Alcohol in Antiquity through the Ancient Greeks

Alcohol in antiquity helped create the base of civilization. Humans have made alcoholic beverages since long before recorded history.

Anthropologists suggest that humans may have first settled in specific places to cultivate the ingredients of beer. It may have preceded bread as a staple. Alcohol in antiquity provided both nutrition and needed calories. It was a trading commodity, a medication, an alalgesic, a social lubricant, and played a role in religion.

Alcohol in Antiquity

Pre-10000 B.C.

Berries or honey may have been the source of the earliest alcoholic beverages.1

The Chinese made a variety of alcoholic beverages since Paleolithic times (before cir. 10000 B.C.). Alcohol in antiquity clearly extends far back in human experience.2  

Cir. 10000 B.C.

Late Stone Age beer jugs show that intentionally fermented alcoholic beverages existed at least as early as the Neolithic period.4

People may have begun farming primarily to obtain a steady source of ingredients needed to ferment beer.3 

10000-8000 B.C.

  •  ‘[T]he desire for beer spurred the rise of intensive farming in the Near East 10,000-12,000 years ago.’5
  • Beer may have preceded bread as a staple.6

Cir. 8000 B.C.

Around 8000 B.C., after humans created agricultural communities, they converted some of their production into brewed beverage. This is known from chemical analysis of pottery found in Jiahu, in northern China dating 7000-6600 B.C. The containers had contained a fermented drink made with rice, honey, grapes, and hawthorn berries. 7

5400-5000 B.C.

People were cultivating plants to brew alcohol in the Fertile Crescent. That’s a geographical area curving between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Archaeologists found jar at a Neolithic settlement in Haji Firuz Tepe. That’s in present-day Iran. Residue in the jar showed it once held wine.’8

Cir. 4000 B.C.

  • Wine clearly appeared as a finished product in Egyptian pictographs around 4000 B.C.9
  • The world’s oldest known winery dates to about 4,100 and is in a cave in Armenia.10
  • Archaeologists have found jars in Azerbaijan from this period with the remains of wine.11

Post cir. 4000 B.C.

alcohol in antiquity


  • Brewing dates from the beginning of civilization in ancient Egypt and alcoholic beverages were very important in that country.13 Many gods were local or familial. But people throughout Egypt worshipped Osiris, the god of wine.14
  • The ancient Egyptians made at least 17 types of beer and at least 24 varieties of wine.15
  • Egyptians believed that Osiris also invented beer, a necessity of life. Women brewed it in the home “on an everyday basis.”16
  • People deified and offered both beer and wine and offered them to gods in ancient Egypt. Cellars and wine presses even had a god whose hieroglyph was a wine press.17
  • Alcoholic beverages in ancient Egypt provided pleasure, nutrition, medicine, ritual, remuneration18 and funerary goods. The latter involved storing the beverages in tombs of the deceased for their use in the after-life.19
  • Ancient Egyptians stressed the importance of moderation in alcohol consumption. These drinking norms were both secular and religious.20  Ancient Egyptians didn’t generally define drunkenness as a problem. But they warned against taverns (which were often houses of prostitution) and excessive drinking.21 There is extensive evidence that drinking in ancient Egypt was widespread but generally moderate.22  

Cir. 3,500 B.C.

Chemnical analysis of containers dated to this period in Cyprus proves that they once held wine.23  

Cir. 3400 B.C.

The Egyptian city of Hierakonpolis contain the remains of the world’s oldest known brewery, dating to circa 3400 BC. ‘It was capable of producing up to three hundred gallons per day. Hierakonpolis was also the site of a thriving pottery industry whose principal products were beer jugs and cups.’24

Cir. 3100 B.C.

By around 3100 BC, beer was the beverage of workers and wine was the beverage of the elite.25

3100-2900 B.C.

‘The first proof that beer was being brewed in the region [Fertile Crescent] derives from the residues of an alcoholic barley brew found in a pottery vessel at Godin Tepe, in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, and dating to 3100-2900 BC.’26

Cir. 3000 B.C.

  • Deposits from pre-Bronze Age jars the Near East show high levels of tartaric acid. That’s a principal residue of grape wine.27
  • 3000 B.C. The first known illustration of wine drinking is on a 5,000-year-old Sumerian panel.28

2900-2000 B.C.

