Epic Potery: Drinking with the Ancients

David Butterfield

For all that lofty talk of culture, sophistication, and temperance, the Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t hold back on the drink front. Wine wasn’t just something to be piously poured in ritual libations by religious devotees. In fact, although these people did regard wine as the guaranteed marker of civilised society – what separated cultivated humans, they thought, from barbarous brutes and the animal world – this self-same drink could swiftly transform these high-brow intellectuals into the most low-life bibbers, topers and poters of all. With such a welter of material on offer, then, why shouldn’t we wade a while amid the wine-soaked annals of Greco-Roman oenophilia?

A Bacchanal, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen the Elder, 1610s (Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY, USA).

Let’s begin with the Ancient Greeks. A glance at the sheer richness of their language shows where their passions lay. There is the wonderful, catch-all term kraipalē (κραιπάλη), which means not just a serious drinking bout, but also drunkenness and – perforce – a terrible hangover (as in the Latin crapula and the woefully under-used English crapulence). But there are many handily specific terms: oinophlugein (“to bubble or boil with wine”), karēbarō (καρηβαρῶ, “to have a heavy head from drinking”, whether sloshed or hangover-struck), apokraipalismos (ἀποκραιπαλισμός, “the sleeping off of a hangover”),[1] and the wonderful one-word command oinopotēteon (οἰνοποτητέον, “wine must be drunk!”). This terminology alone gives us clear evidence that the Greeks had a colourful, experience-laden sense of the pleasures and dangers of intoxication.

Bacchus, Caravaggio, c.1596 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

Such candour springs from their god-given assurance about drinking: the Greeks believed that a deity – Dionysus (a.k.a. Bacchus) – had honoured them exclusively with the divine prize of wine. So, with friends like these, why hold back? Leading politicians and statesmen certainly didn’t. Despite his Macedonian heritage, Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) went loco with the best of the Greeks. That (in)famously valiant conqueror, who redefined the boundaries of the world known to Greek-speakers, often put in such a session that he slept for two days and nights unbroken. Philip (382–336), his wine-bibbing father, had already prompted the orator Demosthenes (384–322) to remark that “heavy drinking is an excellent quality in a sponge but not a king”.[2] On one drunken bender, egged on by his partner-in-mischief Thais, Alexander burned down Persepolis in 330 BC: it’s clearly a big night if you end up unwittingly securing the fall of the Achaemenid Empire.[3] Yet more dramatically, Alexander himself – according to one account – brought on his early death at 32 by drinking a separate toast to each of his twenty dinner guests one by one, and then finishing off a twelve-pint pitcher of unmixed wine.[4]

The burning of Persepolis, Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse, 1890 (priv. coll.). Alexander lifts Thais (like a second row in the lineout) to get the blaze going.

Taking inspiration from Greek bibulosity, the Roman world – and we really must ignore its earnest browbeating on the matter – also offers up an infamous roll-call of committed drinkers: think, for instance, of the dictatorial Sulla (138–78 BC), the idealistic Cato (the Younger,  95–46 BC), the libertine Mark Antony (83–30 BC), and of course more emperors than not. But hold up: don’t we find the Epicurean Lucretius (c.94-55 BC) speaking of “the vehement violence of vino”, who describes its bouquet as “like a death-dealing blow”,[5]? Or doesn’t the Stoic Seneca (c.4 BC–AD 65) warn that “being drunk is nothing other than voluntary madness”?[6] True, yes… but these ivory-tower tut-tutters are out of step with what actually happened on the ground. The lyric poet Horace could scarcely write an ode without wine spilling onto, and indeed into, his verse. And Ovid, when talking about how the Ides (15th) of March was a traditional day for a communal drinking session (until, that is, the death of one Julius C. rather put a dampener on proceedings), can’t help but add that he was recently involved in the very revels he relates – a romp where “you’ll find the sort of man who drinks the age of Nestor (one cup per year), or the sort of woman who is turned into a Sibyl by her cup-count.”[7] Given that Ovid thought Nestor lived to over 200, and that Sibyl tapped out at 1,000,[8] it is fair to say that he was among a crowd that didn’t mess about…

Achilles giving Nestor the prize for wisdom, Joseph-Désiré Court, 1824 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France). Dress codes allowed for more liberal interpretation in antiquity.

