A Brief History of Wine

Early foragers and farmers made wine from wild grapes or other fruits. According to archaeological evidence, by 6000 BC grape wine was being made in the Caucasus, and by 3200 BC domesticated grapes had become abundant in the entire Near East. In Mesopotamia, wine was imported from the cooler northern regions, and so came to be known as ‘liquor of the mountains’. In Egypt as in Mesopotamia, wine was for nobles and priests, and mostly reserved for religious or medicinal purposes. The Egyptians fermented grape juice in amphorae which they covered with cloth or leather lids and then sealed up with mud from the Nile. By biblical times, wine had acquired some less dignified purposes. According to the Old Testament, Noah planted a vineyard, and ‘drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent’ (Genesis 9:21). Skip to the New Testament and here is Jesus employed as a wine consultant: ‘And no man putteth new wine into old wineskins: else the wine bursts the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins: but new wine must be put into new skins’ (Mark 2:22).

Many of the grape varieties that are cultivated in modern Greece are similar or identical to those cultivated there in Ancient times. Wine played a central role in Ancient Greek culture, and the vine—which, as in the Near East, had been domesticated by the Early Bronze Age—was widely cultivated. The Minoans, who flourished on the island of Crete from c.2700 to c.1450 BC, imported and exported different wines, which they used not only for recreational but also for religious and ritual purposes. Wine played a similarly important role for the later Myceneans, who flourished on mainland Greece from c.1600 to 1100 BC. In fact, wine was so important to the Greeks as to be personified by a major deity, Dionysus or Bacchus, and honoured with a number of annual festivals. One such festival was the Anthesteria, which, held in February each year, celebrated the opening of wine jars to test the new wine. Active in the 9th century BC, the poet Homer often sung of wine, famously alluding to the Aegean as the ‘wine dark sea’. In the Odyssey, he says that ‘wine can of their wits the wise beguile/ Make the sage frolic, and the serious smile’. In the Works and Days, the poet Hesiod, who lived in the 7th or 8th century BC, speaks of pruning and even of drying the grapes prior to fermentation. The Greeks plainly understood that no two wines are the same, and held the wines of Thassos, Lesbos, Chios, and Mende in especially high regard; Theophrastus, a contemporary and close friend of Aristotle, even demonstrated some pretty clear notions of terroir.

In Ancient Greece, vines were left to their own devices, supported on forked props, or trained up trees. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder describes the Ancient Greek practice of using partly dehydrated gypsum prior to fermentation, and some type of lime after fermentation, to remove acidity—but this was no doubt a relatively recent or infrequent practice. The wine was neither racked nor fined, and it was not uncommon for the drinker to want to pass it through a sieve or strainer. Additives such as aromatic herbs, spice, honey, or a small part of seawater were often added both to improve and preserve the wine—which could also be concentrated by boiling. Finished wine was stored in amphorae lined with resin or pitch, both substances that imparted some additional and characteristic flavour. Generally speaking, wine was sweeter then than it is today, reflecting not only prevalent tastes, but also the ripeness of the grapes, the use of natural yeasts in fermentation, and the lack of temperature control during fermentation. At the same time, wine did come in a wide variety of styles, some of which were markedly austere. To drink undiluted wine was considered a bad and barbarian practice—almost as bad as drinking beer like the Babylonian or Egyptian peasant classes. Wine was diluted with two or three parts of water to produce a beverage with an alcoholic strength of around 3-5%. The comedian Hermippus, who flourished in the golden age of Athens, described the best vintage wines as having a nose of violets, roses, and hyacinths; however, most wine would have turned sour within a year and specific vintages are never mentioned.

Together with the sea-faring Phoenicians, the Ancient Greeks disseminated the vine throughout the Mediterranean, and even named southern Italy Oenotria or ‘Land of Vines’. If wine was important to the Greeks, it was even more so to the Romans, who thought of it as a daily necessity of life and democratized its drinking. They established a great number of Western Europe’s major wine producing regions, not only to provide steady supplies for their soldiers and colonists, but also to trade with native tribes and convert them to the Roman cause. In particular, the trade of Hispanic wines surpassed that even of Italian wines, with Hispanic amphorae having been unearthed as far as Britain and the limes Germanicus or German frontier. In his Geographica (7 BC), Strabo states that the vineyards of Hispania Beatica (which roughly corresponds to modern Andalucia) were famous for their great beauty. The area of Pompeii produced a great deal of wine, much of it destined for the city of Rome, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD led to a dramatic shortage. The people of Rome panicked, uprooting food crops to plant vineyards. This led to a food shortage and wine glut, which in 92 AD compelled the emperor Domitian to issue an edict banning the planting of vineyards in Rome.

