The origin of glass manufacture itself can be dated back to the second millennium bce in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. It seems to have come to a halt at the end of the Bronze Age, but was resumed in Syria and Cyprus in the early first millennium BC.
Meanwhile, in Hellenistic Syria, high quality wine was exported from the port of Laodicea (present-day Latakia) via the Red Sea as far as Arabia and India. It was in Ptolemaic Alexandria that experiments led to new production techniques, so that glass could be manufactured on a significantly larger scale. During the Hellenistic period, it first became possible to form glass from moulds. Subsequently, in the late Hellenistic period (ca. first century BC), glassblowing was discovered in the Near East – an invention that caused a sheer revolution in glass production: this made glass vessels cheaper even than earthenware.
Although the Classical Greek and Roman wine culture may be more familiar to the reader, a rich culture existed around wine consumption in Achaemenid Persia (550-330 BC). The rhyton – a horn usually decorated with an animal head or forepart, and used to drink, pour, or aerate (pass air through liquid) wine – is a striking expression of this.
Carmania in the Highlands of Iran (approximately the modern province of Kerman) was famous for the quality of its wine. Strabo (15.2.14) informs us that the Carmanian grape variety, which flourished due to the fertile soil, was known both for the size of the grapes and for the size of its bunches.
After the disastrous journey through the Gedrosia desert, in which perhaps one-third of his troops lost their lives, Alexander the Great made a Bacchic triumphal procession through the region and celebrated a drinking party in honor of Dionysus for seven days and seven nights.
In the region of Gandhara, north-west of ancient India, the area of the Kabul valley before that river (known as the Cophes in antiquity) empties into the Indus, the Macedonian army had earlier believed to even have discovered the birthplace of Dionysus, the god of wine, because the mountainous area was rich in vine and grapes. In the region, wine was indeed consumed during popular religious festivals before the arrival of Buddhism from India.
Gandharan wine was probably enhanced with spices during the fermentation and was drunk undiluted within days after the pressing (the yeast was therefore still active). It was a sweet young wine with a milky color. While Buddhist monks were prohibited from drinking alcoholic beverages, the tradition of a wine festival continued. Vine leaves also became a popular motif in later Gandhara art.
Archaeologists can at least partially reconstruct the network of overseas trade from ceramic vessels discovered in underwater excavations. For example, the amphoras from Rhodes are of a specific type, so that their large-scale dispersal across the Hellenistic world attests to the wide reach of trade from the island.
The local wine produced in Rhodes that was transported in these ceramic containers was very popular. Like the variant from Kos, Rhodian wine was mixed with seawater or salt, although to a lesser extent. While this salty wine was not of particular high quality, it was precisely its low price that contributed to its enormous popularity as an export commodity.
On the scene illustrated below we see, in a turbulent sea, an almost fully naked woman riding sideways with both legs to the right, on the back of a sea centaur. She is a Nereid, a sea nymph, one of the fifty beautiful daughters of the sea god Nereus and his wife Doris (herself the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys).
Her body is covered only with some drapery across her lap and a band across her breasts. In both raised hands she holds a wavy cloth that bulges like a sail and that gives the impression of blowing wind. This so-called velificatio is known from Roman art (for example on the reliefs of the Ara Pacis built by Emperor Augustus).
The sea centaur is a Graeco-Roman mythological being with the upper body of a horned human, the forelegs of a horse, and the coiled tail of an enormous fish. He looks back at the Nereid on his tail; in his right hand he holds a mirror before her face; in his left hand he carries a wreath. A shell is depicted below his legs, and a dolphin and a fish below his tail. The tail of another sea creature can be seen on the far left of the fragment, probably a mirrored, second marine companion, whose hand can be seen near the wreath. Perhaps we can interpret the scene a little further? Maybe Acis and Galatea, known from Ovid’s Metamorphosis (13.733-897) are depicted here.
The mythological scene is reproduced in repoussage relief on a fragment of the neck of a silver wine jug and decorated with gold leaf. With this metalworking technique a deep relief is hammered on the reverse (from the inside out). Afterwards, like in this case, details can be embossed from the front.
Maritime themes are relatively common on Roman silver tableware – the reason for bringing up this particular relief scene. During rich banquets, a variety of fish was served while the wine flowed lavishly. This wine jug probably comes from the Roman province of Baetica in southern Spain, a region where wine, olive oil, and fish sauce were traded overseas. Indeed, Ceretanum, a fortified white wine from Ceret in Beatica (present-day Jerez de la Frontera), was exported to southern France, Italy and Germany, and is thought to be the forerunner of modern sherry.
The most praised and most expensive Roman wine was certainly the white Falernian wine, which had an alcohol percentage of up to 15%. This “premier cru”, as it were, the Sauterne of Antiquity, grew on the slopes of Falernus, a mountain on the border of Latium and Campania. The son of the dictator Sulla (138-78 BC), Faustus Cornelius Sulla (86-46 BC), owned vineyards halfway up the mountain.
The grape was only harvested after the first frost. Due to the maturation process in earthenware amphorae from fifteen to twenty years, the wine was amber to dark brown in color. The harvest from the year of consul Lucius Opimius (121 BC) was so famous that Julius Caesar had it poured at a banquet in honor of his Spanish triumph (60 BC)! Like the Greeks, Romans always drank their wine diluted.
Much more could be said about Hellenistic wine consumption, trade and the vessels from which the drink was consumed. For instance, that the Thasians made a highly and widely valued wine with rose leaves, or that the Ephesians mixed unfermented, cooked grape juice in their Mesogite wine, or that Cyrenean salty wine, though of poor quality, was considered good for the digestion.
Suffice it to say that wines were enjoyed in a surprisingly wide variety, that they were widely traded, and illustrate the wide spread of its culture. In the Hellenistic Age, as much as in earlier and later periods, wine was not just a commodity to be traded far and wide. Wine vessels were not merely luxury items for the affluent. Simply put, wine was a way of life.
The objects illustrated in this article are from the Allard Pierson Museum and are all currently on display in the Hellenistic gallery, “From Alexander to Cleopatra.” The fresco used as this article’s featured image depicts Bacchus/Dionysus, the god of wine, and his consort Adriadne (from a Roman villa in Campania, ca. AD 1-79; Getty inv.no. 83.AG.222.3.1; photo courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Open Content Program).
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