16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World

Khalid Elhassan - October 3, 2018

The Ancient and Hellenistic Greeks played an outsized role in shaping the world, giving us things such as philosophy, democracy, theater, the science of history, and otherwise laying the foundations of western civilization. Another thing they gave us was a plethora of titillating stories about fellow Greeks who died in some of the weirdest, most bizarre, and dramatic ways imaginable.

Following are sixteen of the Ancient Greek and Hellenistic world’s weirdest and/ or most dramatic deaths.

1. Antiquity’s Greatest Athlete Got Stuck in a Tree and Was Eaten Alive by Wolves

Milo of Croton (flourished 6th century BC) was the most celebrated athlete and wrestler of the Ancient Greek world, as well as a renowned warrior who led his fellow citizens to military victory. A strongman whose training regimen included carrying a bull on his shoulders, and whose daily diet reportedly included 20 pounds of meat, 20 pounds of bread, and 10 liters of wine, Milo’s string of athletic victories was unprecedented and unsurpassed. He dominated the quadrennial Panhellenic Games – the Olympic, Pythian, Nymean, and Isthmian games – for decades.

In antiquity, the inhabitants of Croton (modern Crotone in southern Italy) were famous for their physical strength, and the city produced generations of champions. In the 576 BC Olympics, for example, the first seven finishers in the 200 yard sprint, the stade, were all from Croton. Milo would end up surpassing all who came before him. All in all, during a stretch from 540 BC to about 516 BC, ancient sources credit Milo of Croton with winning the wrestling championship in six Olympic Games, seven Pythian Games, nine Nemean Games, and ten Isthmian Games.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
‘Milo of Croton’, by Joseph Benoit Suvee. Wikimedia

In addition to being a star athlete, Milo was no mean shakes as a war leader. In 510 BC, the tyrant of the neighboring city of Sybaris banished some of its leading citizens, and was offended when Croton offered them refuge. Things escalated, especially after the philosopher Pythagoras, who spent much of his time in Croton, urged its citizens to use the dispute as a pretext to destroy Sybaris. In the ensuing war, Milo led the forces of Croton to victory while wearing his Olympic crowns, a lion skin, and wielding a club like Hercules.

His remarkable life came to a bizarre end one day while he was strolling through the woods, and came upon a tree trunk partially split with wedges. Always on the lookout for opportunities to challenge himself with feats of strength, Milo tried to rend the tree apart with his bare hands. However, the wedges fell off and his hands got stuck in the crack. It was bad day for the strongman. His predicament got worse when pack of wolves came upon him while he was struggling to free himself, and ate him alive.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Bupalus and his brother Athenis. Pintrest

2. Bupalus Got Dissed So Bad He Killed Himself

Trolling that quickly escalates into something worse is not a newfangled development unique to the internet era, but has been around since forever, in just about all cultures around the world. The ancient Greeks, in particular, were no slouches when it came to trolling that sparked off flame wars. A good example was the steadily escalating back and forth trolling between Bupalus of Chios and the poet Hipponax of Ephesus (both flourished 6th century BC), which culminated with Bupalus committing suicide after an epic takedown.

Bupalus was a famous sculptor whose marble statues, typically of draped female figures such as Artemis, The Graces, or Fortune, were in high demand throughout the Greek world. Centuries after Bupalus’ death, the Roman emperor Augustus had his agents scour the Greek world for statues by the famous sculptor, which he used to decorate the Temple of Apollo in Rome. In addition to being a world class sculptor, Bupalus was also a world class troll, who had the misfortune to get into a tiff with an even bigger troll.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Hipponax of Ephesus. Wikimedia

Hipponax of Ephesus was a poet, but not one of those high brow types like Homer or Hesiod, or a gentle soul who penned pretty verses about summer idylls in rolling meadows, as gentle lambs frolicked about. Instead, his bread and butter seems to have been in the territory of acerbic lines such as “There are two days when a woman is a pleasure: the day one marries her and the day one carries out her dead body“, and diss poetry. In addition to an ugly personality, Hipponax had a gargoyle face to match.

