The Romans had a well- established relationship with wine. Types of wine were varied, as were the ways of consuming them.
The drinking of wine in Roman society had a long and changeable history. At certain times, it was prohibited amongst certain groups because of the risk of drunkenness yet it was also believed to be a health drink.
By the height of the empire, wine drinking was well established throughout Roman society, with a variety of wines available for blending or drinking straight.
The Romans and Alcohol.
Wine was always the Roman’s alcoholic drink of choice. Viticulture was established long before the Greek’s had any influence over Roman culture. The Roman god of wine, Liber, was a very Roman deity with characteristics very different to the Greek wine God Dionysus. This indicates that Liber developed separately and could not be directly associated with any Greek gods.
Beer was available to the Romans but regarded as an inferior drink. Roman beer was made from rye and was extremely cheap, half the price of the worst kinds of wine. It was not a drink for the sophisticated although beer foam was used in the cosmetics of roman ladies.
Despite its popularity, wine was not traditionally drunk widely throughout society. According to the laws of Romulus, only free men over the age of 35 were allowed to drink wine. Women and slaves were also prohibited. According to legend, Roman husbands were entitled to kill their wives for even attempting to drink wine. Cato describes the origins of the custom of husbands greeting their wives with a kiss on their return home. It was to ensure they had not been drinking.
By the republic, these prohibitions were loosening up and wine was becoming more widely available even to the lowest classes of Roman society. But not everyone saw wine as a good thing. Pliny the Elder attributed the drinking of wine to madness and bad behavior that could result in crime.
The Health Benefits of Wine
Despite fears of drunkness, the Romans believed that wine could be a healthy drink. Aged wines in particular were believed to aid sleep, circulation and the digestive system. Wine was even given to cattle for certain types of bovine illness.
Wine was also often warmed to make a comforting drink. It was also usually never drunk neat. Older wines were often very strong and syrupy and so mixed with water to dilute their heady nature.
Fruit, herbs or spices were also often added to wine before drinking. This was because Roman wines did not always keep well. Colour and flavour could be impaired not only by the deterioration of wine but also by methods used to improve it.
Wine was often filtered with chalk to remove cloudiness or smoked to remove impurities. Both treatments could leave it bitter or faded. Aloe, saffron and elderberry were used as natural colour enhancers and flavour was accentuated with flowers such as violet, lilac, rose and myrtle as well as spices such as pepper, cinnamon and coriander.
The Colour and Age of Roman Wine.
Roman wine came in a variety of shades of colour that were linked not only to grape type but age.
- ALBUS was a light young white wine.
- FULVUS was an older white, golden yellow in colour.
- SANGUINEUS was a young red, blood red in colour.
- NIGER was an older red, so dark it looked black.
Wine was generally only considered drinkable up to the age of about 20 years. There were exceptions to this. Pliny mentions one example, the Consul Optimus, a famous aged wine of his time. Named after the consul of the year of its creation, it was reputedly 200 years old. It was however undrinkable on its own and was instead mixed with younger wines to improve their flavour.
Types of Roman Wine.
There were many different types of Roman wine. Some were named according to vintage and others according to how they were made and the ingredients used.
- FALERNUM. The most famous Roman wine was a fulvus white. It was best drunk aged although it was reputed to last no longer than 20 years.
- CALENUM. Similar to Falernum, this had a lighter taste and was apparently the patrician class’s favourite.
- ALBANUM. There were two types: dry and sweet. It was regarded as a quality wine that needed 15 years to mature.
- MASSILITANUM. A smoky, cheap wine that was reputedly healthy but not very tasty.
- MOMENTANUM. Need at least five years to be drinkable and even then it was unremarkable according to Martial .
- MULSUM-the aperitif of choice. Mulsum was wine combined with honey, either during or after fermentation. Columella recommended the addition of the honey during brewing although Pliny the Elder felt it should be added to a dry wine before serving.
- PASSUM. Raisin wine. Made from half dried grapes left on the vine, passum was a sweet drink.
- CONDITUM. A wine mixed with pepper, honey and seawater, (one wine drinking custom that the Roman’s did borrow from the Greeks.) Cato recommended the use of Apician grapes.
- LORA-the wine of slaves, Lora was made from the leftovers of grape production. Grape pulp was mixed with water and pressed a second or third time.
- POSCA. Not strictly a wine, this was a vinegar based drink, often popular with travellers. The vinegar was carried in a flask and added to water, making a reputedly refreshing beverage. The custom arose because of vinegars disinfecting properties. It therefore a way of making unreliable water drinkable. To improve flavour it was often flavoured with spices and honey.
Posca was the drink given to Christ on the cross. Its refreshing nature indicates this was not the cruel gesture it is reputed to be.
Faas, Patrick (2003) Around the Roman Table. Macmillan Press
Ash H B and Hooper W D. Cato and Varro: On Agriculture. Loeb Classical Library.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History.
Picture Credit: Howi, publicly available under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license c/o wikimedia commons.