Friday, June 11, 2010


In my book on Roman foods I rattled on for over fifty pages about Roman wine. That amount of ink was spilled partially because our evidence for Roman winemaking is relatively good, but also because I believe the role of wine as food in ancient Rome merits at least that much space. Clearly, whatever else it was, wine was an important food to the Romans. One of the best scholars in the area has estimated, based on production figures and comparative evidence, that average per capita consumption of wine in ancient Rome was somewhere in the neighborhood of 675 ml per day. Now that’s per capita, not per adult. Assuming their little tykes weren’t swilling as much as adults, the average adult Roman probably drank the equivalent of about a 750 ml-bottle a day. If that figure sounds farfetched to you, it is consonant with solid figures from Medieval Paris, Perugia, Milan, and a number of other cities in the period. Clearly wine was food for the Romans, and an important food, because it was a ready source of calories in the diet. It’s hard for an American to comprehend this, but in a pre-industrial city, obtaining a minimum number of calories in the diet is a very difficult endeavor indeed. A bottle of wine would have delivered about 1/3 of an adult male’s caloric needs, about 1/2 that of a woman.

So I don’t plan to excuse myself for nattering on so. But I have to confess there was an elephant in the scholarly room, one which I assiduously avoided talking about except in a very cursory way, and one which, clearly, I will have to deal with in the new opus. Not only was there one elephant in the room, there was a herd of them. And they were drunk.

In 1985, a herd of rogue elephants discovered a moonshine operation in West Bengal, drank up all the mash and went on a rampage. Before it was over they had trampled five people to death and knocked down seven concrete buildings. And they are not alone in their miscreant behavior. Colobus monkeys will drink the nectar which collects and ferments in the flowers of certain tropical trees and become so inebriated they fall out of the trees. Bees and other pollinators, all kinds of birds which feed on berries and fruits, as well as mammals of every description will avidly seek out fermented foods and binge until they are potted.

But nature has a way of governing such overindulgence, since the time span from ripe fruit to fermented fruit to rotten mush is small. What would the norm be if alcohol were available on demand? Actually, we have a pretty good idea. Experimental rats were given carte blanche at their own open bar and most eventually found a rhythm in which they maintained a modest level of intoxication pretty much all during their waking hours. Strangely, the whole group would consume an even greater amount during one period each day, typically right around five o’clock pm. Yep. Rats have happy hour. Furthermore, about every fifth day the whole group would overindulge, after which they would be especially abstemious for the next day or so. Rats have keggers too. Can it be mere coincidence that rats are highly social creatures with a complex social structure, very much like you-know-who? Alcoholic beverages are the nearly universal lubricant in human social interaction as well.

It’s easy to understand why critters seek out alcohol in the first place; alcohol is simply a by-form of simple sugars, and where there is alcohol there are calories galore. I have had shocked looks from my students on occasion when I mention this; hey, guys, there’s a reason they call it a beer gut. Most animals have the same struggle to obtain calories as their pre-industrial human counterparts. But saying that animals get schnoggered simply coincidental to gorging on carbs just won’t do. One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time is Ronald K. Siegel’s Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances. And Siegel makes incontrovertibly clear the simple fact that all animals, from bees to Bosnians, look for ways to deliberately alter their consciousness. Nor is this learned behavior; even toddlers will deliberately make themselves dizzy as a way to get a mild buzz. I remember as a second-grader how we would flock around the swings at recess, taking turns straddling the swings on our bellies as two cohorts would grab our feet and shoulders and wind the seat until the two chains of the swing were braided almost to the top bar and the seat had been raised four feet off the ground. On a signal the workers would fling heads and tails in opposite direction, the swing would gyrate crazily, and when it finally unwound itself we would get up off the seats and stagger about like hard-core winos. And then repeat the whole procedure. There were times when my best elementary school buddy, Tom Barton, and I would go back to Mrs. Lee’s class and be drunk as lords the rest of the day.

Why? Why did we do that? Even the act of swinging itself induces a mild form of intoxication as the two ends of the arc create a momentary weightlessness. That too has been experimentally confirmed. Are altered states somehow adaptive in the evolutionary scheme of things? And if so, how?

Furthermore, in almost every animal species there are a few individuals who cannot control the urge to play with their brains; addiction is also seemingly universal. But as these individuals come more and more under the control of their addictions, social lubricant becomes the mark of deviant behavior and other members of flocks and herds will increasingly shun these poor tortured souls. Many range cattle every year die from ingestion of locoweed, which is in fact the generic name of a number of plant species that all produce swainsonine, a plant alkaloid which induces bizarre behavior before paralysis and death ensue. Obviously these plants don’t want to be eaten. But strangely, some cattle who recover from swainsonine poisoning will deliberately seek out the plant and ingest it again, obviously for the sole purpose of inducing the same altered state. Just like human addicts, they will develop a tolerance to the drug so that they must ingest more and more of it to obtain less and less of a 'high’, even to the point of self-destruction. Meanwhile, the rest of the herd will abandon them to their misery. Addicted cows, via their milk, will addict their calves and then mother and calf will loll about in a stupor, shunned by their peers, neglecting basic nutrition in their quest for the drug, until they literally starve to death.

It reminds me of a case Siegel treated, a young couple addicted to powder cocaine. Cocaine snorted up the nostrils plays havoc with mucous membranes and soft tissues, and thus the chronic runny nose associated with this form of addiction. One night the young man blew his nose and discovered a strange glob in his tissue; it was the cartilage from his left nostril! You would think such a gruesome episode would be enough to warn off the most hard-core, wouldn’t you? Not so. The couple actually kept this grisly memento, named it, continued to snort the poison, and two months later the young man proudly produced for Dr. Siegel to admire the cartilage from his right nostril.

So you might say I’m more than a little ambivalent about alcohol. It is, after all, Western society’s addictive drug of choice. I try to be especially sensitive in my classes when we discuss the role of wine in ancient Rome. In a class of thirty plus kids, the odds are overwhelming that at least two are dealing with alcohol issues at home. As a scholar I hope I can address the role of alcohol as intoxicant with a certain dispassion. As a father, as a teacher, as a man whose genetic heritage includes the predilection for substance abuse, especially alcohol, on both maternal and paternal sides, I struggle with it.

The ancients, of course, felt the same ambivalence. Dionysus/Bacchus, as the god of wine, is also the god of joy, of poetry, of drama, of inspiration, of regenerative powers, of resurrection. But he is also the god of drunkenness, of brawling, of madness, or filicide, of cannibalism, of oblivion.

So, what do you think, is alcohol a blessing or a curse?

I agree with you totally.

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