Beer Here! : Potent Potables of the Ancient World

Candy/ is dandy/ But liquor/ is quicker — Ogden Nash

Over some lovely late-spring cocktails with my parents this past weekend, I asked my mother what I should talk about here this week, and she pointed out I haven’t talked about consumables yet. Ancient food and drink covers a lot of ground, so I thought we’d start with alcoholic beverages and see where that takes us. I know this sounds like those cocktails talking, but fermented liquids have an important and wide-ranging impact on world culture since their discovery, so it’s hard to talk about ancient life without them. 

And because we’ve often been focusing on Egypt and Rome, I thought we’d zero in on the most important drinks of choice for each: that being beer in Egypt and wine in Rome. That said, I’m sure we’ll wander afield on our way. 

Beer, that is, a drink made from fermented cereals like barley or wheat, is one of humanity’s oldest inventions. Beer was cultivated nearly as soon as people had harnessed agriculture itself, likely in response to seeing natural fermentation in their crops due to wild yeast present in the air. Our earliest evidence for intentional brewing is from 13,000-year-old residues in pottery belonging to the Natufians, a prehistoric culture of semi-nomadic Levantine people living in what is now Haifa, Israel. But most of the ancient Middle East wouldn’t have archeological evidence of systematic brewing until at least 7,000 years later— some of the oldest Egyptian records dating from 5,000 years ago, and ancient Mesopotamian tablets mention beer dating from the same time period.

[Ancient model of Egyptian brewing]

Both the Egyptians and the Sumerians generally made their beer from fermented barley bread. Beer would become a staple of both cultures; we think of bread as the staff of life, but especially for the Egyptians, beer was equally important to the average person’s diet as bread. This sounds crazy (and potentially dangerous) to contemporary thinking, but one must bear in mind that Egyptian beer was much closer to a food than the IPA in your fridge. Ancient Egyptian beer was sediment-heavy, often representing something closer to a gruel than the modern beverage. Now, this might sound less-than-appetizing, but the solids were full of proteins and vitamins, vitally important particularly to the diets of poorer Egyptians who might not have as much access to meat. But this didn’t mean you had to choke down all of that just to get the benefits: Egyptians often drank their beers with a straw-like tube that could help you avoid some of the gnarlier bits.

[Man drinking his beer with a “straw”]

So, how did they make this heavy beer? Well, there were two main methods. The first was to literally make what is commonly referred to as “beer bread,” a heavily leavened bread that is baked in such a way so as not to kill all of the active yeast in it. This bread would then be crumbled and sieved, adding water to the mixture that would then be left to ferment. Modern Egyptians use an almost identical method to home-brew bouza as an alternative to commercially produced alcoholic beverages.

The second method would involve mixing two separate batches of grain: one of sprouted grain, which produces the necessary enzymes, and one of grain cooked in water, which disperses the grain’s starches. The enzymes consume the starch, which produces the sugars needed for the fermentation process. The mixture is then strained and yeast is introduced to kickstart the fermenting. This method continues to be utilized in more rural parts of Africa for home brewing.

Because of its importance to the Egyptian diet, beer would often be used as a currency substitute. Jars of beer made in a set of standard sizes provided an easy monetary conversion rate, and provided an item of a known worth that was likely easier for someone of non-aristocratic standing to use or exchange compared to coins. The laborers who worked on the pyramids were guaranteed four to five liters of beer a day as a part of their rations, an arrangement echoed in cuneiform tablets discovered in Iraq showing that workers in the city of Uruk were simply paid in beer. 

But I promised you that alcohol was more widely important than simply as a nice drink in the ancient world, and this is reflected in its prominent place in ancient religion, and because sacred texts are the oldest iteration of literature, by extension, in ancient storytelling. From its earliest roots, the mind-altering effects of alcohol were linked to the gods and other realms. Alcoholic beverages were a common offering to the gods, as well as one of many ways ancient priesthoods connected themselves to the divine.

The Sumerian goddess Ninkasi was the patron deity of brewing, described as the one “who sates the heart” by her people. Because the god of beer was female, brewing was primarily a women’s industry in ancient Sumer. Sumerian women believed brewing beer for their household was as important as making bread, showing both the centrality of the staple in their lives and brewing as a rightful activity for women at the time. A hymn written in praise of the goddess is little more than a recipe for making beer, but its repetitiveness speaks to its importance as a way of passing information from singer to listener, and points to an older oral tradition that likely was used by mothers to teach their daughters this critical domestic task.

