Wine culture in the Hellenistic Mediterranean

What is true now was true in antiquity, too: wine is always good business. Tracing Mediterranean wine culture, this article focuses especially on the last three centuries BC.

Written by Cindy Meijer and Branko van Oppen on

The period between Alexander the Great and Cleopatra VII, known as the Hellenistic Age (ca. 335-30 BC), witnessed the expansion of trade relations over an ever-growing area, bringing distant regions into contact.

Through routes of long-distance trade, goods from Northwest Europe, the Middle East, Arabia, India, and Central Asia reached the Mediterranean. For the first time in history this even included produce from China, laying the foundation for the Silk Road. Everything from luxury goods to food products were exchanged in a swiftly developing consumer society (e.g. gems, gold and silver, herbs and spices, perfumes and oils, silk and linen, elephants and slaves, grain and olive oil, parchment and papyrus, beer and wine).

Wine was enjoyed throughout the Mediterranean world. Different regions had their own specialty, from cheap wine from Egypt to delicious Falernian wine from Italy, and the exceptional Carmanian wine from the Highlands of Iran. Wine was consumed from simple earthenware cups to brilliant glasses. Naturally, the trade in fine gold and silver wine vessels flourished.

A brief history of wine

Viticulture, the cultivation of grapes and the preparation of wine, can be traced back long before the Hellenistic Age, to about some 8,000 years ago in the mountainous areas of the Caucasus and Zagros (respectively in present-day Georgia and Iran).

Wine-growing was also practiced in the Balkans and the Levant during the Neolithic period (ca. mid-fifth millennium BC). Classical Greece, of course, is famous for the elaborate culture around wine consumption. This is obviously not the place to discuss the importance of wine in ancient Greek religion, medicine, culture, and society – not to mention the symposium. Here, it should be remembered that Greek migration spread wine culture across the northern Mediterranean and Black Sea coast, thus sharing it with the Etruscans and Romans, Celts and Scythians.

The Greeks always drank their wine diluted with water as theirs came from the pressing as a thick syrup. They even considered it a barbarian practice to consume undiluted wine. A wide variety of wines, mainly sweet aromatic wine, but also drier varieties were produced on the Greek mainland.

A popular Greek wine, which was exported in large quantities to the Black Sea region, was the variety from Mende (Chalcidice). This Mendaean white wine existed in different types (mild, dry, and with honey), and was considered to have had both a therapeutic and a laxative function.

On the islands, even more different varieties of wine were produced. On Kos, for examples, a widely exported variant was mixed with salty sea water; it was traded via sea routes as far as Arabia and India. High quality red wine from Chios enjoyed an excellent reputation and was exported for high prices to Greece, Italy, and Egypt from the Classical until well into the Roman Imperial period (ca. fifth century BC to the second century AD).

During the period of Greek “colonization” of the northern Mediterranean and Black Sea, the Phoenicians settled across the southern and western Mediterranean, and thus eventually shared their wine culture with Libyans, Iberians, and Italians, to name a few.

From the Phoenician heartland (Lebanon), a fine and fragrant white wine was traded from Byblos (preset-day Jibayl) to the islands of Cyprus, Crete, Sicily and Sardinia, as well as the north African coast and the Iberian Peninsula. This type of wine was impregnated with pine or pistachio resin (terebinth), as these ingredients would better bring out the soft taste of the beverage. In the Hellenistic period this variety was valued as qualitatively equal to the best sweet Muscat-type wine from Lesbos.

Phoenician wine grapes were also cultivated in Sicily and Thrace. From the Bagradas valley (in Tunisia), the Carthaginians exported Passum to Punic colonies in Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands and Spain. The Carthaginian wine, made from raisins, while made by the military rivals of Rome, nevertheless became popular in Italy, too.

In the Nile Delta and Egyptian oases, wine cultivation and consumption dates back at least to the Old Kingdom (late third millennium BC). From the royal vineyards mainly red wine was produced. In the famous tomb of Tutankhamun, however, remains of white wine, perhaps imported, have been found in pitchers. Egyptian wine could be flavored with pistachio resin (terebinth), fresh grapes and figs, sage, mint, and coriander.

