Monday, April 29, 2019


Lucio Coco, Michele Psello. Encomio del vino: Laus Vini. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 2018. Pp. 24. ISBN 9788822266101. €5,00.

Reviewed by Michael Fontaine, Cornell University (

Version at BMCR home site

Laudibus arguitur vini vinosus Homerus, quipped Horace: You can tell Homer was a wino—his praise of wine proves it.1

That line sprang to mind when I shook this charming little book from the envelope it arrived in. The size of my hand, it offers an Italian translation of a short Greek encomium "In Praise of Wine" that I'd never heard of before.2 In his first sentence, Lucio Coco, a Florence-based Byzantinist, calls it "a little pearl snuggling on the seabed" of Byzantine literature. I would say the very same about Coco's booklet. It is as delightful as a mini bottle of champagne, as rich and assured as a Barolo, and it give us yet another reason to envy Italian literary culture. For five euros, you get ten pages of introduction, 33 explanatory notes, and the eight-page translation, all printed on good paper and bound in a pretty purple cover. You can read the whole thing in twenty minutes.

The encomium's author is the medieval East Roman professor and court intriguer Michael Psellus (1018–1078/1096).3 Coco introduces him, explains how the text fits into his huge literary output, its probable date of composition (between 1042-1054), and ends by summarizing its contents.

Psellus writes a baroque form of Attic Greek4 that classicists can read (with difficulty, in my own case), and Coco translates it closely. Witness §4,5 with my mechanical translation of the Italian:

῾Ο οἶνος πάντοτε καὶ πᾶσι καλόν, εὐθυμοῦσι συνεργὸν εἰς εὐφροσύνης ἐπίτασιν, εὐεκτοῦσιν ἀγαθὸν εἰς ὑγείας συντήρησιν, ἀθυμοῦσι παράκλησις, ἀρρωστοῦσιν ἴασις. οὐ γὰρ ἂν ὁ σοφὸς ἐκκλησιαστὴς οἶνον διδόναι τοῖς ἐν ἀλύπαις ἐκέλευσεν, ἵνα μὴ λέγω τὸν ῾Ηρακλέα τὸν τοῖς ἥρωσι θαυμαστὸν τὴν ἀνδρείαν ἢ τὴν σοφίαν, ὃς ἀχθομένοις παρῄνει τοῖς ἑαυτοῦ πίνειν φίλοις πάσης αὐτοὺς λύπης λέγων μεθορμιεῖν τοῦ σκύφου τὸν πίτυλον.

Il vino è una cosa buona in ogni occasione e per tutti: per chi è di buon umore è un ausilio all'intensificazione dell'allegria; è buono per chi è sano per la conservazione della salute; è una consolazione per chi è depresso ed è una cura per chi è malato. D'altronde il saggio Ecclesiaste non avrebbe ordinato di dare del vino a chi si trovava nella tristezza8, per non dire di Eracle ammirato dagli eroi per il valore non meno che per la sapienza il quale esortava i suoi amici addolorati a bere, affermando che l'alzarsi e l'abbassarsi del bicchiere li avrebbe pilotati fuori da ogni tristezza.9

8Per i consigli su consumo del vino cfr. Sir 31, 25-31.
9Euripide, Alcesti, 794-798 (ed. D. Kovacs).

Wine is a good thing on every occasion and for everyone: for those in a good mood, it's an aid for intensifying happiness; for those who are healthy, it's good for conserving health; it's a consolation for those who are depressed, and a cure for those who are sick. However, the wise Ecclesiastes would not have advised giving wine to those who are sad8, to say nothing of Heracles, [who was] admired by the heroes for his valor no less than wisdom, who urged his grieving friends to drink, stating that the lifting and lowering of the wineglass would deliver them out of all sadness.9

8For advice on consuming wine, see Sirach 31:25-31.
9Euripides, Alcestis 794-798.

Coco drops the mannered jingles of the first sentence (εὐθυμοῦσι ~ ἀθυμοῦσι; παράκλησις ~ ἴασις) but nicely captures the nautical metaphor of μεθορμιεῖν with pilotare. I am puzzled by his choice of d'altronde (on the other hand, however) for οὐ γὰρ ἂν, for Psellus is saying that Ecclesiastes would not have recommended wine if he did not think it was a good thing.

At any rate, the translation is fluid, natural, and makes for an easy read. I consider it a great success.

