Around 870 BCE, King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria gave an enormous feast. The feast, which went on for ten days, was meant to celebrate the building of a new Assyrian capital in Nimrud. The King served huge quantities of food: thousands of sheep, lambs, ducks, chickens, etc.—but the most important part of the meal was the wine that Ashurnasirpal served. While beer was the most common drink at the time, the King made sure that wine—previously a rarity in the region—was readily available at this feast. By serving wine, the King proved his wealth and worldliness. Ever since this feast, Standage concludes, wine has been a symbol of power, sophistication, and wealth.
Standage worked as a journalist for a variety of British newspapers and magazines, and the beginning of this chapter shows his journalistic training. Standage begins “en medias res,” meaning that he begins in the middle of a scene, so that we’re more quickly drawn into the flow of the narrative. It’s exactly the kind of opening to an article one might expect to read in The Economist—snappy, suspenseful, and informative.
It is not known how, exactly, wine was invented. It’s been around at most since 6,000 BCE, when the invention of pottery made it feasible to transport. The earliest evidence of wine comes from a large pottery vessel from 5,400 BCE, found in the Zagros Mountains. It’s speculated that wine was first popularized in Turkey, Greece, and later Egypt. The process of making wine by crushing grapes and leaving them to ferment was easiest in warm, sunny climates, but even so wine became a mark of status because of its rarity. Kings were buried with wine, and served the drink at feasts. After King Ashurnasirpal II’s feast, however, wine largely changed from a religious drink to a social one—albeit one that was highly expensive.
From the very beginning, wine is an expensive drink, to be consumed by a lucky few. Unlike beer, wine doesn’t become a drink for common people during ancient times—by and large, it remains a drink for the rich and powerful. This is interesting, since even today wine is considered an “elite” drink, fit for business meetings, weddings, or formal dinners. In immediately setting up a contrast between wine and beer, Standage seems to be saying that this present status reflects wine’s origins as a royal beverage.
In general, wine never became as popular and widespread in Mesopotamian society as it did in Mediterranean societies. This meant that wine remained a luxury, fit only for kings. By the first millennium BCE, wine had become the most cultured and civilized beverage in Mesopotamia.
Standage’s scope broadens in this second chapter. He includes fewer details about the process of making wine, or about the details of life in the ancient world, instead, focusing on the overall reputation of a drink—in this case wine—in Mesopotamia.
It’s usually believed that Western philosophy (Western ideas of ethics, science, law, politics, etc.) began in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE in Greece. Greece was also among the first societies to divide the known world into a civilized “West,” and a barbaric “East.” (Even the world “barbaric” is a Greek invention, referring to the foreigners’ inability to speak intelligently). Greeks showed off their sophistication by drinking wine. Wine was an intellectual’s drink—the Greeks liked to participate in symposiums, during which they drank and discussed intellectual matters.
As Standage broadens his narrative, he moves on from Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece. The Greeks, he argues, were obsessed with their own cultural superiority. He suggests that wine was a way for the Greeks to prove their superiority to other peoples: expensive drinks that took a long time to prepare could only be enjoyed by the most elite, sophisticated peoples—Greeks.
In general, wine was a vital part of the Greeks’ belief in their own superiority to the rest of the world—indeed, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote that the Greeks became civilized in the instant that they learned to cultivate olives and grapes. As time went on, wine became more and more available, meaning that it was no longer only available to kings, as it was in Mesopotamia. The Greeks worshipped Dionysus, the god of wine and drama, and believed that wine was the gods’ gift to all mortals. But even though wine became more available, the Greeks still learned how to show off their status based on the type of wine they drank—certain grapes, especially from the islands of Chios and Thasos, were considered particularly rare. In this way, wine continued to be regarded as a mark of culture and intelligence.
This is an important stage in the history of wine—it’s the stage when wine becomes available to a larger group of people. Surprisingly, even though wine becomes less elite (if more people can buy it, it’s less valuable), it still comes to symbolize elitism. It’s worth considering how this happens a little more closely. Wine drinking becomes more stratified in Greece—in other words, people no longer measures themselves based on whether or not they drink wine, but rather, they show off based on what kind of wine they drink. In this way, wine—but only certain expensive types—continues to be a mark of power or sophistication (as it still does today).
