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

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