By the 2nd century BCE, the Romans had become the most powerful civilization in the Mediterranean, replacing the Greeks. And yet the Romans continued to use Greek customs, study Greek literature and philosophy, and worship Greek gods. If there was a difference between Greece and Rome, argued the Roman orator Cato, it was that Greece was decadent, sloppy, and hedonistic—while Rome, by contrast, was organized and principled. We can see the differences between Greece and Rome in the way these cultures viewed wine. For the Greeks, wine was a mark of sophistication and pleasure, but for Romans, wine was a mark of hard, patient work.
In this chapter, also on wine, Standage narrows his focus and takes up an interesting case study: the relationship between Greece and Rome, as expressed in the Romans’ love of wine. In the same way that a culture expresses itself by what its people drink, one culture also distinguishes itself from another by consciously choosing a different drink. Rome’s case is a little different: it emulated Greece in almost every way (including its drinking habits), while also trying to appear different and superior.
As Rome grew in power, it continued to use Greek methods for making wine. Powerful Romans purchased villas, where slaves worked hard to produce wine. This wine was then shipped across the Roman Empire, extending as far as the Middle East and Spain.
Standage’s theme of imperialism is truly introduced here, as the size of the Roman Empire meant the spread and prevalence of fine wine. With a huge supply of grapes to choose from, elite Romans could sample the best wines of (present-day) France, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
In 87 BCE, Marcus Antonius, a prominent Roman politician, was faced with a difficult problem. Antonius had developed a rivalry with Gaius Marius, the present ruler of Rome, and so he feared for his life. Antonius hid in the home of a loyal follower, who sent his slave to go to the market to buy wine for Antonius. At the market, the slave requested an especially fine wine—and when the merchant inquired as to why the slave’s master wanted such a fine drink, the slave explained that his master was hosting Marcus Antonius. The merchant then told Gaius Marius the news, and Marius sent soldiers to kill Marcus Antonius.
This amusing and terrifying example illustrates the importance of wine in Roman culture. If Antonius’s friend hadn’t sent a slave to market to buy wine, he might have kept his identity hidden and so stayed alive. The broader lesson from this is that it was possible to identify a Roman based on the kind of wine he drank—a clear illustration of the careful stratification of Roman society.
Like the Greeks, the Romans regarded wine as a drink for everyone to enjoy—and yet, even more so than the Greeks, they regarded fine wine as an excellent way for the wealthy to show off their power. The greatest wine, it was agreed, was Falernian. By the first century BCE, wine had become so popular that some writers worried that Rome was becoming as decadent as Greece had been. The divisions between good and poor wines reflected the growing divisions in Roman society: Romans could either be patrons (wealthy and powerful) or clients (the lucky students and beneficiaries of a patron’s generosity)—sometimes, a Roman was both a client and a patron. There was, in short, “a wine for every rung on the social ladder.”
Roman society exemplified the same contradictions as Greek society. Romans were supposedly committed to equality (all Romans were citizens of the Empire, with the right to vote), and yet their society was highly stratified by wealth and power. Wine was therefore an apt symbol of the Roman Empire: elitist and yet egalitarian, available to all and yet a status symbol for the wealthy few.
In 170 CE, there was a huge wine tasting in Rome. Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman emperor, sent his personal doctor, Galen, to find the best glass of wine available. Galen was one of history’s most important doctors—he pioneered the infamous theory of the “four humors,” according to which sick patients were supposed to have blood drawn to restore the “balance” in their bodies. Galen also used wine as a disinfectant, noting that it seemed to cure gangrene. Galen believed that the best wine was also the best medicine. After tasting dozens of wines, he found one for Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was supposed to drink the wine constantly, and pour it on any wounds he acquired.
It’s interesting that wine continued to be regarded as a medicine even during the time of the Roman Empire, when it was clearly being enjoyed as an intoxicating beverage. While this emphasis on the medicinal powers of wine might seem odd by modern standards, wine actually was medicinal, insofar as it contained no infectious diseases, and was therefore a safer alternative to water, which carried diphtheria, cholera, and other dangerous bacteria.
In the years following Marcus Aurelius’ death, the Roman Empire fell into a state of disarray. Northern (Germanic) tribes attacked Roman troops, diminishing the size of the empire. While tribes disrupted Roman trade routes, the culture of wine in Rome remained very strong. One reason for this was the rise of Christianity. Wine has an important place in Christianity—indeed, Jesus Christ’s first Biblical miracle was the transformation of water into wine. Wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, and—in the ritual of communion—becomes the blood of Christ. Partly as a result of the prevalence of Christianity in the Western world, wine remained a staple of the Western diet in the late Roman empire and into the Middle Ages.
Standage comfortably jumps through the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, dealing with Christ and the rise of Christianity in only a few sentences. While this might seem like bad history writing, Standage’s project seems to inherently involve condensing and glossing over certain parts of history in order to keep the book short and fast-moving. It’s also worth noting that Standage’s “history of the world” is more a history of the Western world, as the arcs of history he traces are all rather Eurocentric.
Although Christianity was the largest and most influential religion in Europe, it faced cultural and (in some cases) military competition from Islam. The founder of Islam, Muhammad, commanded his followers, the Muslims, to refrain from drinking alcohol of any kind, calling it an “abomination.” There were complex cultural reasons for Islam’s rejection of wine. In general, however, Islam turned its back on “the old notions of sophistication,” of which wine was a powerful symbol—and wine, as a clear symbol of Christianity, posed an obvious threat to Islamic values. Despite Muhammad’s ban on wine and alcohol, he was rumored to have enjoyed Spanish wines in his late years—this caused some Muslim scholars to argue that Muhammad placed a ban on drinking to excess, not drinking itself.
Much like the Greeks and the Romans, the Muslims tried to distinguish themselves from their rivals, the Christians, and vice-versa. But unlike the Romans, the Muslims didn’t adopt their rivals’ beverages—on the contrary, they refused to drink alcohol of any kind, viewing it as a symbol of decadence, and sinfulness. Amusingly, Standage notes that even Muhammad might not have been able to follow his own rules—the relationship between alcohol and religion is a complex one, and an issue that Standage doesn’t delve too deeply into.
Wine remains the quintessential beverage in the Mediterranean, usually consumed in moderation and with meals. In Northern Europe, on the other hand, beer remains the most popular drink. Wine’s influence on culture can be detected at any formal dinner—at such an event, wine, not beer, is the alcohol of choice. Wine is a symbol of sophistication, power, and social status. It’s also an opportunity for the powerful to show their taste—being able to identify wines is still a mark of a cultured person, just as it was among the ancient Romans.
Standage ends his chapters on wine with a summary of his main points. Wine has always been a drink for sophisticated people who want to talk about sophisticated things, and from the time of the Greeks to the present day, people have demonstrated their intelligence and culture through wine—first by drinking any wine at all, and later (as wine became more available), by choosing the right wine.