Wine in Ancient Greece

Updated by Jim Deckebach

In Greek mythology, Dionysus (the god of wine, fertility, theater, festivity, pleasure, ritual madness) created wine and gave the vine tree to Ikarios, a noble of Attica. As the legend goes, Ikarios shared his wine with a passing group of shepherds, who, after drinking it, believed they had been poisoned and proceeded to kill Ikarios.

Grape Vine TreeThese ancient stories of violent beginnings may seem like a cautionary tale, but they did not stop Greek society from revering wine and utilizing it within many aspects of society.

Ancient Greek Culture and Wine

Ancient Greece saw the beginnings of intellectual influences that can still be felt throughout the world today. Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Peripatos were both established in Athens and followed by the Stoics and Cynics. The list of Greek philosophers is long and it comes as no surprise that symposiums were common. Symposiums were a type of cocktail party in which participants consumed equal amounts of wine mixed with water and what followed were lively discussions about philosophy, politics and general gossip. Non-drinkers were not allowed at these gatherings. Inhibitions being lost at a similar rate was meant to create stronger bonds within the group. Greece has the ideal climate for growing grapes for wine so obtaining the ingredients was not difficult and the lack of refrigeration made fermentation of grape juice a much better option. The symposiums were often a symbol of social standing and an activity for the elite. Sponsoring a symposium certainly built good repute. Wine was so entrenched in the culture that during the Late Archaic Period (525-480 B.C.), it is thought that up to 60% of the dishes in a typical Athenian home were designed for drinking wine communally. Getting drunk was looked down upon generally and those that did not mix their wine with water were seen as alcoholics and by that virtue, barbaric. The wine was also approximately 16% alcohol, due to its being aged in leather and clay containers; diluting the wine with water was done in an attempt to keep symposium attendees within bounds of conduct.

Religion and Wine

Having Dionysus: Son of Zeus, who also happened to be an Olympian, as the god of wine meant that within Greece, Dionysian celebrations were held far and wide with a three-day feast every year. These events featured choral chants, feasts, processions, music, mockery and of course, drinking. One of the more popular locations for these revelries were in the Dionysian Temple, which was adjacent to the Theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis. Even when these festivals weren't happening, Dionysus was being worshipped regularly in the many symposiums of Athens.

The Economics of Wine in Ancient Greece

Wine BottleAncient Greeks exported mostly wine and olive oil, but wine carried with it Greek culture. Alexander the Great brought Greece to India and Egypt through a strong foundation of wine. The local economies also boosted in ceramics as these wines needed safe transport to their destinations in amphorae: which were vessels meant to carry liquids. Greek wine was circulated and traded throughout the ancient world. Wines from the islands of Rhodes, Lesvos, and Crete were in especially high demand. During the Archaic period (700-480 BC), many coins in circulation featured wine symbolism, indicating just how important wine was to the economy.

Medicine and Wine

Alcohol was used as medicine throughout the ages and the ancient Greek culture was no exception. Hippocrates, who is seen as the father of modern medicine was well known in his use of alcohol as medicine, using rudimentary vermouth, and wines with local herbs. Hippocrates had a keen discernment of which wines would be good for certain ailments, stressing that some can cause flatulence and a heavy head. Even a wine that can alleviate symptoms can come with some side-effects. The use of wine as a tonic for the body still continues to be researched and utilized today.


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