The History of Wine

The History of Wine

During the Byzantine period, the production, trade and consumption of wine were part of the nutritional tradition of the broader Byzantine Empire. Various sources about the history of wine describe the characteristics of the Byzantine wine tradition, which was a continuation of the ancient Greek wine tradition. These sources include testimonials and references in historical and hagiographical texts, particular treaties signed by emperors, research in grave inscriptions, particular laws and decrees, diaries, commercial exchanges, novelistic and historical biographies, prose pieces and poetic texts, Testaments and other documents filled with significant information.

This tradition presents the history of the wine shops (Greek kapiliá), the activities of wine merchants and winemakers, legal and commercial provisions, particular moments of wine drinking, various wine accompaniments, and the conditions that paved the way for the control of the wine trade by the West.
Vine-growers, winemakers, wine merchants and retail-dealers (Greek kápilos) constituted the chain that operated the stages of the 'production, promotion and consumption' of Byzantine wine. These parties also shaped the competition requirements of the commercial houses regarding the control of this valuable product and the history of wine in general.
The financial privileges gained by the Venetians in Constantinople, particularly in the 13th century, later served as a platform for the creation of the 'multinational house of food and alcoholic beverages' by the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari.
Several grave inscriptions of the early Byzantine period were found at Korika, the largest port of Cilicia in Asia Minor. A series of these grave inscriptions refers to wine professions. Korika was one of the most important ports in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its wine merchants penetrated into the market of Constantinople and took over control of the production and the transit trade of wines from Cilicia and Syro-Palestine. As a city of wine, Korika brought to the foreground the most significant wine merchants and retail-dealers, who, on several occasions, enjoyed special care from the emperors. A series of grave inscriptions from the cities of Cilicia, Anazarbo, Korasio and Korika confirm that the professional activity of the retail-dealers' guild was flourishing. The inscriptions referring to retail-dealers are a very useful source of information about the wine professions of the Byzantines.

Konon, Monk and Retail-dealer

One of these inscriptions refers to Konon who was a monk and a retail-dealer. In fact, this was in breach of Canon 9 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council which forbade the clergy to run wine shops. In 972, the charter of Mount Athos ('Typikon' 15) signed by the Emperor Ioannis Tsimiskis and the abbots, states and determines the wine activities of the monks:
'By common consent, we decide and recommend the following with respect to wine. Nobody is to attempt to sell wine to the laity beyond the border of the river Zygos and within Mount Athos, so that the laity cannot communicate with the monks and pollute them with their sinful practices. However, if someone should produce more than he needs, he may sell it to other monks in exchange for products he may be lacking. Moreover, if the laity are visiting Mount Athos and have items that are needed at Mount Athos, then the monks who do not have many necessities – because some are not as well-off as others – may exchange wine with those who need it, and shall be forgiven.'
In the following century, in 1045, when the second 'Typikon' was in preparation, the winemaking monks demanded the right to trade their surpluses, even by declaring that they would leave the monastery. Given this threat, the emperor Constantinos the Gladiator and the abbots decided to settle this matter by prohibiting the trade only during the Great Lent. At the end of the same century, the reform programme of the Komnenos dynasty had reached Mount Athos, and as the Patriarch of Antioch Ioannis IV states 'in the monastery the laity would slaughter, eat meat and sing and would do all the things the laity do with absolute power', thereby forcing the monks 'to trade and become retail-dealers and engage in any profession of the laity for their miserable physical survival'. Persons having two professions are also mentioned on other inscriptions, such as sailor and wine merchant, retail-dealer and fisherman, and retail-dealer and undertaker.

