4 Embarrassing Deaths from Ancient History to Laugh About

The Spartan bard Tyrtaeus wrote in detail about what he called "a beautiful death". Here are four examples that he would certainly not consider beautiful.

Aug 13, 2023By Benjamin Davies, MA Ancient History, BA Ancient History
embarrassing deaths ancient history

 

Historical records are exceptionally macabre: throughout the annals of the past, tales of murder, war, plague, and other fatal events dot the pages of what we call history. Some of the most well-known, or even iconic, moments throughout history occurred at the end of a person’s life: Caesar’s betrayal at the hands of the Senate, Alexander’s announcement that his new empire would be given to “the strongest” or Hannibal’s vow of hatred towards Rome on his father’s deathbed. Sadly, as is destined to be the case, not everyone ended their life in a way that would go on to be remembered by history as tragic, poetic, or even dignified. Sometimes life ended in ironic or even humorous manners. Here are a few examples of such deaths.

 

1. Pyrrhus of Epirus

Pyrrhus Bust
Bust of Pyrrhus of Epirus, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Pyrrhus ruled the Kingdom of Epirus between 302 – 272BCE. He was well known for his active military career and skill as a general, fighting during the Wars of the Diadochi while he was still a teenager and reclaiming his throne from General Cassander in 297BCE at the age of 21. The phrase Pyrrhic Victory stems from the war he waged against the Roman Republic where, despite beating the Romans in several battles, high numbers of casualties were reported on the Epirote side; according to the historian Plutarch, after the Battle of Asculum, Pyrrhus himself stated that

 

“If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”
(Plutarch, Pyrrhus, 21.9)

 

After retreating from Italy in 275 BCE, losing a great deal of manpower and money in his war against Rome, Pyrrhus made the questionable decision to start attacking his Greco-Macedonian neighbors. Initially, this campaign was met with success. Pyrrhus defeated the king of Macedon, Antigonus Gonatas, at the Battle of the Aous and subsequently conquered most of his kingdom. However, the campaign took a turn for the worse in his attempted conquest of Sparta, in which the Spartan counterattack, as well as a sudden arrival of Spartan reinforcements, led to not only the death of the king’s companions and plenty of his troops but also his son, Ptolemy.

 

bertholet flemal death pyrrhus painting
The death of Pyrrhus, Bertholet Flémal, 1675, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

 

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Pyrrhus’ situation would become even worse when he was invited to intervene in a civil dispute in the city of Argos. Naturally, Pyrrhus interpreted this as the validation he needed to besiege and assault the city. Being allowed into the city by Aristeas, an Argive politician who supported Pyrrhus, in the dead of night, Pyrrhus used Celtic mercenaries to secure the marketplace and establish a foothold in the city. Being made aware of Pyrrhus’ presence through the fact that he had also tried to sneak war elephants into the city, an alarm was sounded, and the garrison of the city took up defensive positions.

 

At dawn, Pyrrhus attempted to withdraw his forces from the city, a task which was made much harder when the corpse of one of his elephants blocked the gate, and another of his elephants panicked and began to run amok throughout the city. The ensuing battle was brutal, and Pyrrhus was stabbed by a young Argive soldier. Luckily for Pyrrhus, the blow was not fatal, and he turned to kill the boy. Unluckily for Pyrrhus, the boy’s mother was watching from a nearby rooftop and, according to Plutarch,

 

“she was filled with rage and fear… and picking up a tile with both her hands she hurled it at Pyrrhus”
(Plutarch, Pyrrhus 34)

 

It is unknown whether this blow, which struck him at the base of the neck killed Pyrrhus or not, Plutarch commentates that he began to come to when he was recognised by a Macedonian soldier, Zopyrus, who beheaded the king however the point remains that the military career (and life) of a man who had fought against Hellenistic kings and Roman generals was ended by an old woman with a piece of slate. Talk about motherly love.

 

2. Mithridates VI 

mithridates vi pontus bust
Mithridates VI as Hercule, 1st century CE, Louvre

 

From one Hellenistic monarch who fought against the Romans to another, Mithridates VI was the king of the Greco-Persian kingdom of Pontus between 120 – 63 BCE. His reign began with the sudden murder of his father, Mithridates V, and the decision that his queen would rule as regent over the young Mithridates as well as his brother, Mithridates Chrestus (ancient royalty weren’t exceptionally creative with their names). After several plots against the young king by the queen regent, Mithridates fled from Pontus and went into hiding.

