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Alexander the Great: A Cautionary Tale

I’m going to keep this short, because I don’t want to get all moralistic.

This is more a “just a little something I noticed” piece than a real, serious exhortation…

And before I start, let me openly admit that what I’m about to point out may have struck me only because it supports something I already believed.  So this entire post has Confirmation Bias written all over it, but, all that notwithstanding…

You (yes, you!) should stop drinking.

Why?  Because Alexander the Great couldn’t handle alcohol.

And he was Alexander the Great.  And you’re not.

I just read John Maxwell O’Brien’s excellent biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy.  The book is a fairly straightforward piece of historical scholarship about the excessively-biographied Macedonian one-time-ruler-of-all-he-surveyed… but with one fairly unique angle.

Most previous biographers have spent a lot of explanatory time on the contradictory elements of Alexander’s character: Philosopher and butcher, dreamer and tyrant, charming and polite but also someone who occasionally stabbed his friends.  Incongruous elements in the warlord’s personality were explained with appeals to his complex relationship with his dead father Philip II, or a megalomania that set in after he took over the larger part of the world, or [insert more insubstantiable psychobabble here]…

O’Brien’s more straightforward take is this: Alexander the Great was a really, really bad drunk.

As his drinking worsened, so did his statesmanship, and his health, until he died at 32 from alcohol-related illness.  Full stop.

There was no conspiracy that poisoned Alexander in his prime.  There were no “puzzling contradictions endemic in this many-faceted leader’s personality.”  There was just an amazing guy who truncated his own epoch-making career for the love of one too many tankards of unwatered Grecian wine.

What am I saying?  That “alcohol is bad”?

Boo, hiss!  “Get a life, write a blog post worth a damn.”  I hear you.

But bear with me for a moment.

As his drinking worsened, so did his statesmanship, and his health, until he died at 32 from alcohol-related illness.  Full stop.

If O’Brien’s propositions are correct – and he paints a darned compelling picture – isn’t it worth considering the moral of the life story of one of the most venerated humans in all world history?

So who was Alexander?

Some bullet-points from his historical resume:

  • He was born a prince, and was tutored as a child by Aristotle (yes, that Aristotle), so he had some advantages.
  • He was insatiably ambitious, and not content to only outdo the deeds of his kingly father, he set out to exceed the deeds of mythical figures (like Hercules).
  • He was laugh-in-the-face-of-death brave, leading his armies literally as well as figuratively.
  • He unified the Greeks, destroyed the Persian Empire (at the time, the big kids on the block), and conquered lands from Greece to Egypt to Pakistan and into modern India.  (Check out this map, and remember this was over 300 years B.C., when technology was more-or-less limited to chariots and harsh language.)
  • He founded over 70 cities.
  • Military historians class him among the greatest tactical generals of all time.

Despite all this, the guy had character flaws.  He was also a butchering mass-murderer on more than one occasion, but the point I’m trying to make is that he was undeniably, extraordinarily gifted.  A world-class bad-ass.

And yet, when it came to a one-on-one, winner-takes-all fight between Alexander and Wine*, Wine won.

* Grecian wine in Alexander’s time was different than what we think of as wine now.  The “un-watered” wine Alexander and his Macedonian boozing-buddies drank would be closer to a hard alcohol in today’s terms.

It’s not like Alexander didn’t know the powers or the dangers of drink.  As a youth, he’d courted danger by mocking his kingly father’s inability to, well, balance upright while publicly drunk.  And as king, he occasionally sponsored drinking contests with double-digit body counts (yes, as in, dead bodies) resulting from alcohol poisoning.  So he knew he was playing with fire.

Isn’t it worth considering the moral of the life story of one of the most venerated humans in all world history?

And what Alexander knew anecdotally then, we know a lot more scientifically now.

Thanks to its prevalence in all societies (and despite an alcohol industry that would rather keep such information corked), the effects of alcohol on the brain and body are among the most-studied of any psychoactive substance.

Some Low-Marks on Alcohol’s Wall of Shame

  • 65% of suicides have been linked to extravagant drinking.  (Mental Health Foundation Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health, London: Mental Health Foundation, 2006.)
  • “[Brain damage from alcohol] occurs as a function of quantity and exposure; the more you drink, the greater the damage to key structures of the brain, such as the inferior frontal gyrus, in particular. This part of the brain mediates inhibitory control and decision-making, so tragically, it appears that some of the areas of the brain that are most effected by alcohol are important for self-control and judgment, the very things needed to recover from misuse of alcohol.”  (from this 2014 study)
  • Mouse studies show that alcohol drunk in early pregnancy (during the period in which human mothers would typically not even know they are pregnant) changes the way genes function in the brains of their offspring – changes apparent in the brain structure of the offspring even in adulthood.

These three citations are the smallest tip of an alcohol-iceberg.  The research is out there, if you look for it; and I’ve read such stuff before – so why is it a book about ancient history, not the plumes of recent studies, prompted me to write this post?

What struck me as I read this book was the issue of scale.

Most of us are not “problem drinkers.”

Most of us will not drink ourselves to death.

Equally few of us will ever let a drunken rage engulf us, and murder our friends.

But then, very few of us will conquer Asia Minor, either.

Alexander was a genius, an amazing physical specimen, legendarily determined, and incalculably brave.

All of this was not enough to avoid being bested by drink.

If you’ve read this far (and aren’t on your second drink yet), then your drinking is not on the scale of Alexander’s.  And that’s good.

But your ambitions – and likely, your advantages – probably aren’t on the scale of Alexander’s, either.

So then: How is your less-than-biography-worthy alcohol consumption subtly undercutting you?

Maybe it isn’t.

But maybe it is.

It’s worth thinking about just a little, isn’t it?


  1. kat roy says:

    I am glad you touched on this subject. I always wondered why in all our talk about smart drugs to take, that we don’t talk more about ones NOT to take.

  2. John Maxwell O'Brien says:

    I enjoyed your comments. Thanks for the plug.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      My pleasure! The book was really engrossing, as one who enjoys looking at “familiar” history from unfamiliar angles.

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