From The Inns of Greece & Rome, and a history of Hospitality from the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages, by W. C. Firebaugh, with an Introduction by Wallace Rice and Illustrations by Norman Lindsay, Chicago: Pascal Covici; 1928; pp. 68-96.




Realistic night in a Greek inn, from Marcel Schwob — Adventure of the poet and the slave — Beggars’ gild, their methods — Theophrastus on ostentation — Night life in Athens — Arts of Athenian innkeepers — How they avenged the dupes — Their finesse in substitution — Plutarch on capacity — Price of wines — Gentle art of obtaining something for nothing — Wine inspectors.

Let us now cite a pleasanter picture, conventional, it is true, but not lacking in beauty. The gem is from the works of Marcel Schwob, Mime IV, The Hostelry. (Edition of Mosher, 1901.):

“Hostelry, o’errun with vermin, the poet, bitten till deplete of blood, salutes thee. Not to thank thee for having sheltered him one night on the borders of a dark highway; the route is miry as that which leads to Hades — but thy cots are broken down, the lamps smoky; thine oil is rancid, galettes mouldy, and, since last autumn there are white worms in thine emptied nut-shells.

“But the poet is grateful to the venders of swine who came from Megara to Athenae (thy partitions are thin, O hostelry), and renders thanks also to thy vermin, which kept him awake by preying upon his whole body, swarming in hurrying masses upon the bed.

“For, since thus he might not sleep, he sought to breathe the white moonlight through an opening in the wall; and from thence he saw a vender of women who came knocking at the door very late at night. The merchant called: ‘Child, child!’ — but the slave was snoring, face downward, and with upstretched arms muffled his ears with the coverings. Then the poet wrapped himself in a yellow robe, of the same shade as nuptial veils: this crocus tinted robe had been left in his possession 69 one morning when a young love-maiden deserted him clad in a new lover’s robe. So the poet, with the outward seeming of a servant, opened the door; and the vender of women ushered in a numerous band. The breasts of the young girl who entered last were firm as the quince fruit; she was worth, at least, twenty minae.

“ ‘O servant,’ said she, ‘I am weary; where is my bed?’

“ ‘O my dear lady,’ said the poet, ‘thy friends already occupy every bed in the inn; only the servant’s cot is left; if you wish to lie thereon you are welcome.’

“The miserable wretch who cared for all these fair young girls flared the light of the great charred lampwick in the face of the poet; perceiving a maid-servant, neither too beautiful nor well arrayed, he uttered no word of dissent.

“Hostelry, the poet, bitten till deplete of blood, thanks thee. The woman who nested with the maid-servant this night was softer than eiderdown, and her fragrant throat was like to a perfected fruit. But all this had remained untold, O hostelry, but for the noisy prating of thy cot. The poet fears that the little pigs of Megara may have thus learned of his adventure.1 O ye who listen to these words, if the ‘coi, coi’ of these little pigs from Agora to Athenae falsely relates that our poet indulges in low amours come to the hostelry and see his little friend whose love he knew — she whose breasts are as firm as the quince fruit, — this poet bitten by the blessed vermin on a moonlit night.”

The principal frequenters of the taverns of Athens, then, would have been the lower classes, the sailors and watermen (pronneikoi) of the Piraeus; and the rascally scapegraces which Suidas and Harpocration include under the name peristatoi, idlers and vagrants, turbulent rioters of the Agora; their especial haunt the tavern 70 which harbored abandoned women; obstreperous hecklers of the demagogues of the Pnyx, where Demosthenes himself, though affecting to despise their good or evil opinion, labored, nevertheless, for their favor, never ceased intriguing for their backing, and was always attempting to win their applause and support.

The more hardy of the beggars’ gild forgathered in the vicinity of the cabarets, the mob of impudent braggarts such as the one of whom Theophrastus speaks in the skit called Aponoia (The Reckless Man):

“In character a coarse fellow, defiant of decency, ready to do anything; just the person to dance the cordax, sober and without a mask, in a comic chorus. At a conjurer’s performance, too, he will collect the pence, going along from man to man, and wrangling with those who have the free-pass and claim to see the show for nothing. He is apt, also, to become an innkeeper or a tax-farmer. . . . And he would seem, too, to be one of these persons who collect and call crowds about them, ranting in a loud cracked voice and haranguing them.”

Beggars’ gilds are not new under the sun, and the leader of the clan, a ruffian hardier and more brazen and enduring than any of his cohorts, furnished, through his lieutenants, the pittances of silver necessary to effectuate the carrying out of any predatory campaign contemplated against the peace and pocketbooks of the community, or to bait the traps and snares set for the feet or appetites of Inexperience or Lusty Age, or to buy the wine for some poor devil who had been picked to the bones while drunk and irresponsible. And from each enterprise he took the lion’s share, holding his slaves and serfs to a daily accounting. It if for this reason that Theophrastus has depicted the hero of the episode quoted above as: “Great in lawsuits, now as 71 defendant, now as prosecutor, sometimes excusing himself on oath, sometimes attending the court with a box of papers in the breast of his cloak and satchels of notebooks in his hands. He will not disdain either to be a captain of market-place hucksters, but will readily lend them money, exacting, as interest upon a dollar, twenty-five per cent per diem; and will make the round of the cook-shops, the fishmongers, the fish-picklers, thrusting into his cheek the interest which he levies on their gains.”