The beef started when Hipponax sought to marry Bupalus’ daughter, only for her father to reject him, sparing the girl from a life with somebody who was, by all reports, as ugly on the inside as he was on the outside. Bupalus then rubbed salt in the wound by caricaturing the unsightly Hipponax in some of his sculptures. Hipponax responded with rhymes that accused Bupalus of being a literal motherfu*ker, and went into graphic details about the sex acts the sculptor supposedly engaged in with his mother. Unable to stand the ensuing public mockery, Bupalus hanged himself. His fate became a byword, as illustrated by a line from ancient Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes: “Someone ought to give them a Bupalus or two on the jaw—that might shut them up for a bit“.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
‘The Death of Empedocles’, by Salvator Rosa. Wikimedia

3. Empedocles Tried to Prove That He Was a God. Failed Spectacularly

Empedocles (circa 492 – 432 BC) was an influential Greek pre Socratic philosopher and poet from Akragas, in Sicily. He is credited with originating the theory of the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water, which sought to explain the complexity of the universe by reducing all matter to simpler substances. He was also a stone cold nut job who seems to have genuinely believed that he was a god, and ended up getting himself killed in a bizarre attempt to prove his divinity.

He was born into a prominent family, and his father was a pro-democracy local bigwig who played a prominent role in overthrowing his polis’ ruling tyrant in 470 BC. Empedocles followed in his father’s footsteps, and helped overthrow an oligarchic government that took over Akragas after the tyrant was removed. He was reportedly offered his city’s sovereignty, but declined.

A genius and polymath, Empedocles was a gifted orator and poet, and was considered to be one of his era’s greatest intellectuals and most talented physicians. His ability to cure diseases and avert epidemics won him widespread acclaim, and before long, he had developed a reputation for possessing marvelous powers. The accolades seem to have gone to his head, and he eventually came to believe that he did, indeed, possess miraculous powers such as the ability to control old age, destroy evil, and control the winds and rains.

His delusions finally bubbled over after he cured a supposedly incurable woman, whose ailment had defied all prior physicians. So he claimed he was a god. To demonstrate his divinity to skeptics, he gathered about 80 people, and led them to the top of an active volcano, Mount Etna. There, he declared that as proof of his immortality, he would jump into the volcano, and return as a god after his body was consumed by the fire. Empedocles jumped into the volcano, but twenty five centuries later, he has still not returned.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Philitas of Cos. Flickr

4. Philitas Was so OCD Pedantic That He Starved to Death While Correcting Others

Long before grammar Nazis, there was Philitas of Cos (circa 340 – circa 285 BC), whom ancient sources describe as an annoying and overly pedantic busybody who could not stop himself from constantly correcting others. A poet and scholar who tutored Egypt’s king Ptolemy II, Philitas played a key role in popularizing the Hellenistic school of poetry, which flourished in Alexandria. Later poets, such as the Roman Ovid, refer to him as their model.

A native of the island of Cos in the Aegean Sea, he was already an established poet and intellectual when his homeland was conquered by Ptolemy I of Egypt in 309 BC. The king appointed Philitas to tutor his son and heir, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and the poet relocated to Alexandria to perform his duties. He returned to Cos after his royal charge grew up, where he led an intellectual society of poets and scholars.

While a brilliant man by all accounts, Philitas seems to have rubbed many the wrong way with an overbearing perfectionism and a need to point out every mistake he came across. All it took was for him to hear somebody utter a logical fallacy or use a wrong word, and Philitas would be off to the races, going into a pedantic frenzy of writing page after page detailing the error, why it was erroneous, and copious examples of what the correct usage should have been.

