Was Alexander the Great an alcoholic? Did Odysseus take opium in the land of the lotus-eaters? Was the romance of Anthony and Cleopatra an alcohol-fuelled orgy, and was the Oracle at Delphi the world’s first rehab?
Hold on a minute, wasn’t the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome supposed to have been a truly blessed place where human behaviour and its consequences were perhaps for the first time, studied and understood; where people tried to live up to superhuman ideals and where (in literature at any rate), gods interacted physically with humans? In this materially simple but intellectually sophisticated age, weren’t men and women supposed to have lived lives according to both man-made laws and divine guidance, that gave them moral, spiritual and ethical values that are the envy of the world today? The plays of Sophocles and Euripides are full of this sort of thing. Doesn’t all that add up to a truly golden age? Nobody ever mentioned addiction or character defects among the heroic men of that time, when we were at school, did they? Yet as so often with history, the facts are sometimes ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Take that famous institution of the Greek world, the Oracle at Delphi; people came to this place (the temple of Apollo) at points of crisis in their lives, to help them make decisions and to ask for advice. Significantly, the temple was also one of the most important sites for the cult of Dionysus, god of wine and the regulation of the Bacchanal ceremonies associated with the cult, involving heavy drinking and orgies generally. Written on the walls of the temple itself were many pithy phrases that echo down the ages to resonate with addicts today. For example: ‘water is best, ‘know thyself, and ‘nothing in excess. Several utterances survive of the oracle itself; many are political in nature but fragments such as: ‘the strength of lions or bulls shall not hold him, for he has the power of Zeus and will not be checked’ point to an emphatic belief in the power of the gods. The Greeks were very aware of the dangers of overindulgence in alcohol, their literature alludes to it often. For example, the Roman historian Seneca, (born the year that Julius Caesar invaded Britain), wrote that ‘excessive alcohol will destroy the mind and magnify character defects’ (his words, not mine).
How tantalising it is to wonder if the oracle at Delphi, with its control of the cult of Dionysus, god of wine, its recovery-jargon slogans and its spiritual utterances, might perhaps have offered an alcohol counselling service as well as its other functions. Could it be that we are looking at the world’s first rehab? Were these the early ideas that lie behind today’s well used twelve-step programmes: look again at those Delphic quotes: ‘water is best’ (step one?), ‘the power of Zeus’ (step two and three?), ‘know thyself’ (step four?).
If recovery was going on at Delphi, there would have been plenty of customers; top of the celebrity A list, Alexander the Great of Macedon, privately funded no doubt. He is on record as having publicly insulted his mother in law at a drunken banquet, killing his close friend Kleitos in the course of another drunken banquet and finally setting fire to the royal palace at Persepolis, a city he had just conquered, in the course of yet another drunken banquet! Plenty of step one examples for him, then. Whatever treatment he might have had seems to have failed, however, because his death at an early age from a mysterious illness, bears some of the hallmarks of alcohol dependence.
Then there is Marcus Antonius of Rome, famous as the other half of Cleopatra, of noble birth but with a reputation for heavy drinking and a known gambling problem. As the historian, Seneca put it: ‘What else was it but drinking to excess together with a passion for Cleopatra, that ruined that great and gifted man?’ Certainly, Mark Antony’s foray into Egypt which began well descended into chaos and disaster in a way that will seem familiar to a lot of addicted people today.
Amusing true stories also survive about ordinary people getting drunk like the one recounted by the historian Athenaeus. He explains why a certain house is called ‘the trireme’ (a ship). It seems that some young men living there got drunk and thought they were at sea, sailing in a trireme. Encountering (they thought) a bad storm and fearing that the trireme might sink, they began to lighten the load by throwing furniture out of the upstairs windows of the house. The magistrates came to investigate the uproar and some arrests were made – clearly, heavy intoxication took place in ‘the trireme’, of the kind you might easily find in any city today.
Lastly, though perhaps he should have been first, we come to Homer, whose amazing works were probably written or put together by several people, about three thousand years ago. In the Odyssey (the journey of Odysseus home from the Trojan war), we have several instances of both drunkenness and drug-taking. In one example, Odysseus plies the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus with strong wine until he passes out then blinds his eye with a sharp stick (thus making him history’s first blind drunk). In another episode, Odysseus’ ship arrives at the land of the lotus-eaters and the crew get zonked out eating a plant that certainly wasn’t a lotus – it was probably opium or cannabis, of which both are recorded as available in classical times though their use seems to have been limited.
So what, you might be tempted to ask, is the point of all this? Well, we have, I think, established that in the classical world, the use of alcohol was widespread and excessive drinking happened quite often. In addition, drugs such as opium and cannabis were certainly known and available, though not widely used. The big unanswered question is this: if alcohol was widely used in the ancient world and if some other drugs were also available, was serious addiction a problem and if so, how was it treated? Again, were there alcohol and drug dependent people wandering the streets of Athens and Rome, and what happened to them? Did any recover? We will probably never know. Perhaps the answer lies buried at Delphi.
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | October 13, 2021