symposia

red figure vase painting shows ancient Greeks enjoying wine

While the ancient philosophers were attempting to unearth truth through intellectual discourse, they were often doing so with a cup of wine in hand and plenty more waiting in a nearby carafe. These “symposia” were intellectual gatherings where the philosophers of ancient Greece would collect around a table and allow the conversation and wine to flow freely.

This image of ancient intellectuals collecting around a generous serving of wine, is often depicted in several dialogues written by the likes of Aristotle and Plato. Perhaps most notably this type of scene can be experienced through the reading of Symposium by Plato. And while it might be common to assume modern philosophers are depressed introverts, the ancients really knew how to have a good time.

nestors cup

“Cup of Nestor”

Events like those depicted in Symposium call close attention to the culture of ancient Greece. Specifically, it inadvertently gives us an insight on the importance of wine as a cultural staple during ancient times. It is often considered that ancient Greece is the foundation for much of western civilization. And wine is no exception to that rule.

The importance of wine in ancient Greece has been well established by archaeological digs that have unearthed extravagant, goblets from as far back as the  Mycenaean era of Greece. Such artifacts included gold and silver goblets that demonstrated that the people of the Mycenaean era were not only fierce warriors, but also people of sophistication who were aware of wine and respected it greatly. One artifact of particular interest is the Cup of Nestor . A Golden goblet, discovered by  Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 in the ancient civilization of  Mycenae. The goblet is believed to have belonged to the ancient king Nestor of Pylos who was a prominent character in The IliadHomer describes the goblet of Nestor when he writes:

 “There were four handles on it,
around each one a pair of golden doves was feeding
.Below were two supports. When that cup was full,
another man could hardly lift it from the table,
but, old as he was, Nestor picked it up with ease.” -Homer from The Iliad

It is commonly held that large scale production, distribution, and consumption of wine began on the prominent island of Crete. Depictions of primitive 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 Greecedidyouknow4

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. 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 “Restina”, a modern white wine that still maintains the unique flavor from ancient times.

dionysus

Dionysus as a child

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…

Wine in ancient Greece was of enormous cultural significance. The ancients drank wine to praise the gods and expand their minds. They studied it intently to decipher it’s presumed health benefits and it’s obvious detractors.It was a nutritional staple, a religious experience. the production, distribution, and consumption of wine is so deeply ingrained with the culture of ancient Greece, that you simply can not have one without the other.