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An interesting comment on this question led me to investigate the claim that the ancient Persians would debate every matter once whilst drunk, and once whilst sober (with no particular emphasis on which should come first), upon the presumption that a truly good decision should stand up under both conditions.

C.S. Lewis was the first thread down this line, and he does appear to have written the following in "Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer"

I know this is the opposite of what is often said about the necessity of keeping all emotion out of our intellectual processes – ‘you can’t think straight unless you are cool.’ But then neither can you think deep if you are. I suppose one must try every problem in both states. You remember that the ancient Persians debated everything twice: once when they were drunk and once when they were sober.

I traced this sentiment as I could, and discovered that it appears to originate with Herodotus in his Histories 1.133, as follows in Macaulay's translation.

To wine-drinking [the Persians] are very much given, and it is not permitted for a man to vomit or to make water in presence of another. Thus do they provide against these things; and they are wont to deliberate when drinking hard about the most important of their affairs, and whatsoever conclusion has pleased them in their deliberation, this on the next day, when they are sober, the master of the house in which they happen to be when they deliberate lays before them for discussion: and if it pleases them when they are sober also, they adopt it, but if it does not please them, they let it go: and that on which they have had the first deliberation when they are sober, they consider again when they are drinking.

However, I am no specialist in the history of the Middle East, modern or ancient, and I have failed in attempts to follow the thread any further than this.

So, if you might help me, is there any other supporting data or proof that the ancient Persians made sure to debate important issues once sober and once drunk?

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    IMHO, this devolves to the question "Are there any earlier references saying this was A Thing?"
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 12 at 14:16
  • @T.E.D. Isn't it equally the -- quite valid -- question of "Did This Thing actually happen and, if so, how do we know?"
    – Mark Olson
    Jan 12 at 14:44
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    @MarkOlson - ...both of which devolve to "Are there any earlier references ...?"
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 12 at 14:58
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    &T.E.D. Archeological finds, fragmentary inscriptions, later traditions and the like, while each by itself completely inconclusive, can add up to support -- or dissupport -- for a theory. Also, a later history which appears to be independent of Herodotus would provide valuable evidence. While the earliest reference is likely to be the most valuable, it's rarely by itself determinant and can even be falsified by the weight of other evidence. (But I suspect we're quibbling. I only pushed back because I feel that we're a bit too quick to dismiss interesting questions.)
    – Mark Olson
    Jan 12 at 16:31
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    @T.E.D., not the OP, but I'd also accept a Herodotus-contemporary but independent source for the claim.
    – Mark
    Mar 21 at 3:11

2 Answers 2

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The other major author who mentions this custom, who was actually present in Persia during the Achaemenid period, was Heraclides of Cyme. We have a few quotations from his Persica preserved in Athenaeus, one of which attests to Herodotus' basic idea, though Herodotus is perhaps simplifying things a bit.

Puting the custom in context using the Encyclopedia Iranica's summary of Heraclides' fragments make for a plausible (and common) practice:

The still more impressive Frag. 2 (Athenaeus 4.26) gives details of Persian feasts and the luxury of the table. It treats the political, social, and economic dimensions, in effect the “ideology,” of royal and aristocratic banquets and drinking parties (symposia). Particular attention is given to the relationships and encounters between ruler and aristocrats, especially the “royal table companions” (syndeipnoi), as expressed in specific forms of repasts taken in common. It further describes the connection between provisioning the king and reciprocal royal munificence and between service to the king and the awarding of honors by him. Finally, in Frag. 5 (Athenaeus 2.31) there are detailed accounts of the royal honors and rewards bestowed on meritorious Greeks (Entimus of Gortyna, Timagoras of Athens, and Antialkidas of Sparta) through the granting of material benefits and proximity to the ruler.

The scene Herodotus has interpreted really isn't all that different from a bunch of executives at a company or politicians hashing out decisions over a meal and a few drinks, quite common in America or Japan. These activities tend to create bonding experiences, and the king's table will make it clear that it's also reinforcing a hierarchical system.

The Greeks, for what it's worth, also practiced this to some extent—Greek symposia were decidedly political, and Tacitus attributes this practice to the Germans as well (Germania 22):

Yet it is at their feasts that they generally consult on the reconciliation of enemies, on the forming of matrimonial alliances, on the choice of chiefs, finally even on peace and war, for they think that at no time is the mind more open to simplicity of purpose or more warmed to noble aspirations.

It's a bit old-hat to outright dismiss Herodotus, but there's little to do so except to recognize that he is likely misinterpreting what's going on, and that what's actually happening isn't any different from a number of societies for whom the feast, replete with alcohol, is an occasion to make decisions in comfort, using alcohol as a bit of social lubricant.

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It is difficult to prove a negative (evidence of absence) but looking at the number of independent sources that make the claim is a good start. In this case...well, it's just Herodotus. And it is common knowledge that Herodotus is not always reliable. Scholars do not take him at face value when he is discussing foreigners, especially the Persians; the Greeks' perpetual enemy.

Dr. Touraj Daryaee examines where this "fact" could have originated from and cites another Greek making stuff up:

Athenaeus, a Greek author who wrote about all things related to food, mentions that the Achaemenid king Darius the Great had the following inscription on his tomb: "I was able to drink a great deal of wine and to bear it well." Such an inscription is nowhere to be found.

Daryaee analyzes ancient Iranian texts to get to the bottom of this. Turns out, the Persians loved their wine the same way as Greeks - in moderation:

"But anyone who drinks wine must be conscious to drink in moderation, since through moderate drinking of wine this much goodness will come to him, because food will be digested and kindle fire [of the body], and increase intelligence and the mind and seed and blood, and reject torment." --Mēnōg-ī Khrad

He concludes that the practice is likely to have been closer to "if you made decisions while drinking, double-check them while sober to ensure their wisdom" and became distorted in the telling.

Ironically it is from the Greek Athenaeus of Naucratis, and not the Persians, that we get the origin of "in vino veritas" - "οἶνος καὶ ἀλήθεια" (truth and wine).

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  • I am very grateful for both answers received thus far. At this time I have opted to accept that with the higher vote count (slight though the advantage may be) out of deference to some sense of the community's judgment, but I found this answer very helpful as well. Thank you.
    – user99478
    May 23 at 2:38

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