People made mead by fermenting honey and water. Between 2900 and 2000 B.C., it was the first alcoholic beverage to become popularity in what is now Greece.29 However, a limited supply of honey may have restricted its availability.30

2700 B.C.

Beer was the major beverage among the Babylonians. As early as 2700 B.C. they worshiped a wine goddess and other wine deities.31 Babylonians regularly used both beer and wine as offerings to their gods.32

Middle of Third Millenium B.C.

  • alcohol in antiquity


    The Sumerians believed their goddess, Ninkasi, ruled over brewing. They associated both the production and distribution of beer with women. The fragments of their laws that have survived, incised on clay tablets, tell us that they had regulated drinking places; their material culture; shows us that they staged formal drinking sessions and associated alcohol with ceremony and rank.’34

  • Uruk was the main city of Sumeria and probably the largest in the world at the time. The Sumerians brewed there on an epic scale.33

2600-2500 B.C.

The “laborers who built they pyramids of the Giza Plateau were provided with a daily ration of one and a third gallons [of beer with an estimated 5% ABV].”35

2700-600 B.C.

Winemaking is a significant theme in perhaps the oldest written story in the world. It’s the Epic of Gilgamesh, written between 2700 B.C. and around 600 B.C. in Mesopotamia. That’s present-day Iraq.36

Cir. 2000 B.C.

  • Beer and wine were used for medicinal purposes in Sumeria as early as 2000 BC.37
  • The art of wine making reached the Hellenic peninsula by about this time.38
  • Specific containers were used for wine in Italy, according to archaeological evidence.39

Post cir. 2000 B.C.

alcohol in antiquity

Chinese character for alcoholic beverage

In ancient China alcohol was considered a spiritual food rather than a material (physical) food. It had an important role in the religious life.40 People always drank when offering sacrifices to gods or their ancestors. When pledging resolution before going into battle, celebrating victory, and before feuding. Before executions and when taking oaths of allegiance. They drank while attending the ceremonies of birth, marriage, reunion, departure and death.41

Alcoholic beverages were widely used in all segments of Chinese society. They were used as a source of inspiration, important for hospitality, considered an antidote for fatigue, and sometimes misused.42

Around 2200 B.C.

A cuneiform tablet recommended beer as a tonic for lactating women.43

1800 B.C.

In 1800 BCE, the land of Israel was  described in this way. It was ‘blessed with figs and with vineyards producing wine in greater quantity than water.’44

Cir. 1750 B.C.

alcohol in antiquity

King Hammurabi

The famous Code of Hammurabi devoted attention to alcohol. However, there were no penalties for drunkenness; in fact, it was not even mentioned. The concern was fair commerce in alcohol.45 Nevertheless, although it was not a crime, it would appear that the Babylonians were critical of drunkenness.46

1700 B.C.

By 1700 B.C., wine making was commonplace in Greece. During the next thousand years wine drinking assumed the same function so commonly found around the world. It was incorporated into religious rituals. Became important in hospitality. Was used for medicinal purposes and it became an integral part of daily meals.47 As a beverage, it was drunk in many ways. Warm and chilled, pure and mixed with water, plain and spiced.48

Cir. 1500 B.C.

The Phonicians produced the first wine in Malta.49

1450-1410 B.C.

Oral tradition recorded in the Old Testament (Genesis 9:20) asserts that Noah planted a vineyard on Mt. Ararat in what is now Turkey.

1323 B.C.

alcohol in antiquity

King Tutankhamen

Egyptian King Tutankhamen died in 1323 B.C. Archaeologists opened his tomb in 1922. The wine jar buried with him bore labels with the year and the name of the winemaker. They also had comments about the quality of the wine (such as ‘very good wine’). The labels were so specific that they could actually meet modern wine label laws of several countries.50

Cir. 1200 B.C.

The Hebrews were reportedly introduced to wine during their captivity in Egypt. Moses led them to Canaan (Palestine) around 1200 B.C.  They are reported to have regretted leaving behind the wines of Egypt (Numbers 20:5). However, they found vineyards to be plentiful in their new land.51

Cir. 1116 B.C.

A Chinese imperial edict said the use of alcohol in moderation was  prescribed by heaven. Whether or not it was prescribed by heaven, it was clearly beneficial to the treasury. At the time of Marco Polo (1254-1324) it was drunk daily.52 and was one of the treasury’s biggest sources of income.53

1100 B.C. – 1400 A.D.

The Chinese enacted and repealed laws against making wine forty-one times between 1100 BC and AD 1400 in China.54

Cir. 1100 B.C.

The Phoenicians planted the first grape vines near Cadiz, Spain.55

Cir. 1000 B.C.

