Beer Goggles in Ancient Rome

The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

(Source: http://www.improbable.com/ig/)

The winners of the of the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology are ‘Laurent Bègue [FRANCE], Brad Bushman [USA, UK, the NETHERLANDS, POLAND], Oulmann Zerhouni [FRANCE], Baptiste Subra [FRANCE], and Medhi Ourabah [FRANCE], for confirming, by experiment, that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive’ (source: http://www.improbable.com/ig/winners/#ig2013).

The phenomenon that is at the heart of this research, the so-called ‘beer goggles’, famously taken literally in The Simpsons

…is by no means a modern observation.

The ancient Roman playwright Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, 195 or 185-159 [?] B. C.), in scene IV 4 of his play Eunuchus (‘The Eunuch’) has the character Chremes enter the stage – visibly drunk. He encounters the courtesan Pythias, whom he had already met a short while ago:

CH. Attat data hercle uerba mihi sunt: uicit uinum quod bibi.
at dum accubabam quam uidebar mi esse pulchre sobrius!
postquam surrexi neque pes neque mens satis suom officium facit.
PY. Chreme. CH. quis est? ehem Pythias: uah quanto nunc formonsior    730
uidere mihi quam dudum! PY. certe tuquidem pol multo hilarior.

Chremes: Whoa, I’ve been well deceived, by Hercules. The wine I drank has won. Yet, when I was still lying down, I seemed to be pretty sober still. But once I got up, neither my foot nor my brain are functioning as they’re supposed to do.
Pythias: Chremes!
Chremes: Who is that? Oy, Pythias: ha, so much more beautiful you appear to me now than before!
Pythias: Well, you, by Pollux, are a lot funnier now, that’s for sure.

Aristotle allegedly wrote a specialist treatise On Drunkenness (Περὶ μέθης), which is now mostly lost. Yet, some of his original ideas may well be preserved in the third book of  the (presumably Pseudo-)Aristotelian treatise Problemata (‘Problems’), where the author writes at III 2:

ἔτι οἱ μὲν νήφοντες μᾶλλον ὀρθῶς κρίνουσιν, οἱ δὲ σφόδρα μεθύοντες οὐδ’ ἐγχειροῦσι κρίνειν· οἱ δὲ ἀκροθώρακες κρίνουσι μὲν διὰ τὸ μὴ σφόδρα μεθύειν, κακῶς δὲ διὰ τὸ μὴ νήφειν, καὶ ταχὺ τῶν μὲν καταφρονοῦσιν, ὑπὸ τῶν δὲ λιγωρεῖσθαι δοκοῦσιν.

‘Moreover, those who are sober are rather better at judging matters, and those who are heavily drunk do not even attempt to judge: those, however, who are tiddly do judge, as they are not heavily drunk, but do so badly due to their not being sober, and they are quick at looking down upon others, and they think that they are belittled by others in turn.’

This, according to (Pseudo-)Aristotle, is accompanied by blurred vision, seeing things moving in circles and manifold – a reasonably accurate description of the state of intoxication.

The award-winning research itself, however, was less concerned with actual drunkenness and ‘beer goggles’: instead, it was designed to show that even the illusion of drunkenness can result in similar attitudes and behaviour.

From here, it is of course but one small step to a successful application of this eminently mediasuitable research. And who would know better than Ovid, the very master of erotic edification, who suggests in his Ars Amatoria:

Ebrietas ut uera nocet, sic ficta iuuabit:
fac titubet blaeso subdola lingua sono,
ut, quicquid facias dicasue proteruius aequo,
credatur nimium causa fuisse merum.    
600

‘Just as actual drunkenness is harmful, thus a fake one will be of use: let your sneaky tongue fake a stammer, with hint of a lisp, so that, whatever you do or say, if it is a bit more daring than it ought to be, it will be believed to be the result of too much wine.’

In uino ueritas – in wine there is truth. Well, sometimes. Maybe. Just don’t rely on it too much.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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