History of Wine part 2 – the Greeks

History of Wine part 2 – the Greeks

In many parts of the ancient world, such as in Egypt, wine was drunk primarily by the kings and the upper classes. In Greece, however, it was drunk by everybody. It played an important role in The Odyssey of Homer, in Odysseus’ fight with Polyphemus. Odysseus relates how he had saved from harm Maron, a priest of Apollo and his wife and child, who in thanks gave Odysseus many gifts, amongst them twelve jars of a very precious wine, red and honey-sweet, which was so strong that it was drunk by diluting it twenty to one with water. When the ships reached the land of the Cyclops and the men landed, Odysseus took with him a wineskin of the Maronean wine. When, then, they were caught by one-eyed Polyphemus, and the monster had eaten a number of Odysseus’ shipmates, the hero offered to him an ivy bowl of the undiluted black wine. He drank it, and Odysseus offered him a further two bowls. The Cyclops then fell back to sleep, after some of the wine gurgled up from him, carrying gobs of human meat with it. Odysseus and his shipmates then, with a hardened stake, put out his one eye.

The Greeks loved wine. Aristophanes has the orator Demosthenes declaim that ‘tis when men drink they thrive, Grow wealthy, speed their business, win their suits, Make themselves happy, benefit their friends.’ Plato, however, was quite clear just who should drink and when: ‘Boys under 18 shall not taste wine at all, for one should not conduct fire to fire. Wine in moderation may be tasted until one is 30 years old, but the young man should abstain entirely from drunkenness and excessive drinking. But when a man is entering his fortieth year … he may summon the other gods and particularly call upon Dionysus to join the old men’s holy rite, and their mirth as well, which the god has given to men to lighten their burden – wine, that is, the cure for the crabbedness of old age, whereby we may renew our youth and enjoy forgetfulness of despair.’ In other words, once you are forty and thus an old man, you can drink as much as you wish and get as drunk as you want.

There was one Greek social convention which has come down to our time, but whose organisation has, regrettably, changed. This was the symposium, a word which meant nothing more or less than ‘drinking together’, and which we would today see as a dinner party of a special sort. Its modern definition as a learned conference probably derives from the habit of aristocratic Greeks of indulging in after dinner conversation, although one faint hangover during the modern period might be the after-dinner conversation over a bottle or two of port. The so-called flute girls, who in Socrates’ time were part of the ambience, seldom now make an appearance, although the geisha is perhaps a possible comparison. Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, emphasises the symposium as a search for truth, and the discussion that night focused on the nature of love. But his dialogue also provides some clues as to the uses made of wine. After the meal was cleared away, the guests had their hands washed, and were sometimes garlanded with flowers and anointed with perfumed oils, although not on this occasion. The symposium began with a taste of unmixed wine, accompanied by hymns to the god Dionysos.

Subsequently, wine was mixed with water in a large bowl called a kratêr, normally in the proportion of five parts wine to two parts water which was often sea-water. For the Greeks, only barbarians, such as those from Thrace, or the one-eyed Polyphemus, drank unmixed wine. The resulting drink was roughly the strength of modern beer; you could get drunk, but you had to drink rather a lot of it. One person, the symposiarch, was elected to set, in consultation with others, the precise strength of the mixture, the number of bowls to be mixed, usually three, and the size of cups to be used. The andrôn, a square room in the men’s part of the house, had seven to eleven couches. Guests reclined on them, typically two to a couch, in the manner learned from the Assyrians in about 600 BC. Wine was poured, and the party began. I suspect that Plato’s injunction as to how much one ought to drink was not always followed. One example was Alcibiades, described as the handsomest man in Athens, and madly desired by Socrates. He arrived drunk at the symposium, and took over the proceedings.

The Greeks did differentiate between the different types and qualities of wines, preferring wine which was a bit sweet. Wines were often referred to by their islands or regions of origin – Lesbian wine from the Island of Lesbos, or Chian wine from the island of Chios, for example – but true connoisseurship apparently had to await the Romans.


Kathleen Burk


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