  • All over the world, wherever humanity had settled in villages or towns, people drank alcohol.56
  • The earliest traces of wine in what is now Bulgaria appeared.57

1000 B.C.

The Mayans by 1000 B.C. ‘… were a mead-drinking culture, who flavored their mead with the bark of the balche tree. They also made a fermented drink from corn….’58

How is mead associated with honeymoon? (Mead is a fermented mixture of honey and water.) One theory is from ancient Babylon. After the wedding, the bride’s father would give his son-in-law a gift. It was a supply of all the mead he could drink for a month. Their calendar was lunar. So this period of free mead was the “honey month” or “honeymoon.” 59

700s B.C.

  • Deuteronomy 8:8 lists the fruit of the vine as being in the land of Israel.60
  • The prophet Hosea (780’“725 B.C.) is said to have urged his followers to return to God so that “they will blossom as the vine, [and] their fragrance will be like the wine of Lebanon.”61

700 B.C.

  • ‘…wine, played a pivotal role in Greek culture. Our word wine derives from their oin. Its consumption was one of the defining characteristics of Hellenic civilization. It was also a point of difference between its members and the population of the rest of the world. They termed them barbaroi, or barbarians. Wine was omnipresent in Hellenic society. It was used as an offering to their deities; as a currency to buy rare and precious things from distant countries; and it was drunk formally, ritually, as a medicine, and to assuage thirst. In some Greek states such as Athens its consumption could be a civic duty. At the great public feasts officials known as oinoptai oversaw its distribution. They ensured that all present got their fair share. Such equality of proportions was the seed from which grew the concept of demokratia, or ‘people power.’62
  • ‘Rigveda, the literary masterpiece of ancient India (1700-1100 B.C.) contains the oldest known description of mead.’63

The Greco-Roman world preferred wine. Calling someone a ‘water-drinker’ was an insult. People thought they exuded a ‘noxious odor.’ 64

Cir. 850 B.C.

The Rechabites and Nazarites criticized the use of wine. They were two conservative nomadic groups who practiced abstinence from alcohol.65

753 B.C. – cir. 200 B.C.

Between the founding of Rome in 753 B.C. until the third century B.C., the Romans practiced great moderation in drinking.66

Cir. 650 B.C.

A commentator in China asserted that people “will not do without beer. To prohibit it and secure total abstinence from it is beyond the power even of sages. Hence, therefore, we have warnings on the abuse of it.”67

Cir. 600 B.C.

Greeks landed at the mouth of the Rhone, establish present-day Marseille. They taught the French how to prune their vines to improve yield.68

539 B.C.

Following release of the Hebrews from Exile in Babylon, wine became a common beverage for everyone, including the very young; a major source of nourishment; an important part of festivities; a widely used medication; an essential provision for any fortress; and an important commodity. It thus came to be an essential element in the life of the Hebrews, who had developed Judiasm.69

Cir. 530 B.C.

‘Childebert the First (511-558 BC) proclaimed that drunkenness was an offense in the eyes of God….’70

Cir. 525 B.C.

alcohol in antiquity

King Cyrus

  • King Cyrus of Persia frequently praised the virtue of the moderate consumption of alcohol. However, ritual intoxication was as an adjunct to decision making. Also, at least after his death, drunkenness was not uncommon.71
  • Rabbis ruled that the Kiddush (pronouncement of the Sabbath) should be recited over a blessed cup of wine. This established the regular drinking of wine in Jewish ceremonies outside the Temple.

Cir. 500 B.C.

  • Roman law prohibited pregnant women from drinking for fear of damage to the fetus.72
  • People in what is now France began making wine. They acquired vines and learned both viticulture and viniculture from the Etruscans.73


We’ve seen something of alcohol in antiquity up to the ancient Greeks. But that’s just the beginning of alcohol’s fascinating story. Now we get a chance to discover about alcoholic beverages in later periods. Our story continues with alcohol among the Greeks and Romans.


Discover More about Alcohol in Antiquity

Franke, P., et al. Wine and Coins in Ancient Greece. Athens : Hatzimichalis, 1999.

McGovern, P. Ancient Wine. Princeton: Princeton U Press, 2007.

Phillips, R. Greece and Rome: The Superiority of Wine. In

Phillips, R. Alcohol: A History. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Press, 2014.

Seltman, C. Wine in the Ancient World. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957.

Wilkins, J., and  Nadeau, R. A Companion to Food in the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2015.


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