One of the most enjoyable aspects of my role as Academic Coordinator for the Museum of Art & Archaeology involves interacting with Museum visitors from all over the world about virtually any piece of the human mosaic. One such piece that turns up regularly is that of wine. As a native Missourian I’ve been interested in the development of Missouri’s wine industry and culture for decades, and now it seems to have taken on even more significance as a source of living wage jobs and an indicator of sustainable development. So it seemed to make sense for the Academic Coordinator to go back to basics on this fascinating topic of universal interest. Dr. Benton Kidd, Associate Curator of Ancient Art, had created a wonderful display for a university class showing antiquities associated with the famous Greek symposium, and the display opened a window into a fascinating world that still holds widespread interest and value.
“The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine,” wrote Greek historian Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. Wandering Greeks probably acquired the art of wine-making during sojourns in Egypt and Phoenicea, then brought viticulture back with them to develop and diffuse throughout Europe. Missouri communities now emphasizing wine-growing and production are therefore literally rooting themselves in a long cultural tradition that stretches far back to the beginnings of recorded human history. I’ll drink to that….
The metaphor seems appropriate; wine was indeed rooted deeply in Greek geography and culture. First of all, wine was not just a drink; it was a celebration of agriculture and life itself. As Missouri wine-makers are increasingly learning as they refine their art, the Greeks quickly realized how the local ecosystems of their hilly, sunny islands affected the unique characteristics of their wine. Like French vineyards in Bourdeaux and Champagne, German wineries along the Rhine and Mosel Rivers dating back to medieval monasteries, and now Missouri wine regions, the ancient Greeks created Appellations of Origin and took them quite seriously. They imposed strong penalties on violators in order to ensure the authenticity of these wines and to keep the brand name strong and valuable.
Such careful attention to the authenticity of Greek wine quite naturally made the wine an economic commodity of great exchange value. Some scholars even suggest that the wine trade created the surplus value to support Greece’s Golden Age as Greek society moved from Pasture to Polis. Archaeological evidence from numerous shipwrecks and the Museum’s own collections, as well as textual accounts, reveal that Greek wine was traded throughout the known ancient world. Form follows function as tall, cylindrical amphorae made it easy to stack and ship the precious cargo throughout the Mediterranean region. Homer noted that wine was used to barter commercially for precious metals, leather, and even slaves. In fact, the islands of the Aegean were so famous throughout the ancient world for the quality of their wine that Homer referred to the Aegean as the “Wine-dark Sea.” Like the Hollywood movie industry, this highly organized, lucrative wine trade spread Greek culture throughout the ancient world.
Wine expanded its cultural sphere well beyond economics, and even became associated for the Greeks with social status and religion. The symposium was the major event of social life for significant Athenian males. Like a fraternity or private American country club, friendships were forged and alliances made through symposia. The symposium not surprisingly followed some highly stylized rituals. The person selected as master of the symposium (the symposiarch) supervised the mixing of the wine with water, insuring that the mix would encourage good conversation but ideally not strong enough to lead to drunkenness and debauchery. He would decide how many kraters of wine to mix, how big the cups would be, and how frequently to pour rounds, thereby helping to determine the overall tone of the party. Perhaps today’s students could take a page from the symposium model and raise their game a bit; there is no reliable evidence that anyone ever yelled out “chug, chug, chug!” at a symposium.
Wine even extended its influence to the highest planes of human existence. Scholars have long suspected that the god Dionysus fused a local Greek nature god with a more potent force imported later in Greek history (after the Olympian gods) from Phrygia (the central area of modern day Turkey) or Thrace. On the one hand, Dionysus was the god of fertility, agriculture, and wine. On the other hand, Dionysus also participated in the mystery religions, such as those practiced at Eleusis, featuring ecstasy, liberation from quotidian life by means of physical and spiritual intoxication, and initiation into esoteric rites. As the character Tiresias declares in Euripedes’ The Bacchae:
Young man, among human beings two things
stand out preeminent, of highest rank.
Goddess Demeter is one—she’s the earth
(though you can call her any name you wish),
and she feeds mortal people cereal grains.
The other one came later, born of Semele—
he brought with him liquor from the grape
something to match the bread from Demeter.
He introduced it among mortal men.
When they can drink up what streams off the vine,
unhappy mortals are released from pain.
It grants them sleep, allows them to forget
their daily troubles. Apart from wine,
there is no cure for human hardship.
In Vineyard Tales, wine expert Gerald Asher writes (278) that “sacrament or not, breaking bread and drinking wine, one with another, is the most basic act of community.” Certainly celebrations of Passover and the Eucharist reflect that understanding. At some point, people sat down together to share the fruits of the vine and the harvest. Sitting on a hill with friends and a glass of Missouri wine binds me to that golden age and ancient Greek community, but so does peering silently into an exquisite Museum display of the stuff of their lives. It’s only a small window, you see, but it offers a remarkable view….