279: Brennus and the mystery of the undiluted wine…

Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture. (Eubulus, Greek playwright, 4thC BCE – quoted by Athenaeus in ‘Deipnosophists’ 2.37c)

Pausanias, the famous Greek travel writer of the 2ncC CE,  claimed that the leader of the military assault of the Celtic general Brennus on the oracle-sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi in Greece in 279BCE died following his defeat (engendered by the wrath of Apollo and the bravery of some doubty Greeks), after drinking ‘unmixed’ (undiluted) wine:

…Brennus’ wounds left him no hope; they say out of fear of his countrymen and even more out of shame as the cause of all their sufferings in Greece, he died deliberately by drinking unmixed wine

Having formed a massive federation of warriors from across Celtdom (then stretching from the Alantic west coasts to the Pannonian basin) their leaders, including (among others) Brennus, Acichorius and Bolgios, surged with them through the Balkans into Thrace, Macedonia and northern Greece. Brennus’ cohorts crashed through the Greek defences at Thermopylae and made for the bejewelled ‘holy cow’ of the holy oracle of Pythian Apollo at Delphi on Mount Parnassos. Their intention was undoubtedly to gain booty and prestige, but the religious importance of such a target – one of the most important of the ancient world – must not be underestimated.

Pausanias had few kind words for these Celts whom he describes (400 years later) unsympathetically as a cunning, fanatical, chaotic, and brutal baby-murdering horde – the epitome of barbarians to the average Greek. His account of Brennus’ attempted attack on Delphi is full of somewhat fantastical detail relating how Apollo caused earthquakes, lightning storms, frost and snow to thwart the barbarians before driving them insane and causing them to attack one another. Suffering attacks from the Phocians and Aetolians, Brennus is injured and the army is driven into retreat. As he describes the Celtic approach to Delphi, however, Pausanias’ account seems devolve from the historical into a mythical depiction of the Greek god and the land itself repelling the Celts, leaving a suspicion that the outcome of the real event was skirted around: None of the Greek military engagements appear to be decisive – according to Pausanias, the claimed victory was more due to fantastical events – the wrath of the gods:

” …All the day the barbarians were beset by calamities and terrors of this kind. But the night was to bring upon them experiences far more painful. For there came on a severe frost, and snow with it; and great rocks slipping from Parnassus, and crags breaking away, made the barbarians their target, the crash of which brought destruction, not on one or two at a time, but on thirty or even more, as they chanced to be gathered in groups, keeping guard or taking rest…

… At sunrise the Greeks came on from Delphi… At the beginning of the fight the Gauls offered a spirited resistance, especially the company attached to Brennus, which was composed of the tallest and bravest of the Gauls, and that though they were shot at from all sides, and no less distressed by the frost, especially the wounded men. But when Brennus himself was wounded, he was carried fainting from the battle, and the barbarians, harassed on all sides by the Greeks, fell back reluctantly, putting to the sword those who, disabled by wounds or sickness, could not go with them.

They encamped where night overtook them in their retreat, and during the night there fell on them a “panic.” For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan. It was when evening was turning to night that the confusion fell on the army, and at first only a few became mad, and these imagined that they heard the trampling of horses at a gallop, and the attack of advancing enemies; but after a little time the delusion spread to all.

So rushing to arms they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither understanding their mother tongue nor recognizing one another’s forms or the shape of their shields. Both parties alike under the present delusion thought that their opponents were Greek, men and armour, and that the language they spoke was Greek, so that a great mutual slaughter was wrought among the Gauls by the madness sent by the god… “

His account of a rout and defeat occuring before Delphi could be sacked is also somewhat at odds with others from within the Roman world (eg – Strabo) which suggest that Delphi may indeed have been laid waste and some of its gold taken back as far as Tolosa (Toulouse) in Gallia Narbonensis by the Volcae-Tectosages. Nonetheless, Brennus died in the retreat, by his own acts or omissions – that much seems certain. The other classical historian, Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus‘Epitome of the Phillipic history of Pompeius Trogus’, Book 24), who is our other (and perhaps Pausanias’) source for Brennus’ assault, agrees largely in its detail, except to say that Brennus took his own life with a dagger. That the suicide came about through the consumption of alcohol is, however, stressed in the accounts:

