Drug addiction in ancient Greece

For no obvious reason, this occurred to me today: that there's no real mention of drug addiction in the classical world.

It's not because of ancient drug laws, because there weren't any.  Nor is it necessarily due to lack of drugs, although the choice was a lot more limited.  Herodotus mentions that the Scythians used to throw hemp seeds on the hot stones of their steam baths.  But nowhere does anyone mention Scythians becoming so addicted to their baths that they refused to leave them.

Alcohol was in plentiful supply, to put it mildly.  In fact wine was probably safer to drink than the water.  There were many drunken parties every week.  But you're hard pressed to read of anyone being described as a drunkard until you get to Roman times.

The men of Alexander's army are described as frequently and copiously drunk, but this didn't stop them from conquering the entire known world.  They performed very well indeed and don't seem to have craved drink so much as consumed it whenever it was available.  Alexander did, in a drunken rage, kill one of his friends, but notice that even while blind drunk he was functioning quite well.

Men like Alcibiades were famed for their dissolute lifestyles, but no one suggested for a moment that their bad habits impaired their function.  Quite the opposite in fact; men marveled that Alcibiades could live as he did and not only still stand up, but also be a great leader.

Painkiller abuse was possible.  Hemlock is a powerful painkiller if you don't mind teetering on the brink of death.  (Sort of like a lot of modern drugs, really.)   The number of people reported for hemlock abuse is, as far I know, zero.

Ditto for poppy juice, which is much closer to modern drugs.  They knew how to make it, and there's speculation it may have played a part with some oracles, yet I can't think of an instance where anyone wrote, "So-and-so was addicted to the juice of the poppy."

Why the lack of junkies?  It might be because junkies don't tend to make it into history books.  Yet there are other periods when such people did.  It might be because natural selection eliminated addictive personalities very quickly in the ancient world.  My own theory, formed after at least ten minutes of deep thought, is that the ancient Greeks were simply so into looking after themselves physically, and worshiped good physical condition to such an extent, that anyone who deliberately neglected their own health was simply lower than low.  I can't imagine a classical Greek forgiving anyone for substance abuse.  The society pressure to not do it was just that much greater.

(Of course, now that I've mentioned it, someone will probably come up with a hundred famous classical junkies...)

Pontifex Maximus

In a post as closely relevant to current affairs as you're ever likely to see on this blog, I thought I'd mention that the job title Pontifex Maximus, better known these days by the shorter form Pope, is far older than the Roman Catholic Church.  The most famous pre-Christian holder of the office was a chap by the name of Julius Caesar.

It was because Caesar was Pontifex Maximus that he was able to reform the calendar.  (Since in Rome  the Pontiff owned the calendar, like the Eponymous Archon did in Athens).

The rule most interesting to a mystery writer though is that the original Pontifex Maximus was forbidden to see any dead body.

Prison cells of ancient Athens: did Socrates die here?

Reader Sam Baxton very kindly sent me these pictures from his trip to Athens.  You're looking at the city's oldest known prison cells.  The question is, was Socrates in one of them?

The cells are embedded in Philopappou Hill.  That's the modern name.  You probably know it better as the Hill of Muses.

The cells are strongly believed to be carved out by hand.  Certainly the left and right ones are.  The middle one looks older.  In fact I used it as the template for the cell in which Nico finds himself incarcerated in The Pericles Commission.  Here's a closer look at it:

Needless to say, the Greek tourism authority has a sign outside calling this place Socrates' Prison.  The fact is, no one knows.  The cells might be a much later date.

Classical Athens had no need of a prison, because there was no such thing as a prison sentence.  A court could kill you, fine you, exile you, or let you go.  Those were the only options.  There was however a holding cell.

We know about the holding cell because Plato mentions it in his description of the death of Socrates.  He says the cell was within easy walking distance of the Acropolis.  These cells definitely qualify.  He also says Socrates was kept in the cell for an inordinate number of days because the Athenians very cleverly condemned him right before a sacred period when executions were forbidden.  He had to wait it out.

Then they "released him from his chains" on the day he was due to die.  That implies he might have walked out if it weren't for the chains.  That in turn makes it sound like the holding cell was some room at the agora, rather than any of these secure looking holes in a hill.

The counter-argument to the agora theory is that a simple room in the middle of Athens is probably not the best option if a condemned man has friends who are handy with a chisel.  Also you'd think someone, some time, might have described a cell in the city centre.

So no one knows!  But if Socrates was held in a special cell, then this is probably it.

The Joy of Sexus by Vicki Leon

Here's a book that I predict is going to do rather well:

The Joy of Sexus already has a starred review in Publisher's Weekly.  Here's a glance at some of the fascinating stories to be found therein.  Vicki's probably best known for her excellent Working IX to V, about the strange jobs of the ancient world, but she's surpassed herself with this one.