Rhodes, the island of the sun, is famous not only for its natural beauties, tourist sites and attractions, but also for its quality wines whose fame goes back to ancient times.
Wine is part of our cultural heritage in Rhodes as well as in the rest of Greece. It is an indispensable element found in Greek history, art, and folklore, and it is one of the manifestations of a distinct way of life which has evolved but not drastically changed with the passing of the centuries.
Wine in Greece has been praised as a living god - smart, humane, elegant. It has been personified as Dionysus, portrayed in exquisitely carved statues depicted on vases of unsurpassed craftsmanship.
Ancient Rhodians who were also followers of Hermes Kerdoos - the god of profit - knew the value of trade. A fact corroborated by ancient sources.
Thanks to Rhodes location near the mainland of Asia, its importance in the Hellenic world being a pivotal point of contact for the Greeks and the civilizations of the Orient, was disproportionate to its size.
Rhodes was one of the first islands in the Aegean to adopt the cultivation of the grape vine and the vinification process. Aided by its powerful naval forces, Rhodes was undoubtedly the foremost merchant of wines and crops by the mid 7th century B.C. Rhodes was also able to undertake cereal trade on a massive scale, which brought incredible wealth to the island, thanks to its maritime power, which may also have been developed mainly thanks to the wine trade.
Excavation findings, inscriptions and literary sources are the main sources of information about wine trade in ancient times.
Thanks to this evidence we know that amphorae were mainly used in transporting and trading Rhodian wines, although other large earthen jars are also mentioned. They were also used in naval transportation of other products such as oil, olives, dried fruit, etc. In Rhodes less than 5% of the stamped handles from the amphora that were found, were foreign. This indicates that local containers and local produce prevailed and the island was self sufficient.
Amphorae came n a variety of shapes and colors. These features help us distinguish their origin. They all had narrow mouths so that they could be corked, two opposite vertical handles and at the bottom a pointed base or knob that could be used as a third handle for pouring the contents when inverted. Evidence leads us to the conclusion that this type of amphorae was made as early as the 7th century B.C.
4th century B.C. amphorae from Rhodes are clay vessels, with a creamy surface, peg tip, simple rim and acute-angled handles. They are also marked with a pair of stamps containing the rose or the sun rayed head of the sun-god Helios. These are also used as emblems on the coins of Rhodes. The stamps also contain two names. The one was an endorsement of a licensed manufacturer and the other the name of an annually appointed official (i.e. eponymous priest of Rhodes) which served as a date/month point. At that time there must have been reference lists of the authorities and dates marked on the stamps. Unfortunately, to-date no records of these lists have been found. The ceramists inscribed their names and a cluster of grapes on the amphorae they produced - proof that the amphora came from a Rhodian workshop and its contents from a Rhodian vineyard. Many centuries later the indication of “Appellation Controllée” was adopted by the French. This is now a common international practice.
Before the above mentioned amphorae were adopted by the Rhodians in the late 4th century B.C. other shapes with handles having a rounded arch were used. With time they went out of use.
Amphorae were indispensable to trade and their shape was perfectly adapted to their use. Their pointed base ensured a good fit between amphorae placed horizontally in two or three rows in the holds, improving the ship’s balance and optimizing use of space.
The study of these commercial vessels is the key to the history of wine trade in antiquity. The shape of amphorae was characteristic for each city-state to such a degree that it often also became its currency symbol.
Stamped handles of Rhodian amphorae have been found throughout the Mediterranean area and in hundreds of ancient sites around the Danube River, the Black Sea and even as far as India.
Substantial figures - 100,000 sealed Rhodian handles now in the Alexandria Museum, hundreds of Rhodian handles discovered in Sicily, Istria, Pontus, Carthage, Corinth, Athens (40,000 vessels mainly of the 3rd and less of the 2nd century B.C.), Delos, Crete, Cyprus, and Palestine - bear testimony to the massive and continuous export of Rhodian wine to the majority of trade centers of the world. Since no reference lists have been found most of the dating is based on clues derived from cities where vessels were found and people ruling.
