Role of Wine in Greco-Roman Culture Hot

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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.

[W]ine-drinking, normally with the wine diluted by water, was widespread throughout the Greco-Roman world, to such as extent that the term ‘water-drinker’ could be used rhetorically as an insult. Wine was one of the few addictive substances available in antiquity, and so on occasion its use was controlled by law. There are at least claims to such legislation in regard to women under the Roman Republic.

The drinking of wine was linked with a large number of religious rituals, both at formal festivals and in the home. The production of, and trade in, wine was of considerable economic importance. Wine was also linked, through its social manifestation the symposium, with inspired writing and song. The archaic symposium was the occasion for much poetic performance, and the poetry reflected this (Bowie 1986). ...

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

It's important to think about the extent to which wine was treated differently from other beverages, such that it was no longer merely another beverage. Fruit juice was not subjected to laws regulating who could and could not drink it. Drinking goat's milk wasn't so important socially and religiously that someone who didn't drink goat's milk would get saddled with an epithet like "water drinker." Flavorings for water didn't inspire writing and song or become the foundation for significant economic development.

Wine is virtually alone in each of these categories and certainly alone in all of them taken together. You stop to remember that the context of all this was a society where the choices of food and beverage were far, far more limited than what Westerners today are accustomed to, where wine was one of the only addictive and mind-altering substances around, where wine was responsible for significant economic activity, and where religion was so integrated into everyday culture that people probably wouldn’t have comprehended a distinction between "religion" and "the rest of culture."

The difficulties of dealing with alcohol are reflected in many forms: in poetry which urges balance and restraint; in drinking rituals which again balance communal intoxication with dexterity and wit; and in warning stories of drinking that got out of hand.

Despite the dangers, wine and its consumption were held in the highest regard in antiquity, and the symposium, the part of the meal where wine was consumed in Greek and often in Roman culture, was always seen as the moment for wisdom and cultural reflection. The deipnon, or part of the meal where much of the dining took place, rarely attained that status.

Much archaic lyric and elegy concentrates on the balance required at the drinking feast between intoxication and relaxation in the group. There is emphasis too on group solidarity, sharing the same ethical framework, and avoiding strife and tales of disruption. There is much emphasis on purity, both ritual and psychological in the Xenophanes poem.

Given all this, it's not surprising that wine would loom so much larger in religion, culture, and economics than anything else at the time — and perhaps than anything we could compare it to in our lives today. It may not be possible for us to fully grasp just how fundamental wine, wine production, and wine drinking was for ancient Greek and ancient Roman cultures, but we need to try in order to understand those cultures in the first place. Wine was not incidental and dispensable as it tends to be for people today, but rather a basic and necessary aspect of living.


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