[“You have poured a libation over the fated brick, and you have laid the foundations in peace and prosperity – now may Ninkasi dwell with you! She should pour beer and wine for you! Let the pouring of the sweet liquor resound pleasantly for you!” — from a Sumerian drinking song]

Beer also appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, as part of the wild man Enkidu’s civilizing at the hands of the sacred prostitute, Shamhat. She teaches him about drinking beer the same as she explains how to dress himself in woven clothes and eat cooked foods. Alcohol is the mark of a “civilized,” urban individual, compared to the “primitive” life Enkidu led in the mountains with the wild animals.

For any person who’s stood in the aftermath of your average American St. Patrick’s Day parade, it may seem counterintuitive to view beer as a civilizing force, but we saw this in my entry about the creation of Sekhmet and Hathor as well, where the Egyptian gods used beer to tame the destructive Sekhmet into gentle Hathor. But both of these stories were created by city-based agricultural societies, so their disdain for more nomadic ways of life comes through in their literature. 

Much of what we’ve already discussed about beer can also be said of the other major alcoholic beverage in the ancient world: wine. Wine is nearly as old as beer, with references to its production dating from as early as 8000s BC in China and the modern country of Georgia, with Mediterranean viticulture dating from the 5000s BC in Persia and the Levant. Indeed the oral and later, written, accounts of its invention tie it back to the biblical patriarch Noah, who supposedly discovers it after the great flood.

[And almost simultaneously invents the hangover.]

Through trade and interaction with the Levant is how wine cultivation arrives in Egypt around 3000 BC. Most of Egypt’s domestic production was in red wines, including shedeh, a sacred drink used in offerings and in embalming. It was previously thought to be made from pomegranates, but recent testing of the acidic compounds left in tomb paraphernalia suggests that shedeh was a grape wine, albeit different from the standard Egyptian wine, irep. Granted, the original analysis was likely influenced by ancient historians like Plutarch, who claimed the pharaohs didn’t drink wine or use it in offerings because they believed it to be sprung from the blood of men who’d died challenging the gods. But the new information we have about shedeh, as well as the jars of white wine found among Tutankhamun’s effects seems to belie this. Of course, this would hardly be the first time Plutarch or another ancient historian would just kind of make up information about Egypt.

The Ancient Greeks were enthusiastic vintners, having learned the art from the Minoans and the Mycenaean cultures that predated them in the region. Like so much of Western civilization, Greek wine-making forms the foundation of modern practices, and long before they began their own wine industry in earnest, even the Romans acknowledged the quality of Greek wines, which were among their most important import items at the time.

Like the Sumerians, wine was considered sacred in Greek culture, given to humanity by Dionysus, whose worship was characterized by a liberating religious ecstasy fueled by his gift. But the Greeks also had a more uneasy relationship with the wine-fueled antics of Dionysus and his worshippers in a way that makes them different from the Sumerians and Egyptians preaching of alcohol’s ability to civilize. One of Dionysus’ many epithets is Acratophorus (Ακρατοφορος), “Giver of Uncut Wine,” which is not necessarily a compliment in a culture where wine was usually diluted to reduce its potency.

[A kylix depicting the myth where Dionysus turns a ship of disbelieving sailors into dolphins]

Maenads (Greek: μαϊνάδες), Dionysus’ female followers, were especially known for his sacred abandon— their name literally means “the raving ones.” These women would literally let their hair down and wear animal skins, drinking and dancing into frenzy in the name of the god. This sanctioned opportunity to dance and appear disordered in public always ensured Dionysus was a popular god among the otherwise restricted women of Greece, but that meant the state (men) had to balance control with not offending Dionysus by restricting his worship or denying his divinity. Euripides’ play, The Bacchae speaks to this societal tension between order and the sometimes chaotic nature of the god.

[A maenad]

But as one might suspect for the continued preeminence of Italian wines at your local liquor store, it wasn’t long before Rome became the dominant winemaker of the ancient Mediterranean, though, like many things, they didn’t come to it on their own. We’re not certain, but it is generally believed the Latins learned viticulture from the Etruscans (who were the first to have vineyards in Tuscany), or possibly as the Greeks did, from the Mycenaeans, who had contact with ancient Italy. Greek colonizers and traders with Southern Italy recognized the region’s natural terroir and excellent native grapes, calling the region Oenotria (Οἰνωτρία), “Land of Vines.”

Roman winemaking grew alongside the Republic, with advances being made through peaceful contact with the Greeks, as well as through conquest as with the Carthaginians, whose libraries, especially Punic writer Mago’s treatises on agriculture, would profoundly influence Roman viticulture. The Romans would also make their own contributions, like fumaria, special smokehouses designed to mimic the results of natural wine aging, and perfecting ancient wine presses.