Amphorae found in Carthage and Corinth had to be made before the middle of the 2nd century B.C since they were completely destroyed in 146 B.C and remained abandoned for over a century.
The 800 Rhodian stamped handles that were found together under a building in Pergamus are dated in the early 2nd and late 3rd century B.C. In addition, the forty names of annual officials help to narrow down the dates from 220 to 180 B.C. Since no listings of officials are available, archeologists had to use other criteria and methods to identify the production and trading periods. Pergamous, after the first years of King Attalos I (241-197 B.C.) reign, developed good relations with Rhodes. We know that he was not on good terms from the very beginning because Pergamus is not on the list of contributors for the rebuilding of Rhodes after an earthquake destroyed the city in 226 B.C. Further evidence show us that, during the following reign of Eumenes II (197-159 B.C.) at Paramus, ties with Rhodes were once again broken as no trade took place.
The reason why so many Rhodian handles were found in the ancient city of Alexandria is that there were very close ties between Rhodes and Egypt, which was ruled by Greeks – the Ptolemies - descendants of Ptolemy, a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great.
The production as well as export of thousands of amphorae from Rhodes to all the above mentioned places and their systematic marking for more than two centuries can be accounted for by the recorded port taxes from which Rhodes drew a large portion of her revenue.
Rhodian wines were renowned and sought-after in ancient times. In their efforts to promote their own wines, many states - such as Cyprus in Hellenistic times and Crete in the Imperial period - adopted the characteristic type of the Rhodian amphora.
A substantial number of well-preserved Rhodian amphorae were found in the boat Kyrene, now exhibited in a gallery of the Crusader Castle at Kyrenia in the Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus. To this date the Kyrenia Ship represents the best preserved hull of the Classical Greek period ever found. The vessel markings found on the ship place the wreck at the end of the 4th century B.C. just when the empire of Alexander the Great was disintegrating as he was dying.
Also coins found in the wreck help us to identify the date of the ships sinking to be between 310 and 300 B.C. In addition, various findings such as crockery indicate that the island of Rhodes was the ship’s home port.
During its last voyage the ancient ship carried approximately 20 tons of cargo, composed of 404 Rhodian amphorae filled with wine and oil, 29 millstones and sacks of almonds.
In 1999, another shipwreck was found challenging the theory that in ancient times ships hugged the coast and stayed in sight of land. The deep sea salvage crew of Hanover based Nauticos in Germany, discovered the deepest ancient shipwreck ever found between the trading centers of Rhodes and Alexandria. This was a 2,300 year old sunk Greek trading vessel in the Mediterranean. The wreck was found almost 300 miles off the coast of Corsica about 10,000 feet down. This ship was loaded with amphorae and their appearance suggests that they came from Rhodes and Kos and were made around the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.
A wealth of evidence provided by archaeological findings, literary sources, and inscriptions about the trade of Rhodian wines in antiquity is found on the amphorae and ancient coins dating from 408 BC. Rhodian coins found in the palace of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius depict amphorae, grapes, wine cups and Dionysus heads. These further document the history of Rhodian wine.
The first reference to Rhodian wine is by Aeschynes, an Athenian politician who was exiled to Rhodes in 330 BC. In his fifth letter he mentions that he stayed in a small house with a garden in Kamiros, and that he was offered oil, honey, and an excellent wine, which he appreciated as better than the Athenian one.
Roman Aulus Gellius, who studied in Athens and later composed the so-called Attica Nights, wrote about Aristotle (384-322 BC) - particularly about the last year of his life. When the great philosopher Aristotle, became ill his pupils asked him to recommend the pupil who would succeed him as the head of his school. There were two candidates – Theophrastus from Lesbos, and Eudemus from Rhodes. Aristotle complained that the wine he drank was not good for him, that it was unhealthy and sour, and he asked to be provided with wine from Lesbos and Rhodes in order to choose the one he liked best. His pupils readily fulfilled his wish, and after tasting the Rhodian wine, Aristotle said: “This is a truly healthy and pleasant wine.” Then he asked to be served the wine from Lesbos and commented as follows: “These are both really good wines, yet the wine from Lesbos is sweeter.” It was obvious to all that, by commenting on the two wines, Aristotle pronounced his verdict on the issue of his succession.
