Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Scourge of Wine

January 29th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Given our obvious enthusiasm for the effects of alcohol, we were a bit taken aback by a recent New York Times piece extolling the virtues of half-bottles of wine. Apparently there are people out there for whom a regular ol’ 750-mL bottle of wine is too much to split with a loved one—the writer includes a line about such a ghastly amount of alcohol causing its imbibers to “stumble into bed without doing the dishes.”

We initially guffawed at such lightweights, but they actually have some pretty notable company from history. As Herodotus recorded in his History, one of Sparta’s mightiest king’s, the great Cleomenes, lost his power and then his wits thanks to his affection for undiluted wine:

His own countrymen declare that his madness proceeded not from any supernatural cause whatever, but only from the habit of drinking wine unmixed with water, which he learnt of the Scyths. These nomads, from the time that Darius made his inroad into their country, had always had a wish for revenge. They therefore sent ambassadors to Sparta to conclude a league, proposing to endeavour themselves to enter Media by the Phasis, while the Spartans should march inland from Ephesus, and then the two armies should join together in one. When the Scyths came to Sparta on this errand Cleomenes was with them continually; and growing somewhat too familiar, learnt of them to drink his wine without water, a practice which is thought by the Spartans to have caused his madness. From this distance of time the Spartans, according to their own account, have been accustomed, when they want to drink purer wine than common, to give the order to fill “Scythian fashion.” The Spartans then speak thus concerning Cleomenes.

We always associated the consumption of watered wine with infirmity—the kind of thing you did when you were too old or sick to handle the straight stuff. But perhaps this practice explains the Spartans’ fitness for battle, at least as compared to those drunken Athenians. A lesson for today’s great clash of cultures, perhaps? Though don’t expect us to give up our Marker’s Mark in the name of preserving Western values—we’d rather go down with a pleasant buzz.

(Image via the Sparta Pages from the University of Texas)


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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    It was actually more or less a standard belief in the Greek world that unwatered wine would lead to madness. But then they also tended to drink in fairly heroic quantities. Just check out the kind of vessel they used for mixing the stuff:


    Little bit bigger than your average punch bowl. The article also includes a pretty solid note about the traditions around wine dilution.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Ah, the quantity-over-quality approach to guzzling. In contemporary terms, we’d call that the Bud Light Method. I heartily disapprove.