The professions of Kápilos, Piptakários and Pastillários

A person was allowed to practice two professions only due to certain circumstances that were approved by the rules of the guild associations. Such is the case of the retail-dealer and undertaker. It seems that undertakers, who constituted an organisation independent from the Church, reserved the right to practice two professions, because their fee was insufficient or because they did not have steady work. Similar is the case of Mamma, the kápilos (retail-dealer) and pastillários (maker of pastilles). Another retail-dealer also seemed to practice the profession of piptakários (seller of pistachio nuts), because he offered wine along with some kind of dish made with pistachios. According to linguists, the term piptakários (synonymous to the terms itrários, plakountários and pastillários) comes from the Latin word pistacia meaning pistachios. This term was used by the Byzantines to define the person who prepares dishes made with pistachios, since the suffix -ários means the manufacturer of some kind of thing, such as plakountários (cake-maker), saldamários (grocer), pastillários (pastilles manufacturer) and others.
Ancient Greek writers Alciphron, Athenaeus, Nikandros and others also refer to this term, as they describe the very pistachio tree and the pistachio nuts as the 'edible, fleshy and fragrant kernel of the almond-shaped shell' that were called fittákia or psitákia.

Gelon's Cake

The particular concoction of the piptakários (seller of pistachio nuts) dates back to the ancient Greek nutritional tradition. We find it in Alciphron's correspondence written in the early 3rd century A.D. This work refers to the placenta (flat cake) made by Gelon of Sicily that was served with pistachios, walnuts and dates, a range of ingredients also used by the Byzantines. An epistle from Evoulos to Gemelo reads: 'We had close to us the famous cake of Gelon of Sicily; and just by looking at it I felt that I was drooling. And as we were surrounded by appetizers, namely pistachios and dates and walnuts, I was looking at them aggressively and I was ready to dive into the placenta'.
(Alciphron 'Epistles' A, 22)
The references in this epistle imply that the name of the Roman wine shop (popina) and the ingredient used in the Byzantine concoction have both arisen from the ancient Greek nutritional tradition. The snacks called tragémata that Evoulos mentions imply delicacies made with dried nuts that are similar to the placenta and the pémmata (delicacies), namely cooked or raw food, especially placentas and sweets, that the ancient Greek writers mention. The word pémma derives from the verb pésso that means to soften or mature the nuts and bring about fermentation. Other derivatives from this verb include the words péptria (female cook according to Hesychios), pépsis (digestion), peptikós (digestive), peptós (cooked), optós (baked), optáo (to bake), ópsos (snack) and pépma or pémma that lead to the Latin word popina, meaning tavern, wine shop (kapilió). Centuries later we find the definitions of these terms in the dictionary of Suda, which states: 'many call the dates of the palm tree as daktyloi (fingers)' and 'the day of the daktylos (date)' for the wealthy, which refers to the date being expensive and scarce, as well as to its prominent position according to Byzantine nutritionists.

The Wine Shops

In general, the patron of a wine shop (kapilío) was called kapilodítis and the woman who worked there was called kapilís. However, this profession was considered corrupt. Because of the scandalous lifestyle of women and the suspicious services that they offered to the patrons, the wine shops were considered similar to brothels. Thus, they were also called pornokapiliá (immoral wine shops), since according to the Young Lady of Andronicus the Elder 'immoral women, after nightfall, enjoyed themselves in wine shops corrupting their souls'.
The ancient Greek verb kapilévo meant to trade. Herodotus mentions that women in Egypt were trading while men were weaving at home: 'Egyptians […] did most things backwards in relation to other people; they established customs and laws according to which women would buy and trade, while men would weave at home'. Hesychios writes the following about the same verb: 'Trades, resells, sells wine, both in terms of food and alcoholic beverages'. In middle voice, the verb kapilévome is still used to the present day and means to exploit something for one's own profit. The antonyms akapíleftos or akápilos (nouns) have the meaning of a person who does not exploit and is honest. In the phrase 'he did not leave anything unexploited (akapílefto) neither holy nor sacred', the word akapílefto is defined in the dictionary of Suda as 'sincere, clean, non-devious'.
Plato also mentions the definition of the Greek word kapilía as small-scale trade in the following passage: 'Small-scale trade of wine and wheat, which the majority calls kapilía'. The ancient proverb 'luck that exploits (kapilévousa) life' refers to luck which plays with life and corrupts it. According to the dictionary of Suda, Aeschylus provides a similar meaning and defines the word kápila as deceitful, as in the phrase 'deceitful tricks'. Such a deceitful trick was the adulteration of wine by adding water which was called kapílevma. Other relevant words used by the ancient Greeks are kapileftikós (exploitative), kapilikós (adjective, related to the retail-dealer), kapílio (wine shop), kapilogíton (neighbour of a retail-dealer) and kapilikós (adverb, relating to the manner of a retail-dealer and a wine shop). Moreover, the phrase 'kapilikós échi' usually referred to the habit of older women who used to apply excessive makeup.
The meaning of unfair competition for one's own profit was also added to the abovementioned interpretations. Thus, in the New Testament, Paul observes in the 'Second Epistle to the Corinthians': 'for we are not like the great number who make use of the word of God for profit' (Basic English Bible). During the Byzantine period, the male manager of a wine shop or a tavern was called kápilos or tavern-owner, and the female manager was called kapílissa or tavern-owner (female). This designation was quite significant to the lower classes in the Middle Ages, as can be seen in the following phrase of the poem entitled Poulológos (Bird Book): 'the son of an ill-fated kapílissa'. In the dictionary of Patriarch Fotios, the words tavernía (taverns), kapilía (wine shops) and inns shared the same meaning. A special tax called kapiliátikos was imposed on these and other similar cook shops, according to the relevant golden bull of Andronicus Palaeologus regarding the retail-dealers of Monemvasia: 'by giving some kind of capital, kapiliatiko or otherwise, they are left undisturbed and can maintain all their grandfather rights'.