The volcanic slopes of Pompeii would create one of Western Europe’s first great wine regions. In fact, the only thing that would possibly outstrip the winemaking reputation of the Pompeians would be their reputation as wine drinkers, as the importance of wine to regional trade would make Pompeii a major cult center of Bacchus, Dionysus’ Roman iteration. The fame of Pompeian viticulture would reach such notoriety that archeologists have found amphorae with counterfeited Pompeii stamps, and when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed the city’s vineyards, it created a genuine wine panic that would lead the Romans to uproot grain fields in favor of planting replacement vines.

But one of the Roman Empire’s lasting contributions to modern civilization, aside from immensely durable roads and aqueducts, is the exportation of its wine culture to other parts of its empire. The Romans were the ones to establish permanent grape cultivation in many of Europe’s most fabled wine regions, including Bordeaux, the Rhône valley, Mosel, and Cádiz. This was often initially done to avoid having to transport huge quantities of wine to the Roman army’s garrisons in France, Germany, and Spain, but the growing quality of the wines produced in these colonies soon rivaled the output of Tuscany and Campania.

That said, Romans were still partial to their native vino, and many of Rome’s writers left us extensive records of the popular vintages and brands. Falernian, a white wine from Campania was a perennial favorite. One iteration of it was so alcoholic that Pliny the Elder tells us it could catch fire, meaning it had to have around 40% alcohol by volume (ABV), and even the less flammable versions were thought to have around 15% ABV, which is still pretty high. This is another reason why the Romans, like the Greeks, tended to cut their wines with water and herbs, and why Tiberius’ fondness for wine led his teasing troops to suggest he wasn’t diluting his cups enough.

That said, Tiberius was hardly the only Roman who enjoyed a drink or two. The poet Horace writes of wine frequently in his odes, especially of Caecuban wine, grown in the coastal region near modern-day Fondi. Caecuban was another white wine, sweet and strong, and considered by some at the turn of the millennium to be superior to Falernian. When Horace is trying to lure his patron and friend, Octavius’ advisor Maecenas, to dine with him in his poems, he always promises his best Caecuban as an enticement. Horace also thinks Caecuban is more appropriate to celebratory situations, as in Ode IX, when he toasts Octavius’ victory over Cleopatra and Mark Antony:

“When, O happy Maecenas, shall I,

overjoyed at Caesar’s being victorious,

drink with you under the stately dome (for so it pleases Jove)

the Caecuban reserved for festal entertainments,

while the lyre plays a tune, accompanied with flutes,

that in the Doric, these in the Phrygian measure?”

Caecuban wine would experience a decline popularity when Setinum wine would be named the official imperial wine, and its sales would reflect this official sanction. That said, no one claimed Setinum was a superior product— its exulted status, according to Pliny, simply stemmed from the notoriously (especially for a Roman) abstemious Octavius’ claim that Setinum was the only wine that didn’t give him indigestion. But Octavius’ fussy stomach would spell doom for Caecuban wines— the last vineyard growing it was torn up by Nero for a canal barely forty years after Octavius’ death. But Falernian wines, along with others like Alban (another sweet wine), would continue to crop up in Rome’s poetry for centuries to come. Like when the poet Martial admonishes his friend Tucca for cutting a jar of Falernian with Vatican wine (considered far inferior):

Tucca, what satisfaction do you get out of mixing must stored in Vatican jars with old Falernian? What great good have vile wines done you or fine wines what harm? Never mind about us; it’s a crime to murder Falernian and put fierce toxins into a Campanian vintage. Maybe your guests deserve to perish, but so costly a jar did not deserve to die.” – Book I, XVIII

As you can see, beer, wine, and other spirits had vital, respected place in ancient life. And while ancient people might have drank more than most of us do these days, how they used alcohol isn’t terribly unfamiliar to us. A forgotten Sumerian mother’s hymn to Ninkasi is echoed in a modern Egyptian family’s secret bouza recipe. Horace’s post-Actium invite to Maecenas looks a lot like any Fourth of July house party, and a Greek maenad’s kylix of wine isn’t so different than a Christian’s Eucharist chalice. Alcoholic beverages have fostered our most cherished connections, between ourselves, and between us and the divine. So, the next time you take a sip of your favorite drink, or find yourself rolling your eyes at that friend of yours who won’t stop expounding on the merits of their favorite vintage, remember you’re a part of a venerable tradition spanning continents, cultures, and millennia. Santé!

[Dionysus says please enjoy responsibly… unless someone denies your godhood. In that case, it’s time to f*ck some shit up.]

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