The history of the Western world as seen through the prism of booze, glorious booze.
Gately (Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, 2002) serves up a lavish account, lengthy but never dull, of how human civilization has prized and demonized alcohol throughout history. It’s been mostly prized, he demonstrates, beginning with a discourse on how the epic poem Gilgamesh, possibly the first literary work in existence, shows intoxication and celebration as inextricably connected in Sumerian society circa 2000 BCE. Throughout ancient history, alcohol was considered a crucial component of the good life. Gately follows the role played in Greek culture by the wine-soaked deity Bacchus and the transmission of his cult to Rome. Comparatively abstemious in the republic’s early years, Romans in the heyday of the empire considered the Hebrews among their more civilized subjects because they cultivated wine. In 988 CE, Prince Vladimir of Kiev chose Christianity over Islam as the faith to unite his people, changing the future of European religion because he couldn’t abide the idea of not drinking. (Despite some token entries on Asia and the Middle East, this is a Western history.) Europe in the Dark Ages appears to have been utterly sozzled, with adults and children drinking ale for breakfast and throughout the day. It was only the introduction of tea and coffee in the 17th century that gave Europeans something better to drink than the admittedly foul water, though England's 18th-century gin craze still caused enough societal damage to bear resemblance to America's crack epidemic. Gately plays it straight throughout, with occasional witty asides such as the one on why absinthe never took off in London: “Why flirt with the occult when one already lived in Stygian gloom?” He considers modern temperance advocates, from Prohibitionists to today’s health zealots, as being not just wrong, but spoilsports. In this lively book, the latter is the more damning charge.
A heady cocktail.