by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Archeological Museum, Naples
Cameo-glass Dionysiac scene from Pompeii, 1st century AD

In Vino Veritas

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 6 May 1991


'Water is best,' wrote the 6th-5th century BC, Greek poet Pindar, but according to his near-contemporary, the more unbuttoned playwright Cratinus, 'If you drink water you will never produce a work of art.'

With these thoughts in mind, 'In Vino Veritas', an international conference on wine and wine-drinking in the ancient world, launched itself in Rome, on the eve of Easter week, on a marathon four-day session, fuelled and punctuated by samples of the subject under discussion.

More than twenty papers were delivered, covering topics as diverse as the menu at Greek City-state banquets, the God Dionysus's inadequate sex-life, and the 'punch' bowls, ladles, sieves and cups placed in Egyptian gentlemens' tombs - indispensable accessories for continued quaffing in the next world.

The convivial air of some of the older contributors confirmed the positive aspects of a life-long acquaintance with le bon vin, whilst the pale complexions and intense manner of one or two of the younger ones hinted at over indulgence in mineral water. The mostly Italian audience was lively and responsive, and one group of Italian professors, chatting with elegant gestures at the back of the hall at the end of along day of lectures and debate, and relaxed to the point of semi-recumbence.

The conference ended, amidst laughter and thunderous applause with the surprise crowning - with the characteristic leafy wreath worn by Hellenic drinkers - of Dr Oswyn Murray, the Oxford historian and driving force behind this grand get together.

Wine in ancient Greece and Rome, according to Dr Murray, was extremely alcoholic. 'With natural fermentation being allowed to run its full course, the alcoholic content of the wine reached 16-18%, as against the 11-12% normal today.'

Both white and red wine were known, though most Greek wine seems to have been red. The heroes of epic poetry, not unlike the 18th-century English aristocracy, traditionally subsisted on an almost exclusive diet of roast beef and full-bodied red wines. The Gods, curiously, given their generally human habits, did not drink wine, having to make do with nectar. Upper-class Roman wives, however, insisted on the best and most expensive whites. And it was the Romans too who developed the idea of vintage wines.

The quantities of wine consumed were also apparently heroic. At the classic Greek symposium, where groups of males reclined on couches, sometimes indulging in civilized conversation on Love and War and such weighty topics, and at others dallying with courtesans, dancing girls and boys, about a litre of wine per guest was poured into the krater, or communal mixing bowl, before water was added. Given the wine's strength and the fact that the krater might be refilled a dozen times, it is hardly surprising that a typical end to the evening was a drunken and riotous procession through the darkened streets of the city, or that the wise man proverbially went home after the bowl had been replenished twice or three times.

The Romans too, revealed Professor John D'Arms of the University of Michigan, took a fair degree of heavy drinking and drunkenness for granted: a number of public figures and successful politicians were recognized as both 'high achievers' and heavy drinkers, their weakness for alcohol attracting little or no opprobrium.

Even the Stoic Seneca maintained that one should occasionally drink to excess. This did not, however, apply to women of Rome, who in theory were forbidden to drink at all, not because wine was disapproved of, but because drinking could lead to adultery.

An intriguing theme that emerged during discussion was the contrasting attitudes of the Greeks and Romans to pleasure, including he pleasure of drinking wine. The Greeks had a tendency to cheerful hedonism, and did not see the pleasures of the table, wine bowl and bed as reprehensible self-indulgence. The Romans, on the other hand, at least aspired to a more austere and self-denying lifestyle, and this led to them to adopt a contradictory, even perverse, attitude to enjoyment.

In contrast to Greece, where respectable girls and women were excluded from nocturnal gatherings, the Roman dinner party was always a family affair, with wives and daughters joining the other guests reclining three to a couch.

'And the fear was', said Dr Murray, 'that once you got somebody up on a couch, nobody knew where it might lead.' However, the ban on women drinking seems never to have been observed, despite a great deal of harping on about the dim, distant, good old days, when Roman matrons and virgins knew how to behave.

'The Romans', said Dr Murray, 'had a strongly developed sense of guilt about their pleasures. Not in the Christian sense - there was no God looking down on their actions - but in the sense that it made pleasure more pleasurable. Thus adultery became more fun than just sex, and heavy drinking more fun than moderation.'

The Church Fathers also seemed more worried about adultery than drink in itself, and St. Augustine speaks with sympathy of a tipsy beggar in Milan. Though for educated people, to make a spectacle of themselves while drinking was frowned upon: Clement of Alexandria warned young men in the 2nd century AD, for example, not to roll their eyes, nor splash their chins and clothes while drinking, nor gulp down 'all the wine at once'.

Wine was drunk by people of all classes among the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans, though the latter frequently complained that their masters were giving them inferior brands and keeping all the good stuff for themselves. Further east, however, wine-drinking certainly denoted social superiority. The ancient Egyptian upper-crust drank wine ( with different types being graded in one papyrus as 'good', 'good, good', 'good, good, good' and 'sweet'), but the peasants and slaves drank beer.

Wine-drinking, according to Professor Jean Bottero of Paris, was introduced into ancient Mesopotamia by the Semitic peoples to the west, but since wine remained a highly priced luxury product, imported from abroad, the beer-swillers of Babylon, the French scholar observed with regret, were never acquainted en masse with the refinements of the grape.

Wine played a major role in Greek and Roman religious ritual - but was poured over altars and into the ground, not drunk, as it is in Christian worship. But the explicit association of wine and blood was already well established when Christ made profound use of it at the Last Supper. The expression 'the blood of the grape', said Dr Jasper Griffin, Reader in Classical Literature at Oxford, 'is very ancient and the Bible is full of language which conflates the two liquids.'

Dr Griffin convincingly illustrated that the Greeks and Romans were especially aware of, and sometimes luridly obsessed with wine's resemblance to blood. 'In a wine-drinking society which performed and watched animal sacrifice constantly, the resemblance and the opposition were both more urgently present to the mind than they are in a society which pours its wine from glass bottles and buys its meat at the supermarket wrapped in plastic.'

(A shorter version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph.)

First published: Daily Telegraph

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023