According to ancient sources, he got so caught up in correcting others’ mistakes, investigating false arguments and poor word choices, that he starved to death while researching and writing an essay about somebody’s erroneous word usage. An inscription in front of his tomb read: “Stranger, Philitas is my name, I lie – Slain by fallacious arguments, and cares – Protracted from evening through the night“.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
A carving of Draco in the US Supreme Court’s library. Brewminate

5. Draco Was Applauded to Death

Draco the Lawgiver (flourished 7th century BC) was an Ancient Athenian legislator who reformed the city’s legal system with law codes and courts to enforce them, replacing traditional tribal oral laws and blood feuds. The Athenians, who had asked him to come up with a new set of laws, were shocked when he came up with an extremely harsh legal code that punished both serious offenses and trivial ones with death. The severity of his legal system gave birth to the term “draconian”, to refer to exceptionally harsh penalties.

We know little of Draco’s background, but he was most likely a member of an Athenian aristocratic family. In the 620s BC, he was asked by his fellow citizens to come up with a legal system to replace the private justice one prevailing at the time, in which rights were enforced by citizens and their relatives. That lent itself to bloody vendettas and chaos, and a law of the jungle in which only the strong and those with connections were protected, while the weak were preyed upon by the powerful.

Draco put Athens’ laws in writing and had them published, thus reducing the pitfalls of traditional oral laws that were known to only a select few, and were arbitrarily interpreted and applied. That was a huge step towards equality under the law, but the drawback was that Draco made the laws insanely severe, and highly favorable to creditors and the propertied classes. Defaulting debtors were liable to be sold into slavery, and those committing petty offenses, such as stealing a cabbage, were liable to the death penalty. When asked why he legislated death for most offenses, Draco replied that he considered the petty crimes worthy of death, and he could not think of a higher penalty for the greater offenses.

Whatever the poor and indebted might have thought, wealthy Greeks apparently liked Draco’s laws so much that they reportedly killed him with applause. Literally. Ancient Greeks showed their approval by throwing hats and items of clothing at an object of adoration, and during a visit to Aegina, its citizens showered him with so many hats and shirts and cloaks that he suffocated to death under the barrage. Whatever praise he might have earned in his lifetime, Draco’s laws were eventually viewed as intolerably harsh by Athenians. In 594 BC, they turned to another lawgiver, Solon, who repealed Draco’s laws and replaced them with new ones, retaining only his predecessor’s homicide statute.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Pyrrhus of Epirus. Quora

6. One of the Hellenistic Era’s Greatest Generals Was Killed by an Old Woman Armed With a Roof Tile

Pyrrhus of Epirus (319 – 272 BC) was a Hellenistic general and statesman who started off as a tribal king, before becoming king of Epirus in the western Balkans. A distant relative of Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus was a formidable enemy of both the kingdom of Macedon and a rising Rome. His costly victories against both gave rise to the term “pyrrhic victory” – a victory that comes at such a high price that it amounts to a de facto defeat.

Pyrrhus was born to struggle and strife. His father was an Epirote who got dethroned when Pyrrhus was two years old, and the family had to flee and seek refuge with a nearby Illyrian tribe. His tribal hosts put Pyrrhus on his father’s former throne in 306 BC, but he was dethroned four years later, and forced to hit the road and make a living as a mercenary officer. He ended up in Egypt, where he married king Ptolemy I’s stepdaughter, and his new in-law gave him financial and military backing that restored him to the Epirote throne in 297 BC.

Pyrrhus then spent the next few years making a name for himself as a brilliant general in a series of conflicts in the Balkans. In 282 BC, the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy got into a dispute with an expansionist Rome, and turned to Pyrrhus for help. Encouraged by a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, and eager for an opportunity to create an empire in southern Italy, Pyrrhus agreed. He formed an alliance with the neighboring kingdom of Macedon, and landed in southern Italy in 280 BC with an army of about 20,000 infantry, 3000 cavalry, and 2500 archers and slingers. He defeated the Romans in costly battles whose losses he could not afford, but which the Romans, with their deeper manpower pool, were able to bounce back from. After one such victory, he quipped “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined“.

