Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 21.

Hanneke Wilson, Wine and Words in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages. London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp. viii + 243, incl. an epilogue, endnotes and two indices. ISBN 0-7156-3223-X. US$67.50, UK£45.00.

Owen Hodkinson,
The Queen's College, Oxford

The subject of Wilson's book is 'not wine making or the wine trade, but literature, religion and the history of ideas'; Wilson describes herself as a philologist 'in the old sense of a lover of discourse' and emphasises the importance of quoting in the original language (p. vii). The dustjacket claims the book is 'accessible and interesting to both scholar and general reader' -- a dangerous ambition, leading to a rather mixed presentation. Beyond these hints, Wilson says nothing about the book's purposes -- there is no introduction or conclusion -- which makes the task of the reviewer (and the reader) rather difficult. The absence of a bibliography, the (infrequent) use of endnotes rather than footnotes, and Wilson's rather informal style all perhaps point to an educated general readership; so does the wide range of cultures discussed, since no one could claim to be expert in all the areas covered by Wilson (from the Old Testament to the medieval church, archaic to late antique and secular medieval culture). On the other hand, the extensive citation (and detailed analysis) of Latin and Greek seems geared exclusively to the scholar -- and, to judge from the high proportion of 'classical' themes and texts (the treatment of 'Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages' is not as equal as the title would suggest), mainly to the classical scholar. Of necessity, this reviewer read the classical parts as a classicist and others as a 'general reader'.

Wine and Words is arranged in five thematic chapters, within which material is arranged broadly chronologically. This implies a developmental approach, and would be suitable for a book tracing five specific sets of concepts or phenomena over a continuous period, within a particular culture (or related cultures). It is, however, a curious arrangement to impose on such different groups of texts as the Old Testament and ancient Greek literature (this transition occurs in chapters one and two, continuity each time coming from the difference rather than any similarity: pp. 25, 43), and under such broad headings as 'Excess and Moderation' (Chapter 3, pp. 77-113) or 'Wine, Water and Song' (Chapter 4, pp. 114-67). For instance, the theme of Chapter Four covers: the mixing of wine with water by Greeks and barbarians (pp. 114-18); wine drinking (regardless of water content) by Greeks and barbarians (pp. 118-28); wine and poetic inspiration (pp. 129-37); the composition of the chalice at Christian communion (pp. 152-57); and medieval drinking songs (pp. 158-67). Wilson deals with an admirable range of sources under each theme, and provides many interesting discussions along the way -- for example, on the Persians' drunken decision- making, Herodotus 1.133f. (pp. 126-28), or her observations on the differences between the Latin and English vocabularies of drunkenness (pp. 149f.). But one is often left wondering how the set-piece discussions of individual passages are supposed to fit together.

The lack of a clear structure within each chapter points to a paucity of significant arguments, an impression which is reinforced when a chapter ends, surprisingly, with the inconsequential statement that 'Pliny, Plutarch and Aelian were wrong: the greatest drinker of all was surely Socrates.' (p. 113),[[1]] or with the information that Horace, being elegant, is quite different to medieval drinking songs, which are no more than -- of all things -- drinking songs (p. 167)! This would not be such a problem if the book could nevertheless serve as a useful collection and comparison of sources, illuminated by the good discussions of particular passages it does contain; however, the minute general index, consisting almost entirely of proper names, would make it very hard to find all the references to a particular motif, thus limiting this potential usefulness.[[2]]

Unfortunately, even at the level of individual passages, Wilson's treatments hardly contain sufficient analysis or insight to raise some parts of the book above the level of a collection of anecdotes. Thus she devotes a whole paragraph (pp. 120f.) in discussing the slaughter of the Massagetae (Hdt. 1.207-16) to the question 'Who are the real savages in this story . . . ?' Making moral judgements about characters in a historical text based on the simplistic use of terms such as 'savage' (surely it depends on the differing values of the characters, narrators or readers?) and using such artificially exclusive oppositions (can there only be one 'real' 'savage'?), is no longer the work of the 'philologist' of any vintage, particularly not one who claims 'The philologist must be an historian' (p. vii). Wilson's engagement with ancient historiographers is often sententious, agreeing or disagreeing with them as if they were modern scholars rather than assessing them as sources: so, to say 'Demosthenes may have been a clever rhetorician, but he was wrong' (p. 80) takes no account of the function of Demosthenes' rhetoric, and therefore misses the point. Similarly, she implies, by contrast with Trogus and Quintus, that Arrian and Plutarch are 'proper' historians of Alexander, 'concern[ed] . . . to establish historical fact' (pp. 88-90); but what of their different generic and rhetorical contexts (such as Plutarch's programme: 'lives, not history',[[3]] or his comparative purposes)? Wilson does differentiate between the two major authors to an extent (pp. 86-88), but in summing up her discussion of the various Alexander texts she is too ready to forget this and resort to simplistic schemata. It is not the methods but the aims of Wilson's arguments (such as trying to decide how heavy a drinker Alexander really was), however, which are most disappointing: there is surely much of interest to be said on the various themes of 'wine and words',[[4]] but Wilson is often content just to relate words about wine.

