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...)


Stephanie Thornton said...

"Alexander did, in a drunken rage, kill one of his friends, but notice that even while blind drunk he was functioning quite well."

That is such a Gary Corby thing to say. (Just saying!)

And I can't think of any really famous ancient junkies, but I do know of a scene from an Egyptian tomb depicting a partygoer who imbibed too much alcohol and ended up losing her dinner. Fortunately, an obliging servant stood ready with a bowl. (Think of being the lucky servant assigned that job. Blecch.)

I've also come across references to bath-goers in the Byzantine era who were notorious for drinking too much at the bath houses. "So-and-so can't hold their wine," and that sort of thing.

Lexi said...

A pity we're not more like the Greeks in respecting good physical condition. What on earth would they make of our growing obesity problem?

I sometimes gloomily reflect that if people won't look after the one body they have to live in, there is no hope at all of them looking after the one planet we have to live in.

Anna L. Walls said...

I think there were probably all of the addictive problems then as we have today, only with, as you say, less options. However, also as you say, such an addict probably wouldn't have made it into the history books, and certainly not mentioned as an addict of anything. The biggest difference between then and now within that subject, isn't so much whether they were addicted, but if it was seen as an addiction. There's also laws on the issue and copious amounts of medicine these days devoted to addiction and the selling of addictive drugs (we won't mention what it takes to make and invent them). All of this brings the whole problem up into notice, where then, if you died of some overdose, you were dead and that was the end of that, no autopsy to tell everyone why you died, and no glorious achievements to enter into the history books. Whereas if you did not die, you were merely ill for a while (or longer) but continued to function, and functioning is the issue. If a person functioned, what they may have been addicted to, wasn't important.

RWMG said...

Gary, have you seen this interview with Michael Rinella, author of "Plato, Drug Culture, Ecstasy and Philosophy in Ancient Greece"?

A quote:

It surprises me that there are many analysts who believe that intoxication was not a condition subjected to a constant, regular, and on-going ethical inquiry in ancient Greece, simply because ancient thought lacked, to give one example, something like our contemporary theory of addiction.

Gary Corby said...

Robert, no I haven't! I didn't know about the book either. Now on my reading list...

Gary Corby said...

Anna, well put, and I like your theory!

Lexi, thanks, you just inspired me on another post worth writing...the obesity problem. Have to agree on the looking-after-the-planet point.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie,

Yeah, it probably is a Gary thing to say...there's a certain macabre view required to spend your time working out new and ever more fun ways to kill people. That's life in the mystery biz, I guess.

Great point about the Egyptians and Byzantines. I also recall something about Mesopotamians. I should track that down.

Amalia Dillin said...

Really interesting post -- I'm guessing it's probably a little bit of everything (and man these are some good comments!) but I hadn't ever even considered it before. I can definitely see people sticking up their nose at anyone who abused their bodies, but I suspect that there was an added snub in the fact that these poeple had lost their self-control, which is maybe the greater of the two offenses. I just can't see anyone ADMITTING that they've lost their ability to reason when it comes to the need for some drug or other. But I wonder too, how drug addiction might have factored in with godly punishment or divine involvement for the religious men. Was it seen as some curse of the gods? Dionysus might be inclined to that brand of smiting. Or did people take personal responsibility?

I'll have to check out that book and interview, too!

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating topic and conversation to stumble upon. This investigation is beyond my investigations, and I'm spinning on differences of recording and reporting, culture to culture. If only Geraldo had been there...

Unknown said...

hahaah! I love it! at least i learn something today about drug related info during the ancient time eventhough it is kinda hard for me to believe it? :D

Also, i dont know if its true that water is more dangerous to drink than wine? o.O

Gary Corby said...

Victoria, there was no such thing as a water purification plant. So people put a dash of wine in their water for the alcohol to kill the worst of any bacteria. The usual ratio was three parts water to one of wine.

If you try it, you'll find it tastes like a light grape juice.