Taking a break from Italy, he took off to fight the Carthaginians in Sicily, but by the time he returned, the Romans had recovered and formed a vastly superior army. So Pyrrhus cut his losses and left Italy in 275 BC. His end came in 272 BC, when he took sides in an internal dispute in the city of Argos. An old woman threw a tile from a roof that hit Pyrrhus in the head, knocking him off his horse and snapping his spine. Whether or not he survived the fall, his fate was sealed when an enemy soldier rushed in and beheaded the Epirote king.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Thucydides. Wikimedia

7. Thucydides Was Killed Mid-Sentence

Thucydides (circa 460 – circa 404 BC) was ancient Greece’s greatest historian, best known as the author of History of the Peloponnesian War, recounting the fifth century BC conflict between Sparta and Athens. His methodology, applying strict standards of objectivity, impartiality, and evidence gathering, while eschewing references to divine intervention, led to him being dubbed the “father of scientific history”. His analysis that the conflict and the decisions of the actors were driven by self interest and fear led to him getting dubbed the “father of political realism” as well.

Thucydides was a distant relative of the Athenian general Miltiades, victor of the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), and he was elected one of Athens’ ten generals at a relatively young age. However, he did not turn out to be as great a general as Miltiades had been, and when he lost the strategically important city of Amphipolis to a surprise Spartan attack, his fellow citizens turned on him. Thucydides was recalled to Athens, tried, convicted, and exiled.

The exile might have been a personal misfortune to Thucydides, but it was a stroke of good fortune for history, as it gave him the opportunity to write down his seminal work. He spent much of his now abundant free time carefully noting and writing down the events of the epic struggle, from the perspective of both sides. The History of the Peloponnesian War is the most reliable source we have on the war, and one of the most reliable sources for ancient Greek history.

Unfortunately, Thucydides’ history of the conflict, which stretched from 431 to 404 BC, is not complete, but abruptly cuts off at 411 BC. When the war ended with an Athenian defeat in 404 BC, there was a change of government in Athens, which allowed Thucydides to return home after a 20 year exile. However, the political situation was precarious, with a new oligarchic regime supported by Sparta, which engaged in political violence against those who had supported the democracy that ruled Athens during the war. In the midst of that turmoil, Thucydides was killed in the middle of writing a sentence in his history book.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse. Wikimedia

8. Heraclitus Covered Himself in Poop and Was Eaten Alive by Dogs

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) contended that the essence of the universe is constant change. So he coined the phrase “no man ever steps into the same river twice“, in recognition of the notion that everything, like droplets of water drifting downstream on a river, is in constant motion and flux, even if the motion is hard to notice. He also propagated the notion of a “unity of opposites”, whereby the universe is a system of balanced exchanges in which all things are paired in a relationship with things exhibiting contrary properties.

Heraclitus was self taught, and critical of other philosophers. He had a dim view of humanity, and loathed mobs and democracy, preferring instead rule by a few wise men – a concept that Plato later distilled into the notion that the ideal ruler would be a philosopher-king. Heraclitus viewed wealth as a form of punishment, and wished upon his fellow Ephesians, whom he hated, that they would be cursed with wealth as punishment for their sins.

In other words, Heraclitus was a misanthrope, and his misanthropy led him to avoid contact with other people for long stretches, during which he wandered alone through mountains and wilderness, surviving on plants and what he could scavenge. As Diogenes summed him up: “finally, [Heraclitus] became a hater of his kind, and roamed the mountains, surviving on grass and herbs“.

