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We probably all feel that we know what alcoholism is, but: how should we describe it? Liver cirrhosis? Drinking alone, in social isolation? When studying alcoholism, both representations are relevant: the former in the biomedical sphere, the latter in a psychological one. The face of alcoholism depends on your perspective; defining alcoholism proves to be an elusive task. Adding a historical dimension to this task makes finding pathological features even harder. Both drinking and drink transform over time.

In ancient Greek lyric poetry, we find many examples of immoderate drinking at the symposium. In Theognis’ Elegies 473-491, the ‘lyrical I’ scowls at the addressee by saying that he does not know when to stop. Does this make the addressee an alcoholic? According to our modern pathological framework of addiction, he might tick some of the diagnostical boxes. This, however, says little about how the addressee’s behaviour was perceived in the ancient world. In this paper, I will consider whether the conceptualization of ‘destructive drinking’ is pathologized in lyric poetry and answer the following question: do the (social) consequences of destructive drinking in lyric poetry contain pathological features?

At the symposium, the drinking-code dictates to drink moderately and mixed, in the right social context. ‘Destructive drinking’ is drinking that is not according to the drinking-code of the in-group, thus not according to these criteria. The term refers to Mary Douglas’ Constructive Drinking (1987), which argues that drinking is a socially constructive act if the drinker drinks constructively: according to the ‘in-group’s’ drinking code. Oswyn Murray (1990; 2018) also convincingly argues that commensal acts in the Classical world like the symposium are hyper-socially constructive.

Jacques Jouanna (2012) and Pierre Villard (1988; 2002) researched ‘alcóolisme chronique’ in antiquity (Villard 2002) from the ancient medical texts, focusing on pace ‘biomedical’ examples, such as the ‘delirium tremens’-example from the Hippocratic corpus (Leibowitz 1967). My approach is different, but complementary: I look at the social consequences of destructive drinking from a historical anthropological perspective. In short: I am not necessarily interested in how the doctor views my overly excessive drinking behaviour, but what my neighbour thinks of it.

I argue that destructive drinking is problematic because it threatens the symposium’s goal of increasing social cohesion: the symposiasts ‘other’ the destructive drinker to protect the well-being of the group. In Theognis poem the ‘lyrical I’ calls the addressee an ephemeros, ‘a day labourer’, which excludes the addressee as this is a social stratum far removed from the symposiasts. Likewise, a trope for overenthusiastic drinkers is to refer to them as a Scythian (e.g., Anacreon 356 PMG): someone who traditionally does not belong at Greek, all-male, elite in-group of the symposium.

Based on many examples of ‘othering’ destructive drinkers in lyric poetry, I argue that whereas we do find a problematization of destructive drinking, it is not yet conceptualized as a pathological act. Pathologization requires detailed analysis of the behaviour, and the destructive drinker is ‘othered’ before this can take place. The ‘alcoholics’ at the symposium are still anonymous.