Wine Tasting with Ancient Greeks

Object 53: A History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects 

Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, based on artefacts in the British Museum and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as a series of 15 minute talks, captured the imagination of many people. The History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects is based on a similar concept, exploring the artefacts remaining in our Museum store. Object 53 has now been added to the series by OC Jamie Day (G14).

This item is an Attic black-figure style kylix, a type of drinking bowl or wine cup. It was produced sometime in the late 6th Century BC by an unidentified Greek potter. It consists of a broad, shallow dish raised on a short stem that flares out into a wide flat foot. The interior of the bowl is known as the tondo; short handles protrude either side of it for lifting.

It is generally believed that kylixes such as this were reserved for use by wealthy Athenian aristocrats during a symposium. The symposium was an important aspect of Hellenic social life, where men would gather to eat, drink, and discuss various topics such as philosophy and current events. The Kylix would be filled with wine, the strength of which would have been decided by the individual presiding over the symposium, known as the symposiarch. The Greeks thought that drinking unfiltered wine was barbaric, and that it could even cause madness, as this quotation from Herodotus demonstrates:

The Argives say that Cleomenes lost his senses, and died so miserably, on account of these doings. But his own countrymen declare that his madness proceeded not from any supernatural cause whatever, but only from the habit of drinking wine unmixed with water. (Herodotus 6.84)

The most noteworthy characteristic of this particular kylix is the pair of prominent eyes located on either side of the bowl. When the cup was lifted and tilted the bowl would have covered the drinker’s face like a mask. The two eyes, combined with the handles acting as ears, form a human face. You can even see that the painter has included a nose! There is disagreement amongst scholars over whether these eyes were meant to have an apotropaic function, or if they were just features of the cup’s role as a mask. Either way, their wide and watchful nature would have kept guard over the drinker, even when their own vision became impaired through alcohol as the revelling progressed!