Aristotle wrote a study on intoxication, of which only fragments survive. One of these refers to Rhodes: “The potions named Rhodian are used in wine-drinking contests for their pleasant taste and because they make wine lighter when warmed up. This happens because myrrh, fragrant absinth, and other herbs are boiled in water before the potion is added. When this liquid is added to wine, it makes it less heady.” He continues: “The Rhodian potion is made by mixing myrrh, fragrant absinth, anise, chrysanthemum, cardamom, and cinnamon with water. The liquor thus extracted prevents drunkenness to such a degree that even sexual desire is deflated, making people calm”.
According to Diodorus from Sicily, when the new city of Rhodes was founded by merging Lindos, Camiros, and Ialyssos, Rhodians erected in the lower part of the city, near the marketplace, a temple called Dionysion, to honor Dionysus, god of wine.
Geographer Strabon saw the Dionysion in the 1st century BC and commented on the votive offerings there. The Dionysion and its works of art were also mentioned in the 2nd century AD by orators Aristeides and Pseudolucian.
The inscriptions found on the island inform us about the festivals devoted to Dionysus. For example a decree from the 2nd century BC in honor of Dionysodorus mentions Baccheia, a biannual festival. Bacchic festivals are also mentioned in a list of priest names found in Camiros, dating from the 1st century.
Another inscription from Camiros dating from the 3rd century BC, informs us that the priest must sacrifice a young cow and a sheep to Dionysus. There were also records from the 1st century records, that priests must sacrifice a goat and a one-year-old lamb to God of wine.
Other festivals devoted to Dionysus were the famous “Rhodian Smynthia,” whose name is derived from the word “sminthos” – a rat. There was a myth that said when rats damaged the vines, Dionysus killed the rats. The festival was made in commemoration of this myth.
The respected reputation of Rhodian wine continued well into the period of the occupation of the island by the Knights of Saint John (1309 – 1522 AD).
When Ottoman Turks occupied the island in 1522 – following a siege of 177 days – agriculture in general and vinticulture in particular began to shrink due to the disincentives imposed by the Ottomans on Rhodian farmers and tradesmen. These disincentives were imposed in retaliation for the help that the Rhodians offered to the Knights during the siege. The inhabitants of the other islands of the Dodecanese enjoyed privileges offered by the Ottoman Empire. In a few decades vinticulture reached an all time low.
The Italians, who were to succeed the Ottoman rulers from the first half of the 20th century, took a lively interest in reviving agriculture in Rhodes.
During the period of Italian rule, the vines of Rhodes - although not systematically cultivated - made up for a great part of the agricultural economy of the island.
In an Athenian Symposium
It is the year 433 BC. It is the late spring, and the city of Athens and the whole plain of Attica is full of the scent of flowers.
The winter rains nourished the trees, the plants and wild flowers. The city, fortified by tall walls down to beautiful Piraeus, and above all the plain are now in full bloom, making them replete with the force of life - a sweet smelling hymn to the Architect of the Cosmos at the golden hour of the sunset.
The sweet-scented sunset is painted gold by the face of king sun, which sets majestically. Lords, financial and military authorities of the Athenian state, philosophers and sophists are all invited to the country mansion of an Athenian lord in Holargos, near the country house of Pericles, the leading statesman of the Athenian democracy, spending his sweet leisure with Aspasia.
Reclining on comfortable couches, they enjoy the wealth of tasty offerings brought in by lavishly attired slaves. The purple and golden light of the setting sun enters through the four-leaf door the symposium hall, covered with exquisite frescoes on the three sides. The four pillars supporting its roof and their ionic capitals, covered in purple, blue, golden and yellow, are a feast for the eye.
Capturing the eye of the guests with their graceful movements, eight female dancers enter, accompanied by guitar, double flute, and harp. Their song sets on fire the desires kindled by dreams. It is time for merrymaking.
