Julian the Apostate, Epigram 1

εἰς οἶνον ἀπὸ κριθῆς.
τίς πόθεν εἶς Διόνυσε; μὰ γὰρ τὸν ἀληθέα Βάκχον,
οὔ σ’ἐπιγιγνώσκω. τὸν Διὸς οἶδα μόνον.
κεῖνος νέκταρ ὄδωδε. σύ δὲ τράγον. ἦ ῥά σε Κελτοὶ
τῇ πενίῃ Βοτρύων τεῦξαν ἀπ’ ἀσταχύων;
τῷ σε χρὴ καλέειν Δημήτριον, οὐ Διόνυσον,
πυρογενῆ μᾶλλον καὶ Βρόμον, οὐ Βρόμιον.

On barley-wine (beer).
Who and from where are you Dionysus? For, by the true Bacchus,
I do not recognize you. I know only the son of Zeus.
He smells like nectar. You smell like a goat/spelt. Is it that the Celts
Made you from cereals, because [they] lack grapes?
It is necessary that they call you Demetrius, not Dionysus,
Instead, wheat-born and Bromus [i.e. Oats], not Bromius [i.e. Thunderer].

This is an epigram, a short poem, written by the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, in ancient Greek. Julian campaigned extensively in Gaul and, thus, was familiar with the Celts’ (i.e. inhabitants of Gaul [portions of France, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Austria, etc.]) penchant for beer. Julian also likely had access to this brew in the military as soldiery commonly drank beer in the empire (see Vindolanda III..628).

For earlier descriptions of the Celtic drinking habits please see: Athenaeus 34.6Caesar Civil War 2.11, Pliny the Elder 22.81Polybius 34.9Strabo

N.B. Bacchus is the Roman equivalent of Dionysus, the god of wine, drunkenness, etc. He received the epithet “Bromius,” the sound of thunder for the explosive circumstances of his birth from Semele and Zeus. Demetrius is the son of the goddess of grain, Demeter

Although this represents one of the latest passages in Roman literature that BCS will cover, it also employs one of the earliest phrases/words used for beer: oinos apo krithes (wine from barley; i.e. barley-wine). With the title of the epigram (“On barley-wine) and the grains included in the final lines, we can see that Celtic beer was made from barley, wheat and (possibly) oats. The most noteworthy ingredient from this list is oats – an ingredient that we have not encountered previously in Classical literature.

In fact, oat-beers are not well attested at all in antiquity. This passage likely represents the earliest reference in Greek and Latin texts – a relatively late innovation as this poem is from the fourth c. CE. It has been suggested, however, that the use of the word Bromus/oats was included simply for the pun (Bromus/Bromius) (Page 1981, 572). This is certainly possible given that oats had such a negative reputation among the Romans as a grain more fitting for animals than humans. The cost of this grain reflects such gastronomic disinterest by the Romans (it also implies that beer was even more the inferior drink to wine). Oats were the least expensive of the grains included in Diocletian’s Price Edict (301 CE) and were only half the price of barley and 30% the price of wheat (Nelson 2001, 105). The inclusion of a grain with such a bad rep would be yet another jab at the purported inferiority of beer.

Still, we cannot exclude altogether the possibility that there was a Celtic beer in which oats comprised part of the grain bill. Such an oat-beer would be only one of several varieties of beer that were consumed by these people. As most beer-aficionados already know, oats are not uncommon ingredients in modern ales. In fact, oats are necessary for certain styles, such as the Oatmeal Stout. This grain is often used to increase mouthfeel and turbidity in beer.

A final comment: Julian speculates that beer is made because the Celts do not have abundant grapes to grow wine – a commonly held belief by the Romans and Greeks. Julian states a strong dislike for beer and maintains the long-standing Roman perception that wine is a superior drink and more natural.

Author Note
Julian the Apostate (331/332-363 CE)
Roman emperor, philosopher, and litterateur. He was proclaimed emperor (Augustus) by his troops in Paris (a Gallic town) in 360 CE and he eventually gained exclusive control over the Roman Empire. Most notably, Julian was the final non-Christian emperor and he wanted to reinstate the pagan religion in the empire

Bibliography (and text source)
Nelson, M.C. 2001. “Beer in the Greco-Roman World.” Ph.D. dissertation, U. of British Columbia.
Page, D. 1981. Further Greek Epigrams. Cambridge.

Image source: Julian the Apostate with his wife Helena, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain




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