One of Italy's most popular and enduring historic drinking games is simple enough: Participants essentially drank as much wine as possible, stopping at intervals to insult each other. To keep things lively, each player had a knife on him. A grand time was had by all who survived a match.
So it went for many wine-drinking games in history, from Greek to Chinese: frenetic, messy, enthralling affairs with bizarre rules and tools, which could fire up an evening—or put a quick end to it.
"It is a forbidden game," wrote French chronicler Edmond About of the Italian passatella, in his rumination Rome of To-Day, published in 1861, "but in Rome, nothing is allowed, and everything is done." In his account, he sits in on a few rounds in a Trastevere tavern. Variants of the game exist going back to antiquity, but here's a basic outline of the proceedings: By the time Italian had paved over Latin as the lingua franca in Italy, the game had two essential positions, the padrone and the sotto-padrone ("boss" and "underboss"). After all players pitched in to buy wine, the padrone would be determined by cards, dice, bocce or, most commonly it seems, morro, a rock-paper-scissors-math hand game. The padrone, "master of wine," took one carafe (about a quart, according to another 1860 telling), gave one to his sidekick and then determined how much wine each of the other players should be allotted, usually while delivering a little ditty—or taunt.
In About's game, the master, a "handsome blacksmith," acts a bit of a jerk about the whole thing. One companion repeatedly requests wine only to be told, "He shall not drink!" As About notes, while everyone else at the table finds this hilarious, the teetotaler fumes. After all, "he had paid; his throat was itching; the wine passed under his nose, and his friends made sport of him." Once the wine is gone, the loser calls a second game, gets shafted again, and then a third time. By now, he's "drunk with thirst and spite."
"May you die of a cold accident!" he fulminates at the blacksmith. (About helpfully notes that a "cold accident" means one with knives.)
"And you, you'll die of a dry accident!" Again, the table erupts in fits of laughter. About leaves, and later that night at the opera, he strikes up a conversation with an aggrieved theatergoer. As it happens, there was a stabbing at the tavern earlier: Some guy who kept losing at passatella killed the padrone. "What vexes me," complains the opera watcher, "is the other fellow took my knife to give his stab."
About is taken aback. "So you pass your life in assassinating your friends?" His new acquaintance reassures him that, really, everyone has knifed at least one pal to death, so it's not that big of a deal. Another description, An Artist's Life in Italy in 1860, alleges that a man who leaves the passatella sober night after night gets the message—no one likes him—and turns the knife on himself.
While the Romans busily attacked their cups and friends, enterprising wine drinkers in the Far East were dreaming up their own diversions, no less bewitching for lack of knives. Some bore resemblance to Western games of the time, others uncannily match schoolyard and fairground games of our own times, and still others get a little lost in translation.
The Chinese, like the Italians, were fond of appointing toastmasters; even in the more modern script, the phrase "wine drinking games conducted by an elected leader" is just two characters long. One was the "statues game," according to the book Chinese Wine. If it was in play at a party, the guy who was "it" called "statues!" and all attendees froze in place for one minute. Anyone who moved or laughed, drank.
The Chinese also enjoyed a game essentially identical to the Roman morra. (In ancient times, play was called micare digitis, "to flash the fingers," and Roman chroniclers reported it was a huge hit with centurions during the long, tedious hours of fireside downtime at camp or on campaigns.) Two players each simultaneously show a certain number of fingers and call out a guess of the total number thrown out. The closer guess wins; the loser drinks a cup of wine (or even three, according to one 19th-century traveler in China). The game was fast and loud, each round only lasting 30 seconds or so.
There were other games of humiliation, mental dexterity or chance, but Asians and Europeans alike also faced off in feats of physical finesse under alcohol duress.
The Chinese played tou hu, lawn darts, but with a kettle, an arrow and drinking. No doubt tricky, but no contest of the eye and arm quite matched the thoroughly baffling ancient Greek game of kottabos, bizarre and frustrating enough that the Romans seem to have left it in the closet when they dressed up in so many other affectations of Greek culture.
The kottabos player first drains his kylix (saucer) of wine, but leaves a few drops of dregs at the bottom, according to descriptions by ancient writers. With one finger around the handle of the kylix, he (or she) then must deftly flick the saucer so the wine hits a target. In one version, the target is a brass bowl; a clang signals that the shot connected. In another version, the bowl is filled with water, and the targets are shallow cups floating in it. He who sinks the most cups wins. The varsity kottabos kit required a pole with two saucers attached to it and a little figurine who himself often held a miniature drinking horn. You might hit the small saucer until it filled with wine and tipped over into the large saucer or you might stand the little figurine on top of the pole and try to knock him into the saucer. The loser, presumably, is the guy hosting the party who has to clean up afterward.
Eventually, history's revelers tired of staining their clothes and murdering their friends, and the rise of mass-market light beer put an end to most games with wine, save for the occasional (non-lethal) passatella or Tour de Franzia. But next time you think of wine as the beverage of gentility, remember that not so long ago, it was just as much a drink of black eyes as black ties.