But among the heavyweights, the leader of the pack was Maximinus Thrax (ruled 235–8), who is said to have filled his (alleged) 7ft10 (2.39m?!) frame with a daily dose of 60 pints of wine. As for the perverted princeps Tiberius (Claudius Nero, ruled AD 14–37), his habits saw his name transformed by the haters into Biberius Caldius Mero, or rather “Mr Wine-Woozy Drinkypops”.

B.G. Whitfield’s whimsical attempt to rank the best Roman wines as per the grands crus classés of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification (Classical Handbook for Sixth Forms, Blackwell, Oxford, 1956). There are indeed some “super seconds” in play.

Ancient literature is no less sozzled with wine. Poetry was written to be read – or sung – over alcohol, and it doesn’t hold back on applying the peer pressure. Even in Homer, the founding father of western literature, many of the major players spend much of the narrative drinking – Agamemnon, Aeneas, Idomeneus and especially King ‘mine’s-a-pint’ Nestor. The Trojan Queen Hecuba even tries to get her son Hector to drink before his high-stakes showdown with Paris. Odysseus, (anti)hero of the Odyssey, can scarcely put his drink down as he is buffeted from sea to shore. For a poet who thought it obvious to describe the Mediterranean Sea as “wine-dark” (οἴνοψ, oinops, literally “wine-looking”), such characters come as no surprise. Still, it was said that if you recited a particular verse from Homer’s Iliad (8.170) three times before you drank, it was quite impossible to get drunk. But given that the line runs τρὶς δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀπ᾽ Ἰδαίων ὀρέων κτύπε μητίετα Ζεὺς (“thrice then did Zeus the counsellor thunder from the Idan mountains”), it’s not exactly clear which committee came up with this and why. Far better to go hard or go Homer.

A symposiast has a shot at kottabos: tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, c. 500 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Ancient drinking was a competitive field, even inspiring its own game, kottabos. This was, in effect, premium beer pong, in which increasingly drunk competitors flung their wine dregs at a precariously balanced target in the centre of the room. Miss and need another go? Better down another draught. At such night-long symposia things naturally got messy. Indeed, Greece of the 5th century BC had something of a binge-drinking problem: to judge from their art, vomiting was a common inconvenience to proceedings. Ceramic pottery immortalises revellers vomiting into vessels, over togas and onto feet – both their own and those of unhappily positioned courtesans.

Pace yourself during the drinking songs: interior of the Brygos Kylix, Athens, c.480 BC (found in Italy and now in the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany).

The Romans, naturally enough, sought to be more pragmatic at their convivia. The architect Vitruvius (c.70s–10s BC) recommended that high-end dining rooms be fitted with several drains, along with charcoal floors to absorb all wine spilt, dribbled or, er, orally reproduced. This was a world of wipe-down surfaces. You may well have heard the legend that the Romans had a room called the vomitorium – a space that did what it said on the tin for those needing to pop out for a tactical chun evacuation. Alas, this is a mere myth,[9] but stomach-clearing emetics were not a rarity.

A clutch of Roman amphorae (often used for wine), preserved in Pompeii, 1st cent. AD.

So what were these debauchees drinking? Wine – red, white and ‘brown’ – usually fermented for a week or so before being sealed in jars. Remarkably, however, all ancient wines were mixed with water – sometimes even seawater, as on the island of Cos. It’s telling that krasi, the modern Greek for wine, ultimately means “mixed”. Unmixed wine was deemed dangerous: many a Greek poem lamented it as the cause of an untimely death. Even Cleomenes (died 490 BC), the hardman King of Sparta, couldn’t handle wine “in the Scythian fashion”, i.e. without water, instead tippling his way into lunacy. Given such risks, unmixed wine was reserved only for drinking forfeits. Yet not all were amused by these larks: the no-nonsense philosopher Empedocles (c.494–434 BC) once attended a banquet where drinks had to be either downed or poured over the head. Yes, he went along with the horseplay that night but – rather bad form, this – the next day had both the host and the MC summarily executed. A rather better route towards temperance was provided by the so-called Pythagorean Cup, said to be devised by the leftfield philosopher Pythagoras of Samos (570–c.490 BC). This was a trick vessel that duped and mocked the would-be drinker if he or she was too greedy for more: pour a little in the cup, and all would proceed fine and dandy, but pour yourself a measure too large, and the whole contents would suddenly drain from a hidden hole in the base. Not for nothing was it also called the Tantalus Cup!