But night was the greatest friend of designing idleness. The cabarets were always open, and the pickpockets dancing attendance upon their dupes were as alert as bird-catchers watching their snares. The courtesan of the Ceramicus glided noiselessly into the light from the somber darkness of the side-street, a wavering light from a dim lamp that lit up the sign over the door, she took her place in this Athenian medley along with the thieves and smugglers, she boldly demands drink in her hoarse voice, “Crasi, crasi,” she calls to the host, she drinks deeply in a manner worthy of an Athenian, and although her head may be hot, her reasoning parasitism is cool enough to take instant advantage of the slightest opportunity of gain and to make the best of such meager advantages as nature has endowed her with. The design carried out, she takes her share and vanishes, but alas, not into oblivion, for day will dawn and with it will come the overlord who must be paid and whom there is no avoiding.

The poor dupe did not remain to seek revenge; the police of Athens were not more numerous than active, they were not equipped like our own with eyes that outnumbered those of Argus, there it was the tavern-keeper himself who avenged the wrong, a sort of lex talionis, a gentle and insinuating blackmail that knew the value of well paid silence as well as the best method 72 of communicating the fact that he possessed knowledge and probably a dangerous gift of eloquence. Little by little the spoils would find their way in to his till and all was well. Mine host knew so well the whole band of robbers, he served them with adulterated vitriols (kykeon) in delightfully small cups, veritable nectar as he would call it, and the cistern water with which he tempered his munificence was the most valuable portion of the drink. To put it bluntly, our tavern-keeper was not only a blackmailer and a thief, but he was also a poisoner, and we are guilty of no euphemism when we charge him with having undertaken to avenge the dupe, and settle his losses in full.

The tavern-keeper of old Greece was not lacking in expedients for doing business in a dishonest way with a bold front and behind a mask of injured innocence. If he had been very long in the business he knew every resource of his calling; he was a good mixer and an adept adulterator. He knew his wines. Unfortunately, we know nothing definitely of the methods or perfidious ingredients which took the place of the grape, and which gave the synthetic mixture its taste and color. The Greek vintner may have made it as a substitute for the wine of Crete or Cyprus, just as a Parisian vintner of the sixteenth century made a substitute for malvoisie, producing a wine of the same native growth, as Beaujeu informs us, or again, as the merchants of the eighteenth century with no less effrontery made an imitation of muscat. At any rate, according to a recipe left by Olivier de Serres, they mixed together water, honey, orval juice, and the dregs of beer, to attain the horrible mash. But supposition has no place here. Thanks to the indiscretion of Plutarch, there is one manoeuvre of the Greek tavern-keepers that has not escaped us. The would serve their customers with potable vintage until 73 the wine had made itself felt in their finger tips and then substitute a vile vintage (oxos). Our host also had the benefit of false measures, the eternal expedient which those who sell anything seem to inherit by instinct. “Is it the tavern-keeper of our neighborhood, who is always cheating me grossly with her half pints?” asks Blepsidemus, in the Plutus of Aristophanes. In the Thesmophoriazusai, we have another passage: “If any male or female publican falsifies the legal measure of the gallon or the half pint, pray that he may perish miserably.” The fraud against which the dramatist is contending is the alteration more or less bold of the public measure which the government of Athens had established by law, and all sellers of liquids were bound by it not to use utensils of capacity less than the legal standard. “It is true,” says Plutarch, in a curious passage in his Symposium, where he attempts to prove that one should drink according to the measure of his own stomach, a standard highly specialized and never the same in two individuals, sometimes increasing or diminishing even in the same individual, “it is true that we go to the tavern to purchase our wine according to the same measure and uniform, which is public, but at our tables, each stomach is the standard by which one is governed, which does not fill itself with an amount uniform and universal, but according to the capacity which each has at the time.”

With the measures themselves, we are little concerned in a work of this scope, but with wine as cheap as it was in the days of Menander, and later of Polybius, it is difficult to understand how false measures or adulteration could have contributed enough in profits to make it worth the while. With the rare and costly vintages it would of course have been different, but these were not often to be had of the tavern-keeper. Menander, 74 in a fragment of his Treasure cited by Stobaeus, speaks of an Athenian vintner named Kantharos who was unusually expert in adulterating wines, so much so that his skill passed into a proverb “Cunning as Kantharos.”

Very frequently, thanks to the quality of the customers who came in along with the frequenters of the drinking place, the Athenian tavern-keepers, who were generally gifted with many of the less admirable attributes of the fox, found much to engage their conversation. They were generally abusive, and always on the lookout to cheat. The tavern-keeper had to serve his product before receiving his money, and often the guest drank to his health and departed hastily without having paid for his wine.

These tricks of Greek villainy renewed their venom in the warm baths of the Cynosarges, the retreat outside the city for those not of pure Athenian blood, such as vagrant philosophers, pretty ladies, parasites who were fasting for the time being; places which were warmed for the proletariat in the winter. In Theophrastus we read of an episode which parallels the experience of the Athenian tavern-keeper:

“He is apt, also, to go up to the coppers in the baths, — to plunge the ladle in, amid the cries of the bath-man — and to souse himself; saying that he has had his bath, and then, as he departs, — no thanks to you!” In explanation of the above passage it should be stated that a shower bath was sometimes taken by having water dashed over the head. It was the bath attendant’s duty to do this service which our Pyrgopolynices does for himself, saving his money, and depriving the attendant of his fee. In all disputes the voice of the tavern-keeper was likely to be heard in the land, first of all, loudest of all. “Whom do you take me to be?” asks Poverty, in the Plutus of Aristophanes, after having threatened the 75 admirable Blepsidemus and Chremylus, who are intent upon expelling her from the hearths of all the just people in Hellas: “Some hostess (bar harlot), or pulse-porridge seller,” responds Chremylus promptly, “otherwise you would not have screeched at us, having wronged you in no way.” It was held shameful to enter into a controversy with a courtesan, a bath attendant, a tavern-keeper, a fish monger, or an itinerant peddler of any kind. Aristophanes is almost positive evidence on this point, and Theophrastus is almost equally outspoken.

