Roman Shipwrecks, page 5
Besides olive oil, wine was the chief commodity traded by the Romans and the Skerki shipwrecks carried a variety of wine amphoras from both the eastern and western Mediterranean. It is thus appropriate here to conclude with a brief history of wine.38 As one of the earliest beverages known, the history of wine is the story of civilization. Wine has its origins in the ancient Near East where it spread into Egypt and was central to the worship of Osiris, god of the underworld and of the inundation and vegetation. In the Graeco-Roman world wine was particularly associated with the cult of Dionysos, or Bacchus as he was known to the Romans. The Romans inherited viticulture from the Greek world. In fact, the geographer Strabo writing in the Augustan Age lists as many as 130 different types of wine The Skerki Bank shipwrecks are a document of the vitality of the Roman wine trade throughout its long history.
The domestication of the wild grapevine began as early as the sixth millennium B.C. in the mountains of the ancient Near East, the Zagros mountains of Iran and the Taurus mountains of Turkey. By the fourth or beginning of the third millennium B.C. the grapevine appeared in Egypt. While beer was the more popular and cheaper drink made from barley and wheat, wine was the drink of the upper classes and the gods. Wine was part of funerary offerings and the principal drink of the king in the after world.39 An amazing recent find from Egypt is a cache of about 700 wine vessels from a burial chamber of a king who lived about 3150 B.C.40
Wine became particularly associated with the Egyptian god Osiris41, ruler of the underworld, of the inundation and vegetation. He was the symbol of the rebirth of nature and of man. With his consort Isis 42, who restored him to life after having been dismembered by his wicked brother Set, he promised eternal life. The grapevine symbolized the resurrection of Osiris and the return of a new life cycle with the flooding of the Nile celebrated in an annual festival. Surely this is the meaning of the grapevines in the elaborate tombs of important nobles in Thebes. The tomb of Nakht, scribe and astronomer for the temple of Amen-Ra at Karnak, shows a scene of the harvesting and stamping of the grapes with amphoras 44 below, dated about 1400 B.C. Or the especially delightful tomb of Sennefer, chancellor to Amenhotep II (1427-1401 B.C.) and superintendent of Amen's gardens45 where Sennefer and his wife are seen receiving offerings, including grapes, and sailing up the Nile to Abydos, the cult center of Osiris. Over their heads, newly restored, the undulating ceiling is decorated with a bright grape arbor.
Wine probably came to the Greek world about the same time as it did to Egypt, via the Near East. In classical Greece, the symposium, or all male drinking party, was a popular form of entertainment in the homes of the wealthy. Wine was served after dinner and accompanied by intellectual discussion, games, and other entertainment. But the custom of drinking wine spread to all levels of society and is associated particularly with the mystery cult of Dionysos so popular in both the Greek and Roman world. The Greeks saw in the Egyptian Osiris, their Dionysos whose myth also included dismemberment and resurrection.46 Dionysos brings the gift of wine to mankind from across the seas. As told in the Homeric "Hymn to Dionysus" (VII), the god is captured by Tyrrhenian pirates, who when he reveals himself to the sailors they are frightened and jump into the sea , turning into dolphins. This story was given visual form by the unrivaled black-figured vase painter, Exekias, in the late sixth century B.C. in his famous kylix cup in Munich.47 As the drinker lifted his cup, he would have seen the epiphany of the god, reclining in an unpiloted ship with the mast intertwined with grape vines and black dolphins jumping below against the red background.