Wine and the Ancient Greeks: Tragedy or Epic?

From nearly the beginning of its existence, wine has been the drink of power and sophistication. Arguably, its symbolic significance has stayed the same over time: the ancient Greeks considered wine a celebration of prosperity, hedonism, and sensuality – even elitism and cultural sophistication.

On the flip side, for some Greeks, like philosophers Socrates and Plato, wine was more than an invitation to hedonism: it was also an opportunity for the drinker to overcome vices with intelligence and self-control…

It is comforting to know, then, that the Ancient Greeks’ relationship with wine was just as complicated and contradictory as we have today. To stay on the literary theme, ‘to drink or not to drink’ would have perhaps been on Aristotle’s lips as he wrote his Poetics, (not coincidently on whom Shakespeare was drawing when he coined the infamous line that I have just misquoted).

But enough with my own indulgence in putting my relatively unexploited literary theory studies to good use, let’s get to the matter in hand: how did the the Ancient Greeks consume wine? What did they drink? How does that differ to the wines you see on the shelves in our shops?

What is clear is the Ancient Greek love of wine. It was drunk at formal dining parties, or symposia, which were venues for playful but adversarial discussion in which drinkers would try to outdo each other in wit, poetry, or rhetoric. (If this isn’t the ancient equivalent of an Oxford college bar, I don’t know what is). The formal, intellectual atmosphere of the symposion also reminded the Greeks how civilised they were, in contrast to the barbarians, who either drank lowly, unsophisticated beer or, even worse, drank wine but failed to do so in a manner that met with Greek approval. Wine was consumed communally from a shared vat called a krater in the middle of a room, and it was often mixed with water to ensure that all guests in attendance do not become too drunk. I think this is where the college-bar parallels end…

As wine became more widely available — so widely available that even the slaves drank it — what mattered was no longer whether or not you drank wine, but what kind it was. While the availability of wine was more democratic in Greek society than in other cultures, wine could still be used to delineate social distinctions.

Plato, (like the one sanctimonious friend we all have, and all wish we were the morning after a night of revelry) saw drinking as a way to test oneself — by not submitting to the passions aroused by drinking: anger, love, pride, ignorance, greed, and cowardice. He even laid down rules for the proper running of a symposion, which should ideally enable men to develop resistance to their irrational urges and triumph over their inner demons.

In terms of wine-making, it is commonly held that large scale production, distribution, and consumption of wine began on the prominent island of Crete. Depictions of early wine presses can be seen on the walls of Minoan tombs dating as far back to 3000 BCE. Clay goblets and carafes have been uncovered across the island including in the ancient palace of King Minos in the city of Knossos. It is believed the craft of wine making began on this island and slowly made the transfer to the mainland of Greece.

The ancient Greeks traded wine as a commercial product for centuries across the regions. Indeed, Greek wine was traded throughout the entire known ancient world. Wines from islands such as Crete, Rhodes, and Lesvos were especially popular, and continue to be so today. Homer himself writes about the wonderful supply of wine found in cellars outside the city of Troy. The Aegean was so saturated with wine trading ships that Homer would refer to it as “the wine-dark sea”.

In order to accommodate this high demand in the wine trade, the ancients developed new storage techniques that would allow their wines to be transported long distances without spoiling. Before the time of air-tight glass bottles, wine left in a regular barrel would be exposed to oxygen and spoil quickly. The ancient Greeks began the practice of sealing these wine barrels with pine resin, as to prevent the wine from spoiling. The resin helped make the barrels air-tight while simultaneously adding a distinct pine aroma to the drink. This distinctive taste is still alive today in the form of “Retsina”, a modern white wine that still maintains the unique flavour from ancient times.

An interesting anecdote states that the use of pine resin was for a very different reason. According to this hypothesis, Roman soldiers would regularly plunder the cities of Greece and make off with their stores of wine. The Greek citizens became so angry that they began using pine resin to add a bitter aroma to their wine. The Roman invaders would try one sip of this distinctive wine, taste the bitterness and assume it was spoiled. In this way the Greeks would keep their wines and the invaders would be none the wiser. This idea would seem to lead to the thought that the Greeks would take measures to protect their wines while the invaders would make off with their women and treasures. At least they had their priorities straight…

So, to answer the question I posed in the title, something I was frequently reminded to do by exasperated tutors during my more ‘barbarian’ days, I think its fair to say that the Ancient Greek’s attitude was certainly epic. Quite like the wines we have on offer right now, in the shops and available at the Wine Café. Why not try them out, and throw your own symposion!