Ancient Wine and the Modern Christian [part 4]

I’ve introduced the topic of Christians and wine-drinking. 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, 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.

Wine in “The Learned Banqueters”

Athanaeus, a Greek rhetorician who lived less than a century after the events of the New Testament, wrote his Deipnosophists, or “The Learned Banqueters,” around 200 AD. Several writings on the subject of ancient wine reference Athanaeus’ work, since it provides the most information in regard particularly to mixtures of wine.[1] Stein cites the tenth book of Athanaeus’ work, in which Athanaeus is referencing several other ancient writers in the discussion of mixing wine with water. In one section, Athanaeus writes:

Democritus said—”Hesiod, my friends, recommends men ‘To pour three parts of water in the cup, and let the fourth part be the vinous juice.'”

And, perhaps, it was on account of Hesiod that Anaxilas said, in his  Nereus—”And this is much more pleasant; for I’d never have drunk one part of wine to three of water.”

And Alexis, in his Nurse, recommends even a more moderate mixture than this—”See, here is wine. Shall I, then, give to Criton equal proportions? This is better far, one part of wine to four of limpid water: Perhaps you’ll call that weak; but still, when you have drunk your fill of this, you’ll find your head clear for discussion—and the drink lasts longer.[2]

Note that Alexis realizes that a mixture of four parts water to one part wine could easily be seen as a weak beverage, but he encourages it as a method not only of delaying the effect of the alcohol, but also of making the quantity of wine last longer. Stein seeks to use Athanaues to support the claim that ancient wine was consistently watered down to the point that drunkenness was no longer a danger or concern. There are, however, numerous problems with Stein’s use of Athanaues for this argument.

In a later section of Deipnosophists, in which Athanaeus is warning against the folly of drunkenness and noting that it was less common in more ancient times, he references several proverbs and sayings that speak to the nature of wine—particularly when overindulged in—such as, “Wine has no rudder,” “Wine makes an old man dance against his will,” and “Wine can bring e’en the wise to acts of folly.”[3] These quotes certainly indicate that this is no innocent grape juice Athanaeus is speaking of, but rather alcoholic wine which, if overindulged in, will lead to drunkenness and foolishness, just like the wine of today will in the absence of careful moderation. Athanaeus grieves the tendency he witnessed in his own time to excessively indulge in wine, and he spends quite some time warning against this lack of self-control. Discussing this irresponsible lack of temperance, Athanaeus writes:

“But since they have begun to be luxurious and have got effeminate they have given up their chairs and taken to couches; and having taken indolence and laziness for their allies, they have indulged in drinking in an immoderate and disorderly manner; the very way in which the tables were laid contributing, as I imagine, to luxury.” [4]

Not much later in his writing, Athanaeus talks about Alcaeus, an intemperate poet, preferring one part wine mixed with two parts water—this easily provided Alcaeus the alcoholic content necessary to enjoy an almost constant state of drunkenness.[5] Athanaeus then cites Anacreon as preferring five parts water to three parts wine.[6]

Another writer cited by Stein (through Athanaeus) is Alexis, with the ratio of four parts water to one part wine. However, in the above section of Deopnosophists, Athanaeus references Alexis numerous times as enjoying a beverage of “half and half”—one part wine to one part water.[7] In fact, Alexis says that unless it is mixed near a ratio of half and half, he feels that the wine would taste “quite drown’d in water.”[8] Others also prefer a mixture of half wine, half water, including Timocles, Xenarchus, and Sophilus.[9] But even more surprisingly, Philetaerus and Pheracrates both seem to consider an even higher mixture of three parts wine to only two parts water as being too watered down to properly enjoy.[10]

Athanaeus again cites Alexis as conveying that the purpose of watering down the wine is to delay the negative effects of alcohol—namely, sleep, and hangovers.[11] Others had a more noble reason for wishing to dissuade the effects of the alcohol. Athanaues quotes from a portion of Plato’s Laws, wherein Plato articulates the foolishness and danger of drunkenness, and urges his fellow Greeks to abstain from drinking with the immoderation that characterizes the surrounding nations.[12] Clearly, the issue then was, as it is today, one of moderation and temperance, not of the fundamental nature of wine, as Stein argues.

The ratios given in Athanaeus’ Deipnosophists are far more varying than Stein indicates. Stein also argues that the mixing of water with wine made drunkenness such a rarity as to make the comparison between ancient and modern wine irrelevant. A careful look at Athanaeus’ Deipnosophists not only shows this claim to be false, but also clearly makes evident that Stein did not use Athanaeus in a legitimate way to support his arguments.


[1] Ferguson, Everett. “Wine as a Table-Drink in the Ancient World.” Restoration Quarterly 13, (1970). 142.

[2] Athanaeus. “Book X” In The Deipnosophists. 672.

[3] 675.

[4] 672.

[5] 679-680.

[6] Stein only cites Anacreon with a ratio of two to one (Stein, 2). However, this is from earlier in Athanaeus (673), and is explicitly for the purpose of avoiding drunkenness; whereas on page 680, Athanaeus comments that Anacreon himself in fact prefers stronger wine, with a ratio of five parts water to three parts wine.

[7] Athanaeus, 680-681.

[8] 681.

[9] Sophilus writes of men who, after drinking some wine mixed half and half with water, demand stronger wine.

[10] Athanaeus, 680.

[11] 680-681.

[12] 682.


About Topher

I'm a pastor, husband, and bookworm in northwestern PA. I started this site as a platform for creating and curating solid resources that make for solid men and women of wisdom, virtue, discipline, and faith. Become a patron and support my work at
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