The Wine Shops of 'Bad' Drinks

The Byzantine wine shops spread rapidly due to the population explosion in urban centres. Despite the market inspection regulations of the Book of the Eparch, various similar shops were created, the so-called phouskaría (or pouskaría) or sikeropotía, as well as related professions, such as the thermopóles and propoumatádes (or propomateís). In particular, the owners of the sikeropotía (shops that sell cheap drinks) aimed at attracting customers from weaker financial backgrounds.
According to ancient Greek dieticians and writers (Athenaeus in Deipnosofistae, Plutarch in Symposiacs and Aretaeus in Treatment of Chronic Diseases) própoma was the practice of consuming aperitifs before a meal, while the merchants and sellers of such products were called propomateís.
The connoisseurs of ancient Greek and Byzantine wine drinking were aware of the consequences of exceeding the bounds of moderation at the table or in the wine shop. For that reason, a variety of legumes (according to the writers Theofrastos, Dioskourides and Pollux, broad beans, roasted chick peas and lupine beans) were used as antidotes against alcohol intoxication.
Moreover, the thermopóles acquired their name from the thermotragímata, namely warm and other delicacies or nibbles, but also from their activity of selling warm drinks. Special glasses were even available for these warm drinks, such as the thermopotís mentioned by Aristophanes.
It should be noted that on some occasions the wine shops were also called thermopolía (hot drink shops) while the thermopóles were also called cooks or retail-dealers. According to descriptions in Byzantine and hagiological texts, there was a close relationship between the thermopóles and the wine shops. Small-scale traders were also called stragaládes (sellers of roasted chick peas), girévontes (peddlers), pramateftés (hawkers) and pouskárioi or phouskárioi.
The last ones were owners of the phouskaría or pouskaría, namely shops that sold roasted chick peas, cooked lupine beans, cooked chick peas, lentils, hemp grains, and an adulterated type of drink called poúska, from which they acquired their name. This drink was consumed by soldiers during the Roman Empire in excessive amounts, and was a mixture of vinegar (ancient Greek óxos) and water, also known to the ancient Greeks as oxykraton.
According to Byzantine texts, other types of drink that were wine substitutes and were quite popular were called síkera. The consumers of these drinks were called sikeropótes (drinkers of síkera) and drank these 'rudimentary wines' (myrtle cider, apple cider, palm date cider, quince cider, raisin cider, pear cider, and others) for financial reasons, since they were cheaper.
The following definitions describe this type of drink: 'sékera, any wine manufactured artificially (not from grapes) is also called adulterated, and is either produced from date palms or other fruit-trees', and 'síkera is anything that produces intoxication without containing wine, like those drinks manufactured by people'.
Moreover, the definition 'wine mixed with herbs' mentioned in the dictionary of Suda relates to Grigorius Theologus who mentions that the sikeropótes mixed wine with roses, garlic and saffron. It seems that wine shops (kapilía), phouskaría and thermopolía were all similar shops which at times were considered synonymous.