When the first part of the song and dancing finishes, the host rises to say: “Athenians, the spirit rejoices in the heavens of wisdom, the body is revived through the splendid food, the soul is happy in the divine quietude, and the heart begins the dance of merriment thanks to the divine substance of wine”. You will now savor the best of Mediterranean wines – the wines of Rhodes.
Carrying two silver-colored amphorae full of wine, three slaves enter the symposium hall, and the slim dancers fill the guests’ cups with the divine present of Dionysus so they can savor all three kinds of Rhodian wine.
“What a taste!” exclaim many of them. Enter a salesman of the “Theogenes” wine company of Piraeus, active in the whole Mediterranean like a truly global company of the time. He is a specialist in sales promotion.
“Wine is a gift of god with a divine taste,” cries the salesman. It is synonymous with Dionysus, who ensures that people are merry enough to forget their limitations and miseries.”
“It offers comfort and merriment, and makes the heart leap in a dance of joy and the soul to fly away to immaterial, mythical worlds. A little wine every day helps one make sober decisions.” Nursing his cup of Rhodian, one of the guests interrupts the salesman by exclaiming, “What a divine taste! Drinking Rhodian wine is poetry - a lyrical taste sent by god Dionysus.”
“Boasting of a great network of wine producers from many places, above all of Rhodians who offer pure and reasonably-priced wines, the “Theogenes” company exports a great amount to every Greek city throughout the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Black Sea – even to the coast of Africa, Egypt, and the Near East.”
“The Piraeus cargo and military ship building company is affiliated to our company, whose ships are sought after in the whole Mediterranean, and so is the military factory producing weapons, shields, javelins, swords, and helmets.”
Eradicating every trace of moodiness and a cold disposition, wine drinking warmed up the atmosphere in the symposium. The only thing that cast a shadow on their joy was the blood-thirsty mouth of war, but the divine gift from Dionysus dispelled its horrible specter.
Sparta cannot bear the power and glow of the state of Athens, and war rages against the glory of the city.
The salesman went on, “The local liquid products are transported in impeccably cleaned goat skins, and the best pointed-base Rhodian amphorae are used in our imports and exports, supplemented by amphorae from the island of Thassos.”
Rhodian wines are not only the divine gift of Dionysus – they are also a potent medicine. The great Hippocrates from Cos, along with most other physicians, recommends a moderate use of wine for preventing cardiovascular problems and improving the function of the heart.
“Rhodian wines are loaded in the port of Ialyssos, and reach Piraeus in four days if the weather is good. The grape producers of the state of Ialyssos have the best vineyards in the lush plains of the state of Rhodes. Ialyssos is the birthplace of famous Diagoras and his offspring, who have achieved great victories in the Olympic Games, and statues of himself, his children, and grandchildren adorn the sacred Altis in Olympia. The port of Camiros does business with nearby places, whereas Lindos trades in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean.” (Note: The state of Ialyssos included the plains of Paradeission, Maritsa, Pastis, Ialyssos, Faliraki, the plain of Afantou, and all the arable land at Asgourou.)
The dancers now begin to dance anew. The spirits are high and, when the second part of their show comes to an end, the salesman comes in with a brightly-lit face: “Athenians, the “Theogenes” company would like to present you with two amphorae of matured Rhodian wine. It is the diamond of our wines.” The dancers served the wine, and the happiness became a real Bacchic frenzy.
Suddenly, the leader of the dancers begins to annoint the hands and foreheads of the guests with two or three kinds of Rhodian perfume. One of them exclaims, “O, Aegean Nymph, daughter of Helios, most wanted Rhodes! Let’s drink from the diamond of divine Theogenes’ wine and wish that the bloody hand of war leaves our souls untouched - that Sparta comes to its senses.”
The dancers emerged once again to perform the third part of their seducing show.
Back to today, either at home or out with our favorite friends, let us drink a glass of Rhodian wine to our health and to the health of all those who made Rhodes and its wines famous throughout the world by their achievements.
We would like to thank the “American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Agora Excavations” for granting us formal permission to use the slides and black and white prints concerning Rhodian Amphorae and the wine trade in antiquity.