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The Strangest Deaths in Ancient Greek History

Charon brings the dead to Hades, the underworld realm the ancient Greeks believed people went to after death. Credit: Alexander Litovchenko / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Many ancient Greek individuals left an indelible mark on history, be it in the sciences, arts, philosophy, or politics, but some of these very same individuals met their deaths under very strange circumstances.

Far from the heroic last stand of the Spartan King Leonidas at Thermopylae or the stoic acceptance of the hemlock cup by Socrates, some ancient Greeks met ends that were far from honorable or dignified.

From hazardous grapes to flying roof tiles, ancient Greece was a dangerous place, but not for the reasons one might assume.

Death by flying roof tile: the ultimate weapon of ancient Greece?

How might an ancient Greek hoplite expect to meet his death in battle? Perhaps he will be slain by the thrust of a spear or perish in a hailstorm of arrows like the Spartans and Thespians who made their final stand at Thermopylae.

Alas, there was another fearsome weapon that sowed death on the battlefields of ancient Greece… the roof tile! In fairness, this was hardly an optimal weapon, but it made enough of an impact to justify the publication of an entire academic paper on the subject in an issue of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies journal.

As pointed out by the author of the article, William D. Barry, the roof tile “frequently served as a projectile in urban violence.” Its first mention as an improvised weapon in ancient Greece was in the writings of Thucydides, who described its use during a battle at Plataea.

The most famous victim of this improvised weapon was King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a capable Greek general who fought campaigns in Southern Italy, Sicily, and Greece.

During the Battle of Argos in 272 BC, Pyrrhus was trapped in the narrow streets of the city. Whilst he fought an Argive soldier, the soldier’s mother threw a loose roof tile at him. According to Plutarch, the tile knocked him off his horse. Pyrrhus broke part of his spine during the fall and was paralyzed. It is unclear whether he was still alive at this point, but another soldier beheaded him to make sure.

Pyrrhus of Epirus
Pyrrhus of Epirus, the most famous victim of a roof tile… Credit: Catalaon / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Choking on a grape

The 5th-century playwright Sophocles was one of ancient Greece’s most prolific tragedians, having written over 120 plays. Only seven of the plays have survived wholly to this day, but Sophocles’ influence can still be felt in the dramatic arts.

Sophocles’ most famous extant tragedies are Oedipus and Antigone, which are still performed to this day across the world.

The tales of this ancient Greek playwright’s death are as dramatic as some of his plays. According to one source, Sophocles choked to death on a grape at the Anthesteria festive in Athens. Another source claims that he expired whilst reciting Antigone and yet another story claims that he died of happiness after winning one last dramatic victory.

Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices
Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices. Credit: Henry Fuseli / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Dying of laughter

Chrysippus was an influential ancient Greek philosopher and one of the leading figures of the Stoic school of thought. Born in 279 BC, he developed and expanded upon the teachings of the Stoic founder Zeno of Citium.

Chrysippus made significant contributions to logic, ethics, and physics, and his ideas played a crucial role in shaping Stoicism as a comprehensive philosophy.

The esteemed ancient Greek Stoic philosopher, met his death during the 143rd Olympiad in 208-204 BC, at the age of 73. The accounts of his death, as recorded by Diogenes Laërtius, present two intriguing narratives.

In the first account, Chrysippus attended a feast where he indulged in undiluted wine, causing him to experience dizziness. Tragically, he passed away shortly after.

The second account portrays a more lighthearted scene, wherein Chrysippus observed a donkey consuming figs. Overcome by amusement, he humorously exclaimed, “Now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” It was in this moment of laughter that Chrysippus met his end.

In honor of his profound contributions, his nephew Aristocreon erected a statue dedicated to him in the Kerameikos, immortalizing his legacy in the annals of philosophy.

Credit: Giuseppe Porta / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Being eaten by wild animals

Milo, from Croton in Magna Graecia, today’s southern Italy, was almost certainly the most successful wrestler of his day, becoming a six-time wrestling champion at the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece.

Milo’s remarkable strength was attributed to his ingenious approach. He began by lifting a newborn calf on his shoulders and repeated this daily as the animal grew. Over four years, the calf transformed into a fully-grown bull. This legendary tale of Milo and the bull embodies the fundamental principles of strength training and muscle development

However, this remarkable ancient Greek wrestler and strongman met a rather strange and unfortunate death, at least if one legend of his demise is to be believed.

According to the story, Milo was traveling when he encountered a villager struggling to split a stump using a hammer and wedges. Eager to showcase his strength, Milo volunteered to attempt the task without any tools.

As the villager left to fetch food, Milo inserted his fingers into the crack created by the wedges and tried to pull the stump apart. However, the removal of the wedges caused the crack to close, trapping Milo’s fingers. Helpless and unable to free himself, Milo awaited the villager’s return. It was in this vulnerable state that wolves or a lion attacked, leading to his demise.

Milo of Croton
The death of Milo of Croton. Credit: Charles Meynier / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

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