Wine Culture & Philosophy

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Role of Wine in Greek Philosophy with Plato & Socrates
Greek Wine Cup
Photo © davide ferro

If you think about Greek philosophy generally, or just Plato, Socrates, and other sitting around talking about morality, do you also think about them drinking liberal quantities of wine — even drinking wine to the point of getting drunk? Probably not. The sober, serious philosophy associated with Plato and Socrates doesn't seem to leave much room for getting buzzed on wine, but if you read some of the Greek texts closely you'll notice that wine drinking plays an important role.

This shouldn't be surprising because wine is already known to have played an important role in ancient Greek culture, religion, family, and society. The ancient Greeks placed a high value on the importance of wine, so why wouldn't Greek philosophers have used wine as a social lubricant while discussing philosophical topics? In fact, the ancient Greek views on the proper use and role of wine closely mirror important features of ancient Greek social and moral philosophy. It can in fact be argued that we can illustrate important things about Greek philosophy through wine.

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Regulating Alcohol Consumption
Young Dionysus, Greek God of Wine, Roman Copy of Greek Original, 4th century BCE
Photo © thisisbossi

For Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates, there was nothing at all wrong with wine in and of itself. Quite the contrary, in fact, because wine was regarded as an important product of civilization which brings significant benefits. At the same time, though, they recognized in wine something with great potential for harm if used improperly.

Thus like so many other things, wine must be enjoyed in moderation — I can almost see Plat, Socrates, or Aristotle doing public service ads saying "please drink responsibly." One corollary of this principle is that those who are better able to control themselves are given greater freedom to indulge while those who are unable to control themselves get less freedom.

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Terroir & Vintages in Greek, Roman Wine
Greek Wine Mug, Art Institute of Chicago
Photo © swanksalot

Although it is possible to grow grapes for wine throughout the Mediterranean region, it took several centuries for vines to be introduced in most areas. We can, in fact, trace the introduction of grapes first by the Phoenicians, then by the Greeks and finally by the Romans as each civilization engaged in trade, established trade routes, and created colonies. Greek wine jars can be found on the Italian peninsula as early as the 8th century BCE; grape vines planted by Romans in Gaul and Spain were used for wine exported back to Rome by the 2nd century CE.

The spread of grape vines for making wine also meant the spread of wine culture — as well as the development of wine culture. Vines transported from one region to another often didn't make wines that tasted exactly the same as they did in their original homes. At the same time, the culture surrounding wine making and wine drinking also wasn't always the same abroad as it was at home. Just as we can trace the growth of wine making and the wine trade around the Mediterranean, we can also trace developments in how different cultures treated wine.

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Gods of Wine - Dionysus, Bacchus, Liber
Dionysus, Greek God of Wine, Roman copy of Greek Original by Alcamenus in 5th century BCE
Photo © thisisbossi

Dionysus, Bachus, and Liber are the names of the ancient Greek and Roman god of wine. This god embodied many of the qualities which Greeks and Romans saw in wine itself: life and death, nature and civilization, male and female. There were a lot of different gods in ancient Greek and Roman society, but people who enjoy wine today should take a second look at Dionysus, Bacchus, or Liber to ponder what this god meant to ancient civilizations and what he might still have to tell us about wine today.

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Role of Wine in Greco-Roman Culture
Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon
Photo © liberalmind1012

It's difficult to underestimate the value and role of wine in both ancient Greek and ancient Roman cultures. Wine was integrated into philosophy, religion, art, poetry, music, and more. It would in fact be impossible to accurately explain ancient Greek and ancient Roman cultures without discussion about wine, wine's effects, and wine's history.

Given how much modern Western culture owes to ancient Greece and ancient Rome, we should inquire as to the lasting impacts of their ideas about wine on us today.

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Wine Drinking in Greco-Roman Art
Greek Wine Cup (Kylix) with Satyr & Nymph (500-490 BCE)
Photo © The Consortium

What can paintings and other visual arts tell us about the place and role of wine in ancient cultures? Knowledge of the role of wine in ancient cultures is somewhat limited because we can have so few sources of information. Greece and Rome left behind more sources of information for us than most because they had so many writers of history, philosophy, and politics.

Even here, though, matters are not always clear because wine is simply referenced in other contexts. No one sat down to write a single "all about wine" book, so there must be a great deal which we still don't know. This means we have to look for clues in unusual sources — for example, the visual arts. Such art expresses not mundane reality, necessarily, but religious, social, cultural, and political ideals. Thus we learn not so much how people behaved in their daily lives, but rather what they aspired to in their daily lives and the underlying significance they saw in their actions.

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Bathing Spartan Babies in Wine
Infant Dionysus Protected by Hermes from Hera
Photo © william.neuheisel

There's a lot of interest in the possible health benefits of wine, especially red wine. Some of this may just be wishful thinking because wine is so good and wine drinkers would rather it be healthy rather than just unhealthy.

There is good evidence that there are some genuine health benefits from drinking wine, but I'm not so sure that there are many health benefits from bathing in wine. The women of ancient Sparta though so, however.

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Women and Wine in Ancient Rome
Roman Vase with Bacchus Relief, 3rd century CE
Photo © unforth

The idea of denying women a right to drink wine will sound bizarre to modern Westerners, even when talking about a society like ancient Rome. What reason could here be to limit wine to just men? First and foremost, we must remember that wine was more than just a beverage in ancient Rome. Wine might be simply another drink to choose from for us, but drinking wine carried all sorts of religious, philosophical, and social implications for the Romans and Greeks.

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Wine as a Force for Good and Evil
Dionysus, Greek God of Wine, Roman Copy of Greek Original, late 4th century BCE
Photo © thisisbossi

Wine is a potent drink and in modern society anything potent is likely to be feared for the harm it can do. Is wine truly so potent that it must be feared, though? What we should understand about potency is that the power to cause harm is generally balanced by the power to do good as well. Thus the harm which some people fear wine can cause is balanced by the potential good it can do when used correctly. The question is, how do we best develop wine's potency for good without risking harm?

This is ultimately a philosophical question about the nature and use of wine, so the first place to look for answers would be with those who first philosophized about wine and who used wine in their philosophical investigations: the ancient Greeks. The Greeks weren't the first to develop a wine culture, but we know more about theirs than that of any earlier civilization and we can also see how it developed.

One important aspect of Greek wine culture was incorporating wine and other pleasures in their philosophy. Among the philosophical questions explored by the Greeks in which wine played a role was that of moderation: how much of a thing was good for you and how much was bad for you? Wine, many decided, was very good in the right quantities and the right situations even if it had the power to cause problems as well.

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Where and when did wine originate? I doubt that we'll ever learn the precise origins of wine creation, but we can trace some of the earliest developments of wine culture — i.e. special traditions, practices, industry, trade, and art surrounding wine that are not associated with other food and drink. It is in fact very significant that cultural practices developed around wine but not around other drinks like milk, juice, or even to the same extent around other alcoholic drinks like beer.

Read more: When and Where did Humans Start Cultivating Wine?

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