The Romans left behind a number of agricultural treatises that provide a wealth of information on Roman viticulture and winemaking. In particular, Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura (c. 160 BC) served as the Roman textbook of winemaking for several centuries. In De Re Rustica, Columella surveyed the main grape varieties, which he divided into three main groups: noble varieties for great Italian wines, high yielding varieties that can nonetheless produce age-worthy wines, and prolific varieties for ordinary table wine. Pliny the Elder, who also surveyed the main grape varieties, claimed that ‘classic wines can only be produced from vines grown on trees’, and it is true that the greatest wines of Campania, such as Caecuban and Falernian, nearly all came from vines trained on trees—often elms or poplars. Both Caecuban and Falernian were white sweet wines, although there also existed a dry style of Falernian. Undiluted Falernian contained a high degree of alcohol; so high that a candle flame could set it alight. It was deemed best to drink Falernian at about 15-20 years old, and another classed growth called Surrentine at 25 years old or more. The Opimian vintage of 121 BC, named after the consul in that year Lucius Opimius, acquired legendary fame, with some examples still being drunk more than 100 years later.

The best wines were made from the initial and highly prized free-run juice obtained from the treading of the grapes. At the other end of the spectrum were posca, a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned to vinegar, and lora, a thin drink or piquette produced from a third pressing of grape skins. Following the Greek invention of the screw, screw presses became common on Roman villas. Grape juice was fermented in large clay vessels called dolia, which were often partially sunk into the ground. The wine was then racked into amphorae for storing and shipping. Barrels invented by the Gauls and, later still, glass bottles invented by the Syrians vied as alternatives to amphorae. As in Ancient Greece, additives were common: chalk or marble to neutralize excess acid; and boiled must, herbs, spice, honey, resin, or seawater to improve and preserve thin offerings. Maderization was common and sought after; at the same time, rooms destined for wine storage were sometimes built so as to face north and away from the sun. Following the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Church perpetuated the knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, first and foremost to provide the blood of Christ for the celebration of Mass.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Corpus Aristotelicum

According to legend, while the infant Plato was sleeping in a bower of myrtles on Mount Hymettus, bees settled upon his lips, auguring the honeyed words that would one day flow through his mouth. In his Lives of Philosophers, Diogenes Laertes says that, in the night before Plato was introduced to him as a pupil, Socrates ‘in a dream saw a swan on his knees, which all at once put forth plumage, and flew away after uttering a loud sweet note.’ Cicero, who was himself one of the greatest stylists in antiquity, lauded Plato’s subtle and mellifluous dialogues, but then added that if Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was ‘a flowing river of gold’. This may come as a surprise to modern readers of Aristotle, whose treatises often seem heavily technical, poorly written, and badly organised – and yet it is difficult to doubt the judgement of a man like Cicero. One can only assume that Cicero had before him works that have since been lost, such as the dialogues that Aristotle is known to have written earlier on in his career, probably while still at the Academy. The few fragments of these dialogues that remain suggest that they were written in a style similar to that of the Son of Apollo, who was then Aristotle’s master.

Whilst the lost works of Aristotle appear to have been intended for publication, this is not the case for the surviving works, the so-called Corpus Aristotelicum, which are not dialogues but technical philosophical treatises from within Aristotle’s school. They were probably lecture notes or student texts, and were almost certainly repeatedly reworked over a period of several years. Although their prose is unembellished, this does not usually detract from their philosophical content, and some scholars even come to admire them for their candour and for their clarity. Aristotle divided his writings into two groups, those intended for the public (‘exoteric’) and those intended for his students and for other specialists (‘esoteric’), and it is possible that all of his extant writings are from the second, esoteric group. According to Strabo and to Plutarch, Aristotle willed his esoteric writings to Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to his student Neleus of Scepsis, who supposedly took them from Athens to Scepsis. Neleus’s heirs hid them in a vault, where they were discovered by the famous book collector Apellicon of Teos some two hundred years later, in the first century BC. According to the story, Apellicon repatriated the dilapidated manuscripts to Athens, wherefrom Sulla, who occupied Athens in 86 BC, removed them to Rome. They were then published by the grammarian Tyrannion of Amisus and, later, by the peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes.

