Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek

Goliath – 27 litres/36 bottles
Used in: Champagne and Bordeaux

Carravagio’s typically dark take on David and Goliath, a subject he had painted before. The Biblical allegory of humility and faith overcoming pride (relayed in a Latin inscription on the sword) has become another allegory here. It was painted while Carravagio was on the run, wanted for murder. This painting was a gift for Cardinal Borghese who had the power to obtain a Papal pardon for the troubled artist. The head is a self-portrait and, as the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has suggested, perhaps it was a way for Carravagio to say: ‘You can have my head figuratively, if you let me keep it in reality’.

A suitably gigantic bottle size to match the infamous Philistine warrior whose very name is now a by-word for, well, incredibly large things.

It is a Biblical tale we are all familiar with. Goliath of Gath is the boastful, heathen warrior, girt round in bronze armour, with a weighty shield and enormous spear, the pole being as “thick as a weaver’s beam” and the head weighing (an oddly precise) “six shekels of iron”.

David meanwhile is the humble Jew whose only armour is his faith in the Lord his God. No prizes for guessing who wins and no prizes for guessing there’s an allegorical point to the story as much as any historical truth.

“Humilitas occidit superbiam” (‘humility kills pride’) as it was later put. Put your faith in God and you need fear naught, indeed as Psalm 144 hammers home the point: “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.

“He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me.”

On the other hand, again, while we might debate the historicity of the encounter in 1 Samuel: 17, it nonetheless contains many little kernels that smack of authenticity.

We have no reason to suppose there were not wars and battles between the Hebrews and the Philistines just as there were between the Israelites and their other Canaanite neighbours. Indeed, according to The Bible again it seems they were at war nearly all the time until the arrival of the Assyrians in the 8th century BC.

Furthermore, the way the confrontation is depicted is in a way that wouldn’t look out of place in Homer’s Iliad, it is clearly an age of heroic single combat and one that conforms to what we know of elements of ancient battles.

This in itself is entirely plausible. Ancient warfare in general was not dominated by multiple large set-piece battles where armies hammered away at each other. Indeed, up until the 18th century battles could be decidedly rare.

Populations were small at this time and in a kingdom like Israel there would be no such thing as a standing army. A king might keep a very few palace guards on some kind of payroll but the core of any army raised in time of war would be the warrior elite of the kingdom, the nobility, the king’s sons and nephews and so on, the men who could afford the best armour and weapons and were raised to conform to a martial ideal when the occasion required. All other soldiers, the levies, would be drawn from the land, which naturally took them away from their more usual occupations, tending their flocks, vines, olive groves and crops.

War was therefore inherently limited in scope for many of these smaller kingdoms and just one battle could be decisive.

Commanders were generally reluctant to commit to such a risky undertaking as a battle then and war was not total, indeed the very concept of warfare as we understand it, for territorial and material gain, was still developing and while the Pharaohs of Egypt had clashed on a grand scale with the Canaanites at Meggido and Hittites at Kadesh in the 15th and 13th centuries BC respectively, conflicts in the Bronze and early Iron Ages were as likely to be settled by an instance of single combat between opposing champions as an all-out clash.

So when 1 Samuel describes the armies of the Philistines and Israelites lining up to face one another across opposing hillsides in the Valley of Elah rather than getting stuck in straight away it sounds truthful. A demonstration of force and the threat of violence might sometimes just be enough to see off an enemy.

We are told they face each other like this for 40 days. Once more, whether that’s really 40 days or just an indication of the passing of time is open to debate. Forty is a figure that comes up as something of a trope in the Bible, such as the Hebrews wandering for 40 years in the desert. Yet armies would face off against each other for long periods without fighting. Sometimes, in fact, without ever fighting at all; the generals might consider the situation too unfavourable, their priests would divine bad omens, the weather might change etc.

In one Roman battle the antagonists marched out from their camps for three days in a row to face each other until, on the fourth day, the Roman commander switched his order of battle and sent his best troops against the weaker part of the enemy line to win the day.

This idea of equating David and Goliath’s encounter into something from Homeric combat is given an intriguing edge when we ask the question, ‘who were the Philistines?’ For some time now there has been a suggestion they were not native to the Levant but were perhaps one the ‘Sea Peoples’, those roving and rieving bands of displaced peoples who terrorised the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age collapse. They may be the people referred to in Egyptian inscriptions as the ‘Peleset’, who were then settled in southern Canaan by the Egyptians after their defeat by Ramses III in the 12th century BC or they may have arrived and settled there of their own accord.

Many of the theories surrounding the Sea Peoples centre on the idea that they were single tribes and occasional coalitions of people, generally from Anatolia and the Aegean, displaced by natural disasters – normally said to be catastrophic earthquakes – and resulting societal upheaval and famine. There may very well have been Mycenaeans from failed states among them and if so, if we take Homer’s depiction of heroic single combat as evidence of how those ancient Achaeans fought (potentially a tenuous leap in itself), might we not suppose that the Philistines would themselves value the ideal of single combat which was the way a true warrior should fight?

Is it possible then, if the Philistines really had an Aegean heritage, that Goliath is himself a sort of vestige of the great Mycenaean warrior kings, the ‘wanax‘, like Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax, those sackers of cities, who stood proudly before Troy and challenged its heroes to come out and face them in the name of honour and glory? It’s an idea, nothing more. Single combat was not necessarily restricted to the ancient Achaeans after all and another, very strong theory is that the Philistines’ original homeland was Cyprus.

Quite who they were, Anatolian, Aegean or Cypriot, shall remain a mystery for quite some time no doubt and they appear to have more or less disappeared as a unified people by the 5th century BC. But archaeological excavations of Philistine towns (of which we in fact have rather more evidence than we do for an extensive empire ruled by King David) shows ample evidence of a culture where wine and beer production was widespread, sold extensively in dedicated shops and drunk by all strata of society.

2 Responses to “Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek”

  1. Ian campbell says:

    What a fascinating series of articles. We don’t know the author’s name but he is a historian who also knows his Bible. And it’s always good to know that drinking has never gone out of fashion!

  2. Ian campbell says:

    Sorry! The author’s name is Rupert Millar.

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