Crib sheet for mastering the Pythagorean Cup.

Spirits, or hard liquors, seem to have been unknown to the Greeks and Romans – for better or worse; as for beer, it was dismissed as the drink of madmen, barbarians, or both. And what of cocktails? Er, yes… of a kind. The Greeks often turned to kukeōn, a drink of wine curiously mixed with grated goat’s cheese, barley meal and a splash of honey. If perhaps you’ll pass on having a glass, the Romans can offer you the much more potable mulsum: wine mixed with honey, spices and iced water (or snow), an apres-ski classic avant-ski.

Circe offering the cup to Odysseus, John William Waterhouse, 1891 (“Gallery Oldham”, UK; the painting was purchased from the artist at the Oldham Spring Exhibition of 1892, and has never left the town – where I was lucky enough to gaze up at it on a primary-school trip c.1991).

Since heavy drinking had heavy consequences, the Greeks were seriously invested in hangover cures. But only one really won their heart: cabbage. Just boil it up and chow it down. An odd choice, but experimentation reveals its wisdom, however unappealing the plate proffered. On the Roman side, many spoke passionately of a morning fry-up – of canaries and other songbirds, that is. More challenging is the hairiest-of-dogs advice from know-it-all medic Hippocrates (c.460–375 BC): give those folk who are grimly hanging a frothy kotulē (half-pint) of neat wine to quaff.[10] We can only guess how well that stayed down.

The Hippocratic Oath, given in a cruciform layout (Vatican, Urbinas Graecus 64, fol. 116r, 12th cent.).

The ever-inventive Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) saw a different way out of the problem: eating some owl eggs that have been soaked for three days in wine will be sure to put you off the stuff for good.[11] But if you’re still partial to a drink, why not stay ahead of the game and guard against industrial inebriation? Pliny’s got your back: just roast and eat a sheep lung – or have a snifter of some swallow-beak dust – whichever is closer to hand. If that seems a little bit too punchy, not to worry, you can instead ingest five or seven bitter almonds. This nutty chaser will set you right up: but perish the fellow (we must infer) who miscounts and ends up eating six.

Relative prices for wines in Diocletian’s price edict of AD 301 (prices given in denarii communes, an accounting unit rather than an actual coin; drawn from the article of Antony Kropff).

The Greeks and Romans enjoyed plenty of merriment, then, amidst all their marble, mathematics and mindfulness. So next time you find yourself knee-deep in unmixed wine, toast the drink of the uncouth and ungodly – and steel yourself for the madness that must follow…

David Butterfield is Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Classics. If and when he does, he drinks to remember.

(With thanks to a former pupil for wearing the t-shirt some years ago that first introduced him to the enigmatic phrase “Go hard or go Homer”.)

The Champion of the Thames, King St, Cambridge. The much-quoted inscription to the left reads: “This HOUSE is dedicated to those splendid FELLOWS who make DRINKING a pleasure, who reach CONTENTMENT before CAPACITY, and who, whatever the DRINK, can take it, hold it, enjoy it and STILL remain GENTLEMEN.”


1 Or, as Liddell and Scott have it, “sleeping off a debauch.”
2 Plutarch, Demosthenes 16.4.
3 Told first and most fully by Diodorus Siculus 17.72.
4 The story is said to have been recounted by the shadowy anti-Alexandrian historian Niobule: see, if you can, the account of Epiphorus in Fragmenta Graecorum Historicorum 126 F 3.
5 vehemens violentia vini (De rerum natura 4.482); odor vini plagae mactabilis instar (6.805) – OK, in this latter case, he means it has this effect on those with a fever.
6 nihil aliud est ebrietas quam voluntaria insania (Moral Epistles 83.18).
7 invenies illic qui Nestoris ebibat annos, / quae sit per calices facta Sibylla suos, Fast. 3.533–4.
8 Met. 12.187–8; 14.144–6
9 In actuality the term describes the channel by which the audience enter and exit from a theatre.
10 Epidemics 2.6.30.
11 Natural History 30.51.