athens’s enemy, Sparta, serving them as a strategist. There too he made enemies, and ended up defecting to the worst enemy of all, Persia until his allies in Athens recalled from exile.

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World
Bust of Alcibiades in Rome’s Capitoline Museums. The Scholar’s Lounge

His caprice would ultimately cost him his life. It’s not clear who ultimately ordered his assassination but we do know that his house was surrounded by armed men and that Alcibiades was killed in the struggle. But it arguably wasn’t just his fleeting loyalties that cost him his life; there’s evidence that in terms of his temperament and weakness for wine, Alcibiades was more than capable of alienating people.

One such anecdote comes from Plato’s “Symposia”, a philosophical text about a group of prominent Athenians, including Socrates and Aristophanes, discussing the idea of love. Towards the end of the text, Plato describes how Alcibiades turned up towards the end of the symposium. His entrance is anything but understated. Initially heard shouting from the street outside, he staggers in supported by a flute girl and several of his attendants, demanding to know the whereabouts of Agathon, one of the most handsome men in Athens.

Fresh from a party, wearing a wreath of violet and ivy and with ribbons flowing from his hair, he addresses the shocked guests, asking if they will admit someone already pretty far gone from drinking at their party. They accept, and he’s shown to his place between Agathon and Socrates. Immediately he begins by praising Agathon’s good looks and how Socrates has lost none of his wiliness in sitting himself next to him.

There’s more than a hint of jealousy; in the speech Alcibiades then gives (which, in line with the topic of the symposium is supposed to be about love) he talks mainly about his failed attempts to become Socrates’s lover. He commends the great philosopher’s ability to charm men into submission with his words. But he also praises him in militaristic terms as a great warrior, impervious to hardships, who once saved his life during battle. Finally, he warns Agathon that he should be wary, and that many good-looking young men have tried—and failed—to win the great Socrates over. It might not be the most measured speech that Alcibades gives, but you know what they say: in vino veritas.

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World
Bust of Alexander the Great. Famous People

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.

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World
Bust of Mark Antony.

Mark Antony (83 – 30 BC)

Few figures from the ancient world had such a reputation for heavy drinking as the mad, bad and (for his allies and enemies alike) dangerous to know Mark Antony. Before his appointment to Egypt, Antony had been one of the three triumvirs in Rome responsible for issuing prescriptions: lists of political enemies who were to be executed and beheaded for a price. According to Seneca the Younger, Antony would have the heads and hands of his enemies brought to him at feasts and banquets were intoxicated with wine, he would take pleasure in identifying who they once belonged to.

Antony’s cruelty during the proscriptions in Rome was enough earns him a spot in Seneca the Younger’s philosophical exposition “On Drunkenness” as an example of a man driven insane by drink. But from what we know of his affair in Egypt with the Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra, he was no better away from the capital. Mark Antony reputedly enjoyed riding around in a chariot dressed as the god Bacchus, wearing and ivy crown and carrying a golden goblet overflowing with wine.

There was a strangely positive side to Antony’s excessive drinking, however. His biographer, Plutarch, tells us that in Rome Antony broke convention by drinking in public from a soldier’s drinking vessel. But while this may have earned him criticism from his political rivals, it also earned him the respect of his soldiers who valued their general’s common touch and ability to handle his liquor.

Plutarch also gives us a valuable glimpse into what made Antony so dependent on drink. Combat anxiety was one factor, and given the number of battles Antony fought throughout his life, it’s quite easy to see how this could have led to dependency. It seems Antony was also well aware of the anesthetizing effects of alcohol. Not only did he use wine to self-medicate when away, sick on campaign, but he also took comfort from it when Cleopatra put off her visits to him.

It wasn’t just others who were quick to point out Antony’s weakness for wine. We’re told that he even published a book on the subject of his own drunkenness (unfortunately it doesn’t survive, though you imagine it wouldn’t have been particularly coherent anyway). Apparently, he wrote this book shortly before the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, a critical naval battle that saw Antony and Cleopatra lose to Octavian (Augustus), leading to both of their suicides and the re-establishment of a monarchy in Rome. Antony’s final moments are particularly revealing in illustrating his drink dependency: bleeding to death from a self-inflicted stab wound, he asked only for more wine.

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World
Contemporary representation of Egypt’s last pharaoh.

Cleopatra (69 – 30 BC)

For nearly 2,000 years Cleopatra’s excesses have been the stuff of legend. Known to the Romans as the fatale monstrum, the fatal inhuman omen, she was paramour first to Julius Caesar (with whom she had a son, Caesarian) and then to Caesar’s contemporary and right-hand man, Mark Antony. But it wasn’t just for her sexual charm that she was world-renowned, but also for her absolute commitment to indulgence. Together with Mark Antony, she founded a society called the Inimitable Livers. We don’t know much about what its membership entailed, only that this live-fast-die-young club consisted both of daily feasting and of spending as much money as humanly possible in doing so.

