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The Roman Empire and wine: fun facts you might not know

The earliest influences in the wine making process date back to the ancient Greeks and the Etruscans, but the rise of the Roman Empire also brought about important technological advancements and many of the groundbreaking techniques now present in modern winemaking were first developed in ancient Roman times.

At the beginning of the Republic, vine growing was considered a secondary activity, since the Romans’ main goal was to expand their domination of the peninsula. It was only after they gained total control of the Mediterranean that they began to invest in vineyards and wine became a fundamental part of both the social and political life of the Empire. Here is a list of interesting and fun facts you might not know.

A daily toast in Roman Society

There was wine for every situation, for every meal or banquet, even every kind of person. The reason behind this vast selection was that in those times water was unsafe to drink due to pollution, while milk was considered not appropriate for adults, so wine was the expected drink for every meal or social situation.

A democratic approach to drinking

There were different varieties of wine and each social class had its own. Mulsum was a variety sweetened with honey, which was mixed in just before drinking and served as an aperitif at the beginning of the meal. It was exclusively prepared for the elites but often freely dispensed to the plebs at public events in change for their political support. Conditum had herbs and spices added and was often paired with red meats or strong spicy food. Roman armies were given a ration of wine as part of their monthly supplies because it was safer than trusting the local water supply. There was a type of wine specifically given to slaves: Piquette was a mixture of leftovers from wine making and water.

Merum was for peasants

Roman always mixed wine with water before drinking, undiluted wine (which was called “Merum”) was considered a bad habit attributed to peasants and barbarians. They usually mixed one part of wine with two parts of hot water or sea water to thin down the sweetness in the wine.

To Heal and Harm

Romans believed that wine had the power to both heal and harm. It was used to treat mental disorders such as depression, memory loss and grief, but also for constipation, halitosis, snakebites and vertigo. Romans were also well aware of the negative effects of wine if consumed immoderately. Many scripts described the physical and psychological defects of wine abuse which were often used to ruin the reputation of their political rivals, describing them as a real danger for Rome.

Religious Uses

When the Roman Empire conquered the Greeks, many of the Greek gods and goddesses were adopted by the Romans. Bacchus was the Roman counterpart of Dionysus and he was considered the God of wine and the personification of the blessings of the nature in general. The festival called Bacchanalia was held in his honour but, the terrible reputation of these festivals (notorious for their sexual debaucheries), led to a permanent ban from the Roman Senate. Roman gods and goddesses were worshipped at every public event, including the gladiator games, where blood sacrifices were made on their honour.

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Drawing of the Bacchus in the sculpture garden of Jacopo Galli by Maarten van Heemskerck, c. 1533–6