 

It is here where the irony behind his death begins to form. Mithridates’ father had been poisoned at a banquet, and seeing that his mother had conspired on multiple occasions to assassinate him, the young king developed a fixation on poison. According to both Appian and Cassius Dio, Mithridates developed a method to become inundated to such poisons by, in essence, micro-dosing poisonous material to build up an immunity to them. Furthermore, it is theorized that he developed a universal antidote, known as Mithridate, that was utilized until the 19th Century. These precautions were made by a cautious king in a dangerous political situation.

 

mithridates coin
Coin of Mithridates VI, British Museum

 

On his return to the throne in 113 BCE, Mithridates consolidated his throne by imprisoning his mother and brother (both of whom died in prison) and expanding the Pontic Kingdom by invading Black Sea territories such as Colchis and modern-day Crimea. After this, he turned southward and allied himself with the king of Bithynia to divide up the Celtic kingdom of Galatia. However, the Bithynian king had also allied himself with the Roman Republic and was opposed to the rising power of Pontus. These rising tensions would come to a head in 88 BCE in an event known as the Asiatic Vespers, where Mithridates ordered the extermination of Roman citizens in the Greek cities on the western coast of modern-day Turkey, such as Ephesus and Pergamon. Approximately 80,000 people were killed, and it acted as the catalyst for the first of three “Mithridatic Wars“.

 

The first war was fought in Greece due to certain cities inviting the Pontic king over as a liberator and although the Romans were victorious, the ensuing peace only lasted until 83 BCE when the Roman Legate, Murena, attacked the Pontic Kingdom. This second war was far more successful for Mithridates, with the king defeating two legions at the Battle of Halys, after which the Roman Republic sued for peace.

 

tetradrachm king mithridates
Coin of King Mithridates VI, 90-89 BCE, Art Institute of Chicago

 

The final war between Rome and Pontus would be triggered by the will of the last king of Bithynia, who entrusted his lands to the Republic. After an invasion attempt by Mithridates, he was firmly beaten at Cabria in 72BCE, won a victory against Rome at Zela in 67BCE and finally faced a crushing defeat at the Lycus valley in 66BCE.

 

At the end of this war, Mithridates was once again forced into exile. He fled into modern-day Crimea and from there, he plotted yet another war against the Roman Republic. The plan was to raise an army from his Black Sea holdings and march from Ukraine into Italy and threaten Rome itself.

 

This was not to be however. His harsh methods of rulership led to a rebellion among the nobility of his now fractured empire and as a result, Mithridates attempted to commit suicide… via poison.

 

In the words of Cassius Dio “For the poison, although deadly, did not prevail over him, since he had injured his constitution to it, taking precautionary antidotes in large doses every day”
(Cassius Dio, 37)

 

After surviving this attempt, Mithridates resorted to asking his bodyguard, Bituitus, to use his sword to kill him. Although it’s difficult to feel particularly sorry for someone responsible for the death of 80,000 civilians, it is painfully ironic that a man who dedicated a large portion of his life to making himself immune to the poison would attempt to use poison to end it.

 

3. Qin Shi Huang

qin shi huang portrait
Portrait of Qin Shi Huang, National Museums Liverpool

 

Moving from Greek rulers to Chinese ones, and from poisons used as a method of suicide to poisons used to become immortal, Qin Shi Huang was the founder of the Qin dynasty, the first dynasty to rule over a unified China and was famous for ordering the construction of both the Terracotta Soldiers and the Great Wall of China.

 

Qin Shi Huang was born in 259BCE as, supposedly, the eldest son of King Zhuangxian, however, this is contested by the Records of the Grand Historian that claim that the emperor was the son of General Lu Buwei. Whatever his parentage, Shi Huang took the throne of the Qin territories in 246 BCE after the death of Zhuangxian. As he grew up, he experienced several threats to his throne such as assassination attempts as well as coups.

 

The coup against Qin Shi Huang occurred in 238 BCE under the leadership of a court official called Lao Ai. After the defeat of the rebellion and the placement of a bounty upon his head, Lao Ai was executed brutally; he was tied to several horses who then ran in different directions, tearing the rebel apart. Another instance of his cruelty can be seen in the aftermath of a failed assassination attempt; the culprit was a skilled musician and, not wishing for such talent to be wasted, the emperor had his eyes plucked out rather than executing him. This should give you, the reader, an insight into the fact that Qin Shi Huang wasn’t entirely right in the head.