There is one anecdote in particular—which has recently been proven as scientifically possible—that illustrates the extent of wealth and luxury her life entailed. Pliny the Elder tells us that she bet Mark Antony she could devour a single meal worth 10 million sesterces, which, in modern terms, equates to around $15 million. The meal she had served up was nothing out of the ordinary. But at the end of the feast she had one of her servants bring in a goblet of vinegar. She then dropped a priceless pearl earring into the vinegar, waiting for it to dissolve before drinking the slushy solution back.

It’s important to mention that much of what we know about Cleopatra’s character comes from negative Augustan propaganda. It was Augustus (then called Octavian) who in 32 BC persuaded the Senate to strip Antony of his powers and denounce Cleopatra as a drunken eastern whore, essentially starting the war between the two. And as history is written by the victors, we should remember that it was in the winning Augustus’s interests to blacken his enemies’ posthumous reputations to justify why he had led Rome to fight another civil war.

This is not to say that anecdotes about Cleopatra’s bibulous excesses are untrue. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of seeing her as a waste of space in terms of a leader. Fiercely intelligent, educated in mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy and a speaker of nearly a dozen languages, we should instead imagine Cleopatra as an able ruler (though ultimately unlucky)who knew how to exploit her power to live a life of luxury.

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World
Statue of Rome’s second emperor. The Bully Pulpit

Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD)

While in the Greek world, certain drinking practices—binging heavily on an empty stomach, for example—can be traced as far back as Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, in the Roman world excessive practices of this kind only seem to have come during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. It’s fitting that they did so at this time though, especially given what the emperor’s biographer Suetonius refers to as Tiberius’s lifelong “excessive love of wine”.

When he was a young recruit in the army he was given the nickname Biberius Caldius Mero—in Latin this translates roughly as “drinker of hot unmixed wine”—in place of his real name, Tiberius Claudius Nero. Nor did becoming emperor do anything to lessen his susceptibility to the sauce; and while consumption in the capita was bad enough, when he took up residence on the island of Capri it spiraled out of control. On Capri, he established a horrendously heavy drinking culture; one that was a marathon for those who could handle their drink, an ordeal for those who could not.

He kept company with others who drank to excess, and even dished out political promotions to those who proved themselves able to keep up. We’re told that soon after his accession, and during a time in which he should have been setting the standard for public morals, he spent an entire 36-hour period getting wrecked with two close friends, Pomponius Flaccus and Lucius Piso. After getting some rest, the two men woke up (presumably with splitting hangovers) to find they had been appointed governor of Syria and urban prefect respectively. On another occasion, an obscure political candidate beat a nobleman in securing political office because he had successfully seen out the emperor’s challenge of downing an entire amphora of wine in one go.

Being inebriated made Tiberius no less cruel; in fact, he managed to combine the two in coming up with a sadistic torture method. On Capri he would allegedly trick people into drinking litres of wine before having their genitals tightly bound with cords and wires; thus preventing them from being able to relieve themselves and leaving them in extreme agony. Even when Tiberius fell agonizingly ill in the final weeks of his reign, he went on banqueting and feasting; perhaps in an effort to conceal the extent of his illness and, by doing so, hasten his death at the hands of a successor.

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World
Bust of Caligula. History Channel

Caligula (12 – 41 AD)

If there’s one emperor who defines degeneracy and gives us the image we have today of the debauched and luxurious lives of the Roman emperors, that emperor is Caligula. Ascending to power after the death of Tiberius, he crossed every boundary of what was expected of both a Roman and an emperor. He ruthlessly murdered anybody he saw as a threat, as well as those who simply annoyed him; buggered (and was buggered by) almost anything that moved, and even demanded to be worshipped as a god, complete with his own temple and priesthood. He ultimately reaped what he sowed, however, assassinated by his own praetorian guard on his way out of a theatre in 39 AD.

Alcoholism, however, is not one of the vices he’s well known for; that is unless you start digging around the ancient literature. Firstly, the description of Caligula’s physical appearance we get from his biographer Suetonius closely mirrors that of the stereotypical alcoholic described by Pliny the Elder. He was apparently pallid and weak, wracked with insomnia and hallucinations. His behavior was also erratic and forgetful; on several occasions sending for people he had just put to death.

The Jewish historians Josephus and Philo described Caligula as a gluttonous drinker, but they had a personal, religious axe to grind given that the emperor had tried to install a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Temple in 40 AD. But while trying to thread alcoholism through his later life might be a thankless task, we do have one particular anecdote that reveals the bibulous excesses to which he would go.

In 37 AD Caligula ordered a bridge of ships to be built across the bay at Baiae, near Naples. The reasons for him doing so are unclear: some speculated that he wanted negate a prophecy that he would sooner ride horses over water than be emperor; others that he wanted to emulate the Persian king Xerxes’s bridging of the Hellespont in 480 BC.

What is clear is that he spent the day riding up and down the bridge on horseback before leading a military procession along it wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great, another notorious drinker. As night fell, the procession turned from a military one into a Bacchic one, and several of Caligula’s drunken companions fell into the sea, where—held under by oars under the orders of the hysterical emperor—they drowned.

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World
Bust of Claudius.

Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD)

A stuttering, limping, and often dribbling aristocrat (we think he may have suffered from cerebral palsy), in the poisonous, image-obsessed environment of the imperial court, Claudius was forced to wear his flaws on his sleeve. He’d been a prominent public figure during the reign of his nephew, Caligula. But prominence didn’t equate to respect, and Claudius often found himself the butt of jokes. Arriving late for banquets, he would be made to circle the room several times before being offered a seat. He would also routinely fall asleep after gorging himself and food and wine, only for people to throw olive stones at him and put slippers on his hands (so that waking up he would rub his face with them).

When it came to gluttony, nothing much changed after the Praetorian Guard declared Claudius their emperor in 41 AD after Caligula’s execution. He would never leave a banquet without being unable to move through the amount of food and wine he’d consumed and would carry on his alcoholic/narcoleptic tendencies of passing out post-feasting. After gorging himself half to death he would fall asleep on his back with his mouth wide open, and could only be induced to drink after a white feather had been waved down his throat and he’d been made to vomit.

Like Mark Antony, Claudius also gives us an example of an ancient figure harnessing the anesthetizing effects of alcohol. In 48 AD, Claudius’s wife Messalina publically married her senatorial lover Gaius Silius while the emperor was away on business. News of what had happened quickly spread and Claudius rushed back to the capital to nip this coup d’état in the bud. Silius was put immediately to death but Messalina was merely imprisoned. She implored her guards to let he see her (ex-) husband but, taking power into their own hands, Claudius’s advisors had Messalina summarily executed. The emperor’s only response: to ask for his wine goblet to be refilled.

Although Claudius suffered from poor health as a young and middle-aged man, it markedly improved when he became emperor. We are told, however, that he suffered from a persistent stomach complaint—one so bad it even drove him to consider suicide—which some suggest came from regular heavy drinking. Claudius died in 54 AD, at the age of 54. But it wasn’t the drink that got him in the end but the food: poisoned mushrooms specifically, surreptitiously administered by his wife, Agrippina, and her spoiled bratty son, Nero.

Ancient Drunks: The 8 Biggest Drinkers of the Greco-Roman World
Bust of the last ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero. Pinterest

Nero (37 – 68 AD)

It’s no coincidence that one of the most important surviving ancient texts about the evils of alcohol comes from the Age of Nero. It was written by Seneca the Younger, a stoic philosopher who in his later years was hired as tutor to the young emperor, and outlined the belief that excessive drinking meant a weakness of character. Given Seneca’s protégée, it’s easy to see where he might have got his inspiration.

As a teenager, Nero would get tanked up before roaming Rome’s streets, pillaging taverns and looking for people with whom to pick impossibly one-sided fights. One time, he started on a senator whose wife he’d once molested, and in his fury the aggrieved husband gave as good as he got, inflicting some injuries on Nero. After that Nero would never again roam the streets without an escort; after that, the aggrieved husband would never again draw breath.

As emperor, Nero participated in many less violent activities which, for a good, upstanding Roman, would have been considered abhorrent (the modern equivalent might be Queen Elizabeth pole dancing, or Putin riding around shirtless on horseback). Singing was one of them, and although Nero abstained from foods that could prove harmful to his voice, we’re told that he did need a bit of Dutch courage before performing at the theatre.

Chariot racing was another, and despite the fact that the Romans had their own drink-driving laws forbidding anybody to be intoxicated while in control of a chariot, it seems Nero may have broken this one, especially considering the fact that when he raced in the Olympics he fell off. He was still crowned winner of course. But as the most powerful man in the world, who in their right mind would disqualify him?

The moment we see Nero at his most dependent on alcohol comes from immediately after he ordered the murder of his mother, Agrippina. As he arrived to look upon her stabbed corpse, we’re told the incestuous emperor made a series of comments about her physical attributes; some critical, some complimentary. While doing this he demanded something to drink. If this anecdote is true, we can presume he did so to numb himself against the monstrosity of what he’d done.

Any banquets he hosted would last from noon until midnight. They wouldn’t be in private either, but in the Circus Maximus or on one of his many pleasure barges on the River Tiber or at Baiae on the Campanian Coastline. And such were their size and scale (in terms of participants and expenditure) that they would attract pop-up taverns replete with aristocratic prostitutes which, when you think about it, gives us our perfect caricatural image of the excessive lifestyles of the Roman elite.


Sources For Further Reading:

The Vintage News – Alexander the Great Once Held a Drinking Competition – All the Contenders Perished

Hive – Alexander the Great’s and Cleitus’ Quarrel

Food & Wine – Cleopatra Had a Secret Drinking Club

World History – Cleopatra & Antony

Shakespeare And Beyond – Cleopatra and Fake News: How Ancient Roman Political Needs Created A Mythic Temptress

National Geographic Channel – Who Was the Most Powerful Woman in Ancient History?

Museum Hack – Cleopatra: How One Woman Nearly Destroyed Two Civilizations

Factinate – Bloody Facts About Tiberius, Rome’s Hated Emperor

the New Inquiry – Dinner with Caligula

UPI – Caligula and Nero – Victims of Lead Poisoning?

The Conversation – Myth Busting Ancient Rome – The Emperor Nero