In an ode celebrating the suicide of the brilliant, but to most Romans subversive, Egyptian queen Cleopatra in 30 B.C., Horace proclaimed, nunc est bibendum, “now we must drink.” The poet even urged his countrymen to kick off their sandals and dance a jig over the monarch’s demise! The Latin word meaning “to drink” was bibere, and it’s given us our verb imBIBE, as well as the adjective BIBulous, for someone who drinks too much, and BIB, to be worn by infants and other sloppy drinkers. From BIBERe too come BEVERage and Spanish BEBER. Cicero’s proverbial admonition aut BIBat aut abeat, “he should either drink or leave,” was the ancient equivalent to “either fish or cut bait” or “either . . . or get off the pot!”
Cleopatra, seductress of Julius Caesar and later his lieutenant Mark Antony, doubtless enjoyed adult beverages, just as many Apalachicolans do. And she is perhaps more likely than Caesar or Antony, whose favorite potion was wine (Latin vinum), to have sampled a local beer or two. Indeed the malted brew, in ancient times usually made from barley, or barley bread, sometimes from rye or wheat, was an important element of the Egyptian diet.
The brewing of beer, which may have been discovered accidentally from the natural fermentation of grain, dates back to the neolithic, when farming replaced the nomadic lifestyle of the old stone age and cereal crops came to be routinely cultivated. Archaeological evidence suggests that beer was being produced in Iran as much as 7,000 years ago and in Europe as early as 3,000 B.C. Sumerian texts discovered in 1974 show that Syrians were producing beer as early as 2500 B.C. In the Akkadian Atrahasis epic of the 2nd millennium, the mother goddess Nintu is depicted as thirsting for beer, and the superhuman hero of the later Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh is advised by Siduri, goddess of beer and wine, to “fill (his) belly and make merry.”
Near Easterners drank the beverage with a straw, sometimes from a shared bowl, to avoid the sediment and grains floating on the surface that were common in fresh brew. Ha, I recall being told, and believing, way back in my college days that drinking brewskies through a straw would intensify or at least hasten the buzz!
Greeks and Romans knew something about beer but it was not a favorite, though some Roman legionnaires developed a taste for it on tour in provincial outposts, possibly in part because it was cheaper than wine. Romans took the names of local beers from the natives. The 1st-century A.D. polymath Pliny the Elder wrote about an Egyptian beer called zythum (which just happens to be the final word in the Oxford Latin Dictionary) and a variety in Gaul known as cervesia or cervesa, source of the Spanish word cerveza that you’ll find on your frosty bottle of Corona! A flask from Roman Gaul bears the motto (CIL 13.10018), OSPITA REPLE (as in REPLEnish) LAGONA CERVESA, “Guest, refill your bottle with beer!”
That same exhortation will doubtless be repeated many times over at the upcoming first and slated to be annual SGI Brewfest scheduled for Saturday, April 30, at Paddy’s Raw Bar and Journeys of St. George Island (www.sgibrewfest.com). Billed as “a tasting festival promoting the appreciation of craft beers,” there’ll be live music and lots of food, in the Roman tradition, with all proceeds going to the Franklin County Humane Society.
On March 22, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously remarked, “I think this would be a good time for a beer,” and signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, legalizing after 13 years of Prohibition the sale, purchase, and drinking of the malty brew. The law went into effect on April 7, which is recognized around the U.S. as National Beer Day. April 6 is “New Beer’s Eve,” so you can begin celebrating even earlier at any of our local taverns (Latin tabernae) and at our very own Oyster City Brewing Company. And come April 30, on sunny St. George, please remember, if only for the sake of our poor homeless catti et canes (cats and dogs), that NUNC est bibendum!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure there came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,”ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.