WINE AND DRUGS IN ANCIENT ROME

WINE IN ANCIENT ROME

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Tavern in Pompeii
Wine was far and away the main alcoholic drink. It was consumed with meals and at parties, regarded as sources of good conversation and extolled in poems by some of Rome’s greatest writers. Ovid wrote: “There, when the wine is set, you will tell me many a tale---how your ship was all but engulfed in the midst of the waters, and how, while hastening home to me, you feared neither hours of unfriendly night nor headlong winds of the south.”

Grape juice became wine quickly because there was no refrigeration or preservatives in ancient times. Roman wine tended to be sweet and highly alcoholic because late season grapes were used. Romans followed the Greek custom and diluted their wine with water: the common belief was that only Barbarians would drink it straight. The water content depended on the setting. At family meals water to wine ratio was about 3:1. In taverns there was often little water. The wine was often safer to drink than the water. The acids and the alcoholic curbed the growth of bacteria and other pathogens.

Romans believed that wine was a medicine. Roman soldiers were required to drink a liter of wine a day. Families often had it with every meal. The rich took trouble to drink wine in especially beautiful places like gardens when certain flowers were in bloom. Taverns were filled large jug-like amphoras which were filed with wine.

Book: VINUM: The Story of Roman Wine by Stuart Fleming (Glen Mills, PA, Art Flair, 2001)

Wine Drinking in Ancient Rome

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From what best can be determined everybody drank: from the rich in lavish villas to soldiers and sailors in provincial inns. For some wine-making was the life’s greatest pleasure. One tombstone in Tibur, just outside Rome, read: “Flavius Agricola [was] my name...Friends who read this listen to my advice: Mix wine, then place the garlands around you head, drink deep. And do not deny pretty girls the sweets of love.”

By some estimates Rome’s 1 million citizens and slaves drank an astonishing average of three liters of wine a day.

Although most everyone drank wine diluted with water, people complained if they thought they were being shortchanged. One piece of graffiti found read, “May cheating like this trip you up bartender. You sell water and yourself drink undiluted wine.

There were a number of ideas circulated around of how to improve the taste of wine. Pliny the Elder recommended adding “seawater to enliven the smoothness.” Cato liked to drink his wine flavored with a drop of pig’s blood and a pinch of marble dust. The archaeologist and winemaker Herve Durad told Bloomberg News, “The soldiers didn’t care if it turned to vinegar. It gave them energy.”

The Romans played drinking games, A depiction of a drinking game in The House of Chaste Lovers in Pompeii shows one person still drinking while another is slumped over a couch, defeated

Ancient Roman Wine Making

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Bar in Pompeii
The grapes were usually crushed by foot by slaves, then the mixture was crushed further by a winepress and a stone weight lowered by a tree trunk. The juices flowed down a stem to a waiting pool where it was scooped out and placed in 400-liter clay pots packed with honey, thyme, pepper and other spices. Workers mixed the brew with broomsticks wrapped in fennel. After six days to three weeks in a clay fermentation tub the mixture turned into a foamy red liquid with about 12 percent alcohol. The wine was drinkable for about 10 days before it went bad.

Estate owners valued their vineyards and inscribed tributes such as “nectar-sweet juices” and “the gift of Bacchus” on their winepresses. Innkeepers inscribed wine lists and prices on the wall of their facilities.

In Mas des Tourelles near the Provence town of Beaucair in southern France, a group of archaeologists spent $20,000 to reopen the largest winery in Gaul after 1,800 years. The opened in the early 1990s it sells wine for about $12 a bottle. In Caesar’s time the facility produced the equivalent of 100,000 modern-size bottles of wine a day and each bottle sold for about 1 sesterce (about $1.60). The entire region produced about 27 million liters a year, enough to fill 2 million clay amphorae for shipment by oxen throughout the Mediterranean. [Source: Craig Copetas, Bloomberg News, December 2002]

The Mas des Tourelles wine is brownish red and sweet with a taste of preach and caramel candy but it leaves a nasty hangover. Those who tried it described it as a “curiosity” and said “eat a lot of goat cheese and nuts when you---drink it.

