Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/June 1897/The History of Alcohol I

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




IN studying the history of alcoholic beverages we are at once brought face to face with the fact that there has hardly been a nation on the face of the globe which has not used some variety of stimulant or narcotic. In almost every instance this has been some form of alcohol, and in a few cases where alcohol has been unknown, and tobacco, opium, hemp, or some other drug used in its stead, the introduction of alcohol has been followed at once by its use and, alas! its abuse. A curious example of this is given in the account of Henry Hudson's famous voyage in 1609, when he discovered the Hudson River. The Indian chief and warriors waited for him on the shore of Manhattan Island, prepared to sacrifice to the great "manito in red." He landed, with a few of his crew, and pouring out some rum into a glass, drank it to their health, and then passed a cupful round to the Indians. One after another they shrank from it, evidently fearing that it contained a deadly poison. At last one, bolder than the rest, drank it down, and soon began to reel and stagger, and finally fell. His companions were horror-struck. But soon he recovered himself, and described his drink in such glowing terms that they all begged and implored for their share, and, before Hudson left, they had all become intoxicated.

In other words, there seems to be a natural craving by man for some drug which shall "drive dull care away," and, as alcohol possesses this power, it has been used from the earliest ages and is still being used by rich and poor, high and low, civilized and savages, in more or less complete disregard of the evil effects of overindulgence.

The earliest historical records which have come down to us—the sacred classics of China, India, Judea, and Persia—all give details about the use and abuse of alcoholic beverages. The Chinese

Egyptian Vineyard, with Reservoir of Water. (Wilkinson.)

made use both of wine from grapes and of a beer made from rice, somewhat like the present saki of Japan; and, if we can believe their writings, intemperance was not at all confined to the lower classes, but in many instances proved the disgrace and the ruin of the reigning dynasties.

The Rig-Veda, or sacred books of the ancient Brahmans, give us many details about the Hindu drinking customs, which were, among the upper classes at least, closely connected with their religious observances. The common people drank a variety of beer, known as sura, made from rice, barley, honey, and other ingredients. This was cheap and freely used for intoxicating purposes, and was, accordingly, in great disrepute among the priesthood and rulers, who made most stringent rules and regulations against it. But they were full of the praises of the sacred wine, soma, made from the juice of certain plants, which, after fermentation, was offered as a libation to their favorite gods, Indra, Vishnu, and others. These deities were supposed to drink soma freely, and to be highly gratified at the resulting intoxication. These exercises were particularly pleasant because it was not necessary, in order to honor the gods, to pour out all the wine upon the altar, but the act of devotion might be equally well performed by the worshipers drinking the libations themselves. Of course, the pleasant after effects were considered as solely due Wine Press of Matting. (Wilkinson.) to the divine favor, and not to any ingredient common also to the vulgar sura.

In the Bible we find frequent references to both the good and the evil effects of wine. In such marked contrast do some of these passages stand that serious effort has been made, by many well-intentioned moralists, to attribute all the favorable comments—"Wine that maketh glad the heart of man," "Thou hast put gladness into their hearts since the time that their corn and wine and oil increased," and the like—to unfermented grape juice or to the fruit itself, and to apply to the fermented juice, the wine of our everyday life, only the passages, so well known and so frequently quoted, of condemnation. Some grounds for their belief exist in the fact that two Hebrew words, yayin and tirosh, occurring in the Old Testament, are both translated in the authorized version as "wine," although yayin is almost always mentioned with scorn and contempt and tirosh with approval. But this is not always the case. The substances meant by both words are condemned alike in a chapter in Hosea (Hosea, iv, 2). And, furthermore, it is very doubtful whether the unfermented

Pressing the Grapes and Storing the Wine. (Wilkinson.)

grape juice is not mentioned under an entirely different word, debish, translated as honey. In that hot climate, with no glass jars and rubber stoppers in which the sterilized grape juice could be preserved, and with no antiseptics to delay or prevent fermentation, the fresh grape juice must have been at once boiled down to a thick sirup, or it would have begun to ferment in half an hour. That is the present practice in Syria, and the resulting debs is used to this day as a substitute for honey or sugar for sweetening purposes. And our respect for the wisdom of King David and other great men of Judea hardly permits us to think that their enthusiastic language was used about a sweet, cloying sirup.

There is no reason at all to doubt that the Greek word οἷνος, used in the New Testament, refers to the ordinary fermented wine; and, on the whole, it seems evident that in both Old and New Testament the commendations and denunciations refer to the use and abuse of alcohol, respectively, rather than to any specific differences between the beverages employed.