Furthermore, as we have said above, it would have dishonored any man of good morals to even have been seen in a tavern no matter what the circumstances, aside from taking part in the revelries and brawls which so delighted the idle Athenian proletariat, where not even a respectable servant could have passed his spare time and saved his moiety of reputation.

Athenaeus quotes Cynulcus on the frequentation of taverns and cook-shops as follows:

“And do you dare talk in this way, you who are not ‘rosy fingered,’ as Cratinus says  . . and do you bring up again the recollection of that poet your namesake, who spends all his time in cook-shops and inns? Although Isocrates the orator has said, in his Areopagitic Oration, ‘But not one of your servants ever would have ventured to eat or drink in a cook-shop; for they studied to keep up the dignity of their appearance, and not to behave like buffoons.’ And Hyperides, in his oration against Patrocles (if, at least, the speech is a genuine one), says that they forbade a man who had dined in a cook-shop from going up to the Areopagus. But you, you sophist, spend your time in cook-shops, not with your friends (hetairon), but with pretty ladies (hetairon), having a lot of cadets, male and female about you, and always carrying about these books of Aristophanes, and Apollodorus, 76 and Ammonius, and Antiphanes, and also of Georgias the Athenian, who have all written about the pretty ladies at Athens. O, what a learned man you are!”

Public morality, such as it was, decreed that the frequentation of these places was infamous, and the ban extended even to the man who went there but once. The public of Athens seems to have had a well developed sense of the proprieties, and reserved for gluttons, members of the oldest profession, brawling roisterers, and cynics, spoken of above, the privilege of immune frequentation. The law left such inhibitions to the discretion of the populace, and the opinion of disadvantage which was the companion of such infractions of the moral code lay also in their hands; we have no proof that the law ever occupied itself seriously with the taverns and their keepers, save only in cases where false measures had been used or in cases of murder or treason, nor have we been able to adduce evidence of law in the matter of taverns and inns except such as is conventional or hypothetical, as in Plato.

There was, on the other hand, a peculiar edict of Xerxes levelled against the Babylonians after their revolt and appeal to arms. He promulgated a decree which carried with it the severest penalties; a ukase which prescribed that the Babylonians from then on were to pass their lives in taverns and other places where revelry ran rife, in order that such character and manly vigor as remained to them should be disintegrated and leave them a supine assemblage of slaves ripe for tribute and utterly unfitted for self government or the effort necessary to secure independence.

One institution, however, proves that the police of Athens were not entirely indifferent to the orgies of drunkenness common in Athens, and the brawls and 77 breaches of the peace which followed in their wake: I mean the oenoptae, or inspectors of wine. Athenaeus says of them: “The ancients affected so much of luxury and grandeur that they had cup-bearers for their tables, and in addition, inspectors of their wines.” The Athenians made a public charge of that inspection. Eupolis speaks of the same institution: “O city of Athens, you are happier than wise. You who are commanded by those whom you have condescended to name inspectors of your wines.”

The oenoptae, however, had no right of inspection over the taverns. Like the gynoeconomos, whose care was the public weal, and who took precautions that the number of guests did not exceed thirty, and that no seditious gathering should take place under pretext of political banquets or excursions into the country, the oenoptae did not concern themselves with particulars of a dinner, they merely saw to it that such as drank did so according to law.

“Now,” remarks Athenaeus, “their function is unimportant. The oenoptae number three, and they furnish guests with necessary information during a dinner. Therefore they have come to be known as ‘eyes.’ ” There might have been an official over the inspectors, an official whose powers were more far reaching; he might, for instance have had control of the enforcement of all laws concerning drink, the imposts, and especially the sale to the public, and therefore to the taverns. A passage from Plato, unfortunately incomplete, but cited by Pollux, is of interest in this connection. It seems that Plato desired to praise a man named Strabo for his excellent administration of the wine trade, and for that reason called him a taverner. A most peculiar tribute, and one which might be tortured into a tolerable epigram.


The Athenian innkeeper had not only to contend with the officials of the wine business, he was also subject to the visitations of the opsonomos, the official who had authority over food stuffs; and whose chief aim in life seems to have been the prosecution of retailers of commodities who had recourse to misrepresentation and lying in carrying on the affairs of business at a profit. The Athenian inns dealt in food and drink, and were frequented for both purposes even as those of Europe today. These places served meals in proportion to the excellence of the cook, the difficulty experienced in carrying the carved pieces of the sacrificial victims from the altars, and the complaisance of the landlord, and Hermes regretted bitterly the effect Plutus has had upon hospitality in the Athenian taverns:

HERMES:  I used to enjoy all the good things in the female innkeepers’ shops as soon as it was morning, wine-cake, honey, dried figs, as many as was fitting for Hermes to eat: but now I go to bed hungry and sleep in a garret.

CARIO:  Is it not then with justice, who sometimes caused their loss, although you enjoyed such good things?

HERMES:  Ah me, for the cheese-cake that was baked on the fourth day!

