An ancient history of heavy drinking

From competitive boozing to stomach-churning hangover cures, the Greeks and Romans knew how to get stuck in

For all that lofty talk of great civilisations, our Greek and Roman forebears didn’t hold back on the drink front. In fact, although they thought wine the guaranteed marker of civilised society – what separated cultivated humans from barbarous brutes and the animal world – this self-same drink could swiftly transform these high-brow intellectuals into the most low-living topers of all.

Let’s begin with the Ancient Greeks. A glance at their language shows where their interests lay. There is the wonderful, catch-all term kraipale, which means not just a serious drinking bout, but also drunkenness followed by a terrible hangover (as in the Latin crapula and the woefully under-used English crapulence). But there are many handily specific terms: oinophlugein (to bubble or babble with wine), karebaria (head-heaviness from drinking), apokraipalismos (sleeping off a hangover) and the wonderful one-word command oinopoteteon (wine must be drunk!). Here’s a people who spoke honestly about their vices.

Such candour springs from their god-given assurance about drinking: the Greeks believed that a deity – Dionysus – had honoured them exclusively with the divine prize of wine. With friends like these, why hold back? Leading politicians and statesmen certainly didn’t. Despite his Macedonian heritage, Alexander the Great went loco with the best of the Greeks. That valiant conqueror who redefined the boundaries of the known world often put in such a session that he slept for two days and nights unbroken. Philip, his winebibbing father, had already prompted the orator Demosthenes to remark, ‘heavy drinking is an excellent quality in a sponge but not a king.’

On one drunken bender, egged on by Thais (a proto-WAG), Alexander burned down Persepolis in 330BC: it’s clearly a big night if you end up securing the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. Yet more dramatically, Alexander himself – according to one account – brought on his early death at 32 by drinking a separate toast to each of his 20 dinner guests. Taking inspiration from the Greeks, the Roman world too – ignore its earnest browbeating – offers up an infamous roll-call of committed drinkers, including the dictatorial Sulla, the idealistic Cato (the Younger), the libertine Mark Antony, and of course more emperors than not.

Ancient literature is no less sozzled with wine. Poetry was written to be read – or sung – over alcohol, and it doesn’t stint on the peer pressure. Even in Homer, the founding father of European literature, many of the major players spend most of the narrative drinking – Agamemnon, Aeneas, Idomeneus and especially King ‘mine’s a pint’ Nestor. Even Hecuba, the Trojan queen, tries to get her son Hector to drink before his high-stakes showdown with Paris. Odysseus, (anti)hero of the Odyssey, can scarcely put his drink down as he is buffeted from sea to shore. For a poet who thought it obvious to describe the Mediterranean Sea as ‘wine-dark’, such characters come as no surprise. Go hard or go Homer, as they say.

Ancient drinking was a competitive field, even inspiring its own game, kottabos. This was high-premium beer pong, in which increasingly drunk competitors flung their wine dregs at a precariously balanced target in the centre of the room. Miss and need another go? Better down another draught. At such evening-long symposia things naturally got messy. Indeed, Greece of the fifth century BC had something of a binge drinking problem: to judge from their art, vomiting was a common inconvenience to proceedings. Ceramic art immortalises revellers vomiting into vessels, over togas and onto feet – both their own and those of ill-placed courtesans.

The Romans sought to be more pragmatic at their convivia. The architect Vitruvius recommended that high-end dining rooms be fitted with several drains, along with charcoal floors to absorb all wine spilt, dribbled or, er, reproduced. This was a world of wipe-down surfaces. You’ll have heard the legend that the Romans had a room called the vomitorium – a space that did what it said on the tin for those in need of a tactical evacuation. Alas, this is a mere myth, but stomach-clearing medicines were not a rarity.

So what were these debauchees drinking? Wine – red, white and ‘brown’ – usually fermented for a week or so before being sealed in jars. Remarkably, however, all ancient wines were mixed with water – sometimes even seawater, as on the isle of Kos. It’s telling that krasi, the modern Greek for wine, means ‘mixed’. Unmixed wine was deemed dangerous: many a Greek poem lamented it as the cause of an untimely death. Even Cleomenes, the hardman King of Sparta, couldn’t handle wine ‘in the Scythian fashion’ (without water), instead tippling his way into lunacy. Given such risks, unmixed wine was reserved only for drinking forfeits. Not all were amused by these larks: the no-nonsense philosopher Empedocles once attended a banquet where drinks had to be downed or poured over the head. Yes, he went along with the horseplay that night but – bad form, this – the next day had the host and the MC executed.

Spirits were unknown to the ancient world – for better or worse – and beer was dismissed as the drink of madmen, barbarians, or both. And cocktails? Well yes, of a kind. The Greeks often turned to kukeon, a drink of wine curiously mixed with grated goat’s cheese, barley meal and a splash of honey. If perhaps you don’t fancy a glass, the Romans can offer you the more potable mulsum: wine mixed with honey, spices and iced water (or snow), an apres-ski classic avant-ski.

Since heavy drinking had heavy consequences, the Greeks were seriously invested in hangover cures. But only one won their heart: cabbage. Boil it up and chow it down. An odd choice, but experimentation reveals its wisdom, however unappealing the plate proffered. On the Roman side, many spoke passionately of a fry-up – of canaries and other songbirds, that is; the ever-inventive Pliny the Elder suggested raw owl eggs. More challenging is the hairiest-of-dogs advice from know-it-all medic Hippocrates: give those folk hanging grimly a frothy kotule (half-pint) of neat wine to quaff. I doubt that’s staying down.

Want to be ahead of the game and guard against industrial inebriation? Of course you do: just roast and eat a sheep or goat’s lung – whichever is to hand. If that seems a bit punchy, not to worry, instead ingest five or seven bitter almonds. This nutty chaser will set you right up: but perish the fellow (we must infer) who miscounts six.

The ancient world enjoyed plenty of merriment, then, amidst all that the marble, mathematics and mindfulness. So next time you find yourself knee-deep in wine, toast the drink of barbarians – unwatered to taste – and steel yourself for the madness that must follow.


Close