The ancient Egyptians at a very early date discovered the art of making barley wine, or, in other words, true beer, as well as

Taking Wine like a Gentleman. (Wilkinson.)

grape wine. They have left evidences of this, not only in their writings and in the tales of early travelers like Herodotus, but also in several remarkable series of mural paintings found on their monuments. The most interesting of these are at the tombs of Beni-Hassan, where, some five thousand years ago, the Egyptian artists amused themselves by portraying the scenes of everyday life in a most graphic manner. We find there pictures of vineyards, with the vines carefully trained on trellises, and watered from artificial reservoirs. We find several varieties of wine presses—some for treading the grapes, some for pressing the grapes by twisting them tight in a bag. We can see how they poured the fresh wine into jars for fermentation and storage. We can watch them drinking their wine like gentlefolk, in the bosom of their family, with wife by the side and children on the knee. And, finally, we find pictures of them using wine like After a Supper. (Wilkinson.) beasts—men being carried home from supper on the backs of slaves; women staggering round, hopelessly and indecently intoxicated. Verily "there is nothing new under the sun."

The ancient Persian writings, the Zend Avesta, dating back to the period of Zoroaster, possibly 4000 to 6000 b. c., contain like the Rig-Veda many references to a sacred drink, homa, and a popular drink, hura. Wine seems to have been of somewhat later discovery, but, once introduced, proved extremely popular. The lowlanders, living in the rich, warm plains of Asia Minor, were especially addicted to its use, and the temperate young prince Cyrus, coming down from the mountains with his Persian warriors, found little difficulty in routing the effeminate Medes. But the attractions of luxury proved too strong for them, and, in a few generations, both rulers and people had badly degenerated. The famous Xerxes, the Great King, the descendant of Cyrus and monarch of Asia Minor, left as his epitaph no great record of valiant deeds, but the sole fact that "he was able to drink more wine than any man in his dominions." Small wonder, then, that his forces were so easily routed by the Greeks.

For, of all races that have yet appeared, the Greeks have been best able to use alcoholic beverages freely and yet with temperance. A Woman Intoxicated. (Wilkinson.) Their land was fertile and their crops varied, and they early learned how to prepare intoxicating drinks from barley, figs, the palm, and other sources. And their wines, especially those from the Greek islands, have retained their reputation, not for hundreds but for thousands of years. The vine was widely cultivated, and valued as one of the greatest gifts of the gods to man; and yet, such was their respect for the human body and such their dread of injuring it by excesses, that we find that, in their golden age at least, alcohol was used and not abused.

Their strongest drink, we must remember, was natural, unfortified wine, containing no more alcohol than our present clarets

Sleeping Dionysos. (From Greek bas-relief in the Campana Collection.)

and hocks. And yet they never drank it pure; they always added water to it, or rather, added it to water. Some of their wines, the Pramnian and Maronian, for instance, were of such strong flavor as to be mixed in the proportion of one to fifteen or one to twenty parts of water. The average dilution was one to five, or one to four. When the young bloods of Athens had a supper party they would elect a "master of the feast," who sat, crowned with flowers, at the head of the table, and set the pace for the festivities. A very festive youth would sometimes at these occasions order the wine one to three, or even two to three. To drink wine unmixed—well, that was ὲπισκύθισαι, to act like a Scythian, to be a beast and a barbarian.

It is not to be supposed from this that drunkenness was unknown, but in the golden age of Greece it was both uncommon and despised. Drinking with them was different from drinking among other nations; they drank for exhilaration, not for intoxication. This can be recognized at once from the character and position of Dionysos, their god of drink, corresponding to the Roman Bacchus. No drunken debauchee was he. His statues represent him as a laughing, innocent child, as a beautiful, graceful youth, as a finely developed adult, and even as a gentle, refined, full-bearded man, the patron of literature and the drama. For Dionysos was one of the greatest gods of Greece. At the vintage in the autumn all was fun and jollity, and in his honor rude, humorous plays were acted by the country people. Hence developed the "comedy," so named from κῷμος, the country cart from which the actors at first held forth. In the spring, at the opening of the new wine, occurred the great Dionysiac festival. Every one flocked to Athens, from the countryside, from all Greece, from the whole civilized world; and there, in the great Theater of Dionysos, the marble seats of which are still standing under the walls of the Acropolis, were acted the glorious tragedies of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the noblest masterpieces of ancient literature.