CARIO:  You long for the absent, and call in vain.

HERMES:  Ah me, for the ham which I used to devour!

CARIO:  Leap upon the bottle, there in the open air.

HERMES:  And for the warm entrails which I used to devour!

CARIO:  A pain about your entrails seems to torture you.

HERMES:  Ah me, for the cup that was mixed half and half!


CARIO:  You cannot be too quick in drinking this besides and running away.

HERMES:  Would you assist your own friend in any way?

CARIO:  Yes, if you want any of those things in which I am able to assist you.

HERMES:  If you were to procure me a well baked loaf and give it me to eat, and a huge piece of meat from the sacrifices you are offering within.

CARIO:  But there is no carrying out!

The Greek restaurants had one door on the street, always open, and the most delicious aromas and odors streamed out to assail the senses and stomachs of the passers-by, where custom hesitated and was lost. Often these odors would awaken a sluggard who would send a slave out to find the morsel so much to his taste; this usually completed the conquest and was sound advertising. Such was the experience of Philoxenos, glutton and poet, one day. He was always keen upon the delights of the table as soon as he was awake. He chanced to pass by the door of a famous innkeeper and his nostrils were assailed by the delicious emanations from a goulash or ragout which seems just to have attained the very acme of culinary perfection. “Run out and get that dish for me,” he commanded in a voice vibrant with ravenous desire.

Black and white pen and ink drawing by Norman Lindsay, of a man, seated on a bench, with a bowl between his knees and a bowl of beans in the pod on the floor beside him.


“But,” replied the slave, who tested prices by the poignancy of the aroma, “it will be very dear.”

“Very well,” replied Philoxenos, “so much the better!” Surely an exclamation worthy of Brillat-Savarin!

All inn-kitchens, however, were not equally good, and unless the fastidious customer paid his compliments to the best known establishments, as for instance one whom Athenaeus has cited under the head of cook and vintner, 80 he was likely to meet with a rogue, a bad dinner, and a malodorous experience, all at the same time, and might find no one in and the ovens cold. There was a certain Lacedaemonian wholly uninformed as to anything which concerned inns and taverns, and, being a Lacedaemonian, he would know nothing of such things, and he addressed himself to one of those kitchen keepers who was out of everything. The former happened to be a man of some rude wit and spirit. “The Laconian,” says Plutarch, from whom we have taken the anecdote, “gave the traditionally soft and brief answer; having purchased a fish in a tavern he delivered it to the taverner whom he had accosted. When the taverner demanded of him vinegar, cheese, and oil, he made answer as follows: “If I had had what you demand of me, I would not have bought the fish.”

There were itinerant retailers of foodstuffs who had portable ovens which burned charcoal. They were numerous in the streets of Athens, but their favorite haunt seems to have been the Agora and its vicinity. They sold all sorts of underdone foods from their little ovens, and, almost without exception, they had the makings of excellent rascals in them. They were more guileful than even those oakum dealers and horse traders of whom Aristophanes speaks so pointedly as being worthy to succeed Cleon in conducting the governmental affairs of the city. Nevertheless, customers often were able to procure from these peripatetic retailers such delicacies as were not served in the kitchens of the inns. Hot sausages highly seasoned with pepper, let the venders of hot dogs take notice, hash, omelettes wrapped in fig leaves (probably the remote ancestor of hot tamale), and a sort of fruit pudding such as the English know today as plum pudding: the Athenian commoner was exceedingly fond of these two last delicacies. It is true that such dishes were 81 grossly prepared, but they tickled to admiration the tastes of the sailors and other plebeian sojourners in the city. They also dealt in sweets such as honey cakes and preserved fruits, blanc-mange, disposed handily in rows in their shallow baskets woven from fragrant rushes, very convenient and appropriate for the purpose. Carrying their stocks in trade they trotted up and down the streets of the city and also sold their wares at the games and other spectacles. Aristotle, who would never have been suspected of having been interested in such things, has said much of their hawking methods and their cries as they glided through the crowds of the amphitheatre and worked their way by degrees to the topmost benches, to offer some customer their wares. According to the grave philosopher, who has been suspected of having a sense of humor, the success of a play, whether tragedy or comedy, was always in inverse ratio to that of the hawkers with their merchandise. It the play was uninteresting, the audience appeased its appetite with cakes in recompense for the disappointment to its curiosity, but if the play was gripping, as for instance, the Oedipus of Sophocles, or if the sublimity of Aeschylus had found an instrument worthy to interpret it, the hawkers met with the short shrift which should overtake all vociferous votaries of Lucrum when they punctuate a Chopin nocturne or a Beethoven sonata with their appeal to the flesh. It would be highly interesting as well as entertaining to try some such comparison in our own theatres; I mean in such of them as still permit an ox-like public to be annoyed and harassed by the demands of such gentry. The article vended might, for convenience, be packages of salted peanuts, or other tidbit with a volatile base. The greater the sales, the more the audience would enjoy the play.

