As I have long harped upon, there are many parts of antiquity that are, unfortunately, ephemeral. Unless a textual source tells us, we cannot know either what Augustus’ voice was like when he addressed the people or the sound of Theodora’s whispers in the ear of Justinian. We must rely on textual, epigraphical, and to some extent material sources (e.g., bronze bells) to help us reconstruct the soundscapes of antiquity, which is why I have always wondered about the epigraphy of drinking toasts and well wishes. This reemerged this weekend, as I listened to wedding toasts and then this morning, as I read an old piece by the late ancient glass scholar David Whitehouse (previously a curator at the Corning Museum of Glass) on “Glass, Gold, and Gold-Glasses”. Of particular interest to me were the toasts preserved in Roman gold glass, which placed etched gold leaf between two pieces of translucent glass. Toasts preserved in glass and gold abounded on Roman vessels and were often placed on roundels at the bottom of a drinking cup–for encouragement after one had just finished off a drink. These exhortations were also placed on medallions that survive in funerary contexts.
One of my favorite inscriptions from the Corning Museum is a glass roundel with the inscription “Dignitas Amicorum Pie Zeses Vivas” (“Worthy among your friends! Drink that you may live. May you live!”). [NB: As I have just exemplified, the translation of the word dignitas is difficult, but means essentially worthy of high repute or esteem]. It is notable that Romans have here stolen the Greek toast of Πίε ζήσῃς–evidence of ancient transliteration into Latin, for sure. We find this Greek sentiment on a number of objects in longer form, for example: Πίε ζήσῃς ἐν ὀνόματι Θεοῦ μετὰ τῶν σῶν πάντων / <Τ>εχνιτοῦ (HD 35971 / IGPannonia 140) or a fourth-fifth century glass bowl from Dacia reading: πίε, ζήσῃς καλῶς ἀεί (SEG 35: 854).
Another example comes from a glass depiction of the harbor at Puteoli. Here is a drawing of the scene, but the glass is now at the National Museum in Prague. It reads in part: ” Felix pie zesaes cum tuis …” (Lucky one, drink that you may live with your [beloved ones]).
This exhortation proliferated in the glass of Late Antiquity, and while it is often interpreted as a Christian sentiment, it was a Greco-Roman one that was adopted and adapted (like many things) by early Christians in their epigraphic habits. We even find it on Jewish objects. Perhaps evidence that toasts were fluidly adopted and adapted from one culture to the next. Whatever the culture, toasts often wished individuals the thing we all want (presumably): a long life.
A Jewish example from the fourth century in The Israel Museum in Jerusalem shows a Torah ark, two lions, two menorahs, and other Jewish symbols. It reads: “Pie zeses, Elares”.
Another common toast in antiquity was simply: “Bibe!” (Drink!) or, as the cup below reads, “Bibe multis annis” (Drink [that you may live] for many years!). It was also common in Greek. The connection between drink, health, and life is clear in these inscriptions, and gives us some idea of what Roman dinner parties were like. You can see the inscription better in a polychrome version here.
Variations on these toasts are often found in the catacombs, and thus hints that even when you were dead, you could get a toast to a long afterlife. Saint Monica, mother of Augustine, gives us some insight into this practice; it was said that she (in the tradition of the African churches) attended upon saints with wine, meat, and bread. There was a great deal of feasting of the living with the dead in the catacombs, and this meant that echoes of toasts had to have abounded in the caverns within the tufa rock.
As this short foray into the epigraphy of drinking toasts reveals, toasts were common and often preserved in the objects that accompanied drinking and eating. They enshrine common sentiments for long life that proliferate in toasts given even today, but for me, they also offer a window into the soundscape of public feasting that often accompanied both festivals and funerals.
For some stunning pictures, visit:
Andrew Simsky, “Christian gold-glasses from the Vatican museum”
C. Louise Avery, “Early Christian Gold Glass” MMAB 16.8 (1921): 170-175. [PDF]
*Please note that the feature image at the top is from Bologna and is a picture taken by Egisto Sani.*