Banquets of Mass Destruction ; Wine & Barbarians
Do you drink your wine neat? What, not even the merest drop of water? You utter barbarian.
At least to the Ancient Civilized mind. The Classical World had an obsession with wine which makes today’s connoisseurs seem utterly trivial by comparison. I have already written about how to the Ancient Greeks wine was more than a liquid, it was a muse ; an emblem of culture itself to transcend the ordinary.
But the introduction of wine into the ‘Barbarian’ world represents something of a wineshed moment. Around 500 BC the Roman Empire began to truly find its feet, expanding ever outwards into the great unknown. Interestingly, the word Barbarian itself comes from Ancient Greece, the sound of the uncivilized languages sounded like ‘bar-bar’ to Greek ears – barbarian refers to anyone not speaking Greek. To the Greeks, and the Romans would follow, Europe was awash with barbarians who had not even learnt to cultivate the vine yet, that linchpin of society itself.
But back to the wine. When trade links began to establish themselves between the fledgling Roman Empire and the surrounding tribes of Northern and Central Europe, wine quickly became the liquid which lubricated the cogs of trade. It became an essential feature of the feasting halls of the numerous tribal leaders and kings. To have wine at the table represented power itself, the ability to trade openly with the Romans in the south. A splash of culture in a dark world.
The situation was ideal for the Romans as they were producing a surplus of wine from Italy alone. They could barter from a strong position, trading for slaves or local resources. It was said that in Spain they become so fond of wine that wine was traded in bulk for slaves.
Thus, as one pithy commentator observed, ‘exchanging the cup for the cupbearer’. It was complete monopoly and one in which the Romans could expand upon with all the trappings which would follow, amphora to transport the wine, glass to drink it from and the expertise to truly enjoy it.
No matter how hard a barbarian tried however, the could never truly become civilized. They may have developed a taste for wine, but not truly an ‘appreciation’.
They would drink it undiluted and become drunk. The lavish banquets of the small kings were mocked as almost infantile. Indeed, the Romans used this in war, often laying out banquets in areas of conflict, waiting for the enemy to become drunk or debilitated and then ambushing. Or they simply poisoned the spread resulting in a ‘banquet of mass destruction’.
The lesson was clear ; if you cannot hold your wine and show restraint, you cannot exist in the civilized world. So, do you drink your wine neat?