 

teracotta army
The Terracota Army in Qin Shu Huang’s Mausoleum, via Wikimedia Commons

 

After his conquest and unification of China, Qin Shi Huang began a consolidation (of sorts) of his power and legacy. Most famous is the Great Wall and Terracotta Army however, a slightly more esoteric vanity project came in the form of the hunt for the Elixir of life. As the emperor grew older and older, he became obsessed with obtaining immortality. This led to increasingly desperate measures: it is unknown how many fake remedies he tried however, scholars assume that it must have been a large amount. Furthermore, his burning of books exempted alchemical tomes: perhaps a means to guide scholars “in the right direction” to help with his quest for immortality. Qin Shi Huang wanted to leave a mark on China, and what better way to do so than to have a god emperor who would not die?

 

The hunt for this elixir became ever more frantic when in 211 BCE, a meteor crash-landed in China bearing the ominous message that the emperor would die and that his realm would be divided. This was made even worse by the almost fifty-year-old emperor falling sick in Pingyuanjin. The search for the elixir intensified until he stumbled upon a recipe that contained a high amount of mercury which is incredibly toxic. He died shortly afterwards…

 

4. Chrysippus

chrysippus bust.jph
Bust of Chryssipus, 3rd-2nd century BCE, British Museum

 

Moving on from rulers, Chrysippus was one of the most influential philosophers of the Hellenistic period. His influence upon stoicism led to an ancient idiom that without him, stoicism wouldn’t exist either.

 

Chrysippus was born in the city of Soli, which is now Mezitli in modern-day Turkey, in 279 BCE. In his younger years, he trained as a long-distance runner, and after his family’s fortune was seized by a Hellenistic monarch (It is debated whether this king was Ptolemy II of Egypt or Antiochus I of the Seleucid Empire), he migrated to Athens and began studying philosophy. It is in Athens that Chrysippus would join the School of Stoicism under the tutorage of Cleanthes. However, it is also believed that he attended lectures in the Platonic Academy as well.

 

After the death of his tutor in 230 BCE, Chrysippus became the Scholarch (Head) of the Stoic school. During his tenure as Scholarch, Chrysippus is believed to have written over seven hundred works. Sadly, very few of them have survived. The Herculaneum papyri contain fragments of Chrysippus’ works as well as later stoic authors such as Marcus Aurelius. Much of Chrysippus’ line of logic was based upon the concept of proposition. By using words such as “if”, “and”, “more or less likely” or “because”, Chrysippus created an algorithm of logic wherein he could deduce what he believed to be true. An example of this could be as follows:

 

All birds lay eggs. All birds have feathers.

So: All feathered animals lay eggs.

 

Although this seems simplistic, Chrysippus used this logic to argue matters of Physics, Fate, the existence of God, and Divination. On fate, Chrysippus argued that as the cosmos is designed and determined by God, our actions are too designed as such. Therefore, as a result of that, each action taken by humans has been ordained and will follow the path deemed by fate. Perhaps his mind would have changed if he knew what fate had in store for him at the end of his life.

 

chrysippus death laughter
Engraving of the final moments of Chrysippus, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Overall, Chrysippus was seen as an exceptional philosopher. Diogenes Laertius commented that it was unusual for him to go through a day without writing less than five hundred lines. Furthermore, he was seen as particularly neutral in many arguments, wanting to use both sides of an argument in his line of logic. His tenure as Scholarch would last until he died circa 206 BCE, and although he had many opponents who claimed that he plagiarized much of his work, he was seen as one of the forerunners of stoic philosophy. For such a dignified man, however, his death was anything but that.

 

Diogenes Laertius states that during the 143rd Olympiad, Chrysippus (who had lived until the ripe age of seventy-three) had drunk a lot of undiluted wine (proper Greeks insisted upon drinking wine diluted with water, as that was one of the many things that separated them from barbarians) and had stumbled upon a donkey who was eating some figs. This, of course, was the funniest thing that the old philosopher had ever seen, began uncontrollably laughing and reportedly yelled “Now give the donkey some wine to wash down the figs!”. These would, unfortunately, be his last words as in the words of Diogenes Laertius

 

“having laughed too much, he died”
(Diogenes Laërtius 7.185)

 

It’s undoubtedly tragic that a man that gave so much to the world of philosophy will be remembered as “The man who died laughing at his joke” however in a way, I’m just glad he was having a good time on his way out.

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By Benjamin DaviesMA Ancient History, BA Ancient HistoryBenjamin holds a Master’s degree from King’s College London and an undergraduate degree from Cardiff and hopes to do a PhD soon. He studies the Seleucid Empire and how the multitude of cultures present there impacted their military.