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Wine in ancient Roman society

Wine in ancient Rome and in Roman culture had a place in a variety of contexts. For example as part of religious ceremonies, sacrifices to the gods, medicine, cookery and of course a drink which could be freely purchased in public houses in a variety of tastes and qualities (and prices). Its pervasiveness within society meant that it came to be generally regarded as a necessity for all.

An interesting example of wine as a remedy can be had from a quote from Plutarchs "Life of Anthony" ch.45 where he describes Anthonys failing campaign against the Parthians and how his troops were forced to eat even plants they had no knowledge of and some of which produced madness:

"Thus it was that they partook of an herb which produced madness, and then death. He who ate of it had no memory, and no thought of anything else than the one task of moving or turning every stone, as if he were accomplishing something of great importance. The plain was full of men stooping to the ground and digging around the stones or removing them; and finally they would vomit bile and die, since the only remedy, wine, was not to be had."

The degree of refinement achieved in the use of wine and its varieties in cookery can be had from Horaces Satires III.8.47 where knowledgeable use of three types of wine is required to cook a single recipe!A Moray eel being served at a dinner, caught pregnant so that its meat should prove of best quality: "Five-year old wine, born this side of the sea, and added while boiling (whilst Chian wine is best for this if added after boiling); white pepper, and without fail vinegar fermented from Methymnian wine"

Wine would also be subject of drinking games and in a social context it might be a sign of respect to allow your friend or partner to take the first sip of your cup. Drinking by letters was also common, ie drinking as many droughts as the number of letters in the name of the person being toasted. Being a generally superstitious people, the number of cups drunk could also be of significance: trying to keep to an even rather than an unlucky odd number. A note of attention should also be given to the cups from which wine was drunk. These could in particular occasions be gifted by the host to the guests and could be items of great value and particularly expensive. An example of this may be deduced from the quote of Horace below.

"Then Vibidius said to Balatro: "Well die unavenged if we dont drink him bankrupt and called for larger glasses. Then the hosts face went white, fearing nothing so much as hard drinkers, who abuse each other too freely, while fiery wines dull the palates sensitivity. Vibidius and Balatro were tipping whole jugs full of wine into goblets from Alifae the rest followed suit, only the guests on the lowest couch sparing the drink." (Horace Satires Book2 Sat8:20-41)

The social evolution of wine was very much tied to the varying circumstances of the roman population both in terms of wealth and relative peace as well as contact with other cultures such as the Greek. For example the exclamation "Evo!" (a sort of "Cheers!") was taken directly from Greek custom.

Theres an interesting little verse written by Petronius "Satyricon" which he put into the mouth of crass Trimalchio, a libertus who made it to great riches (and presumed by some to be possibly a jab at Emperor Nero) : it gives a good sense of the "carpe diem" (seize the day) philosophy which might be prevailing in an upper class feast during the age of Nero (Satyricon, 55):

Trimalchios epigram:

"quod non expectes, ex transverso fit

et supra nos Fortuna negotia curat.

quare da nos vina Falerna, puer!"

A more poetic translation by Alfred Allinson:

"When least we think, things go astray,

Dame Fortune o'er our life holds sway;

Then drink, make merry, whilst ye may!"

Slightly more literal:

When you least expect it, you get a sidewinder,

And Fortune goes about her business above our heads,

So, boy, pour us Falernian wine!

 

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"Ancient Roma Wine" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Rome apartments