He death came about when he was afflicted with dropsy, or edema – a painful accumulation of fluids beneath the skin and in the body’s cavities. Physicians could offer neither cure nor relief, so Heraclitus applied his self teaching skills to medicine, and tried to heal himself. He attempted an innovative cure by covering himself in cow dung, on the theory that the warmth of the manure would dry and draw out of him the “noxious damp humor” of the fluids accumulated beneath his skin. Covering himself in cow manure, Heraclitus lay out in the sun to dry, only to become immobilized when the dung dried around him into a body cast. He was thus unable to shoo off a pack of dogs that came upon him and ate him alive.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Eleazar Maccabeus. Wikimedia

9. Eleazar Maccabeus Had an Elephant Fall on Top of Him

Eleazar Maccabeus (died 162 BC) was the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, leader of the 167 – 160 BC Maccabean Revolt against the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. The revolt stemmed from a ban on Jewish religious practices by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who ordered Jews to worship Zeus instead. The rebellion began when Eleazar’s and Judas’ father killed a Hellenized Jew who sacrificed to Greek idols, then fled into the wilderness with his five sons and launched a guerrilla campaign. Judah took over the revolt after the father died, and in 164 BC, he entered Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship at its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukah.

Eleazar’s bizarre death came at the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC, two years after his older brother Judas had captured Jerusalem. The conquest was incomplete, however, as a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress inside the city. Judas besieged the fortress, but a Seleucid army of about 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. Judas lifted the siege and marched out at the head of 20,000 men to meet the Seleucids.

Judas formed his men to meet the enemy in formal battle, abandoning the guerrilla tactics that had won him victories and served him well until then. It was a mistake, as Judas’ forces proved no match for the Seleucid heavy infantry phalanx, professional cavalry, and armored war elephants. The latter in particular unnerved the Jewish defenders, who began to panic and break in fear of the pachyderms.

Eleazar sought to encourage his comrades by demonstrating the elephants’ vulnerability. So he charged at the biggest elephant, got beneath it, and thrust his spear into its unarmored belly. He killed the beast, but did not get to savor his success for long: the dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar, and crushed him to death. His comrades did not rush in to emulate him, and the demonstration did not keep the Jewish army from breaking apart and fleeing soon thereafter.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Miltiades. Pintrest

10. Miltiades Saved Athens But Got No Love From the Athenians

Ancient Athens’ Miltiades (550 – 489 BC) was a general best known for his victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC – an upset victory against a numerically superior force, which saved Athens from Persian conquest. He was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, which owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula), and which Miltiades inherited in 516 BC. When Persia’s king Darius I invaded the Chersonese in 513 BC, Miltiades submitted and became a Persian vassal.

In 499 BC, the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule. Miltiades marched against the rebels, but secretly supported their cause and helped funnel them aid from Athens. Athens sent an expeditionary force which joined the rebels in marching to the Persian governor’s seat in Sardis, putting it to the torch. The Persians eventually crushed the revolt in 495 BC, and discovered Miltiades’ betrayal. He fled to Athens, where he was elected one of its ten generals.

The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians, and sent a punitive expedition that landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC. The Athenians marched out with a force of about 10,000 hoplites – heavily armored infantry – with no cavalry or archers. They faced a Persian force of at least 25,000 infantry, plus thousands of archers and 1000 cavalry.

The Athenians, who had ten generals and a rotating command system, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights overlooking Marathon, until Miltiades’ turn to take command. He convinced a closely divided war council to give battle. Descending from the heights, Miltiades assembled the army with reinforced flanks and a weakened center, and advanced. Once they got within Persian archery range, he ordered his men to charge at a full run.

They rapidly closed the distance, and smashed into the lightly armed Persians. The Athenians’ reinforced flanks pushed back their opposition, then wheeled inwards to attack the Persian center, which panicked, broke, and fled in a rout to the safety of their beached ships. It was a stunning victory, with the Athenians and their allies losing about 200 dead to the Persians’ 6400.

Miltiades returned to Athens in glory, but it would not last. A year later, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but it turned into a fiasco, in which he also sustained a severe leg wound. Miltiades’ failure seemed so absurd to his fellow citizens, that they figured it could only be explained by deliberate treachery. So the Athenians, whom he had so recently saved, tried him for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. While locked up, pending payment of the fine, he died in prison when his leg wound became infected.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Philip II of Macedon. The Famous People

11. Philip II Led a Glorious Life, Only to Die a Sordid Death

Greeks viewed Macedon as a barely civilized kingdom that spoke a barely intelligible Greek dialect. The kingdom had a lot of potential, both in manpower and resources that far exceeded those of any Greek city state, but had yet to realize that potential. It was realized when 23 year old Philip II (382 – 336 BC) ascended the throne of Macedon in 359 BC. Within two decades, he would change the face of Greece.