These petty peddlers of dainties were always prosperous 82 and numerous at Athens, but only in Athens. In every other Greek city, even in those in which it might have been thought that conditions were favorable for their trade, they found it unprofitable or utterly impossible. We do not include Sparta in our survey, because gormandising was always regarded there as a crime, and cooks, caterers, and the like were classed as poisoners and driven from the country, like any Sicilian malcontent. Corinth, the luxurious harbor of pleasure and new sensations, is the city we have in mind; Corinth, which placed such extravagant values upon hidden assets and virgin territory. “Not everyone,” laments Horace, “can go to Corinth.” Yet with all its love of luxury, Corinth was far behind Athens in matters of eating and taste in choosing, and one of the characters in the Merchant of Diphilus is advised to hold in check his gastronomic preferences and comply with the law. “If,” says he indignantly, “one sets a splendid table, the magistrates promptly inquire into his manner of living and the manner in which he employs his time; they ascertain whether his revenues are sufficient to meet the outlays demanded by such luxury. If his expenses are greater than his income they will not permit it, if he persists in his course, he must make amends. Should the day arrive when he has no more property and he still persists in his manner of life he is turned over the executor of justice who inflicts an infamous punishment upon him.” See how they dealt with luxury in one of the most luxury loving republics of Greece!

Alciphron speaks in the same manner of Corinth, but what Diphilus imputes to the severity of the laws, Alciphron lays at the door of avarice. “One need only approach the city to become aware of the miserly selfishness of the rich and the misery of the poor. It is noon, I sally out to the bath, I see a great many young people, 83 handsome, with faces gay and spirituel; none take the road leading to the houses of the wealthy, all direct their steps toward the Kranion, where the wine merchants and fruit sellers have their booths. I see that they keep their eyes bent upon the ground; some rake together the pods of peas, others the shells of nuts, examining the heaps with attention to see whether there is anything there upon which to grind their teeth. They scrape with their nails the peeling of the pomegranate; the tiniest morsels of bread which have been trampled under foot do not escape their search and are eaten.”

Taverns and inns would not prosper in a city in which the wealthy were restrained from extravagance by rigid sumptuary laws, and the poor were forever constrained by their melancholy condition to a diet of air sparingly tempered with bread. The city was scarcely visited by lighters except for the purpose of supplying their daily allowance of wine, so that a single tavern-keeper could have supplied all the custom to be found there. Plutarch relates of Dionysius the Tyrant, that when he was living in exile at Syracuse, his condition was no better than that of a porter, and that he was compelled to purchase his wine of the tavern-keeper, and that this was only the stronger proof of the ignominious level to which he had fallen.

But how different were things in happy and light hearted Athens! The taverns were always open there, day and night; you could always get a joint from some succulent sacrifice in the inn and in good company; always, somewhere in Athens these fraternities which we shall later see again in Rome, were holding a banquet with the delicate cuts which the gods with as much wisdom as good taste refused. At Athens it was not regarded as shameful to go daily to the tavern to buy wine, and the wealthy did not blush to sell the same. According 84 to an ancient usage in France, the abbots of monasteries, the high magistrates, even the kings sold in detail the products of their vineyards; a custom common also in Italy, and especially in Florence and Naples. The wealthy Greek vineyard owners left such wines as they wished to dispose of in their houses in the city, under charge of their slaves. The disgrace lay not in selling the wine but in selling what purported to be wine, and adulteration was deemed a disgrace which only a vintner or tavern-keeper could be guilty of.

Yet in that lovely city so redolent of the soul of gayety one could find no place in which to eat and drink in good company, without some disagreeable individuals to spoil the evening. The taverns, as we have said, were impossible; therefore the wealthy men-about-town, who had time on their hands, dropped into the booth of the perfumers and the barbershops to exchange the news and discuss matters of interest.

The women were forbidden to enter places where they might mix with men or find themselves in male company, and this was especially true of the taverns; they therefore betook themselves to the gristmills to gossip, just as the rural English woman frequents the ship chandlery. Here they sang their songs of hero and spindle, and love and life, while the men assembled in these shops of good repute, principally those of the barbers, predestined, according to Theophrastus and Aristophanes, to be the centers of all the chit-chat, the headquarters of writers and playwrights who decreed peace and war and made or unmade the destinies of the State, according to the visionary plans which they wrote in charcoal on the walls. Aristophanes would have us understand that all Athens was agog with the sudden good which had befallen some dandy, and the barbers were entirely responsible for the spread of news. In 85 many places Aristophanes mentions a certain Cosmos, a perfumer, in whose shop the critics of Cleon met to discuss him and his policies, and of the crowd of demagogues who raised such an uproar in front of the tribune of the leather currier. Nor was there danger in thus taking part in the political criticism of the time in these shops, the haunt of the well-to-do idlers and literary critics, the radicals of the times. Radicalism is not often in conflict with the police unless it is clad in rags. It was a contention of Demosthenes that Aristogiton, the better to convince the people of his loving devotion to their interests, made it a point never to be seen in the shop of a perfumer or barber; and the only instance I have been able to find of a man of evil reputation slipping and intruding himself into such company is the arrogant upstart whom Theophrastus satirizes in his Characters.

In addition to the taverns where wine was sold, and the shops of the perfumers and barbers, there was another institution where gossip ran rife, I refer to the thermopolia. These establishments were very popular in Greece and especially so at Athens, and we shall find them well established at Rome in due course. The thermopolia were places where hot drinks were sold. The word is of purely Greek origin as is seen from the roots, and in addition there is a passage in Pollux which confirms the statement.