Phouskárioi and Thermopóles

Leontius of Neapolis refers to the professionals of these shops and paints a vivid picture of the phouskárioi and the thermopóles in his work entitled Life of Symeon the Holy Fool as follows:
'According to God's plan, a phouska-seller saw him, who did not know that he was playing the fool. And he said to him (for he seemed to be sane), "Would you like, my lord abba, instead of wandering about, to be set up to sell lupines?" And he said, "Yes." When he set him up one day, Symeon began to give everything away to people and to eat, himself, insatiably, for he had not eaten the whole week. The phouska-seller's wife said to her husband, "Where did you find us this abba? If he eats like this, it's no use trying to sell anything! For while I observed him, he ate about a pot full of lupines."
The fact that Symeon ate and gave away his merchandise is not the only thing that justifies his personality (humorous, funny, naïve, simple, unsophisticated, foolish), because the pouska-seller, owner of a very popular tavern in Emesa of Syria, would not even provide him food:
'Once he earned his food carrying hot water in a tavern. The tavern keeper was heartless, and he often gave Symeon no food at all, although he had great business, thanks to the Fool. For when the townspeople were ready for a diversion, they said to each other, "Let's go have a drink where the Fool is."' (Krueger: 1996)
This passage informs us about the citizens' habits of combining entertainment and joyfulness with wine drinking. For that reason, they frequented wine shops where the atmosphere was cheerful and full of humorous events like in the case of Symeon. It is worth mentioning that at that time, in the 5th century A.D., therapists and exorcists travelled around villages and cities and frequented in wine shops. Symeon the Fool was himself a hunter of impure spirits:
'One day while he was in the phouska-seller's shop he picked up a pandora (a stringed instrument) and began to play in an alleyway, where there was an unclean spirit. He played and spoke the prayer of the great Nikon in order to chase the spirit away from the place, for it had abused many. When the spirit fled, it passed through the phouska-shop in the form of an Ethiopian and broke everything.' (Krueger: 1996)
Oenological training was also part of the life and adventures of Symeon. When one of his customers complained, "Unbind what you've done, Fool, […] I bought good wine, and after two hours it was found to be vinegar", Symeon answered back, "Go, go, it doesn't matter to you! Quickly, open a tavern and it will turn you profit". The customer followed Symeon's advice and said, "Blessed be God, I will open a tavern" (Krueger: 1996). Nevertheless, Symeon was mostly eating rather than working.
The wine shops (kapilía) and the phouskaría were usually the refuge of marginal people. Conflicts and thefts during night-time were the main reasons that forced the imperial administration to provide lighting for roads and shops in large cities. During the reign of Theodosius, at the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century, the eparch Kyros ordered that all houses, shops and roads in the city be lit. The people were so pleased that in the Hippodrome they praised Constantine the Great as a constructor and Kyros as a renovator. The regulation concerning the lighting in laboratories demanded that it be three times brighter (than the evening light).
The Byzantines' need for wine is expressed clearly by the contribution of landowner and officer of the imperial court Theodoros Ioannis. According to Ioannis' decision in 538 in the province of Egypt, the 139 prisoners in his private prison would receive on the holidays of Easter, Epiphany and Archangel Michael the same quantity of wine as the prisoners in state prisons.

Michael the Drunkard

The profession of the retail-dealer (kápilos) was considered cruel and demeaning. According to many writers (Eunapius, Agathius, Livanius, Zonaras, Prodromus and others), the very presence of the kapílissa, the woman who managed or worked in the wine shop, provoked indecent and scandalous scenes, similar to the reactions towards the clergy who managed wine shops.
In K. Sathas' work Medieval Library, Anonymous is said to witness 'a gathering of unlawful and profane bishops and gluttons within the Blachernae temple' that was initiated by Constantine Kopronymous. The same incident is also reported in the Kanon against Jacob himself by Michael Psellos who mentions in a rather poetic manner: 'intoxication and wine parties', 'wine stomping', 'emptying ten wine glasses', 'wine parties while manufacturing many wineskins', 'consuming excessive wine' and others. These references and others reported by Ptochoprodromus and Efstathios of Thessaloniki relate to various exceptions that may have been exaggerated. In fact, moderate drinking of 'wine that gladdens the heart' always had been a rule for the clergy.
Furthermore, instances of excessive behaviour are reported to take place in the palace, as in the case of Emperor Michael III, also known as the Drunkard. Michael would give in to excessive drinking of wine to the point where he would challenge the jester Theofilos. Symeon Logothetides writes the following about him: 'In order to start the challenge with the despicable king Michael in terms of who can drink more, he drank twelve military wine glasses more. Because while Michael was drunk by drinking fifty full glasses, he (Theofilos) was boasting that he was not drunk after drinking sixty'.

