History's Worst Drinking Contest

Being in the spirits business, we don't tend to spend too much time talking about the dangers of excessive alcohol use. It is, of course, a serious problem for many people, and one that shouldn't be ignored—even by folks in the alcohol industry.

We do love looking at all the ways in which alcohol has played a role in history—both the good ways and the bad. Once in a while, a cautionary tale of such epic proportions presents itself and cannot be ignored. The story of Alexander the Great and his unhealthy relationship with alcohol is one of those tales.

It's probably safe to say that it takes something of an outsized personality to create one of the largest empires in the history of the world. Macedonian King Alexander was just such a person. By the time he died at age 32 in 323 B.C.E., ATG had built an empire that stretched from Greece to India—and he did it all in about 10 years.

Outsized personalities tend to be prone to grand gestures and excesses of all kinds. For ATG, alcohol was one of those excesses.

Historians have debated for centuries about whether Alexander was an alcoholic or not. Many contemporary researchers and analysts contend that he was driven in and out of alcohol abuse as a result of being raised by over-demanding parents. Whatever the cause, there's no doubt that ATG had a problem.

Alexander's drinking benders are legendary: In one, he killed his good friend Cleitus with a spear. This was a man who had saved ATG's life in an epic battle. When he sobered up and realized what he had done, Alexander was so remorseful that he wept for three days.

Perhaps the most infamous example of Alexander's alcoholic excess was a drinking contest he held in 324 B.C.E. The event was an attempt to boost public opinion with the locals of Susa (part of present-day Iran). In order to fully appreciate the circumstances, one needs to know a little bit about daily life in Macedonia 300+ years before the Common Era. Wine produced in those days was much stronger than the wine we know today, and people in most countries diluted their wine with water as a common practice. Macedonians, however, prided themselves on their ability to hold their booze; they liked their wine at full strength.

While in Susa, Alexander declared that there would be a public drinking competition. His most trusted advisor, Calanus, had recently died and this competition would be the crowning event held in his honor as part of a large public celebration of Calanus's life.

It was decided that the winner would be whoever consumed the greatest amount of wine. The prize would be a gold crown and widespread recognition and respect from the masses. A total of 41 contestants decided to take part—a mix of Alexander's soldiers and locals—and it was determined that full-strength Macedonian wine would be used.

After drinking 4 gallons of wine, Promachus—a foot soldier in Alexander’s army—was declared the winner. The other contestants, all of whom were raging drunk and sick, suffered acute alcohol poisoning. In total, 35 of the 41 participants died that day, all succumbing to fatally toxic levels of alcohol. Promachus and the other five drinkers who survived the first day only made it another 24 hours or so. By the following nightfall, all six of them were dead as well.

Given Alexander's penchant for Bacchanalian spectacles and acute overindulgence, his reaction to the contest's outcome was likely one of resigned indifference. All in all, he probably thought the entertainment factor outweighed the ultimate cost in human lives. We'll never know for sure. We do know, however, that ATG became even more unpredictable and megalomaniacal in the years that followed. At age 32, suffering from a fever, he insisted on drinking a huge quantity of wine instead of water to slake his thirst. A few hours later, he was dead.

Military strategists and historians agree that Alexander the Great was one of humankind's most impressive leaders. His bravery on the battlefield and his drive to conquer and expand his empire was unmatched. Unfortunately, that intensity and ambition was driven in large part by a personality bent on self-destruction.