The works in the Corpus Aristotelicum can be classified into one of several groups according to their subject matter. Aristotle referred to the branches of learning as ‘sciences’, which he divided into three groups: theoretical sciences, practical sciences, and productive sciences. Theoretical sciences are concerned with knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and comprise both natural sciences and non-empirical forms of knowledge such as mathematics and ‘first philosophy’ (metaphysics). Practical sciences are concerned with good conduct and action both at the individual level, as in ethics, and at the societal level, as in politics. Productive sciences are concerned with the creation of beautiful or useful artefacts, and include, amongst many others, agriculture, medicine, music, and rhetoric. Logic, that is, the branch of learning that is concerned with the principles of intellectual inquiry, does not fit into this tripartite division of the sciences, but stands apart under the heading of Organon or ‘Tool’.

Not all the works in the Corpus Aristotelicum are considered to be genuine, and the list that follows is composed only of those that are. The works are referred to by their English titles, but their Latin titles and standard abbreviations, which are often used by scholars, are also given. The works are ordered by their Bekker numbers, which are named after the classical philologist August Immanuel Bekker, editor of the Prussian Academy of Sciences edition in Greek of the complete works of Aristotle (1831-1870). The Bekker numbers are based on the page numbers used in the Bekker edition, and take the format of up to four digits, a letter for column ‘a’ or ‘b’, and then the line number. For example, the beginning of On the Soul is 402a1, which corresponds to the first line of the first column on page 402 of the Bekker edition. Bekker numbers are included in all modern editions or translations of Aristotle that are intended for scholarly readers, and enable citations to be cross-checked in any edition or translation that contain the numbers. The equivalent numbering system for the Corpus Platonicum is the Stephanus pagination.

Categories [Categorie, Cat.]
On Interpretation [De Interpretatione, DI]
Prior Analytics [Analytica Priora, APr]
Posterior Analytics [Analytica Posteriora, APo]
Topics [Topica, Top.]
Sophistical Refutations [De Sophisticis Elenchis, SE]
Theoretical Sciences
Physics [Physica, Phys.]
On the Heavens [De Caelo, DC]
Generation and Corruption [De Generatione et Corruptione, Gen. et Corr.]
Meteorology [Meteorologica, Meteor.]
On the Soul [De Anima, DA]
Brief Natural Treatises [Parva Naturalia, PN]
Sense and Sensibilia
On Memory
On Sleep
On Dreams
On Divination in Sleep
On Length and Shortness of Life
On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration
History of Animals [Historia animalium, HA]
Parts of Animals [De Partibus Animalium, PA]
Movement of Animals [De Motu Animalium, MA]
Progression of Animals [De Incessu Animalium, LA]
Generation of Animals [De Generatione Animalium, GA]
Metaphysics [Metaphysica, Met.]
Practical Sciences
Nicomachean Ethics [Ethica Nicomachea, EN]
Eudemian Ethics [Ethica Eudemia, EE]
Politics [Politica, Pol.]
Productive Sciences
Rhetoric [Ars Rhetorica, Rhet.]
Poetics [Ars Poetica, Poet.]

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

Life of Aristotle

I saw the Master there of those who know,
Amid the philosophic family,
By all admired, and by all reverenced;
There Plato too I saw, and Socrates,
Who stood beside him closer than the rest.

Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno IV, verses 131-135.

Aristotle was born in 384 BC at Stageira in Chalcidice, a Grecian colony in the Macedonian region of north-eastern Greece. In 348, Stageira was occupied and destroyed by Philip II of Macedon. Philip later rebuilt the city and freed its inhabitants from slavery in honour of Aristotle, who had been his childhood friend, and whom he had appointed as tutor to his son, the future Alexander the Great.

The Stagirite’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon, the father of Philip, and the profession of medicine was quasi hereditary in his family. His mother, Phaestis, was a woman of aristocratic descent, and he also had one sister, Arimneste, and one brother, Arimnestus. Both ‘Arimneste’ and ‘Arimnestus’ translate as ‘Greatly remembered’, and the parallelism of these names suggests that Aristotle may have been the youngest of the three siblings. Arimneste married Proxenus of Atarneus and had a daughter, Hero, and a son, Nicanor. Hero in turn had a son, the historian Callisthenes of Olynthus, great nephew to Aristotle. Both Nichomachus and Phaestis died when Aristotle was about ten years old, and Aristotle became the ward of Proxenus of Atarneus. Proxenus taught him Greek, rhetoric, and poetry, and thereby complemented the biological education that Nicomachus had been giving him.