Philip unified Macedon’s fractious tribes, and transformed them into the world’s most respected and feared military machine. Greek city states relied on citizen armies of de facto reservists, but Philip made soldiering a full time professional occupation. That enabled him to drill his men regularly, ensuring discipline and unit cohesion. He built upon newly emergent deep phalanx innovations, and improved upon them by arming his men with a long spear, the sarissa, whose reach greatly exceeded that of neighboring Greeks. Philip also increased mobility by reducing his men’s armor, and furnishing them with smaller and lighter shields. That gave them a marching speed that few other armies could equal.

He also made Macedon’s cavalry the world’s best, by recruiting the sons of the nobility into what came to be known as the Companion Cavalry. He gave them long lances that afforded them greater reach than their opponents, and trained them in shock tactics. To break enemy lines, Philip taught the Companion Cavalry to ride in wedge formations that were well suited to penetrate enemy lines, in addition to being highly maneuverable.

Philip also created a corps of engineers to design and build new instruments of war. He further revolutionized warfare by perfecting the coordination of different types of troops in a battlefield synergy that enabled them to support each other – the birth of combined arms tactics. Heavy infantry, light infantry skirmishers, archers, slingers, cavalry, and engineers, all worked together, their mutual support making their collective whole greater than the sum of their individual parts. His signature combined arms tactic came to be known as the “hammer and anvil”, with the phalanx acting as an anvil by fixing a foe in place, while the cavalry acted as a hammer by closing in with shock tactics to shatter the opponent.

His military machine was unstoppable, and by 338 BC, Philip had mastered Greece. He then began preparations for his life’s ambition: invading the Persian Empire. However, just before setting out to conquer Persia, Philip’s ambitions, and life, were cut short by a sordid court dispute. One of his bodyguards quarreled with one of Philip’s in-laws, and it ended with the in-law getting the bodyguard drunk, and having his attendants gang rape him. When the bodyguard turned to Philip for justice, the king failed to offer him redress, so the bodyguard assassinated Philip during the king’s wedding to a new bride. It would be his son, Alexander the Great, who would use Philip’s military machine and tactics to become the Ancient World’s greatest conqueror.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Chrysippus. Vintage News

12. Hellenistic Philosopher Laughed Himself to Death

Chrysippus (circa 279 – circa 206 BC), one of the most influential intellectuals of the Hellenistic era, might disagree with the adage “Laughter is the best medicine“, seeing as how laughter killed him. Chrysippus greatly influenced Stoicism, and later Stoic philosophers credited him with laying much of the groundwork upon which they built. He also did much to shape his era’s intellectual landscape by offering alternatives to the theories of Plato and Aristotle. Despite all that, he is probably best known as the philosopher who laughed himself to death.

Chrysippus was born in Soli, near today’s Mersin, Turkey, and was an athlete in his youth, dedicated to long distance running before he turned to philosophy. He moved to Athens, where he studied Stoicism under Cleanthes, head of the Stoic School, and became the school’s most gifted student. When Cleanthes died, Chrysippus succeeded him as head of the establishment.

He was a prolific writer who wrote over 700 books, and although no full treatise remains, fragments of about 475 of his works have survived. They include summaries and critical evaluations of the Hellenistic schools, and it is mostly from those sources that scholars have assembled the materials for a coherent picture of Stoic philosophy and philosophers.

