Alexander the Hungover Conqueror?

In an article for The Sydney Morning Herald, on how we can say and do things that we regret while hungover as well as drunk, columnist Sam de Brito states that

Alexander the Great (who died of alcoholism) conquered most of the known world, putting endless cities to the sword while hungover.

You can read it here.

First of all, I should say that I don’t know the background to the article: it doesn’t reference any particular event and the heading – ‘Victoria Bitterly divorced’ – appears as no more than a pun on the name of an Australian brewer. Perhaps a high ranking member of the family or company that owns it is going through a messy divorce case.

So far as this blog post is concerned, however, that is by-the-bye as I am going to focus solely on de Brito’s statement regarding Alexander.

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Firstly, he states as fact that Alexander ‘died of alcoholism’. Actually, the cause of Alexander’s death is not known with any certainty. The Macedonian king might have died of alcoholism but he also might have died of malaria, typhoid or been poisoned. The ultimate cause of his death might just have been natural causes – his body worn out by the damage done to it during thirteen plus years of campaigning. In short, though, De Brito has no grounds to assert that alcohol was the killer.

Secondly, he states that Alexander ‘conquered most of the known world, putting endless cities to the sword while hungover.’

This is the kind of statement that seems reasonable until you actually think about it. Yes, Alexander ‘conquered most of the known world’ but is it very likely that a person could conduct a successful thirteen year military campaign in an inebriated state?

I personally doubt it but let’s say – for the sake of argument – that it is, what of Alexander specifically? de Brito’s charge finds no favour with Plutarch. In Chapter 23 of his Life of Alexander, he states

Alexander was also more moderate in his drinking than was generally supposed. The impression that he was a heavy drinker arose because when he had nothing else to do, he liked to linger over each cup, but in fact he was usually talking rather than drinking: he enjoyed holding long conversations, but only when he had plenty of leisure. Whenever there was urgent business to attend to, neither wine, nor sleep, nor sport, nor sex, nor spectacle could ever distract his attention, as they did for other generals. The proof of this is his life, which although so short was filled to overflowing with the most prodigious achievements.

I am sure Sam de Brito researched his article before filing it so it is unfortunate that he missed this.

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But perhaps de Brito only had a limited amount of time to write his article and happened to use Curtius instead. If anyone is going to present a picture of a warrior-king slaughtering his way across the world while being slaughtered, it is surely him. Curtius writes,

Alexander had some great natural gifts: a noble disposition surpassing that of all other monarchs; resolution in the face of danger; speed in undertaking and completing projects; integrity in dealing with those who surrendered and mercy towards prisoners; restraint even in those pleasures which are generally acceptable and widely indulged. But all these were marred by his inexcusable fondness for drink.
(Curtius 5.7:1)

de Brito’s article gives the impression that he has read the last sentence in the quotation above and used it as the lens through which he sees Alexander, either in ignorance or dismissal of Plutarch’s words.

***

To be honest, I doubt de Brito has read any of the sources – his allegation comes across as the kind of thing someone who-got-it-from-his-mate-who-was-told-it-by-his-old-man-(probably-while-hungover)-who-knew-all-that-old-stuff would say use.

However, let’s take de Brito seriously and ask what does Curtius have to say about the role of alcohol during the course of Alexander’s career? After all, the above quotation certainly speaks of a man whose life was coloured by it. Does Curtius present Alexander as being hung over during his conquests? Let’s find out.

***

de Brito talks about Alexander being hungover while ‘putting endless cities to the sword’. To get a more representative look at what role alcohol might have played in his career, I have picked ten major military actions that Alexander took part in. Obviously, as Books I and II of Curtius’ have been lost, I am starting with Book III.

The Siege of the Celaenaeans’ Citadel
(III.1.1-8)
After entering Celaenae without any difficulty, Alexander laid siege to its citadel. At first, the Celaenaeans were defiant, but as the days passed, and – presumably – their food and water ran low they offered to surrender if Darius did not send a relieving force within the next sixty days. Alexander agreed, and when no Persians arrived, the Celaenaeans duly surrendered. Two months is plenty of time for Alexander to have got drunk once, twice or maybe sixty times. However, not only does Curtius make no mention of any drinking taking place in the Royal Tent, he says that Alexander left Celaeanae after just ten days. He was a man with a mission and didn’t have time to mess around with alcohol.

The Battle of Issus
(III.7-10)
In the lead up to Alexander’s first confrontation with Darius, we see him stopping in Soli and enjoying a holiday. No doubt he enjoyed a drink there but Curtius does not mention it – neither does he record Alexander drinking at any other point before the start of the battle.

The Siege of Tyre
(IV.2-4)
This siege lasted for six months so Alexander undoubtedly enjoyed a few drinks along the way. And indeed, Curtius does state that ‘excessive drinking’ took place – but by the Tyrians. It occurred after ‘a sea-creature of extraordinary size’ beached itself on the Macedonian mole before slipping back into the sea. The Tyrians interpreted this as a sign of Neptune’s* anger with the Macedonians and the sure failure of their siege so started to celebrate.

