Herodotus, The Histories 2.77

ἀρτοφαγέουσι δὲ ἐκ τῶν ὀλυρέων ποιεῦντες ἄρτους, τοὺς ἐκεῖνοι κυλλήστις ὀνομάζουσι. οἴνῳ δὲ ἐκ κριθέων πεποιημένῳ διαχρέωνται: οὐ γάρ σφι εἰσὶ ἐν τῇ χώρῃ ἄμπελοι.

They eat bread that is made from a kind of wheat, which they call “cyllestis.” They use a wine made from barley: for there are no grape vines in their land.

Background
Herodotus describes the Egyptians. Included among this description are a few remarks on their dietary predilections.

Commentary
In this passage, Herodotus does not use a specific word (like zythos) for “beer.” Instead, he describes it with the more general term “wine from barley” or “barley wine.” This is similar to Xenophon’s use of Oἶνος κρίθινος when he discusses his travels in Armenia. Two centuries earlier, Archilochus uses a specific word for beer (“brutos”) in reference to the Scythian/Phrygian brew. Hecataeus also uses, brutos, during the same century as Herodotus for the barley beverage of the Paeonians (much more on Hecataeus is coming this week!). In that same passage, though, Hecataeus declines to use (or is ignorant of?) a specific word for the Egyptian variety of beer; he simply states that the Egyptians are bread eaters who grind barley into a drink. It seems that “Bread eaters” was a sick burn in the fifth c. BCE.

Nelson points out that Herodotus employs an environmental explanation for the alcoholic preferences of the Egyptians (Nelson 2001, 209-212). The Egyptians drink “wine from barley” simply because there are no grapes in Egypt. Although Herodotus does not denigrate the consumption of beer, he implies that the wine is the more natural and enjoyable drink.

Author’s Note
Herodotus (ca. 484-425 BCE)
Herodotus is the first historian. His book, The Histories, is primarily about the Persian Wars. Y’know – the movie “300?”

Sources
Nelson, M.C. 2001. “Beer in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” Ph.D. dissertation, the University of British Columbia.

Image Source
WikimediaCommons, Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Greek and Roman Art, Acc. No. 91.8. Photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen

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