However, Chrysippus was not just about egghead pursuits: he liked to party, and partied hard, well into old age. When he was around 73 years old, he got drunk at a party on undiluted wine (Greeks of the era mixed wine with water), then saw a donkey eating a fig. In his inebriated state, the sight struck him as hilarious, and he went into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, crying out “now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs“, until he fell over dead.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Copy of a third century BC statue depicting ancient Greek pankratists. Wikimedia

13. Arrichion Became Olympics Champion Despite Being Dead

The ancient Greek martial art of Pankration is seen as the forerunner of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It combined wrestling and boxing, and allowed almost everything, except biting and gouging, or going after the genitals. Arrichion of Phigalia had won the pankration championships in the 572 BC and 568 BC Olympics, and sought a threepeat in the 564 BC Olympiad.

He advanced through the early rounds, and worked his way until he reached the title fight. There, with age perhaps catching up with him and slowing him down, Arrichion got into trouble. His opponent outmaneuvered him, managed to get behind him, and with legs locked around the reigning champ’s torso and his heels digging into his groin, applied a chokehold.

Arrichion pretended to black out, tricking his opponent into relaxing a little. The wily title holder then snapped back into action, and snapped his opponent’s ankle while shaking and throwing him off with a convulsive heave. The sudden and excruciating pain induced Arrichion’s opponent into the Ancient Greek equivalent of tapping out, and he signaled his submission to the judges.

Unfortunately, by throwing off an opponent who still had him in a powerful chokehold, Arrichion ended up with a broken neck. However, since his opponent had conceded, the dead Arrichion was declared victor – perhaps the only time in Olympics history that a corpse was crowned a champion. He went the athletic ideal of “victory or death” one better, by gaining victory and death.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
‘Zeuxis Choosing His Models’, by Victor Mottez, 1858. Pintrest

14. Great Greek Artist Dies of Laughter

In his day, the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis (flourished 5th century BC) of Heraclea in Magna Graecia, was deemed by his fellow Greek contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived. His paintings were in high demand, and he was widely praised for popularizing a trend toward illusionism and raising it to new heights.

An innovative talent who broke with tradition, Zeuxis departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color, and relied instead upon a creative manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works. He preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and he usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure.

Historical records describe his paintings as extremely lifelike. In his Natural History, Roman writer Pliny the Elder tells of a competition between Zeuxis and a rival painter named Parhassius, to see who could create the most realistic painting. When Zeuxis unveiled his entry, the grapes that he painted were so life-like, that birds flew down to peck at them.

Nonetheless, Zeuxis was trumped that day when his rival invited him to examine the competing painting. When Zeuxis tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, he discovered that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that he had lost, stating: “I have deceived the birds, but Parhassius has deceived Zeuxis“. Centuries later, that rivalry over realism between Zeuxis and Parhassius was viewed by Renaissance painters as a challenge in their quest to surpass the ancients.

Zeuxis’ death came about when a wealthy patroness, an elderly widow, hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting made in her own likeness, and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman posing as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, that did not cease until he keeled over, dead.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Death of Aeschylus. Made Man

15. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Dramatist Tries to Escape His Fate… But Fails

Ancient Athens’ Aeschylus (525 – 455 BC) was a farm laborer, until he had a vision in which the god Dionysius ordered him to write plays. He did, and ended up becoming Ancient Greece’s greatest playwright, penning over 90 plays during a long and productive career. Most of Aeschylus’ plays won prizes in Athens’ great drama festivals, and many of them are still performed around the world to this day. He is credited with founding serious drama, and is frequently referred to as the “The Father of Tragedy”.

Aeschylus practically invented acting. Until he came along, theater consisted of a narrator telling a story, interrupted at intervals with a chorus performing a song and dance. Not satisfied to simply let a narrator recount his plays, Aeschylus used actors to play out the story with distinct roles and an exchange of dialogue. He also raised production values with extravagant costumes and striking imagery, and came up with innovations such as a wheeled platform to change stage scenery. Aeschylus also used a crane to lift actors in scenes involving flight or descent from the heavens.