But after Athens and Sparta, and later Thebes, had wasted their resources and exhausted their energies against each other, a new and fierce and semibarbarous race came down from the mountains and conquered the whole of Greece. Under the famous King Philip of Macedon the weak and scattered clans united, learned the art of war, and rapidly overthrew the more civilized and cultivated lowlanders. This marked the end of Grecian temperance. The Macedonian nobles were always heavy drinkers, and toward the end of his career they were encouraged in their habits by the king himself.

Many stories have been handed down to us about the royal drinking bouts. One, which has passed almost into a byword,

Dionysos, from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates.
(From The Antiquities of Athens, Stuart and Revett. 1762.)

relates to a famous philosopher, who brought a lawsuit, in which he was a party, up before the highest court, the king himself. The case was heard and the judgment given against him. "I appeal," shouted the old man. "Whom do you appeal to?" said Philip, "I am the king!" "I appeal," said the other, "from Philip drunk to Philip sober." And the next day the case was heard over again, and decided in the appellant's favor.

Another episode, which bade fair to have very serious results, happened the year before he died. He had recently divorced his

Satyr punishing a Sailor, from the Choragic Monument.

wife Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, and was celebrating his marriage to a new wife, Cleopatra. At the wedding banquet, where the wine flowed very freely, her uncle Attains made some insulting remarks about the young prince Alexander, who at once rose in his place at the table and threw a goblet at his head. This enraged the king, who sprang from his seat, drew his sword, and rushed at his son to kill him. But, in his rage and intoxication, Philip slipped and fell to the ground. Then Alexander, rather unfilially, shouted out: "See now, men of Macedon, this man, who is preparing to cross from Europe to Asia, can not step from one couch to another without falling!"

When Alexander came to the throne, a year later, the improvement in manners was but temporary. At first, indeed, the young king, with his companions in arms, devoted all their energies to affairs of state and war. Two years after he came to the throne he crossed the Hellespont, and with a small but picked army routed the vast, unwieldy hosts of the Great King. In a few campaigns he conquered Asia Minor, and even led his victorious forces into India. But with success came intemperance, and his brief and glorious career closed in disgrace.

In the garb of Dionysos, accompanied by a band of drunken roisterers, he entered Carmania in triumph. At Samarcand, inflamed by wine, he killed with his own hand his friend Clitus, who had saved his life at the battle of the Granicus. At Persepolis, in a drunken frenzy, urged by dissolute companions, he set fire to the famous palace of the Great Kings, and although, sobered by the result, he urged his soldiers to the rescue, it burned to the ground.

His most famous exploit in this line took place, during the last year of his life, at the tomb of Cyrus, near Pasargadæ in Persia. He attended here the immolation of a famous Hindu philosopher, Calanus, who had followed him from India, and now, falling sick, burned himself alive on a great funeral pile. On his return from the ceremony Alexander asked many of his friends and chief officers to supper, and that night organized a great drinking contest, offering a gold crown to the victor. A young nobleman called Promachus took the first prize, with the respectable measure of some fourteen quarts of wine, and others followed close behind him. But a cold wind came up that night, chilling the revelers to the bone, and Promachus and some forty

Mænads in a Dyonisiac Frenzy. A great figure of this sort, with splashes of blood on the garments, was one of the chief ornaments in the Dionysiac Theater. (From the Campana Collection.)

of his competitors died from the effects of cold and drunkenness combined.

This course of life could not last long. His soldiers murmured, his officers grew unruly, his own strength failed; and, in his thirty-second year, after a drinking bout that lasted for two days and nights, a sudden attack of fever ended his career. Turning from Greece to Rome, we find the same general course of events. At first the Romans were a band of fierce banditti, fighting first for life, then for conquest, against the surrounding tribes. During the few hundred years that this struggle continued the Romans were a temperate, a painfully temperate race. We read that wine was scarce and poor, and, such as it was, reserved exclusively for the men, and for men over thirty. Women were forbidden to use it under pain of death, for the alleged reason that it was an incentive to licentiousness. According to Pliny, this last law was by no means a dead letter. Women were obliged to greet all their male relatives with a kiss on the mouth, so that it could be told if they had been at the wine cellar. He quotes the case of one Ignatius Mecenius, who cudgeled his wife to death for this offense, about b. c. 700, and was

Delivering Wine. (From a wall painting at Pompeii.)

pardoned by Romulus for the deed; and he tells of another case, four hundred years later, where a Roman dame was starved to death by her relatives for similar reasons.

