This proposition would have struck the author of Proverbs as rum: 'Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow? Who hath contentions? Who hath babbling? Who hath wounds without cause? Who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine . . . Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast' (Proverbs 23.29-35).
There speaks experience. Ancient Greeks, wine drinkers to a man, developed the nautical theme. The young men at one party became so drunk that they imagined they were at sea - wine-dark, no doubt - in a storm. Convinced that they had better lighten ship in case it foundered, they hurled all the furniture out of the window, which was carried off as jetsam by the gathering crowd. Still half-seas-over next day when the magistrates arrived, but let off with a wigging, they said they would erect altars to them as saviours if ever they made port.
The Romans came late to the wine party - around the second century BC - but they caught up fast. Bacchanalia (orgies in honour of Bacchus) were banned in 186BC; Mark Antony was famous for throwing up in the Senate after all-nighters; and the satirist Juvenal was soon describing late-night journeys home through Rome in all too familiar terms. The drunken bully, itching for a fight, avoids the wealthy with their slave retinue but 'I, with my feeble little candle or only the moon for light' am fair game. 'He blocks my way, tells me to stop. 'Where are you from?' he roars. 'Eeuugh] You been eating Indian? Speak up] No answer, then? Speak, or I'll kick your teeth in]' Speak or say nothing - it's all the same. He'll beat you up anyway, then irately sue you for assault.'
The record of beer-drinkers seems modest by comparison. In second millennium BC Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), barley beer vied with date-palm wine as the favourite drink. People did not meet in inns to fight, however, but to plot, and the innkeepers (always female) were required on pain of death to arrest all conspirators. In the code of Hammurabi (c. 1790BC) there was a punishment for watering the beer - death (appropriately) by drowning. Customers were also adjured 'not to urinate in the inn in the presence of their wife, but to sprinkle it to the left and right of the doorposts'.
But the great beer-drinkers of the ancient Mediterranean world were the Egyptians. Tomb frescoes show them keeling over from the stuff, but they are not known for their violent behaviour in the streets afterwards. The beer was sweetish, non-fizzy and thick with impurities (it had to be drunk through a special filtering straw), but of decent quality and cheap. Even the Greek historian Diodorus, from Sicily, praised it as 'in smell and sweetness not much inferior to wine'. The ancient brewing methods are still used to produce a Nubian beer known as 'booza'.
To Greeks and Romans, however, beer was a drink for barbarians - Germans, Gauls, Thracians - men beyond the pale. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Germans showed no self-control whatsoever and their drinking bouts lasted all day and night - so just supply their wants 'and you will gain as easy a victory through their vices as your arms'. Flaunting their superiority, aristocratic Greeks and Romans took pride in regulating their wine intake (there was nothing one could do about the young, or the lower classes, of course). It was consumed in the civilised context of the symposium (male drinking party) and always mixed with water: two or three parts of water to one of wine was regarded as acceptable, one to one going it a bit, and one to two outrageous (it was even decreed for a Greek community in south Italy that no one was allowed to drink unwatered wine except on pain of death - or prescription).
Here one became civilly plastered in the presence of beautiful (and sexually available) youths, to the accompaniment of music, poetry, cultured conversation and political wheeler-dealing.
Excessive drinking was frowned upon. Plato wanted to forbid wine to those under 18, offer it in moderation up to 30, and remove restrictions only after 40. The doctor Hippocrates records the case of a man who died after over-indulging in sex and wine. He complained of stiffness, vomiting, insomnia, palpitations, delirium and incoherent speech. Probably just the sex, but it does sound like alcohol poisoning.
So Greeks were shocked by people like Alexander the Great, a legendary hooverer who killed his best friend Cleitus during an orgy, or like the Persians, who when they had taken a decision sober, sensibly reexamined it next day drunk, and vice-versa. The Egyptian upper classes, who drank wine and not beer, were famous for their riotous parties. One tomb fresco shows a lady ordering 18 glasses of wine and other women publicly throwing up. With their heads fashionably crowned with cone-shaped knobs of tallow wax impregnated with myrrh, which was topped up by slaves as it melted and slid alluringly down the cheeks, they must have made today's average beery Saturday night drunk look irresistible.
The author lectures in classics at Newcastle University and is co- founder of Friends of Classics.
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