Wine Drinking in Greco-Roman Art Hot

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Greek Wine Cup (Kylix) with Satyr & Nymph (500-490 BCE)

Greek Wine Cup (Kylix) with Satyr & Nymph (500-490 BCE)
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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.


[T]he Greeks and later the Etruscans and Romans were deeply influenced by the practices of the most powerful empire in the archaic and Classical Mediterranean. Other practices derived from the Persians included representations of meals. The Persian king is rarely shown eating. Drinking, certainly, sometimes with food to hand. But rarely eating.



Much of Greco-Roman art and literature similarly privileges drinking wine over eating food, as if food were too gross a material to weigh down the royal or aristocratic representation. Contradictory representations of the Persians as the Greek world absorbed these influences into their own are not just ambiguities or ambivalent responses to a powerful neighbour, but derive from the place of eating and drinking within Greco-Roman and wider Mediterranean culture.

Source: Food in the Ancient World, by John M. Wilkins and Shaun Hill




These aren't the sort of things likely to be explained in a text, so we have to interpret the visual arts to determine what they say about how Greeks, Romans, and Persians saw wine and wine's place in their cultures. This, in turn, tells us important things about their cultures as a whole. Apparently, one of those important things is that eating is too low and mean to depict — but wine drinking is positive and uplifting.



Are we in the modern West so different? Well, you don't often see celebrities and politicians eating, I don't think. Eating can be a messy process, no matter how careful you are, though the potential problems are not as extreme as for ancient leaders who might have been regarded as gods and thus wouldn't want the people to be reminded about their leaders' humanity. Drinking wine, in contrast, is the sort of activity that even the gods would indulge in.



Unfortunately, wine today doesn't have the same high cultural status that it once occupied, at least in America, so we also don't see cultural, religious, and political leaders drinking wine as part of efforts to reinforce their public images. Why not? Cultural objects often play an important role in forming people's public image. There was a time when smoking a cigarette helped create the image of a person as a rebel, and even today certain clothing is used by "stars" to make them look better. Why isn't wine a part of this?

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