Ancient Wine and the Modern Christian [part 3]

I’ve introduced the topic of Christians and wine-drinking (and, hopefully, why a study like this is relevant). I’m going through an article by Robert Stein, in which he cites ancient Greco-Roman sources like Homer, Pliny, Athanaeus, and Plutarch, to argue that wine in the ancient world was so watered down that drunkenness was not an issue like it is today — and that because of this, the wine the Bible talks about was fundamentally different than the wine with which we are familiar today (so, the argument goes, we shouldn’t drink today just because it’s ok in the Bible). I’m examining Stein’s use of his sources to see whether or not he uses them legitimately, within the context and intention of the original author.

The Wine Discussed by Pliny the Elder

In his article, Stein gives Homer’s ratio of twenty to one, and follows that statement with a ratio from the Roman author Pliny the Elder of eight parts water to one part wine. What Stein fails to indicate in his brief mention of these two authors side by side is that they are discussing the same wine. Pliny in fact gives a small commentary on the Maronean wine of Homeric fame in his Natural History (circa AD 77-79). A sizable portion of this work is dedicated to the discussion of wine, and Pliny begins a section focused on famous and remarkable wines by discussing the same Maronean wine featured in Homer’s epic.[1] He writes:

Homer has recorded the mixing of Maronean wine with water in the proportion of 20 parts of water to one of wine. This class of wine in the same district still retains its strength and its insuperable vigour, inasmuch as one of the most recent authors, Mucianus, who was three times consul, ascertained when actually visiting that region that it is the custom to mix with one pint of this wine eight pints of water, and that it is black in colour, has a strong bouquet, and improves in substance with age. [2]

Pliny is clearly discussing an exceptional wine in this passage, even at a mixture of eight parts water (rather than twenty) to one part wine. Pliny’s commenting on the wine’s “strength,” “insuperable vigour,” and “strong bouquet” indicate that this is an unusually powerful wine. The fact that he says it “improves in substance with age” would also suggest an alcoholic wine, not one that has been so altered by watering it down so as to be nothing like modern wine, as Stein suggests.

Another danger in the way Stein uses these statistics of water to wine ratios (throughout his whole article), is that he seems to assume (and certainly presents his arguments) as though the wine the ancients started out with—before any mixture of water—was basically equivalent to the wine with which the modern reader would be familiar. However, these accounts from both Homer and Pliny imply just the opposite. This wine from Maronea is clearly a remarkably powerful alcoholic beverage even after it is mixed with twenty parts (in Homer) or eight parts (Pliny) water! Stein’s use of these ratios from Homer’s narrative and Pliny’s encyclopedia to argue that ancient wine was drastically different (i.e. far less alcoholic) than modern wine is completely unfounded. But then Stein references another Greek writer who is even more relevant to the discussion, and that’s what we’ll spend some time looking into next.


Footnotes:

[1] Note that Pliny is explicitly dealing with the same wine as Homer, yet Stein gives no indication of this in his article.

[2] Pliny, 14.54.

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