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Wine in the Ancient World
The use of alcohol is an issue which finds a good amount of disagreement in the Church. Some denominations use wine in the celebration (eucharist) of Holy Communion, while others will only use unfermented grape juice. Some hold strongly to total abstinence, while others see nothing wrong with a moderate use of alcohol. While I do have an opinion on this issue, my first intention is not to engage in this dispute here. However, I do have "an axe to grind." My concern as an historian is to approach and present the evidence of antiquity with accuracy; this article is a response to some presentations which have failed to do this. It is an unfortunate fact that incorrect information regarding wine in the ancient world continues to be repeated. The data which is incorrectly presented, and which I want to address here, comes from non-Christian ancient writers including Pliny the Elder and Columella.* (*download the PDF version of this article for footnotes and references)
Most articles I have found on this topic refer to Columella and Pliny the Elder, and unfortunately, most of these references misrepresent these ancient writers.
The following is the way to make sweet wine....when it has ceased to ferment...[add crushed spices and strain it]. This wine will be pleasant to the taste and will keep in good state and is wholesome for the body. 12.27.1
The best after-wine is made as follows....[add water to grapeskins which have been pressed and let it soak overnight] when it has fermented... 12.40
Wine has the property of heating the parts of the body inside when it is drunk and of cooling them when poured on them outside. 14.7.58
In the neighbourhood of the Alps they put it in wooden casks and close these round with tiles and in a cold winter also light fires to protect it from the effect of the cold. It is seldom recorded, but it has been seen occasionally, that the vessels have burst in a frost, leaving the wine standing in frozen blocks-almost a miracle, since it is not the nature of wine to freeze: usually it is only numbed by cold. 14.27.132
All of these texts indicate the presence of alcohol and fermentation, but the two from Pliny are particularly interesting: the warming sensation of alcohol on the inside when consumed and the cooling, evaporative nature of using it as a rub - both point to alcohol. Then the lower freezing point of alcohol which causes Pliny to marvel at how wine could ever freeze. Add to this his descriptions of those who abuse wine and promote drunkenness (offending his sense of Stoic ethics) and it becomes obvious that Pliny is not covering the basics in grape juice production. He is not concerned about trying to keep grape juice from becoming wine. His concern was to keep wine from spoiling into vinegar and becoming useless as a beverage.
WINE: MIXED OR FULL STRENGTH? Historical data concerning the making and use of wine by the Jews and other nations in the Biblical world indicate that it was (a) often unfermented and (b) normally mixed with water.
We are only given two options, neither of which is to drink alcoholic wine in any appreciable way. Stein does the same, "In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three parts water, but one's drinking would probably affect the bladder long before it affected the mind….there is a striking difference between the drinking of alcoholic beverages today and the drinking of wine in New Testament times." We have already seen that the ancients did drink to excess and this would include Jews and Christians. A plethora of examples (including Paul's injunction in Ephesians 5:18) could be gathered from ancient writers to show that intoxication was a concern and was not unusual in the ancient world. Many ancient writers deplored the banality of excessive drinking - it went against the decorum which Graeco-Roman philosophers valued.
We may assume, then, that all the poets from Homer downwards have no grasp of reality but merely give us superficial representation of any subject they treat.
Pliny does say that this Maronean wine is famous for "its strength and unconquerable body," and can be diluted 8:1 without losing its "bouquet, and [it] improves with age." It must, however, be remembered that Pliny is discussing an exceptional wine. He is amazed that it can withstand this kind of dilution. To speak of its "strength," "body," "bouquet," and to say that it "improves with age" makes it obvious that this is fortified (and rather sweet) wine, perhaps with an enhanced alcoholic content. Stamps, Teachout and Stein are correct when they offer data to show that wine was diluted with water, but to suggest Homer's 20:1 is ridiculous and to put forth Pliny's 8:1 as normal would also be wrong. A 2:1 or 3:1 ratio was not unusual. But it must be remembered that the juice of grapes, under natural circumstances, will have an alcoholic content of 10-17%, thus even a 3:1 ratio would yield a drink of 3-5%, which is similar to an average American beer. The wine in the ancient world was most likely stronger (in flavor, not necessarily alcoholic content) than modern wines to withstand such a dilution. No modern wine could withstand dilution with three parts water. It would taste, well, watered down. Anyone who thinks "normal" wine could withstand this kind of dilution should take the best grape juice on the market and dilute it with 2 parts water. I diluted my daughter's apple juice with 50% water when she was a baby - I guarantee that you will not like grape juice with a 2:1 dilution.
In ancient times there were not many beverages that were safe to drink. The danger of drinking water alone raises another point. There were several ways in which the ancients could make water safe to drink. One method was boiling…The safest and easiest method of making the water safe to drink, however, was to mix it with wine.
I have read this kind of statement many times, but have never seen any historical reference. The only reference offered by Stein is his personal experience in Greece.
"I can find no official source for sterilizing water with wine - no reference at all that would even hint at the efficacy of such a combination." Miles
The closest thing I can find to this idea that wine can make bacteria-laden water safe to drink are studies clearly indicating that the consumption of wine with a meal can protect a person against certain kinds of food poisening - the alcohol and the acid in wine does kill bacteria in the stomach:
I have had several requests for Part 2 of "Wine in the Ancient World." Part 2 will deal with:
- the alcohol content in wine
- the effectiveness of using alcohol to purify water
- reporting from the CDC [2011-May]
The issue of alcohol content in wine is an important one. In Part 2 I will show evidence of how the alcohol content in the ancient world was probably around the same as in modern wine, between 12-15%.
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