The greatest philosophers of the ancient world were celebrated not just for their voluminous writings on arcane topics, but also for their eccentric lives and witty sayings. They were geniuses, and yet were also remembered as charismatic oddballs. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that there were so many bizarre tales about the means of their deaths. Below I’ve selected what seemed to be the five most incredible tales of the deaths of the philosophers, all dutifully recorded by the gossiper and historian Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of the Philosophers.
5. Empedocles, 484-424 BC
Jumped into a volcanic crater.
It already seems obvious that the ancient world was a hazardous place. Even the slightest cut could be fatal if you contracted an infection, and there was a high rate of infant mortality. But I assumed, naively perhaps, that the ancients would be more careful about themselves. Empedocles, an extremely erudite Presocratic philosopher, seems to have missed this lesson. The story goes that he used his science to solve a water crisis for the town of Selinus, a place which had active volcanic craters nearby. The townsfolk, awed by his powers, started to worship him like a god. This seemed to have gone to his head, and, convinced he was divine, he jumped into a volcano. This apparently explained why he never had a grave. Diogenes Laertius, along with his source Timaeus, dispute the veracity of this story.
We are told that the people of Selinus suffered from pestilence owing to the noisome smells from the river hard by, so that the citizens themselves perished and their women died in childbirth, that Empedocles conceived the plan of bringing two neighbouring rivers to the place at his own expense, and that by this admixture he sweetened the waters. When in this way the pestilence had been stayed and the Selinuntines were feasting on the river bank, Empedocles appeared; and the company rose up and worshipped and prayed to him as to a god. It was then to confirm this belief of theirs that he leapt into the fire.
These stories are contradicted by Timaeus, who expressly says that he left Sicily for Peloponnesus and never returned at all; and this is the reason Timaeus gives for the fact that the manner of his death is unknown. He replies to Heraclides, whom he mentions by name, in his fourteenth book. Pisianax, he says, was a citizen of Syracuse and possessed no land at Agrigentum. Further, if such a story had been in circulation, Pausanias would have set up a monument to his friend, as to a god, in the form of a statue or shrine, for he was a wealthy man. “How came he,” adds Timaeus, “to leap into the craters, which he had never once mentioned though they were not far off? He must then have died in Peloponnesus. It is not at all surprising that his tomb is not found; the same is true of many other men.” (D. L. 8.2.70-2)
4. Heraclitus, 535-475 BC
Died covered in dung after failing to cure himself of dropsy.
Medicine in ancient Greece was a mixed bag. A disappointingly large number of ailments continued to be fairly untreatable by the methods which ancient doctors used. And much of ancient medicine was based on theories of the body which seem remarkably oversimplified and quackish today. Heraclitus, who had by this stage become a wild recluse, decided to take matters into his own hands when his doctors failed to cure him of dropsy (“the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water”). Heraclitus reasoned that he had to get rid of this water somehow; but how? Heating should do the trick. And at this point the stories of his death diverge: one account says that he buried himself in manure in a cowshed, where the hemmed-in warmth of its decay was supposed to evaporate his excess fluid. The other account says that he plastered cow dung all over himself and then tried to dry himself in the sun. Either way, the result left much to be desired. And in a third account, he tried to abort his plan, but he couldn’t get himself free out of the dung, and was devoured by dogs. I guess he was up the creek without a paddle…?
…he became a hater of his kind and wandered on the mountains, and there he continued to live, making his diet of grass and herbs. However, when this gave him dropsy, he made his way back to the city and put this riddle to the physicians, whether they were competent to create a drought after heavy rain. They could make nothing of this, whereupon he buried himself in a cowshed, expecting that the noxious damp humour would be drawn out of him by the warmth of the manure. But, as even this was of no avail, he died at the age of sixty.
[…] Hermippus, too, says that he asked the doctors whether anyone could by emptying the intestines draw off the moisture ; and when they said it was impossible, he put himself in the sun and bade his servants plaster him over with cow-dung. Being thus stretched and prone, he died the next day and was buried in the market-place.
Neanthes of Cyzicus states that, being unable to tear off the dung, he remained as he was and, being unrecognizable when so transformed, he was devoured by dogs. (D. L. 9.1.3-4)
Diogenes Laertius wrote an epitaph about him:
Often have I wondered how it came about that Heraclitus endured to live in this miserable fashion and then to die. For a fell disease flooded his body with water, quenched the light in his eyes and brought on darkness.
3. Diogenes the Cynic, 404-323 BC
Voluntarily held his breath, contracted colic from eating a raw octopus, or was bitten by dogs while feeding them octopus.