Types of Wine in Ancient Rome

Honeyed wine was very popular. Massilitanum was a heavy wine that Galen regarded as delightful and good for health but Martial thought was so bad it should only be given to homeless people to poison them. At parties the wine was often sprinkled with euphrosynum (“the plant of cheers”) or hiera botane (“the sacred plant”) to keep the conservation going and keep spirits high. In Egypt, people made wine from raisins and dates.

Turricuar was a dry white wine the Romans liked to consume with fish and oysters. It was yellowish in color and is spiked with seawater. It tastes slightly of prunes and is made today using a recipe described by Roman agronomist Lucius Columelle.

Wine was often stored in 26-liter amphorae which had vineyard name and year labeled on them. Winemakers used tasting spoons and grape presses. Many of the vineyards in the Moselle Valley were originally planted by the Romans.

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Hellenistic drinking scene

Falernian wine, grown with Aminean grapes on mountain slopes south of present-day Naples, was particularly prized. To improve its flavor the wine was aged in large clay amphorae for a decade or more until it turned a delicate amber color. A liter cost about $110 in today’s money. Premium 160-year-old vintages were reserved for the Emperor and served in crystal goblets. Those that could afford it clearly loved to brag about. One tombstone read: “In the grave I lie. Who was once well known as Primus. I lived on Lucrine oysters, often drank Falernian wines. The pleasures of bathing, wine and love gave me over the years.”

Drinks and Alcoholic Drinks in Ancient Greece

The Greeks preferred to drink from small, shallow cups rather than large and deep ones. Chilled fruit juices, milk and honey were enjoyed in the time of Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.). Rites of passage included giving three-year-old children their first jug, from which they had their first taste of wine.

Wine was far and away the main alcoholic drink. It was consumed with meals and at parties, regarded as sources of good conversation and extolled in poems and songs. Grape juice became wine quickly because there was no refrigeration or preservatives in ancient times.

The Greeks drank a lot wine but associated drunkenness with overindulgence and lack of discipline. According to their custom the Greeks mixed five parts water and two parts wine and sometimes added honey and salt water as flavoring. The Greeks believed that drinking undiluted wine could cause blindness, insanity or other terrible things. Later the Franks popularized the custom of drinking wine straight.

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grape crushing

Men used to hang out at wine shops where strong syrupy wine was poured from an amphorae and diluted with water in a large mixing bowl. Rich Greeks and Romans chilled their wine with snow kept in straw lined pits, even though Hippocrates thought that "drinking out of ice" was unhealthy.

The wine from Kos was good and relatively inexpensive. Higher quality wines came from Rhodes. Artemidorus described a drink called melogion which "is more intoxicating than wine" and "made by first boiling some honey with water and then adding a bit of herb." Homer described a drink made from wine, barley meal, honey and goat cheese.

Kottoabis is one of the world first known drinking games, A fixture of all-night parties and reportedly even played by Socrates, the game involved flinging the dregs left over from a cup of wine at a target. Usually the participants sat in a circle and tossed their dregs at the basin in the center.

Early Wine

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collecting grapes in ancient Egypt
Grapes contains a lot of sugar. Fermentation caused by the addition of yeast turns toe sugar into alcohol. Yeats is very common, Wild grapes often have some present on their skins, probably transported by wasps or other flying insects. Without distillation, the highest alcohol content is 5 percent for beer and 11 to 12 percent for wine. Above these levels the yeasts lo longer produce fermentation.

Stone Age people drank fermented wine by accident and probably made by accident too. The first people who drank alcohol probably eaten a fruit that fell off a tree and naturally fermented. Elephants sometimes get loaded by eating fermented fruit. Grapes sometimes ferment right on the vine. Birds who have gotten so drunk from eating sch grapes they have fallen off their perches.