It is well known that in antiquity hot water was esteemed as a delectable beverage and, in addition, it was thought to possess certain hygienic virtues. Plutarch in his Treatise on the Preservation of Health remarks that it may be drunk without thirst, that it relaxes and refreshes the body, and that it fortifies the bodily forces. The eulogies of Dr. Sangrado must be taken as the sum and total of all the opinions of antiquity, setting aside, of course, that of Antonius Musa:


“In fact the wine had made me very thirsty. The suspicion of anyone else but Sangrado would have been awakened by the thirst that consumed me, and the great draughts of water I tossed off; but he, fancying seriously that I was beginning to acquire a taste for watery potions, said to me with a smile: ‘I can see, Gil Blas, that you no longer have such an aversion for water. Od’s life, you drink it like nectar. That does not astonish me, my friend; I knew that you would get used to this liquid.’ ‘Sir,” I replied, ‘there is a time for everything; I would give just now a hogshead of wine for a pint of water.’ This answer delighted the doctor, who did not lose so good an opportunity of extolling the excellence of water. He began a new panegyric upon it, not as a calm orator, but as an enthusiast.

“ ‘A thousand times,’ he exclaimed, ‘a thousand times more estimable and more innocent than the taverns of our days, were those water-establishments of former ages, whither men did not go shamefully to prostitute their wealth and their life in glutting themselves with wine, but where they met to amuse themselves, decently, and without risk, by drinking warm water! We cannot too much admire the wise foresight of those worthies of the State, who established places of public resort, where water was given to all comers, and who confined wine to the shops of the apothecaries, permitting its use only by prescriptions of the physicians. What a stroke of wisdom! Doubtless,’ he added, ‘it is by some happy remains of this ancient frugality, worthy of the golden age, that persons are found to this day who, like you and me, drink nothing but water, and who as a preventive against, or as a cure for all ailments, believe in drinking warm water that has never boiled; for I have observed that when water has been boiled it is heavier and sets less easily on the stomach.’


“Whilst holding forth thus eloquently, I more than once thought I should burst out laughing. Yet I maintained my gravity. I did more; I entered into the doctor’s views. I blamed the use of wine, and pitied mankind for having acquired a taste for so pernicious a beverage. Then, as my thirst was not yet quenched, I filled a large goblet with water, and after taking a deep draught, said to my master, ‘Come, sir, let us quaff this beneficent liquor! Let us revive in your house the ancient water-taverns which you regret so much!’ He applauded these words, and exhorted me for a whole hour never to drink anything but water. I promised him, in order to accustom myself to this beverage, to imbibe a large quantity every night; and, the better to keep my promise, I went to bed resolved to go to the tavern every day.”

Had the good doctor prescribed his aqueous specific at the same low price at which hot water was served in the thermopolia in Greece, and had he used as an excipient infusions made from rare plants, charging, for example three half obols, which the comic poet Philemon has declared was the price of a cupful, he might have transformed that sovereign remedy into a popular beverage, and have gone down into history as the inventive genius whose ingenuity produced the soda fountain and all its products.

Success was in his grasp had he but taken the trouble to follow the precepts of the authors from whom he must have amassed his information. Had he, for example, stimulated the tastes and appealed at the same time to the vanity of his patients by following the classical procedure, and mixing equal volumes of very hot water and very cold excipients in the form of decoctions, his practise would have been enormous, and had his excipient been wine, there is no saying where it would have ended.


And it is true that this method had much to recommend it. Fluids could not be taken boiling hot, and it was long deemed dangerous to drink ice cold beverages in a hot climate. The temperature of the potion after the mixture of the two was pleasant and salubrious, and the trouble it necessitated made it only the more to be desired. There is a passage in the letters of Aristaenetus which bears directly upon the practice of mixing cold water and hot wine. It is as follows:

“The cup bearer, skilled in his calling, has heated the wine, which he will mix with cold water, in just such proportion that the coldness of the water will lower the temperature of the wine, excessive heat being moderated by extreme cold, and the resulting beverage will be gracious to the palate in taste and in temperature.”

Patients in raging fevers were not so scrupulous and drank their wine ice cold. A courtesan was once entertaining the comic poet Diphilus at supper and presented him with a cupful of wine cooled with snow: “By all the gods,” exclaimed the poet, “you have an ice-house in your well.” “Yes,” answered the Athenian courtesan with all the sprightly spirit of her class, “I throw the prologues of your comedies into it when necessary. It need not astonish you, Diphilus.”

Finally, let us say, in praise of the uniform sobriety of Greece, and to give the lie to the slander philosophical reprobates later made current in Italy, that the term pergraecari (to drink like a Greek), to get beastly drunk, that in the times of which we speak, they mixed their wine with water in Hellas. If it was taken pure, it was the exception and not the rule.