If Wilson's evaluation of her sources' context and rhetorical position is not always penetrating enough, this is part of a general tendency to over-simplify and to conveniently ignore controversy. For example, she describes symposia as 'little more than booze- ups', citing one fragment -- of comedy at that[[5]] -- as evidence (p. 107, n. 82); she states as fact that the Athenian theatre audience was all male, supported with a reference to another such statement but containing no reference to the evidence or the dissenters (p. 48, n. 67). She shows knowledge of (recent) themes from a wide range of scholarship, but where her discussion might benefit from further engagement (even if it had to be relegated to the endnotes), the reader is often left frustrated: the association of Old Comedy with the idea of carnival and the name Bakhtin nowhere to be found; when, at last, an article in Murray's Sympotica is cited,[[6]] it is only to be dismissed (p. 144, n. 55).

Despite the claim that this book is not about wine making or the wine trade (p. vii), there is much (necessary) technical detail of this nature, and Wilson seems most at home here.[[7]] In fact, the last chapter, with extensive discussion of the history of wine production, ageing, storage, trade and consumption (especially pp. 168-82, 190-93), is by far the best of the book (albeit going against the book's stated brief, using literary references to talk about wine rather than discussing the significance of wine in literature). Wilson's expertise enables her to make useful comments on passages referring to wine: she convincingly elucidates the joke of Trimalchio serving a 'Falernian Opimian' (Petronius Satyrica 36): it was so old it was extortionate -- and undrinkable! (pp. 182f.), and illuminates various references to wines in Martial and Horace (pp. 183-86).

Altogether, Wine and Words contains much useful information and many interesting discussions: however, the lack of bibliography and fuller indices greatly reduces its utility as a reference work, while the lack of a clear structure to guide the reader and often inconsequential conclusions make it equally frustrating for the scholar and the general reader alike.[[8]]


[[1]] She admits (p. 226, n. 85) her 'discussion only skims the surface of the Symposium,' but nevertheless one would hope for a more revealing conclusion than this to emerge.

[[2]] A reader might come to this book hoping to find discussion of a motif such as 'wine and truth/wine as mirror of the soul' -- and (s)he would not be disappointed on reading the book through, as there are references on pp. 107-12, 129-30, 142-43, 147-48 and 150; but there is no such topic listed in the index, so reading through would be the only effective way of finding them.

[[3]] Alexander 1.2.

[[4]] The classicist should start with O. Murray and M. Tecusan (edd.), In vino veritas (London 1995); cf. also O. Murray (ed.), Sympotica: a Symposium on the Symposion (Oxford 1990). On Wine- and Water-drinkers, Wilson ignores P.E. Knox, 'Wine, Water, and Callimachean Polemics', HSCP 89 (1985) 107-19. More recently, cf. A.M. Bowie, 'Thinking with Drinking: Wine and the Symposium in Aristophanes', JHS 117 (1997) 1-21; the appendix on wine in B. PŁtz, The Symposium and Komos in Aristophanes. (Stuttgart 2003).

[[5]] Eubulus 93 K-A.

[[6]] M. Tecusan, 'Logos Sympotikos: Patterns of the Irrational in Philosophical Drinking: Plato outside the Symposium' in Murray 1990 [4] 238-60.

[[7]] Cf. her contributions to J. Robinson (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford 1994).

[[8]] There are a few errors, none major: p. vii: 'Words and Wine'; p. 72, last paragraph: 'traditio' missing 'n'; p. 79, second paragraph: missing punctuation between 'themselves' and 'first'; p. 126, first paragraph: ungrammatical sentence (beginning 'Abandoning . . . '); p. 139, second paragraph: 'however, but . . . ' (delete one); p. 145, second paragraph: 'harangue', not 'harangues'; p. 225, n. 62 should refer to pp. 86-88.