” … Brennus, when he came within sight of the temple, deliberated for some time, whether he should at once make an attempt upon it, or should allow his soldiers, wearied with their march, a night to refresh themselves. The captains of the Emanus and Thessalorus, who had joined him for a share in the booty, advised that “no delay should be made,” while the enemy were unprovided for defence, and the alarm at their coming still fresh; that in the interval of a night, the courage of the enemy would perhaps revive, and assistance come to them; and that the approaches, which were now open, might be blocked up. But the common soldiers, when, after a long endurance of scarcity, they found a country abounding with wine and other provisions, had dispersed themselves over the fields, rejoicing as much at the plenty as if they had gained a victory, and leaving their standards deserted, wandered about to seize on everything like conquerors. This conduct gave some respite to the Delphians. At the first report that the Gauls were approaching, the countrypeople are said to have been prohibited by the oracle from carrying away their corn and wine from their houses. The salutariness of this prohibition was not understood, until, through this abundance of wine and other provisions being thrown in the way of the Gauls, as a stop to their progress, reinforcements from their neighbours had time to collect. The Delphians, accordingly, supported by the strength of their allies, secured their city before the Gauls, who clung to the wine-skins, on which they had seized, could be recalled to their standards. Brennus had sixty-five thousand infantry, selected from his whole army; of the Delphians there were not more than four thousand; in utter contempt of whom, Brennus, to rouse the courage of his men, pointed to the vast quantity of spoil before them, declaring that the statues, and four-horse chariots, of which a great number were visible at a distance, were made of solid gold, and would prove greater prices when they came to be weighed than they were in appearance.

The Gauls, animated by these assertions, and disordered, at the same time, with the wine which they had drunk the day before, rushed to battle without any fear of danger. The Delphians, on the other hand, placing more confidence in the god than in their own strength, resisted the enemy with contempt, and, from the top of the hill, repelled the Gauls as they climbed up, partly with pieces of rock, and partly with their weapons. Amidst this contest between the two, the priests of all the temples, as well as the priestesses themselves, with their hair loose, and with their decorations and fillets, rushed, trembling and frantic, into the front ranks of the combatants, exclaiming that “the god was come; that they had seen him leap down into his temple through the opening roof; that, while they were all humbly imploring aid of the deity, a youth of extraordinary beauty, far above that of mortals, and two armed virgins, coming from the neighbouring temples of Diana and Minerva, met them; that they had not only perceived them with their eyes, but had heard also the sound of a bow and the rattling of arms;” and they therefore conjured them with the strongest entreaties, “not to delay, when the gods were leading them on, to spread slaughter among the enemy, and to share the victory with the powers of heaven.” Incited by these exhortations, they all rushed eagerly to the field of battle, where they themselves also soon perceived the presence of the divinity; for a part of the mountain, broken off by an earthquake, overwhelmed a host of the Gauls and some of the densest bodies of the enemy were scattered abroad, not without wounds, and fell to the earth. A tempest then followed, which destroyed, with hail and cold, those that were suffering from bodily injuries. The general Brennus himself, unable to endure the pain of his wounds, ended his life with his dagger… “

(Translation: John Selby Watson, 1853)

Justin’s account was an abridged version of a more extensive history written by 1stC BCE Gallo-Roman author, Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, of the Vocontii in Gallia Narbonensis – a province with associations with the Volcae-Tectosages and hence with ancestral knowledge of the assault on Delphi. Gallia Narbonensis was settled by the Greeks before the coming of the Romans in the 2ndC BCE.Reading between the lines of Trogus and Justin’s account, one can see that Delphi – an undefended city – appears to have tried to appease Brennus by giving wine and food to his troops, the consequences of which become apparent. It then attacked them and drove them off, although not necessarily without some serious loot.

So what about the curious reference to ‘unmixed wine’?

‘Unmixed wine’ sounds like a barbarian treat – the Greeks considered it ‘hard liquor’. We know from many sources that it was an important commodity among the feasting warrior-culture of the Celts, who – like their  various European cousins – had a historic reputation for a love of the celebratory consumption of alcohol. Dilution of this drink would certainly have diminished its euphoriant qualities and kept them closer to Eubulus’ idealised and civilised first three bowls. Celtic warriors were, however, members of an adrenaline-fuelled, fearless and sensationalist culture – definitely a ‘six bowls’ and up kind of people if contemporary accounts are to be believed!

The possibility of a store of ‘special’ hallucinogenic wine used in sacred Dionysiac rites or by the oracular Pythias priestesses being plundered from Delphi by the unwitting warriors might account for Pausanias’ story of the violent hallucinatory confusion which came upon Brennus’ encampment, although Justin/Trogus cites drunkenness causing ill-discipline. In the first case, we might take it that Brennus possibly even died of a drug overdose during a celebratory feast, or was murdered by a colleague, rather having committed suicide…

The health problems and political problems resulting from the of over-consumption of wine was apparently a perennial problem for the banqueting and borgeoise elites of any society, and the barbarian warrior lords such as Brennus and the (later, arguably more famous) Hunnic warchief, Attila, might be considered case-studies of alcoholic mischief among barbarian chieftains. Attila (according to the unsympathetic Jordanes , in his book Getica, 6thC CE) apparently died ?vomiting blood from his nose – a demise almost certainly a result (if true) of his lifestyle, coupled with the stresses of leadership.

…He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages. Thus did drunkenness put a disgraceful end to a king renowned in war… (Getica Ch.59)

The account, although not contemporary, has unusual detail and may be based upon a composite of earlier accounts. Brennus (if you believe Pausanias) may have suffered a similar fate, if the comment about his use of ‘unmixed’ wine is an allusion to personal alcoholic peril: the Dionysian/Apollonian diseases of madness and in-fighting are all faintly alluded to in Pausanias’ account of his death.

The Gauls’ apparent target-icon, Alexander III (‘The Great’) of Macedonia, was indeed also said to have died following a number of heavy drinking-sessions in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon in 323BCE. Although fever was the likely cause, the proximity of alcohol to the onset of the illness is notable in the famous account of Greek historian Arrian, which itself was based upon contemporary court accounts. The ‘party atmosphere’ and over-consumption of booze no doubt fostered the divisions among the heirs to his empire – a factor not lost on narrative traditions describing the subsequent demise of later warrior enterprises.

“…A few days later he (Alexander) had performed the divine sacrifices (those prescribed for good fortune and others suggested by the priests) and was drinking far into the night with some friends. He is said to have distributed sacrificial victims and wine to the army by detachments and companies. Some state that he wanted to leave the drinking-party and go to bed, but then Medius met him, the most trusty of his Companions, and asked him to a party, for he promised that it would be a good one…
…The Royal Diaries tell us that he drank and caroused with Medius. Later he rose, had a bath and slept. He then returned to have dinner with Medius and again drank far into the night. Leaving the drinking, he bathed, after which he had a little to eat and went to sleep there. The fever was already on him…”

The perilous health of celebrant warrior-chiefs seems to have been a major theme determining the fate of the ancient world, so much so that the ‘Primary Chronicle’ of the Kievan Rus (who were one of the last major eastern European powers to be Christianised during the 10th-11thC CE) contains the following allusion to it in an oath: In this, the pagan Slavic magnate, Svlyatoslav, promises not to attack the interests of the Christian emperors of Constantinople:

” … And even as I have given oath to the Greek Emperors in company with my boyars and all my subjects, so may we preserve this treaty inviolate. But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, either I or my companions, or my subjects, may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons… ” (trans. Samuel Cross)

This could almost be an invocation of the famous hepatically-challenged fates of proud Brennus or even Alexander or Attila, all of whom are suggested to have succumbed (no doubt with many of their ‘flocks’) to the jaundiced curse of gold, and seeking to become equal with the sun: excessive feasting, alcoholism and the in-fighting that can only be engendered within such a toxic atmosphere…


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