Wine is believed to have been tasted by Paleolithic men who ate grapes with juice that had fermented within the grape skins during years that occurs naturally on the skins. They then might have made wine in containers that had to be drunk quickly, like Beaujolais Nouveau, before it turned to wine.

First Wines

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Roman wine-making
Intentional wine-making is believed to have begun in the Neolithic period (from about 9500 to 6000 B.C.) when communities settled in year-round settlements and began intentionally crushing and fermenting grapes and tending a grape crop year round. This is believed to have first occurred in Transcaucasus, eastern Turkey or northwestern Iran. Around the same time the Chinese were making wines with rice and local plant food.

Scholars believe that men may have learned what foods to eat by watching other animals, and through trial and error experimentation. Early man may have discovered early intoxicants and medicines this same way.

Winemaking is believed to have been refined through trial and error. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was manipulating the yeast that turns grape juice into wine and the bacteria that transforms it into vinegar. Many early wines were mixed with pungent tree resins, presumably to help preserve the wine the absence of corks or stoppers. The resin from the ternith tree, a kind of pistachio, was found in wine dated to 5500 B.C.

There are a number of myths and stories about the first wine. According to the Greeks it was invented by Dionysus and spread eastward to Persia and India. Noah raised grapes after the flood and became so enamored with his product that he became the first town drunk. In a Persian legend, wine was discovered by a concubine of the legendary King Jamsheed, who suffered from splitting headache and accidently drank from jar with spoiled fruit and fell into a deep sleep and awoke cured and feeling refreshed. Afterwards the king ordered his grape stocks to be used to make wine, which was spread around the world.

Book: Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages and Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture by Patrick E. McGovern (Princeton University Press, 2003). McGovern is an ancient-wine expert and a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

First Wine in China

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Vessels with the
world's oldest wine
The earliest evidence of wine making has been found in China: traces of a mixed fermented drink made with rice, honey, and either grapes or Hawthorne fruit found on pottery shards dated to 7,000 B.C. found near the village of Jiahu in Henan Province northern China. Wine has also reportedly been found on a pottery sample from a Chinese tomb dated to 5000 B.C.

Analysis by University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the pores of 9000-year-old pottery shards jars unearthed in Jiahu turned up traces of beeswax, a biomarker for honey; tartaric acid, a biomaker for grapes, wine and Chinese hawthorne fruit; and other traces that “strongly suggested” rice.

Grapes were not introduced to China from Central Asia until many millennia after 7000 B.C., so it is reasoned the tartaric acid likely comes from hawthorne fruit which is ideal for making wine because it has a high sugar content and can harbor the yeast for fermentation. Wine traces has also been found in a pottery sample from a Chinese tomb dated to 5000 B.C.

This findings raises the question: which came first grape wine or rice wine. Grape pips, an indication of possible wine making operations, have been found in six millennium B.C. sites in the Dagestan mountains in the Caucasus.

First Wine in Iran

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Greek satyr's wine press
An archaeological site called Hajii Firuz (Firuz Tepe) in the Zagros mountains in Iran with mud brick-buildings dating to 5400-5000 B.C. yielded jars with traces of tartaric acid (a chemical indicator of grapes), calcium tartrate and terebinth resin, which are left behind by dried wine. There were also remains of stoppers which could have been placed in the jars to prevent wine from tuning into vinegar. Based on the colors of the residues, the Neolithic people that lived there enjoyed both red and white wine. The site was identified by a team lead by Patrick McGovern, an ancient-wine expert and a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, in 1996.

Ceramic remains unearthed at Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains suggest that wine was produced there about 3,500 B.C., pushing back the earliest documented evidence of wine making by about 500 years. The discovery was made by a graduate student at the Royal Ontario Museum who noticed a stain on a vessel she was assembling. When the stain was analyzed it revealed tartaric acid, a substance found abundantly in grapes. If the stain was indeed made from wine it shows that wine-making and writing evolved about the same time. [National Geographic Geographica, March 1992].