His main themes were conflicts between men and the gods, between the individual and the state, and the inevitability of divine retribution for misdeeds. In Ancient Athens, playwrights submitted three tragedies for competitions at drama festivals, and Aeschylus became the first to link his three plays into a single trilogy. His trilogies usually followed a family over several generations, such as the Oresteia, about king Agamemnon during the Trojan War, and his descendents in its aftermath.

Aeschylus was also a citizen-soldier, and he fought in the Battle of Marathon, in which his brother was killed, as well as in the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis. His wartime experiences found expression in his play, The Persians. For all his accomplishments, Aeschylus’ self penned epitaph did not mention his success as a playwright. Instead, it contained what he most wanted to be remembered for and what he had been proudest of in life: that he had fought in the Battle of Marathon.

His dramatic life came to a dramatic end in 455 BC, while visiting Gela, in Sicily. Aeschylus received a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object, so he left the city and stayed outdoors to avoid that fate. A common theme in Greek drama is the futility of trying to avoid one’s fate, and Aeschylus’ attempt to avoid his prophesized destiny proved futile as he sat in a field outside Gela. An eagle, flying with a tortoise in its talons and looking for something with which to break the shell, mistook his baldheaded dome for a rock, and dropped the tortoise on his shiny head, killing him instantly.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
‘The Sacrifice of Iphigenia’, by Carle van Loo. Greek Legends and Myths

16. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Seer Laughs Too Soon at a Rival’s Failure

Calchas, in ancient Greek mythology, was a seer who had been blessed with the gift of foretelling the future from the flights of birds. He could else soothsay by interpreting the entrails of enemies during battle. He accompanied the Greeks when they invaded Troy, and Homer extolled his skills in the Iliad, stating that: “as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp“.

Before the Greeks could get to Troy, their assembled army was stuck on a beach, prevented from sailing by contrary winds. Calchas prophesied that the winds had been sent by the god Artemis, who had been offended by Agamemnon, the Greek high king and army leader. The only way to appease Artemis, Calchas advised, was for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. It was done, the winds shifted, and the Greeks were finally able to sail.

When the Greek armies were struck with a devastating plague during the Trojan War, they sought Calchas’ advise. He divined that it had been sent by the god Apollo, who had been angered by Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo, and his refusal to allow her father to ransom her. Agamemnon was forced to send Chryseis back to her father, but then compensated himself by seizing from Achilles a princess whom the Greek hero had captured as a war prize. That triggered a feud between king and hero that drove much of the Iliad.

The soothsayer also lent his support to Odysseus’ Trojan Horse stratagem, predicting that it would succeed in infiltrating the besieged city. Centuries later, the Romans incorporated Calchas in their national origin story, and ascribed to him a prophecy that the Trojan prince Aeneas would survive the city’s fall, and go on to lay the foundations of Rome.

Calchas reportedly ended his days by laughing himself to death at what he believed to be a rival soothsayer’s incorrect prediction. Calchas had planted some grape vines, but the rival prophesied that Calchas would never drink wine produced from those grapes. The grapes ripened, however, and were made into wine. Calchas then invited his rival to the first tasting, and lifting a cup of wine made from the grapes in question, he started laughing at the failed prophecy. He ended up laughing so hard that he choked to death.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Philip II of Macedon

Ancient Origins – The Brutal Draconian Laws of Ancient Greece

Ancient Origins – Thucydides: General, Historian, and the Father of Scientific History

Bleacher Report, April 11th, 2011 – MMA History: How Pankration Champ Arrichion Won Olympic Crown After His Death

Chrystal, Paul – In Bed With the Ancient Greeks (2016)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Milo of Croton

Encyclopedia Britannica – Pyrrhus, King of Epirus

Greek Mythology – Calchas

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Empedocles

Listverse – 10 Incredibly Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece

Livius – Miltiades

Brown University – Zeuxis and Parrhasisus

Perseus Encyclopedia – Thucydides

Quirkality – The Curious Death of Chrysippus of Soli

Ranker – The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World

Wikipedia – Aeschylus

Wikipedia – Heraclitus

Wikipedia – Philitas of Cos