HOW TO DRINK: a Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing

Vincent Obsopoeus; Michael Fontaine (ed., trans. and intro.)

Princeton (2020) h/b 285pp £13.99 (ISBN 9780691192147)

Tacitus records in his Germania that German peoples kept their foot hard down on the electric soup whenever the opportunity presented itself. This noble tradition extended at least into the 15th C, when Germans were hoovering up on average 120 litres of wine per head per year. Patients in hospital had an allowance of seven litres a day, probably a merciful release given the treatment they were likely to undergo, especially as their doctors’ allowance was identical.

All this provides the background to the book under review, composed in 1536 by Vincent Obsopoeus (Ὀψοποιός, ‘cook’), classical scholar, director of a school in Bavaria, a poet and colleague (if not exactly a friend) of fellow humanists Philip Melanchthon and Joachim Camerarius, and associate of Luther. He does not appear to have been the easiest person to get on with. His De Arte Bibendi emerged from a world of aristocratic drinking, especially competitive drinking, and his (apparently serious) purpose was to warn against its excesses, while at the same time recommending not abstinence but cultured, moderate imbibing. 

He composed it in imitation of Ovid’s handbook of top tips on getting your woman into bed (Ars Amatoria) and then chucking her out again (Remedia Amoris). Book 1 describes and applauds educated drinking, Book 2 describes and deplores excessive drinking, and Book 3 describes how to handle competitive drinking without making a complete fool of yourself.

The editor Michael Fontaine (professor of classics in Cornell) provides a brief introduction, a new text (based on Obsopoeus’s second edition), a facing page translation, notes (mostly on some of the many classical cross-references) and bibliography. His aim it to translate it into clear, idiomatic English in the language he hears spoken on college campuses.

The following extracts giving a sense of what the reader can expect, one from each book. 

This is how the work opens:

Si quis in hac artem non noverit urbe bibendi,
           me legat, et lecta doctior arte bibat.
Arte laboriferi tolluntur in astra colossi;
            arte per undisonas navita currit aquas.
5 Gnosius audaci quoque Daedalus arte volavit;
            nullus erit qui non vincitur arte labor:
dulcia symposiis ne vina bibamus inepti,
           et Bromius nobis arte colendus erit.
Qui nisi praecipua, sicut decet, arte colatur,
10        iratum cultor sentiet esse deum.
Sicut enim est placidus, sic intractabilis idem,
           cum spreto indigne numine cultus erit.

‘If anyone in this city doesn’t know the art of drinking,they ought to read me. Once they’ve read this Art, they’ll be drinking like a pro.

  • An art lets towering statues—tough stuff!—be lifted to the stars,
  • An art lets sailors race over crashing waves, and
  • 5 An art gave Daedalus, trapped in Crete, the guts to soar skyward.

There’s no job art can’t overcome, so if you and I don’t want to be unsophisticated when drinking wine at parties, we’re going to need an art of worshipping Bacchus, too. Unless they worship Him with the precise art 10 they should, those who worship Him will feel His wrath. Bacchus is mellow, you see, but if you underestimate His power and worship Him the wrong way, He becomes impossible to handle.’

This extract is part of an ecphrasis (currently a very fashionable topic for research) i.e. a verbal description of a work of art, in this case one imagined by O.—a painting by Apelles of the Garden of Drunkenness. Its inhabitants are female since they represent the Graces of Alcohol (O. has already described the Graces of Sobriety):

Praesidet in medio regali femina cultu
         ebria, femineo cincta satellitio,
pampineis sertis comptos ornata capillos
160     et manibus phialam, ceu bibitura, tenens.
Hanc iuxta famulae pateras calicesque gerentes,
         intranti turbae vina bibenda ferunt.
Quarum prima mihi visa est Dementia dici;
          ex habitu et vultu, proxima Luxuria.
165 Tertia Lethaeis Oblivio nata sub undis.
          Attonitae similis, quarta sedebat humi,
quae mihi Pigrities Languoris filia visa est,
         stillantem cyathum semisopita tenens.
Quinta furoriferae sociata Paroenia Rixae
170      vicina post hanc in statione stetit.
Postremam tenuit vecors Insania sedem,
         cum Rabie, et iuncto fratre Furore sibi.

‘Presiding in the center of the garden is a woman in royal raiment, drunk and surrounded by an entourage of women. A grassy garland’s encircling her styled hair, 160 and she’s holding a phiale in her hands as if she’s about to drink from it. Next to her, servants are bringing wine in phiales and kylixes for the entering crowd to drink. I think the first one’s name is Dementia; judging by her outfit and the expression on her face, next comes Self-Indulgence. 165 Third is Memory Loss, who was born on the banks of the River Lethe. The fourth is sitting on the ground, looking dazed; I think she is Depression, Sloth’s daughter; she is clutching a dripping cyathus and has just about passed out. 170 In a spot near and behind her, Drunken Behavior stands fifth; she’s the companion of rage-bringing Brawl. Insanity, Fury, and their brother, Madness, occupy the last place.’

Here O. offers tips about winning at drinking competitions:

760       Fallendi formas mille tenere potes:
corrumpendus erit parvo prius aere minister,
          aut clam promissis alliciendus erit,
misceat ut reliquis fortissima vina, tibi uni
          sobria supposita pocla ministret aqua.
765   Lene merum modici tibi praebeat ille vigoris;
          sorbeat annosum cetera turba merum.
Vina vetustatem portantia linque feroci;
          si praesto est, mustum sedulo carpe novum.
Vinum dulce datur? Tu crebrius utere dulci
770      (ebria dulce minus pectora, crede, facit).
Si tamen et reliquos delectant musta bibones,
          ingere clam calici vina vetusta novo:
si deprensus erit, facile excusabitur error;
         pincernae peccat talia multa manus.

760 ‘You can have a thousand forms of deception. You can bribe the waiter with a few bucks in advance or woo him over to your side with secret promises:

  • Have him mix up superstrong wines for everyone else but serve you yourself sober drinks—by secretly swapping the wine out for water. 765 Have him bring you weak wine of average strength while the rest of the group is sucking down wine from an elderly vintage. Leave wines that show their great age to tough guys; if it’s available, enthusiastically reach for this year’s vintage.
  • Is sweet wine on offer? Then you shall enjoy the sweet stuff at every opportunity (770 trust me, the sweet stuff doesn’t make your thinking as drunk).
  • That said, if the other competitors like this year’s vintage, then secretly pour old wine into a new glass. If the misstep’s detected, it’ll be easily excused; the bartender’s hand does make a lot of those mistakes . . .’

O. composes free and easy elegiacs but given the restriction of the subject matter and the length of the treatise (nearly 3,000 lines), his inventio does flag somewhat. Nevertheless, Fontaine has done a good job in resurrecting an amusing enough oeuvre for those who enjoy exploring such highways and byways.

Peter Jones

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