Alexander the Great’s Relationship with Alcohol

Liappas, J.A. 2003. “Alexander the Great’s Relationship with Alcohol.” Addiction 98: 561-567.

Presenter: Mallory Pigmon


  • Sean Hipps
  • Mary Cathering Pflug
  • PC Peterson
  • Abby Rosenson

25 thoughts on “Alexander the Great’s Relationship with Alcohol

  1. To start off our discussion, please answer as many of the following questions as you would like. Respond by clicking the “reply” button directly beneath the question you intend to answer. Be sure to explain thoroughly, and support your responses with evidence from the text. In addition, feel free to pose any further, relevant questions.

  2. What is the argument that these authors are attempting to make in this article? What is their take on Alexander the Great’s drinking habits?

  3. Liappas et al. mainly use ancient texts as their evidence throughout the article. Are these pieces of evidence effective in proving their argument? There is an interesting take on the conspiracies of Alexander’s death and the implications of alcohol involved that is mentioned in this article-what is it?

    • What are the biases of the authors of the ancient textual accounts of Alexander’s life? Who was their audience? How do these concerns affect our interpretations of the events described? Do Liappas et al. Take these issues into consideration when they evaluate the ancient sources?

      • On page 566, the authors mention how journals wanted to divert attention away from the possibility of poisoning, and how Plutarch, Arrian and Curtius Rufus defend Alexander’s character with their accounts. I think that most historical accounts cannot be considered pure, and are almost constantly clouded by an ulterior motive, intentional or unintentional (even if subconsciously).

        • What are some of these motivations? Why the different descriptions? When do the modern authors of the article take the historical tradition at face value, and when do they scrutinize the sources?

  4. Not only do these authors use ancient text as evidence, but also modern medical terminology and diagnoses. Did you find these helpful in determining the effects of alcohol on Alexander’s mental state as well as whether or not it contributed to his death?

    • I think that it is interesting to use modern medical definitions and codifications to analyze Alexander’s actions, however I think that it does little to shape our understanding of his mental state. The medical definitions were created within the scope of our society and the way we view alcohol, while Alexander existed in a time where thoughts about alcohol were much different than today. While clearly he can be defined as an alcoholic, it is not the same “drinking alone” pathetic alcoholic persona common today but one that spurned from the social norms of the time.

      • What types of extreme alcohol consumption behavior, which we have actually witnessed in ancient sources, are permitted under the modern definition?

        • According to the modern definition, “the cardinal feature of alcohol abuse is a maladaptive pattern of alcohol use, which is manifested by recurrent and considerable adverse consequences related to its repeated use, such as failure to fulfill major role obligations, repeated use in situations in which it is physically hazardous, multiple legal problems, and recurrent social and interpersonal problems over a 1-year period.” Because the Greeks (and Romans) didn’t consider alcoholism the same way that we do today, legal issues were likely not a problem unless alcohol caused an individual to break a law they would not have broken otherwise. Overall, it seems like any type of excessive drinking that doesn’t cause any kind of problem is okay. The article points to Alexander’s father, Philip, as one example of an individual who was frequently inebriated, but was still capable of carrying out his duties. Other cases of acceptable drunkenness that we have looked at in class include Nero, and potentially Trimalchio and Alcibiades. In all cases, the individuals were able to carry out any absolutely necessary functions, despite a somewhat altered state of mind.

          • Is it fair to judge the interruption of duties in the same way for a king (who largely sets his own schedule and has the epitome of flexible work hours) and a modern citizen who works in the context of a wage labor system with a set schedule?

          • Response to VP:

            Do I think it is fair? Yes he still has a job to do and should be able to do it whether or not he parties, I do not think Obama is getting crazy each night and then not able to hold a press confrence because he is sleeping.
            Back then Alexander could do whatever he wanted as many other kings did. It is not fair to judge a modern citizen to Alexander The Great. As you have already stated VP, one had the ability to create a flexible work schedule while the other has a set schedule. It would be extremely unfair to judge both of their duties just based off of the context of their schedules. In addition I do not believe a king in ancient Greece would adequately compare to a modern citizen today on a wage labor system.
            I do think some of the interruptions of their duties could possibly be the same but that they would occur far less with a modern citizen because of their “status”. Modern citizens understand that they need to work and can not just get drunk without much concern for the next day (unless they have off). King Alexander had the highest status, when he drank I imagine he thought “I am the king I can get drunk tonight, what does it really matter”. A modern citizen does not go “oh I am a construction worker I will get drunk, it is not that big of a deal”. I think the “status” of each job played/plays an important part in the interruptions.
            Even though the interruptions have the possibility of being the same, in reality the contributing factors to those interruptions do not make it fair equally judge both King Alexander and a modern citizen.

  5. We’ve had discussions in class on banquets across the Mediterranean, but according to this article, what is different about a typical Macedonian banquet? How does this fit into the authors’ argument?