World’s First Winery in Armenia

In January 2011, a team led by UCLA’s Gregory Areshian announced they had found the world's oldest known winery near the village of Areni, Armenia in the same cave where the oldest known shoe---a well-preserved, 5,500-year-old leather moccasin---was found. Located near a burial site, the “winery” consists of a wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storage vessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins, and seeds. "This is the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production," Areshian told National Geographic. "For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years," he said. [Source: James Owen, National Geographic News, January 10, 2011]

The prehistoric winemaking equipment was first detected in 2007, when excavations co-directed by Areshian and Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan began at the Areni-1 cave complex. In September 2010 archaeologists completed excavations of a large, 2-foot-deep (60-centimeter-deep) vat buried next to a shallow, 3.5-foot-long (1-meter-long) basin made of hard-packed clay with elevated edges. [Ibid]

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Chinese ritual vessels

The installation suggests the Copper Age vintners pressed their wine the old-fashioned way, using their feet, Areshian said.Juice from the trampled grapes drained into the vat, where it was left to ferment, he explained. The wine was then stored in jars---the cool, dry conditions of the cave would have made a perfect wine cellar, according to Areshian, who co-authored a study on the finding in the Journal of Archaeological Science. [Ibid]

To test whether the vat and jars in the Armenian cave had held wine, the team chemically analyzed pottery shards---which had been radiocarbon-dated to between 4100 B.C. and 4000 B.C.”for telltale residues. The chemical tests revealed traces of malvidin, the plant pigment largely responsible for red wine's color. "Malvidin is the best chemical indicator of the presence of wine we know of so far," Areshian said. McGovern agrees the evidence argues convincingly for a winemaking facility but said the claim could be made stronger if the presence of tartaric acid was found. Malvidin, he said, might have come from other local fruits, such as pomegranates. [Ibid]

Implications of the World’s First Winery in Armenia

McGovern called the discovery "important and unique, because it indicates large-scale wine production, which would imply, I think, that the grape had already been domesticated." This finding is consistent with previous DNA studies of cultivated grape varieties that pointed to the mountains of Armenia, Georgia, and neighboring countries as the birthplace of viticulture. [Source: James Owen, National Geographic News, January 10, 2011]

McGovern said the Areni grape perhaps produced a taste similar to that of ancient Georgian varieties that appear to be ancestors of the Pinot Noir grape, which results in a dry red. To preserve the wine, however, tree resin would probably have been added, he speculated, so the end result may actually have been more like a Greek retsina, which is still made with tree resin. [Ibid]

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brick showing wine making in ancient China

The location of a winemaking facility and drinking cups near an ancient burial ground is significant. Areshian has speculated that winemaker’s drinking culture likely involved ceremonies in honor of the dead. He told National Geographic, "Twenty burials have been identified around the wine-pressing installation. There was a cemetery, and the wine production in the cave was related to this ritualistic aspect...I guess a cave is secluded, so it's good for a cemetery, but it's also good for making wine...And then you have the wine right there, so you can keep the ancestors happy." [Ibid]

The discovery is important, the study team says, because winemaking is seen as a significant social and technological innovation among prehistoric societies. Vine growing, for instance, heralded the emergence of new, sophisticated forms of agriculture. "They had to learn and understand the cycles of growth of the plant," Areshian said. "They had to understand how much water was needed, how to prevent fungi from damaging the harvest, and how to deal with flies that live on the grapes...The site gives us a new insight into the earliest phase of horticulture---how they grew the first orchards and vineyards.” [Ibid]

University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Naomi Miller commented that "from a nutritional and culinary perspective, wine expands the food supply by harnessing the otherwise sour and unpalatable wild grape. "From a social perspective, for good and ill," Miller said, "alcoholic beverages change the way we interact with each other in society." [Ibid]

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Dionysos mosaic

Early Wine Grapes and Early Wine Production

Early wine was probably made from the wild Eurasian grape ( Vitis vinifera sylvestris ), which grows wild throughout the temperate Mediterranean, and south, west and central Asia. Later domesticated grapevines---now account for 99 percent of the world’s wines--- were developed from wild Eurasian grapevines. Domesticated grapevine are self-pollinating, hermaphroditic plants that yield larger and juicier grapes. Transplanted to irrigated regions where didn't grow before, the Eurasian vines are the source of nearly all modern wine-producing grapes, whether red pinot noirs or white Chardonnay.