* Curtius was a Roman

The Siege of Gaza
(IV.6.7-31)
Part of Curtius’ manuscript is missing here but in the portion we have there is no reference to Alexander drinking at any time during the siege.

The Battle of Gaugamela
(IV.11-14)
From the arrival of the ten ambassadors to the start of the battle at Gaugamela there is once again no mention of Alexander drinking. The night before the battle he stayed up late (IV.13.16) but not to drink – his mind was completely occupied by the fight to come.

The Susian Gates
(V.3.16-4.34)
Neither on the way to the Gates, not despite the humiliation of having to withdraw from them after the Persian boulder ambush, did Alexander turn to drink. Instead, he regrouped, found a new route, and took the fight to his enemy – winning.

The Sogdian Rock
(VII.11.1-27)
Upon his arrival at the Rock, Alexander examined ‘the difficulties of the terrain’ before him. The Sogdian Rock seemed too well protected to be taken and the Macedonian king ‘decided to…’ drink his frustration away? No. ‘leave, but then… was overcome by a desire to bring even nature to her knees’. During the siege, Alexander spent the whole day watching for any sign that his men had successfully completed their ascent. Curtius describes how, when night came and darkness fell, Alexander ‘withdrew to take refreshment’. Perhaps this included a little wine? I expect so but no so much as the king was up before daybreak the next morning to continue his watch.

The Aornos* Rock
(VIII.11.2-25)
At first, Alexander was baffled as to how this outcrop might be taken but soon found help – not from wine but a local guide. When the time came to launch an attack, Alexander was the first to clamber over the makeshift ramp that the Macedonians had built to cover the gap between the rock and surrounding land. The fight was hard fought and when mounting casualties forced Alexander to order a retreat it looked like the Indians had won. But, though forced back, the Macedonians had unnerved them and, two nights later, the Indians tried to flee from the rock. Alexander was sufficiently clear headed to order them to be pursued and cut down.

* Curtius calls it the Aornis Rock

The Battle of the Hydaspes River
(VIII.13.5-27)
When Alexander arrived at the Hydaspes he did not know how to cross its broad expanse without being cut down by Porus’ army, which was waiting for him on the other side. At the Aornos Rock, a guide had shown him the way. This time, he used his own guile – his own clear-headed, no reference to alcohol once again, guile.

The Mallian City
(IX.4.15-33)
Before carrying out what must surely rank as one of the most famous jumps in military history, Alexander had to quell a potential mutiny in the Macedonian ranks. His army had thought that after turning west at the Hyphasis River, they were ‘quit of danger’. Realising that this was not so, they ‘were suddenly terror-stricken’. Alexander met his men’s fear head on and inspired them to follow him into battle once more. Could he have done this while hungover? I doubt it. By now it can go without saying that, there is – yet again – no reference to Alexander drinking at this time.

***

Ten military actions ranging from Asia Minor to India. No direct references to Alexander drinking alcohol let alone being hungover during operations. Curtius accuses Alexander of marring his talents ‘by his inexcusable fondness for drink’, I accuse him (once again) of resorting to sensationalism and exaggeration.

As for Sam de Brito, I am sure he is an excellent journalist, but on this occasion, I can’t help but feel that he trusted to his historical knowledge more than was perhaps wise. Maybe he wrote his article while hungover.

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Alexander the Hungover Conqueror?

  1. Jen Jones

    While it is possible that Alexander was a highly functioning alcoholic, it does seem that it would show up in the sources. When events such as the death of Cleitus happened, were the sources not sure to point out that such out of character actions were due to an excess of alcohol? Perhaps Alexander did drink more in the last few month of his life in order to assuage both the lingering pangs of injury and the death of Hephaestion. But, I challenge any Macedonian of the time to throw the first stone!

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    • This blog post is, of course, no more than a beginning in terms of discussing Alexander’s (mis)use of alcohol and it is possible that I have committed de Brito’s error of not doing enough research into the matter.

      However, I do think that if Curtius of all people doesn’t talk about Alexander’s drinking before ten of the most significant moment of his career then it is unlikely that Arrian, Diodorus and Plutarch do (especially Plutarch given the quotation above).

      For the same reason, at this moment I have difficulty accepting him as an alcoholic. I’m open to reading what scholars say about that, though.

      For me, it is definitely a matter that requires more thought – especially those last months to see if we can discern what role, if any, alcohol played in assuaging his grief.

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      • Jen Jones

        I tend to lean away from “Alexander as alcoholic” too as I find it hard to believe that if he was so more is not in the sources. And I was by no means accusing you of lack of research! lol

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  2. Hm. Is that nervous laughter, there?!

    I agree that if Alexander was an alcoholic then it would be mentioned and we would see him drinking more.

    And don’t worry, I wasn’t insinuating anything about you – I was just making clear the limits of my knowledge so no one thinks I wrote the post on the basis of knowing everything (I wish).

    Like

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