The Guilds of Retail-dealers

Like all professionals and craftsmen, retail-dealers had organised their own professional guild. The Book of Eparch refers to the authority of the eparch of the city, who was responsible for appointing particular supervisors to the retail-dealers' guild. According to the appointment procedure, these supervisors were not representatives of their respective sectors, like they are today. In fact, they were state officials, or like work supervisors who mediated between the eparch and the wine merchants.
Some of their most important duties were to inform the Eparch about the quantities of imported wine to Constantinople, to restrain and prevent merchant trade, to control the members of the guild, to properly distribute the imported quantities to the guild members, to control supply and demand, to determine prices and other similar issues.
Another regulation of the Book of the Eparch forbade the retail-dealers to keep their shops open on Sundays and on official holidays prior to 7 in the morning and after 7 in the evening.
At the beginning of the 13th century, this regulation was amended by the emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus, who, following the proposal of Patriarch Athanasios, obliged the retailers to close their shops on Saturdays from 3 in the afternoon until the same time on Sunday. As far as the other days were concerned, drinks were allowed to be sold outside the premises after sunset, while staying inside the wine-shop was forbidden.
Retail-dealers were allowed to open their shops at any part of the city, since wine was considered of prime importance. It is worth noting that a particular law was also in place regarding violations made by retail-dealers, which even imposed the death penalty in the case of wine poisoning. This law states: 'If someone […] gives a drink […] and this causes the drinker to become ill and collapse and die, [the former] should be punished by sword', and 'The law applies to murderers and to anyone who makes or sells or has a medicine to kill people […]'.

The Wine Shops of the Venetians and the Genovese

During the last year of the reign of Leo the Wise (911-912), the publication of the Book of the Eparch and the implementation of its regulations stabilised the production, distribution and consumption of food and alcoholic beverages. However, the Russian-Byzantine treaty signed by the emperor Romanos Lekapenos almost opened the doors to foreign trading companies. A century later, Italian merchants, specifically Venetians and Genovese, who constituted a great majority of sixty thousand foreigners in Constantinople, destroyed 'from within' the food and alcoholic beverage market.
A useful source of information about the history of wine distribution and the operation of Italian wine shops in Constantinople is an article of the treaty signed by John VIII Palaeologus and the doge of Venice Franscisco Foscari in 1488. This article, also seen in previous treaties, demonstrates the Venetians' interest for the food and alcoholic beverage market in Constantinople. According to this, despite the Venetians' right to maintain an infinite amount of wine shops and to trade wine, only fifteen wine shops were allowed to operate. A special license was also granted to sell retail any type of wine in any quantity. In a similar vein another article of the treaty renewed the regulation concerning the foreign trade of wine. Gradually, Venetians and Genovese maintained the control of trading famous wines from Cyprus, Tyros, Monemvasia and Crete. Following the Fall of Constantinople, they expanded and dominated all the markets of Europe.


1. Koukoules Phaidon, Βυζαντινών Βίος και Πολιτισμός (Byzantine Life and Civilisation), Athens, 1948.
2. Mentzou Konstantina, Συμβολαί εις την Μελέτην του Οικονομικού και Κοινωνικού Βίου της Πρωίμου Βυζαντινής Περιόδου, (Contribution to the Study of Economical and Social Life of Early Christian Period), Athens 1975.
3. Spyridon Lampros, Νέος Ελληνομνήμων, (Neos Hellenomnemon), Volume XII, Athens 1910.
4. Leontios of Neapolis, Συμεών ο διά Χριστόν Σαλός (Symeon the Holy Fool), Uppsala 1963.
5. Krueger, Derek. Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

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