THE GREEKS AND ROMANS
Asia was the first country to which the gift was imparted; and from thence it quickly spread to Europe and Africa, as we learn from the Iliad of Homer; from which book we also learn that, at the time of the Trojan war, part of the commerce consisted in the freight of wines. In order to arrive at customs and historical evidence less remote, we must take refuge, as historians have done before us, in the inner life of the two great empires of Greece and Rome, among whom we find the ceremonies attached to drinking were by no means sparse; and as the Romans copied most of their social manners from the Greeks, the formalities observed among the two nations in drinking differ but little.
In public assemblies the wine-cup was never raised to the lips without previously invoking a blessing from a supposed good deity, from which custom it is probable that the grace-cup of later days took its origin; and at the conclusion of their feast, a cup was quaffed to their good genius, termed “poculum boni Dei” which corresponds in the present day with the “coup d’etrier” of the French, the “dock un dorish” of the Highland Scotch, and the “partingpot” of our own country.
The Romans also frequently drank the health’s of their Emperors; and among other toasts they seldom forgot “absent friends,” though we have no record of their drinking to “all friends round St. Peter’s.” It was customary at their entertainments to elect, by throwing the dice, a person termed “arbiter bibendi” to act much in the same way as our modern toast-master, his business being to lay down to the company the rules to be observed in drinking, with the power to punish such as did not conform to them.
The gods having been propitiated, the master of the feast drank his first cup to the most distinguished guest, and then handed a full cup to him, in which he acknowledged the compliment; the cup was then passed round by the company, invariably from left to right, and always presented with the right hand: on some occasions each person had his own cup, which a servant replenished as soon as it was emptied, as described in the feast of Homer’s heroes.
The vessels from which they drank were generally made of wood, decorated with gold and silver, and crowned with garlands, as also were their heads, particular-flowers and herbs being selected, which were supposed to keep all noxious vapours from the brain. In some cases their cups were formed entirely of gold, silver, or bronze.
A beautiful example of a bronze cup was found in Wiltshire, having the names of five Roman towns as an inscription, and richly decorated with scenes of the chase, from which it has been imagined that it belonged to a club or society of persons, probably hunters, and may have been one of their prizes: they also used cups made from the horns of animals.
The chief beverage among the Greeks and Romans was the fermented juice of the grape, but the particular form of it is a matter of some uncertainty. The “vinum albinum” was probably a kind of Frontignac, and of all wines was most esteemed by the Romans,—though Horace speaks in such glowing terms of Falernian, which was a strong and rough wine, and was not fit for drinking till it had been kept ten years, and even then it was customary to mix honey with it to soften it.
Homer speaks of a famous wine of Maronea in Thrace, which would bear mixing with twenty times the quantity of water, although it was a common practice among the natives to drink it in its pure state. The customary dilution among” the Greeks appears to have consisted of one part of wine to three parts of water,—the word “nympha” being used in many classical passages for water, as for example in a Greek epigram the literal translation of which is, “He delights in mingling with three Nymphs, making himself the fourth” – this alludes to the custom of mixing three parts of water with one of wine.
In Greece, the wines of Cyprus, Lesbos, and Chio were much esteemed; those of Lesbos are especially mentioned by Horace as being wholesome and agreeable, as in Ode 17, Book I.,—
“Hie innocentis pocula Lesbii Duces sub umbra.”
“Beneath the shade you here may dine, And quaff the harmless Lesbian wine.”
The wines of Chio, however, held the greatest reputation, which was such that the inhabitants of that island were thought to have been the first who planted the vine and taught the use of it to other nations; these wines were held in such esteem and were of so high a value at Rome, that in the time of Lucullus, at their greatest entertainments, they drank only one cup of them, at the end of the feast; but as sweetness and delicacy of flavour were their prevailing qualities, this final cup may have been taken as a liqueur.
Both the Greeks and the Romans kept their wine in large earthenware jars, made with narrow necks, swollen bodies, and pointed at the bottom, by which they were fixed into the earth; these vessels, called Amphorae, though generally of earthenware, are mentioned by Homer as being constructed of gold and of stone.
Among the Romans it was customary, at the time of filling their wine-vessels, to inscribe upon them the name of the consul under whose office they were filled, thus supplying them with a good means of distinguishing their vintages and pointing out the excellence of particular ones, much in the same way as we now speak of the vintages of ’20, ’34, or ’41.
Thus, Pliny mentions a celebrated wine which took its name from Opimius, in whose consulate it was made, and was preserved good to his time (a period of nearly 200 years). The vessel used for carrying the wine to the table was called Ampulla, being a small bulging bottle, covered with leather, and having two handles, which it would be fair to consider as the original type of the famous “leathern bottel” the inventor of which is so highly eulogized in the old song—
“I wish that his soul in heaven may dwell, Who first invented the leathern bottel.”
Although the ancients were well acquainted with the excellence of wine, they were not ignorant of the dangers attending the abuse of it. Salencus passed a law forbidding the use of wine, upon pain of death, except in case of sickness; and the inhabitants of Marseilles and Miletus prohibited the use of it to women.
At Rome, in the early ages, young persons of high birth were not permitted to drink wine till they attained the age of thirty, and to women the use of it was absolutely forbidden ; but Seneca complains of the violation of this law, and says that in his day the women valued themselves upon carrying excess of wine to as great a height as the most robust men.
“Like them” says he, “they pass whole nights at tables, and, with a full glass of unmixed wine in their hands, they glory in vying with them, and, if they can, in overcoming them.” This worthy philosopher, however, appears not to have considered excess of drinking in men a vice; for he goes so far as to advise men of high-strained minds to get intoxicated now and then.
“Not,” says he, “that it may overpower us, but only relax our overstrained faculties.” Soon afterwards he adds, “Do you call Cato’s excess in wine a vice? Much sooner may you be able to prove drunkenness to be a virtue, than Cato to be vicious.”