The Greeks introduced new grape varieties in Egypt; wine was also imported directly from the Aegean Sea region. Hellenistic Egyptian wines – made either from grapes or pomegranate, or from date or palm – came in different varieties and flavors, from cheap to expensive, from sour to sweet. Even wine vinegar was drunk as a cheap surrogate among the poorer population. Among the rural population, however, beer remained the more popular drink for daily consumption until Late Antiquity – as it had been since time immemorial.

In Israel, kosher wine had been cherished at least since the time of the Old Testament. The Talmud mentions 70 different varieties of wine form Palestine, such as Sharon and Carmel. Most are red, though some are white varieties. They were produced in different ways, for instance by mixing the wine with clear water and balm (aluntit), or with honey and black pepper (anomilin), but also by smoking the grapes before pressing the wine (meusham).

The region of Kefar-Signa (in southern Galilee) furnished the wine for the sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem. In the Hellenistic period, kosher wines were reckoned among the best. They were not only traded in amphoras (like most other wines), but also in goatskins, and exported from the ports of Ashkelon, Joppa and Dor to North Africa, Europe, and the Black Sea.

At the beginning of the common era, red wine became an essential sacrament of the Christian Eucharistic celebration to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus.

From luxury goods to commodity items

Wine was not only drunk from graceful vessels of precious metals, but also from glass or earthenware, and even wooden cups. Difficult as it may be to imagine – due to the prevalence of glass in our modern age – before the Roman Imperial Age, glass artefacts (whether fashioned of quartz or obsidian) belonged to the highest possible luxury items.

This beautiful amber-colored glass wine cup (diam. ca. 15cm), with its fine horizontal grain on the edge, is an early example of moulded glass produce from the Levant (ca. 100 BC-AD 100). It had to be placed in a (wooden) foot as the rounded bottom makes it unstable on the table. (APM 14.023)

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.

The ancient Persian tradition of drinking or pouring wine from rhyta was eagerly adopted in Classical Greece – despite the great political enmity between Greece and Persia. In the Hellenistic Age rhyta in different materials remained popular. This example from Campania terminates in a highly naturalistic head of a roe deer (19.5cm in length; third century BC). (APM 787)

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.

This exquisite gilded silver rhyton (wine drinking horn) terminates in the forepart of a naturalistically rendered stag. Incorporating stylistic elements of Achaemenid and Seleucid traditions, it was made in Parthia (northwestern Iran, ca. 50 BC-AD 50). (Getty 86.AM.753; photo courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Open Content Program)

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.

A Nereid and a sea centaur

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).

A fragment of a gilded silver wine jug from southern Spain (10.5cm in height; ca. first century BC). The image is “rolled” out to compensate for the curvature of the vase neck. (APM 15.375)

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.

Different cultural traditions met in Hellenistic Egypt, as this small silver wine vase illustrates (11cm in height; ca. 200-150 BC). It is decorated with acanthus and lotus leaves, floral motifs from respectively Greece and Egypt, and its shape is influenced by Achaemenid Persian vessels. The vase derives from the collection of William MacGregor (1848-1937), who supported the excavations of Édouard Naville and W.M. Flinders Petrie. (APM 3397)

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.

Closing remarks

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 83.AG.222.3.1; photo courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Open Content Program).

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Joel Butler and Randall Heskett, Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age (2012).
  • Harry Falk, “Wine in Gandhara under Buddhist Monastic Supervision”, Bulletin of the Asia Institute 23 (2009), pp. 65-78.
  • Patrick E. McGovern, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2003).
  • Patrick E. McGovern, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (2009).
  • Branko F. van Oppen de Ruiter, “De hellenistische wereld van Alexander tot Cleopatra”, Allard Pierson Mededelingen 114/115 (2017), pp. 14-18.
  • Theodore Papaioannou, “A Reconstruction of the Maritime Trade Patterns Originating from Western Asia Minor during Late Antiquity, on the Basis of Ceramic Evidence”, in: D. Robinson and A. Wilson (eds), Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean (2011), pp. 197-210.

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