In 367, at the age of seventeen, Aristotle went to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy, which had by then already become a pre-eminent centre of learning. Whilst Plato and Aristotle certainly had differences of opinion, there was no lack of cordial appreciation, or of that mutual forbearance which one would expect from men of lofty character. Aristotle remained at the Academy for nearly twenty years and left around the time of Plato’s death in 347. The reasons for his departure are unclear: he may have felt slighted that the scholarchship (or leadership) of the Academy had passed on to Plato’s nephew Speusippus, or he may have opposed Speusippus’ views, or he may have left before Plato’s death because he feared growing anti-Macedonian feelings.

Then in his thirty-seventh year, Aristotle travelled with Xenocrates of Chalcedon to Assos on the north-western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to join the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus. He may or may not have travelled to Assos as an ambassador for Philip. In either case, it seems that he exerted a moderating influence on Hermias, who softened his harsh tyrannical rule and introduced reforms consistent with Platonic principles of government. Aristotle married Hermias’ niece and adoptive daughter, Pythias, who was then probably around eighteen years old, and Pythias bore him a daughter, also called Pythias. In 344, Hermias was captured by the Persians and tortured for information about Philip’s plans, but Hermias kept his silence. His dying words were that he had done nothing shameful or unworthy of philosophy, and Aristotle honoured him by dedicating a statue in Delphi and composing a hymn to Virtue. At around this time, Aristotle travelled with his pupil Theophrastus (‘Divinely speaking’ – the nickname given to him by Aristotle) to the nearby island of Lesbos where he researched the zoology of the island and Theophastrus researched its botany.

Some two years later Aristotle was invited by Philip to tutor his son Alexander, who was then thirteen years old. At the temple of the Nymphs near Mieza near the Macedonian capital of Pella, Aristotle gave lessons not only to Alexander, but also to two other future rulers, Ptolemy and Cassander. He probably had considerable influence over Alexander, who took with him on his eastern conquests a crowd of zoologists, botanists, and other researchers. It is said that Aristotle prepared for Alexander a special edition of Homer’s Iliad, which inspired the young prince to model his life on that of the greatest of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War, the semi-divine Achilles. According to Plutarch and to Aulius Gellius, upon hearing that Aristotle had published some of his oral teachings, Alexander wrote to him from Asia,

Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.

In 339, Xenocrates succeeded Speusippus as Scholarch of the Academy, with Aristotle being passed over for the scholarchship for a second time. By 335, Aristotle had returned to Athens where he established his own school in a public exercise area dedicated to the god Apollo Lykeois, whence its name, the Lyceum. Aristotle often discussed philosophical problems while walking along the shaded walks (peripatoi) of the Lyceum, for which reason affiliates of the school came to be known as ‘peripatetics’. The Lyceum survived until 86, when Athens was sacked by the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Sulla being the only man in history to have attacked and occupied both Athens and Rome). Aristotle taught at the Lyceum for some twelve years, during which time he also wrote many of his works and collected the first great library of the Ancient World. After the death of his wife Pythias, he became involved with (but did not marry) Herpyllis of Stageira, who bore him a son whom he named after his father, Nicomachus. According to the Suda, he also kept an eromenos (younger male lover), the historian Palaephatus of Abydus.

Near the end of his life, Alexander ordered the execution as a traitor of Aristotle’s grandnephew Callisthenes and this and other things soured the relationship between the king and his master. After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323, anti-Macedonian feelings in Athens flared up, and Eurydemon the hierophant denounced Aristotle for not holding the gods in honour. Aristotle fled to his country house at Chalcis on Euboea, an island off the Attic coast and the homeland of his mother’s family. Referring to the trial and execution of Socrates in 399, he famously explained, ‘I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy’. He died of natural causes within the year on March 7 of 322, aged sixty-two. There is a story according to which he threw himself into the sea ‘because he could not explain the tides’, but this is unlikely to be true, as are other fanciful conjectures about his death. After Aristotle had left Athens, Theophrastus – who was not Macedonian but Lesbian – had stayed behind as scholarch of the peripatetic school, and in his will Aristotle made provisions for him and for others to take over the care of his children and of Herpyllis. He also left him his works and his library, and designated him as his successor at the Lyceum.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 156 other followers

%d bloggers like this: