Poetry, wine and death

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The imposing mosaic from the Château de Boudry showing a Roman banquet or symposium set in an asarotos oikos (unswept room) where the debris from a meal lies on the floor. http://www.chateaudeboudry.ch/?a=38,58,105

The link between poetry, love and death was well established in ancient times. Eros-thanatos is a recurrent theme of ancient lyric poetry. Wine, however, doesn’t usually come into the equation. The so-called sympotic poetry of the archaic age of Greek literature brings poetry in the midst of wine drinking parties or symposia (literally drinking-together), but death doesn’t get to join the banqueters on the reclining couches.

Except for one occasion, when death makes an unusual entry, dissolving the link between poetry and wine. This is the story of Dionysius I, the Greek tyrant of Syracuse, who died in 367 BC.

Sic semper tyrannis wouldn’t really apply to him. Having established himself as the ruler of Sicily and parts of southern Italy, Dionysius didn’t really live up to his godly namesake (Dionysus the god of wine, among other things) when he got a little bit too excited.

There are good-vintage ancient tyrants, who can hold their drink, but there are also corked rulers who just overdo it and suffer the consequences.

According to a story which many historians consider spurious, Dionysius was keen to have his poems recited at the Olympic Games, but they weren’t so well received. So he tried Athens instead, sending one of the tragedies he’d written to be performed at the Lenaea festival, the annual dramatic competition. It was such a success that the tyrant, on hearing the news, drunk himself to death. Some tyrants perish by their own sword, others by their own liquor. The potency of the cocktail of poetry and wine should never be underestimated. Especially Sicilian wine.


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