Later on, when they had conquered most of Italy, wine became more common, and when the Roman arms reached Greece and Asia Minor the country was flooded with it. We learn from contemporary writers that manners and customs changed within one generation. Old Cato used to tell how, at his father's table, only common Italian wine was served, and. that sparingly, while the Greek wine was handed round as a great luxury in small glasses at dessert. And before his death one general, Lucullus, returning from the East, distributed one hundred thousand gallons of fine Chian wine to the populace.

The later Romans cared more for their wine than for any other natural or artificial product of land or sea. Pliny mentions that there were one hundred and ninety-five varieties in general use, of which about eighty were of fine quality. Common wine was extraordinarily cheap and abundant, so much so that it was a jest of the poets that it was less expensive than water. Fine sweet dessert wines were imported in large quantities from the Grecian isles, Chios, Samos, Lesbos, Mitylene, and the rest. And the famous Italian vintages, the strong, fiery Falernian, the rich Massic, the sweet Alban, the Cæcuban, Setine, Pucine, and others, sung by Horace and Virgil and Lucretius, held the palm over all their rivals, and in many respects must have compared favorably with those of the present day.

But most of them would have been spoiled for our tastes by the curious substances which were added to them, for flavoring or as preservatives. For instance, both in Greece and Rome it was a quite common practice to mix honey, and also various spices, myrrh and aloes and cloves. A more surprising admixture was that of salt water, which, in small quantities, one to fifty or so, was believed to greatly improve the flavor of fine wines. Indeed, most careful directions are given by the old writers about the quality of this salt water. It must be drawn from the ocean, some three miles from shore, on a calm day, when the sea was at rest. Another, and to us barbarous, habit was that of adding resin or pitch or turpentine, either directly to the wine, or by smearing the wine vessels before filling them. This is done in Greece up to the present day, and the modern traveler is asked in the taverns whether he wishes "foreign wine" or "resined wine"—οίνος έξότικος or όίνος ρεαινήτής.

In one respect they were fully our equals. They appreciated the value of age. We still, some of us, have our wine cellars, and "lay down" our wines for aging. We smack our lips over a glass of Chǎteau La Rose of '70, and think it old; while "Stuyvesant" or "Monticello" Madeira, from the beginning of the century, is doled out, on rare festal occasions, a few drops at a time, like a precious elixir.

But in Cæsar's day we hear of Hortensius, a well-known orator, leaving his heir ten thousand casks of good Greek wine in the cellar of his country house. Plump little Horace, always referring to his poverty, can still write to a friend and ask him to visit him at his humble cottage, and take a glass of Falernian laid down "Consule Planco," some thirty years ago. His patron Mæcenas used to give him wine—Marsi memorem duelli—that remembered the Marsian war, seventy or eighty years before. And we learn from Pliny that, in his day, there was still in existence some of a famous "cru" of wine, made in the consulship of Opimius, some two hundred years before. This wine, we read, was only used for flavoring other varieties. It was thick, so that it had to be dug out with a spoon, and dissolved in water, and strained before using it, and when the cover was taken off the jar it emitted a delightful, powerful fragrance which filled the whole room.

From the fall of the republic on, intemperance and licentiousness increased in Rome with rapid strides. Nothing more was heard of the old laws; the women drank just as heavily as the men. All the writers—Pliny, Juvenal, Seneca, Tacitus, Athenæus, and many more—are full of bitter complaints against the prevailing habits. No order, no decency, was observed at their feasts. They rapidly became regular drinking bouts, where not only host and guests, but even the freedmen and slaves, drank themselves to unconsciousness.

Prizes were commonly offered, at these, to the heaviest drinkers, and it was customary to use drugs to increase the normal capacity for liquor. A separate chamber adjoining the dining room bore the suggestive name of vomitorium. The emperors themselves did not disdain to encourage these orgies. Under Claudius a certain Caius Piso was promoted at court for drinking consecutively for two days and nights. One man, Torquatus, was actually knighted under the name of Tricongius, or "Three-gallon Man," for taking that quantum of wine, so it was said, at a single draught. The populace, the home army, and the court were all equally intemperate; and it is no wonder that, when once the outer defenses of the empire were broken through, the rest collapsed and fell to pieces before the onslaughts of the hardier, even if no less intemperate, Northern races.