    • According to this article, the Macedonian banquets were different for a few reasons. First, they did not dilute their wine. These banquets also seemed to be much larger ordeals, based on how they are represented in the text. We don’t hear of many private banquets, or symposia, in the Greek world that reach numbers requiring 100 couches and up to three thousand entertainers. While I don’t think the Macedonian banquets mentioned in the article are exactly private, they do not fit into any Greek symposia we have discussed in class. The Macedonian banquets also lasted much longer. Additionally, drunkenness did not seem to be a problem at all.

      The difference between Macedonian banquets and Greek symposia fits into the author’s argument by providing context for the analysis of Alexander’s death and drinking habits. While Alexander’s behavior may have seemed unacceptable to the Greeks, he was not necessarily far outside the realm of Macedonian expectation, if at all.

      • I just finished your article Abby,and I can totally see how my article ties into yours! It was an interesting take on decorum and the Roman banquet, especially after dealing with my own article on acceptable public drunkenness. So what do you think a Greek or Roman would do if he attended a Macedonian banquet? Run for the hills?!

        • He might run for the hills! I think a typical Roman would be somewhat confused and shocked, but there are some Romans who might have enjoyed it and embraced the opportunity to drink undiluted wine until the early hours of the morning. Given your reading, it seems as though the Macedonian banquet was much more of a party than a ritual. For example, it didn’t seem to reinforce any kind of social structure, and taking home food to your family wasn’t necessarily a priority. I suppose it’s possible that a Roman wouldn’t compare the two events (a Roman convivium and a Macedonian banquet) as being equal. (However, given some of the primary sources we have, the Romans didn’t seem to have a problem judging the Macedonians for their banquets, so perhaps they would see a clear comparison after all.)

          • I like your take on it Abby, I definitely could see some people being very open to undiluted wine and quickly engaging in the experience. I think the Romans definitely would have wanted to seem more classy compared to the Macedonians but some Romans would have been fine with a full fledged party type atmosphere. I also could see Romans after awhile feeling the Roman convivium got old and hearing of a Macedonian banquet would have been something new and exciting. Just as it is today with phones, one is amazing for a bit and then you have it so long it becomes ehhh, until you hear of this other one that has a blue button instead of a green one, so then you are interested.
            Great comparison I know…..

  6. The section labeled “Harmful Use” on Page 565 reads: “The instances of intoxications and undesirable social consequences, referred to during the last year of Alexander’s life, do not constitute sufficient evidence to pose the diagnosis of harmful use, because such instances were not accompanied by evidence that the alcohol use ‘was responsible for […] physical or psychological harm including impaired judgement or dysfunctional behavior which may lead to disability or have adverse consequences for interpersonal relationships.'”

    What exactly is this trying to say? I am confused. Is it saying that alcohol was not responsible for his actions, or that it simply cannot be held responsible? Or that Alexander’s use of it was not harmful? I think that alcohol can be very harmful, and that the author does not provide evidence to support whatever it is that he is saying here. Regardless, I am entirely baffled by what the author is trying to convey. Help?

    • Does Alexander’s behavior actually fall short of causing harm, or only by the modern definitions and dictates of wage labor?

      • I think that his behavior does cause harm, especially with the anecdote about the Indians that died after the drinking competition. The cause of the harm, however, is unclear. Should blame be given to Alexander as an individual, or the society that made Alexander’s actions the norm?

        • Is this harm to Alexander, or to others? By the modern definition would those who died in the competition be considered alcoholics, but not Alexander?

        • Personally I would say the society which made it the norm. I believe that with many cases throughout history, you look back and say how could they ever do such a thing but when you analyze how someone was brought up it makes sense. Sure Alexander had the possibility of being that new rule setter if he wanted just as I think Nero in Rome was becoming, but we all know what happened with Nero. I think the amount of people who have the ability to change a norm is relatively high, but the amount of those who actually use that ability is far less. I think that is due to history and the possibilites of losing everything or being taken out of power and losing status which for someone in the Ancient world was everything. Then if someone did try to change the norm, they would have been up against all the people who also grew up in the norm and feel it never needs to be changed, the opposition is usually to great without a strong backing which not everyone has.
          I would say it all begins at the base with the “norm” and that Alexander had the ability to attempt to change the norm but without a strong support group it would have ended poorly.

          • I totally agree, Sean. I think it goes back to VP’s question: What happens when drinking is defined as part of the job description, as Alexander clearly exemplifies?

            As any King would, Alexander had opposition from different parities within his “ruling court” (possibly ones that would have wanted him dead, as a cause of his death as poisoning is outlined in the essay!)… I suppose it is important to weigh the benefits of dramatically changing a societal norm that isn’t harming a majority of people and can be argued as luxurious and fun (like drinking) when one’s power is not safe.

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