Why does Psellus praise wine? Beyond its powers to improve mood and health, wine was God's first gift to humans after the Flood; after getting out of the Ark, Noah went into the winemaking business (Genesis 9:20). Special occasions are not special without wine; it is festive, it gladdens the heart, makes us kind, moves us to song, releases inhibitions, and promotes courage. Hector was wrong to forego wine before going out to fight (Iliad 6.258-65); Nestor drank wine and was better for it (Iliad14.1 (§5). If water drinkers ("madmen") say life without wine is possible, they're living like animals (§6). Humans used to kill our children to honor God, but now we sacrifice bread and wine, so wine must be of first-rate dignity (§8). The encomium concludes with Psellus thanking a friend who'd given him a bottle of the finest wine he'd ever had (§§10-14).

As Coco's footnotes make clear, Psellus supports many of these contentions by alluding to classical Greek literature and the Bible. (In §2 Psellus distinguishes "the Greeks" who worshipped Dionysus from "us" Christians, but otherwise treates the Hellenic tradition as unbroken.)

Why did Psellus write the encomium? Following a hint from Leo Allatius (1586-1669), the Vatican librarian who gave it its Latin title Laus Vini, Coco places it in the tradition of mock encomia on trivial or unworthy things, most of them drawn from nature: Lucian on the fly, Synesius on baldness, Polycrates on mice, and so on.6 True enough, and though some may disagree, let me suggest that that framing underestimates Psellus' achievement and the courage it took him to write it.

As Horace implies, it's risky to praise wine because everyone will assume you are an alcoholic.7 From that point of view, Psellus appears to be the first in a line of encomiasts of psychoactive substances that stretches through the Reformation (famous for its "drink literature") and on to De Quincey on opium and Freud on cocaine.8 Perhaps that risk explains some curious (to my mind) absences in the encomium. Psellus never mentions Anacreon, Archilochus, Theognis, or other poets whose lighthearted praise of wine might have tarred him with a bad reputation, but whose sentiments come close to his own. For example, Aristophanes' rival Cratinus claimed that "wine's a fast horse for a pleasing poet, whereas a water drinker wouldn't produce anything clever."9 Panyassis maintained that "for mortals, wine is a blessing equal to fire" and Eratosthenes, that "wine has strength equal to fire."10 These thoughts come uncomfortably close to Psellus' advice that we no more blame wine for drunkenness than we'd blame fire for disasters (§6).

Psellus was no dummy; here be dragons, he realized. Ignoring those poets, he states that in both cases—fire and wine—we must avoid intemperance and practice moderation. As with the enjoyment of any technology or pleasurable activity, it's familiar advice and seems to have served Psellus well. That is quite an achievement, and ought not pass unregistered.


1.   Epistles 1.19.6.
2.   Namely oration 30.3 in A. R. Littlewood's 1985 Teubner (Michaelis Pselli Oratoria Minora, Leipzig 1985), pp. 111-116. It has also been translated into Spanish by J. C. Costello (M. Pselo, Opúsculos, Madrid 1991) and Polish by Magdalena Jaworska-Wołoszyn ("Michała Psellosa Enkomion wina. Filozoficzna zaduma," Filo-Sofija 33 (2016), 99-115, available online here)). Coco mentions neither.
3.   I'm persuaded to avoid calling him "Byzantine" by Anthony Kaldellis' Romanland: Ethnicity and empire in Byzantium (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 2019).
4.   Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers, 2nd edition (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 233-6.
5.   Coco's 14 sections do not match the 20 sections of Littlewood's Greek text.
6.   Diatribe de Psellis, Internet Archive.
7.   Compare the protest Vincent Obsopoeus makes in his Reformation-era poem De Arte Bibendi (The Art of Drinking [Wine]): nec me vinoso madidum de carmine cense: / ebria Musa mea est, sobria vita mihi (3.931-2).
8.   On "drink literature," see B. Ann Tlusty, Bacchus and civic order: The culture of drink in early modern Germany (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001). Christoph Hegendorff (1500-1540) published an Encomium ebrietatis in 1519 and in 1526, a rather different Declamatio in laudem Ebrietatis. In 1532, Joannes Dantiscus published Encomium vini et encomium cervisiae.
9.   Cratinus fr. 199, οἶνός τοι χαρίεντι πέλει ταχὺς ἵππος ἀοιδῷ, / ὕδωρ δὲ πίνων οὐδὲν ἂν τέκοι σοφόν. Friedrich Taubmann (1565-1613) turned Cratinus' sentiment into a nice epigram (Melodaesia sive Epulum Musaeum, Leipzig: Schurerius, 1597, 118 google books: Dulcia potabant animosi vina Poetae: / Inde Poetarum vina Caballus erant. / Nunc gelidae potantur aquae. mirabimur ergo / Frigida si scribit carmina potor aquae?).
10.   Panyassis fr. 19.12 West, οἶνος…πυρὶ ἶσον ἐπιχθονίοισιν ὄνειαρ; Eratosthenes fr. 36 Powell, οἴνος…ἶσον πυρὶ ἔχει μένος.

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