There’s an old Latin expression, in vino veritas, “truth in wine,” a reminder that we may slip and tell somebody what we truly think when we’ve had too much to drink. Latin has bequeathed us about 60 percent of our English words, and those ver-/vin- roots are the source of VERify/VERily/VERy, VINe/VINegar/VINtage, and even the word WINe itself.
But the Romans didn’t give us MEREly the vocabulary of wine (MERE, by the way, is from Lat. merum, which meant undiluted wine or anything in its pure form). Much of what we know about viticulture (from Lat. vitis/grapevine and cultura/cultivation), about training and pruning vines, the importance of soil and climate, and the winemaking process, comes from Rome and other countries around the Mediterranean that ultimately became part of the Roman Empire.
Our earliest archaeological evidence for the cultivation of wine grapes dates to ca. 6,000 B.C. in the area of modern Georgia. The oldest known winery, dated 4,000 B.C., was found in a cave in adjacent Armenia, a region later annexed by Rome. In the centuries following, domesticated vineyards and wine production proliferated throughout Asia Minor, the near east, Egypt, and into westernmost Europe.
Wine appears as both dietary staple and intoxicant in Homeric epic, our earliest European literature. In the Iliad Greek and Trojan warriors alike consume wine to satisfy their thirst and bolster their spirits, and Homer refers often to the “wine dark sea” over which they sailed their ships. In Book Nine of the Odyssey, when the cyclops Polyphemus had captured Odysseus and his men, imprisoned them in his cave, and began cannibalizing them, Odysseus offered him a jug of potent wine. Polyphemus soon fell into a drunken sleep and the Greeks plunged a fiery stake into his one eye, blinding him and enabling their escape.
By the beginning of the historical period, as historian Jeremy Paterson has remarked, “wine had already become a fundamental component of classical culture.” Kevin Begos, Apalachicola resident, OENoPHILe (from Greek, wine/oenos + lover/phil-), and former AP correspondent, has a fascinating chapter on “Archaeobiology and Ancient Wine” in his new book, "Tasting the Past" (See sidebar; copies are available at Downtown Books). Begos surveys research on the varieties of wine found in King Tut’s tomb, clay tablets documenting the wine trade in Mesopotamia, the 5th-century Greek historian Herodotus’ account of recycling wine jars from Egypt to Syria, and Plato’s recommendation against boys drinking alcohol before the age of 18.
In Greece wine was typically served following the main course and, as in Rome, generally diluted with water; consuming the beverage neat was regarded as barbaric and unhealthy physically and mentally. While moderation was encouraged in both cultures, Romans commonly drank before dinner as well as during the meal itself. Some wines, whites and reds, were smoked, salted, or flavored with resin - like modern retsina. Wealthy Romans sometimes drank theirs chilled, using snow brought down from the mountains and stored in underground refrigeration pits.
Drinking might continue into the evening, with conversation or music and other entertainments. The Greeks had a word for that custom which the Romans cheerfully adopted, symposium, literally “drinking together” (as in SYMbiotic and POtion).
Ancient interest in wine was not only culinary but also medicinal and religious. The drink was frequently prescribed for sedative and analgesic purposes, undiluted or blended with herbs believed to have further health benefits. In Book Four of the Odyssey Helen mixes an unidentified pharmakon/drug (source of our word PHARMACeutical) into a serving bowl of wine, “to calm the pain and worry” of her husband Menelaus and their guest Telemachus, son of Odysseus, both of them distraught that Odysseus had not yet returned home from the Trojan war.
Wine’s mind-altering properties led early man to conceive of it as magical. Dionysus or Bacchus, the Greek wine god, was revered for relieving men of pain and sorrow. In Italy he was associated with Liber, god of fertility, wine, and LIBERty, who can LIBERate us from our woes and inhibitions. The god was in the wine, cultists believed. The more wine one consumed, the more of the god’s spirit entered the worshipper’s body. As wine was infused, the cultist was ENTHUSed - the Greek word that gives us ENTHUSiasm meant literally having god (theos, as in THEology/aTHEist) inside (en-) oneself.
In Rome by the early 2nd century B.C., the rituals of Bacchus, called Bacchanalia, had become far too enthusiastic to suit conservative-minded senators. The Bacchic rites were characterized by drunkenness, nudity, violence, and sexual extravagance. In 186 B.C. the senate issued an emergency decree outlawing the cult and ordering mass executions, driving the cultists underground. The incident set a precedent for the government’s later suppression of Christians, whose rituals, including the consumption of wine in the Eucharist, had been inspired in part by Dionysiac practice.
The actor-director Orson Welles had a connection to both the Romans and their favored beverage. Before gaining fame for his 1938 radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which panicked listeners who believed Martians were actually attacking Earth, and his title role in the 1941 movie “Citizen Kane,” Welles had in 1937 directed and played the part of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Presented in modern dress to evoke the menace of the Nazis and Italy’s fascists, the production received extraordinarily positive reviews, despite the miscue during one performance in which Welles, as Brutus, accidentally stabbed Joseph Holland, the actor playing Caesar; it took Holland a month to recover and return to the stage.
Less dramatic but memorable in their own way were the television commercials Welles did between 1978 and 1981 for Paul Masson wines. Sipping a glass of burgundy or chablis, with Beethoven’s 5th in the background, Welles touted the craftsmanship of the Masson wines, repeating in each ad the vintner’s assurance, “We will sell no wine before its time.” The advertising campaign succeeded at first, but ultimately Welles was fired after a few too many inebriated outtakes. The legacy of those ads lives on, however, and I’ve often myself adapted the slogan Welles made famous as the cocktail hour approaches: we drink no wine before its time, but, hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure 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. Rick and his wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.