The Greeks drank wine by mixing it with water. This mixture was the beverage consumed at the symposium, or intellectual drinking party. Men (no women were allowed) would gather in a private house, recline on chairs, and drink wine, often for many hours. The wine was served in a large bowl, making it easy to dilute the wine with water if need be. A bowl of wine that contained equal parts water and wine was considered to be very strong. It was believed that no human being could drink pure wine without becoming mad and violent—only Dionysus himself could do such a thing safely. Unbeknownst to the Greeks, it was actually life-saving to mix water and wine. By itself, water was dirty and could spread disease—wine purified the water by killing bacteria.
This passage is important for two reasons. First, it reminds us that the Greeks drank wine, but they drank it in a far different way than modern people do: they “cut” it with water. Second, the passage shows us that the Greeks, like so many ancient peoples who consumed alcohol, unwittingly saved themselves from bacterial diseases by drinking wine mixed with water. Sometimes, accidents like this resulted in the prevention of huge outbreaks of disease. Standage returns to this theme again with tea, coffee, and spirits.
At a symposium, the drinkers could indulge in intellectual conversations, but they also enjoyed playing games and improvising poetry and music. A game called kottabos, in which the players had to flick the last drops of wine in their glass at a specific target, was all the rage in ancient Greece, and being talented at the game was considered as impressive as being a good athlete. In general, the symposium was something of a microcosm of Greek society—it had to be carefully controlled (like diluting the wine with water) so that things wouldn’t get out of hand.
The symposium was certainly no only a place for intellectual discussions. People played games and had fun while they drank—some things never change. Standage is usually careful to balance his examples in this way—although he’s about to describe the important intellectual activities that took place at the symposium, he first makes it clear that these examples were only the minority of all cases.
In ancient Greece, the symposium was viewed as an opportunity to discuss profound truth. In Plato’s Symposium, one of the most famous Platonic dialogues, Plato’s mentor Socrates gathers his followers and discusses the history of love. Socrates proves himself to be the best thinker, not only because of the sophistication of his arguments but because he succeeds in drinking wine without collapsing from drunkenness. In the dialogue, Socrates argues that wine is an opportunity for a man to test his character. When a man drinks, he lets loose all his darkest feelings—envy, anger, lust, etc. Thus, by drinking, men can train themselves to control and even overcome these urges.
Socrates’ arguments for drinking wine seem a little paradoxical, but they’re somewhat like the modern notion of a vaccination: people train their bodies and minds to fight drunkenness by getting a little drunk. This is also somewhat similar to the modern idea of “drinking machismo.” In many cultures, it’s arguably a sign of maturity, strength, or sophistication to be able to “hold your liquor”—in other words, to be able to drink a lot and still maintain self-control.
The symposium, in addition to being an opportunity for philosophers to discuss the universe, was an apt symbol of Greek democracy. At a symposium, full of wine, everyone was equal. Yet this equality was limited—only male landowners were allowed to participate in the festivities (women, slaves, and the poor were forbidden). The same was true in Greek society itself: wealthy men could vote, but not women, slaves, or the poor. Plato was suspicious of democracy—he believed that civilization needed order and hierarchy to survive. In his mind, the symposium was an illustration of the best and worst of human nature: the freedom of the mind, but also the chaos of unbridled democracy. Yet despite his misgivings about the structure of the symposium, Plato used the symposium as a model for his famous Academy. There, Plato taught students for many years, always using the same open-ended format that he’d enjoyed as a younger man at symposiums.
For Plato (and for Standage), the symposium was a microcosm for Greek society as a whole. While the Greeks paid lip service to the idea of democracy and equality, the fact remained that only a small group of people could actually vote, or had any real political power at all. The same was true of the symposium: those who made it past the door were equals, but the majority of Greeks never made it that far (no women were allowed, for example). Standage will return to this theme again and again: drinking spaces are miniature versions of society, and like most societies, they depend on excluding certain groups of people from entering.
Wine was the perfect symbol of Greek culture: intellectual and elitist, yet hedonistic. In the centuries following the time of Plato, wine was exported across Europe and the Middle East. Largely because of the intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks, wine continues to be regarded as the beverage of intelligent and sophistication.
We begin to recognize a pattern, as each chapter ends with an extrapolation from the trends Standage has identified. Just as beer remains a drink for plain, common people, wine remains the beverage of choice for the powerful, the elite, and the sophisticated.