The first domesticated grapevines are believed to have been developed in the northern Near East, perhaps in Armenia or perhaps in the Zagros mountains of Iran, where wild grapes still grow today and pollen cores show they grew in Neolithic times. By 3000 B.C. domesticated grapes had been transplanted to the Jordan Valley, which became a major exporter of wine. It produced large amounts of wine that was traded to Egypt and elsewhere. An Egyptian King named Scorpion who was buried in 3150 B.C. with 700 jars of imported wine.

Between 3000 and 2700 B.C. the Egyptians were marketing wines in amphorae with labels that indicated the year, the contents, where it was produced, the owner of the vineyard and the quality with the best being rated as “very, very good.” . Between 3000 and 2500 B.C. winemaking became a major export business in what is now Shiraz in Iran. The Sumerians and other Mesopotamian groups were major buyers. Viticulture arrived in Crete in 2500 B.C. From there it made its way to Greece. A Greek drinking cup from the 6th century B.C. shows the god Dionysus carrying grapes in a ship across the Mediterranean. Between 200 and 100 B.C. General Zhang brought grape cuttings from Central Asia to the Chinese Emperor.

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19th century vision of a Greek wine festival

Opium and Other Drugs in Ancient Greece and Rome

Ancient Greek Olympic athletes took psychedelic mushrooms for a competitive edge. Cannabis was mentioned by the Greco-Roman era physician Galen. Archaeologists in Israel unearthed remains of a teenage girl with the remains of a fetus in her abdomens dated to the 315 A.D. With the remains was ash containing THC (an active ingredient in cannabis). The archaeologists speculate that maybe cannabis was given to the girl as pain relief.

The Greek scholar Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) wrote about the use of opium poppy juice and mentioned opium in connection with myths of Ceres and Demeter. The founding fathers of medicine, Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides, also wrote about opium. Poppies were also pictured on Greek coins, pottery and jewelry, and on Roman statues and tombs (where poppies symbolized a release from a lifetime of pain).

Ceramic jugs, dated to 1,500 B.C., shaped like an opium capsules and containing stylized incisions were unearthed in Cyprus and believed to have held opium dissolved in wine that was traded with Egypt. Ivory pipes, over 3,200 years old and thought to have been used for smoking opium, were found in a Cyprus temple.

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Roman grape collecting scene

In Greco-Roman times, opium was used in religious rituals, as an ingredient in magic potions and as a painkiller, sedative and sleeping medicine. The potion "to quiet all pain and strife and bring forgetfulness to every ill" taken by Helen of Troy in Homer's Odyssey is believed to have contained opium. Some scholars have suggested that the "vinegar mingled with gall" offered to Christ on the cross contained opium because the Hebrew word for gall ( rôsh ) means opium.

Poppies were pictured on Greek coins, pottery and jewelry, and on Roman statues and tombs (where poppies symbolized a release from a lifetime of pain). The Greek scholar Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) wrote about the use of opium poppy juice and mentioned opium in connection with myths of Ceres and Demeter. Alexander the Great introduced the drug to India and Persia.

At the time of Christ opium was widely used. There are numerous accounts of opium cultivation, opium use in medicine and even opium addiction. The founding fathers of medicine, Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides, all wrote about opium.Marcus Aurelius took opium to sleep and deal with the stress of prolonged military campaigns. The Romans reportedly used toxic does of opium to poison their enemies.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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