And also, in the Heroic Age, when tradition assumes that the whole nation was plunged into drunkenness, which was continual and habitual, and was said to be insatiable for the finer vintages of the soil in the Heroic 89 Age, let us repeat, it was even as it was in the times of which we treat, with, perhaps, the factor of moderation still more preponderant. One who knew the secret of procuring the most subtle mixture of wine and water was deemed worthy of a statue; a lesson which seems to have been lost upon a later but more degenerate age. In the Homeric age, these mixtures of wine and water were mixed before anything else was considered. Large amphorae were employed for the purpose, and the cups of the guests were filled from these, just as we have seen that at Assyrian and Babylonian feasts, the cups of the revellers were replenished from the huge silver urns which stood almost as high as the eunuch slave’s breast. Drunkenness at these entertainments in pre-classical Greece was not the rule; on the contrary, the aim was to secure the maximum of effect with the minimum of evil results, and, like Friar Tuck, they loved to feel the grape at their very finger tips without invading their intelligence or cheapening the reputation for good repute which was one of the most precious attributes of primitive strength. Because of that continual sobriety, that detestation of pure wine, that continual dilution with water, which must have been particularly grateful when they opened the acrid pipes from Arcady or Here, which rendered those who drank them dull and torpid, and the ceramia which caused women to miscarry, or even in the case of the vintages of Laconia which were thick and heavy, or those of Boeotia and Phocis, which were a mixture of grape and pine cone extract, water made them all more pleasant to the taste and less liable to overpower the head, as it helped to dilute whatever poison they contained. The use of water, however, might be questioned by a fine taste where the rare vintages of wines of Smyrna, decanted as they were in the shadow of the temple of the 90 mother of the gods, were concerned, or the white polios wine of Syracuse, the wines of Lesbos or Thasos, gleaming like gold in the pale yellow depths of their shimmering volume, so exquisite to the taste with their sweet and generous flavor, and which as they aged more and more came by degrees to have much of the odor of the finest apples. And one might well demand why they deemed it necessary to debase the wonderful vintage of Chios by incorporating it into any mixture? Or why adulterate the delicate wine of the Aegean Islands with impure water, as the Latins say? a wine so rare and costly that when it was used even at Rome it was at only the most sumptuous entertainments. It was regarded as the glory of the island from which it came, and the Chian vintage was celebrated with medals on which were engraved a sphinx crowned with clusters of grapes on the one side and on the other an amphora. Rare and costly indeed was this wine, probably the rarest of all antiquity, and was so precious that those who sold it sometimes drank it from the amphora as such an ambrosia could give them more pleasure than the profit they would take later on from its sale. Goguet remarks that the preference of the Greeks for mixtures of wine and water were founded upon long established custom and on the headiness and high alcoholic content of the native vintages. “All Greek wines were luscious,” says he, “and if one drank but a small quantity it flew to the head and rendered one tipsy. In order to combat these tendencies they evolved the method of exact dilution best suited to each vintage, and when this was once worked out, they followed the rules. Some wines were diluted more, some less, each according to its quality. Homer proves this in many passages.”

One should not suppose that the professional drunkards took kindly to the usage, however, as there were 9 many cynics whose dispositions were scarcely less acid than their countenances, who would have thought their cups and their persons profaned if a single drop of water had come in contact with either, and our encomium on the general sobriety of Greece would not ring true were we to omit stating that there were many such tipplers and bottle-nosed sages in Athens and Sparta, in Thebes and in the Greek settlements of Asia Minor, and, in fact, throughout all Greece.

Aelian has preserved a list of the more celebrated devotees of the flowing bowl, and we confess to some little confusion at finding it so long. The tyrants of Hellas were all given to alcoholic excesses, Dionysius (The Younger), of Syracuse, of whose exile in Corinth we have spoken above, Charidemus, against whom Demosthenes exercised his talents in vain, it was said of him that wine acted as a spur to his cruelty but it certainly detracted little from his subtlety. There are many others in Aelian’s list, but it seems unfair to chronicle a leader’s evil deeds without saying something of the good he did as well, and unless the evidence is well authenticated, we shall not record such matters.

After the tyrants, the philosophers are given a place of preference on Aelian’s list. With them we shall not be moved to leniency, as they did but dampen the dryness brought on by their arid doctrines. “Lacydes and Timon,” remarks Aelian, “were not so well known as philosophers as they were as drunkards.”

Anacharsis, also, who was not enough of a Scythian to take keenly to water, has a place in the middle of the list, and our narrator of anecdotes states that while at the court of Periander, his philosophical escutcheon was besmirched by his drunken pranks. Diotimus was also a great tippler. On him was bestowed the surname “Funnel,” because he took the largest funnels he could 92 lay hands on, put the end in his mouth, and “swallowed all the wine they could pour into it.” He was certainly a high priest of Dionysus, and the only guzzler that can even be compared with him is that son of Syracuse who, as Aristotle says, placed fresh eggs upon a carpet and set a hen upon them, meanwhile, that no time might be lost, retiring to a tavern to drink at his ease and wait for them to hatch out. Cleomenes of Sparta also loved his wine, but he lived amongst a populace which detested alcoholic excesses, and would not tolerate them in individual or king, and Aelian’s malignity can bring forward but one charge against his sobriety: “he drank his wine pure, in the Scythian fashion.”

The Scythes, as is well known, were greatly given to drunkenness, and among them a warrior’s courage and resource were reckoned and evaluated according to his capacity to outlast the rest of the company in a drinking bout. While there is no absolute evidence as to this, other barbarians who had come from Scythia to Athens had been known to drink almost to frenzy in the low dives of the Piraeus or the Agora, on the days of solemn festivals, and then stertorously sleep themselves sober on the steps of the Parthenon or on the massive stairs of the deserted Pnyx. This seems to have been rather common amongst such barbarians as were in the guard of the archon, or the porters of the Areopagus or temples.

The Thracians, who were especially numerous in Athens, where they formed almost the whole of the domestic population, were by nature very like the Scythians, and as drinkers they held their own with all comers. Aelian has not included them in his index, but what he has said of a barbarian race to the north may well be applied to the Thracians. “It would be safe to affirm that they live in wine; as other peoples use oil to anoint their bodies, so do the Tapyrians soak themselves in wine.”