Diogenes the Cynic is one of my favourite philosopher figures. He lived in a big discarded tub. He was a crazy hobo who said crazy things, and always got away with it because something about his total rejection of societal norms made him ultimately harmless. To give an example of what he did, they say that while he was lying in the sun one morning, Alexander the Great came and stood over him, and said, “Ask of me whatever in the world you would like.” To that he replied, “Would you please step out of my sun?” He became the founding figure of the Cynics, a motley crew of philosophers who were named after the Greek word for dog, kuōn (also rendered cyon) because of their lack of civilised behaviour.
It’s not entirely surprising that such an infamous figure with so many anecdotal stories attached to him would have multiple conflicting accounts of his death. And quite a few of them involve dogs.
Apparently, he tried to eat an octopus raw. This seems to fit in with the general tone of his wild, uncivilised habits.
Another account says that he voluntarily held his breath in order to escape from life. The source doesn’t state how the people who found his body knew that he had held his breath.
And a third report says that he was trying to feed a single octopus to several dogs, but in the process he was bitten badly on the foot, which led to his death.
He lived like a dog on the streets; he died like a dog on the streets. Diogenes, we hardly knew ye.
Diogenes is said to have been nearly ninety years old when he died. Regarding his death there are several different accounts. One is that he was seized with colic after eating an octopus raw and so met his end. Another is that he died voluntarily by holding his breath. This account was followed by Cercidas of Megalopolis (or of Crete), who in his meliambics writes thus:
Not so he who aforetime was a citizen of Sinope,
That famous one who carried a staff, doubled his cloak, and lived in the open air.
But he soared aloft with his lip tightly pressed against his teeth
And holding his breath withal. For in truth he was rightly named
Diogenes, a true-born son of Zeus, a hound of heaven.
Another version is that, while trying to divide an octopus amongst the dogs, he was so severely bitten on the sinew of the foot that it caused his death.
His friends, however, according to Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers, conjectured that it was due to the retention of his breath. For he happened to be living in the Craneum, the gymnasium in front of Corinth. When his friends came according to custom and found him wrapped up in his cloak, they thought that he must be asleep, although he was by no means of a drowsy or somnolent habit. They therefore drew aside his cloak and found that he was dead. This they supposed to have been his deliberate act in order to escape thenceforward from life. (D. L. 6.2.76-7)
2. Chrysippus, 282-206 BC
Died of laughter after an ass ate his figs.
This is perhaps one of the more pleasant of the deaths of the philosophers, though very difficult to decipher. Figs were a real delicacy in Athens. As he was taking a plate home he looked down and saw the great stinking head of an ass at his plate, happily munching them down. Apparently the sight of that was so funny that he cried out to the old crone who owned the donkey, “why don’t we give him some fine vintage wine to wash it down!” and laughed himself to death. HA HA HA AH HAR HA, *cough cough*, AH HA HA *choke*…?
Chrysippus was an extremely important figure in the school of Stoicism; scholars today say that the study of early Stoicism is essentially the study of Chrysippus. He wrote a veritable library of books; apparently there were three hundred and ten of his on the subject of logic alone.
Another account is that his death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died. (D. L. 7.7.185)
1. Anaxarchus, 380-320 BC
Crushed up in a giant mortar and pestle.
There were many contenders for the weirdest death of the philosophers. In my mind, though, even the volcano-jumping exploits of Empedocles don’t top the death of Anaxarchus. The sources say that he had made a very powerful enemy, Nicocreon, and one day said enemy found the chance to take revenge. What follows is nothing short of surreal. Apparently Nicocreon had Anaxarchus placed into a giant mortar, and ordered him to be pounded to death with iron pestles. His dying words seem just like the kind of thing a philosopher would say if he was being ground to a pulp in a giant mortar. “Pound, pound the pouch containing Anaxarchus; ye pound not Anaxarchus.”
Add coriander and season to taste.
He made an enemy of Nicocreon, tyrant of Cyprus. Once at a banquet, when asked by Alexander how he liked the feast, he is said to have answered, “Everything, O king, is magnificent; there is only one thing lacking, that the head of some satrap should be served up at table.” This was a hit at Nicocreon, who never forgot it, and when after the king’s death Anaxarchus was forced against his will to land in Cyprus, he seized him and, putting him in a mortar, ordered him to be pounded to death with iron pestles. But he, making light of the punishment, made that well-known speech, “Pound, pound the pouch containing Anaxarchus; ye pound not Anaxarchus.” And when Nicocreon commanded his tongue to be cut out, they say he bit it off and spat it at him. (D. L. 9.10.58-9)
Diogenes Laertius added an epitaph:
Pound, Nicocreon, as hard as you like: it is but a pouch. Pound on; Anaxarchus’s self long since is housed with Zeus. And after she has drawn you upon her carding-combs a little while, Persephone will utter words like these: “Out upon thee, villainous miller!”