Byzantium, whose sailors went in great numbers to the port of Athens, its metropolis, was, among all the cities of Thrace, the one in which there was the most debauchery and drunkenness. Athenian depravity, reacting upon the native coarseness and addiction to such entertainment, gave such impulses free swing. Vice flourished there, vice rude and robust, always brutal, and insatiable. “It is said,” writes Aelian, “that the Byzantines loved wine so passionately, they quitted their houses and rented them to the strangers who came to live in their city, in order that they might establish themselves in taverns. They also left their women to the foreigners and thus committed two crimes at the same time, drunkenness and prostitution. When they had become inebriated, they took the greatest pleasure in playing the flute; the sound of that instrument being in closest accord with gayety: they were not titillated by the thrill of a trumpet, a thing which will enable one to sum up their skill in arms and their fitness for war. . . . During the siege of Byzantium, Leonidas, their general, seeing they had abandoned their posts on the walls, which were then being heavily attacked by the enemy, and that they passed their entire days in their accustomed haunts, ordered taverns to be established upon the ramparts. That ingenious artifice held them, although a little late, and they did not again abandon their posts. There was no longer a reason for doing so.”

“Byzantium,” writes Menander, in a fragment of an unidentified play, “Byzantium makes all the traders tipsy. The whole night through for your sake we are drinking, and, methinks, ’twas very strong wine too. At any rate I get up with a head on for four.”

Everything in Byzantium announced it to be a city in which brazen-faced debauchery and drunkenness were normal and universal. Even the coin of the realm bore on its faces the mark which characterized the national 94 morality: and, circulating throughout the ports of Hellas, confessed through the Bacchic emblems stamped on their faces the genuineness of the Byzantine orgiastic rites. The images thus represented, we must suppose to have been copied from the signs of certain Greek inns and taverns, though it would startle Reform to see a cabaret with a sign flaunting such advertising as this. These were no grapes clustered on their slender stems, nor were they pot-bellied amphorae, with huge handles, nor, finally, were they heads of Bacchus crowned with ivy wreaths.

The detestable addiction of the Byzantines for drunkenness was later on to be the cause of their downfall and end. We have already spoken of the defense of the city by Leonidas, and the ruse by which he prevented them from falling victim to their enemies. Their fate was reserved for a later time, and it was the destiny of the Spartan Clearchus, who had resolved to conquer them, to base his strategy upon their dissolute habits, succeed in his military ambition, and ensnare the Byzantines by using their own vices against them.

Let us then cite Polyaenos, who, in his work in Strategy, has furnished us with a full account of this curious affair, probably the most interesting episode in the entire history of Greek inns and taverns.

“When the Byzantines revolted, Clearchus was fined by the ephors, and fled to Lampsacus with four ships. He dwelt there in such a manner and made such an appearance that it would be thought that he drank and lived merrily and sumptuously. Meanwhile, Byzantium was besieged by the Thracians, and they sent the commanders of their forces to demand assistance of Clearchus. He affected to give the impression that he was steeped in drunkenness, and it was not until the third day that they were able to gain an audience with him. Having 95 heard their prayers, he told them he pitied them, and promised them aid.

“In addition to his four vessels, he armed two others, and made sail to Byzantium; there he convoked the assembly, and advised that they embark on his ships all the troops, foot or horse, for the purpose of attacking the Thracians in the rear. That plan was executed, and the pilots were already under orders from him to proceed immediately to sea and lie to under arms, as soon as they saw the signal of battle raised on high.

“When this had been carried out, Clearchus, staying ashore with two commanders, said: ‘I am thirsty.’ And, finding himself near a tavern, he entered with them, then, with the guards which he had posted in this ambuscade, he murdered the two leaders. The tavern was closed immediately afterwards, and the keeper ordered to hold his tongue; thus, having removed their commanders, and having succeeded in getting their forces out of the city, he was able to march his own guards in, and remained master of the place.” (Polyaenus, Lib. II, 2, 7.)

Let us then bring this curious history of Greek inns and taverns to a close with this no less curious episode, as when a tun is broached, the wise do not remove the bung and faucet, after having drawn off a huge bumper, and taken a long pull at it. But having thus finished with these hostelries of ancient Greece, with the taverns of Athens and Byzantium, which none of the scholars, not even Barthelemy, or Scaliger or Casaubon have known, or at least, have not discussed at any length, disdaining the subject, Athens was noted for many things, and not the least lovely among them were the violets which crowned the city’s beauty; Hymettus was famous for its honey, and the murmurous humming of the myriads of bees which gathered it, yet the penetrating and haunting 96 fragrance of the wild thyme with which the slopes of the eminence abounded and with which they still abound in a memory that time itself cannot destroy; an ethereal haze of perfume, the very spirit of Hellas, the Hellas of Theocritus, and Bion, and Moschus. It charms even the wild and picturesque loveliness of a scene hallowed by the associations of centuries, and the tributes of great poets, and seen, alas, through the mists of antiquity. Still, let me hope that I have been able to diffuse a little of the freshness and spirit which permeates the traditions of Greece, to distill for moderns a little of the perfume which almost intoxicated me when writing of this subject, and finally, without infraction of the law, to perfume, alas, but faintly, our own dry atmosphere with the fragrance of those fine old tuns from Biblos in Phoenicia, or with the exquisite bouquet of the vintages of Lesbos, Rhodes, or Heracleia.

The need to be complete and exact has, perhaps, forced me to introduce many dry details, some dissertations of critical dullness, some philological curiosities, but I have striven to blend them with other details more absorbing and so retain the interest of my readers. Let him accept this work as the Greeks did their wines; the acrid pitch was necessary, and when a tun was found full of sea water, they merely tossed it back into its natural element.


 1   From Aristophanes, the idea at least, but the basket is missing.