Alcohol among the Greeks and Romans was important to their cultures. Much of Western society rests upon the foundation of Greek and Roman cultures. Many of the beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding alcohol existing today go back to the these earlier cultures.
After the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean basin, the traditional Roman values of temperance, frugality and simplicity changed. Heavy drinking, blind ambition, degeneracy and corruption gradually replaced them.1
Cir. Fifth Century B.C.
The Greek historian Thucydides (cir. 460 – cir. 400 BC.) thought highly of both wine and olive oil. He wrote that Mediterraneans began to ’emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the oil and the vine.’5
- Xenophon (431-351 B.C.) and Plato (429-347 B.C.) both praised moderate wine drinking as goof for health and happiness. But both were critical of drunkenness, which appears to have become a problem.6
- Hippocrates (cir. 460-370 B.C.) identified numerous medicinal properties of wine.7
- Gum of the terebinth tree flavored most Greek wines. The purpose of this additive was to retard the oxidation process. This stopped the wine from becoming vinegar. Other common additives were seawater, spices, and honey. Interestingly, wine production did not include filtration. So consumers strained it themselves.8
- In the mid-fifth century, the Greek island of Thasos passed laws regulating the quality of wine.9
- There is a continuous history of winemaking in Luxembourg since the ancient Romans .10
Fourth Century B.C.
- Among Greeks, the Macedonians considered intemperance a sign of masculinity. Hence, men often drank to intoxication. Their king, Alexander the Great (ruled 336-323 B.C.), whose mother adhered to the Dionysian cult, developed a reputation for inebriety.11
Both Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and Zeno (cir. 336-264 B.C.) were very critical of drunkenness.12
- Greeks were among the most temperate of ancient peoples, according to contemporary writers. This appears to result from their rules stressing moderate drinking. They praised temperance, diluted wine with water, and avoided excess in general.13 An exception to this ideal of moderation was the cult of Dionysus. Followers thought that intoxication brought them closer to their deity.14
The ancient Greeks believed that boiled cabbage was a good remedy for a hangover.2
- The symposium was a gathering of men for an evening of conversation, entertainment and drinking. It typically ended in intoxication.15 But there are no references in ancient Greek literature to mass drunkenness among the Greeks. However, there are references to it among foreign peoples.16
- ‘The history of wine in Burgundy began with the start of trade between the Gauls and Romans in the fourth century BC, when the Romans were shipping wine into the beer-drinking area [of the Gauls].”17
Third and Second Centuries B.C.
- The Roman dinner party, or convivium, differed from the symposium in many. People drank wine before, with, and after eating. In Greece, drinking always began after the meal. Women also ate at the table, ‘where they drank with the same gusto as their male counterparts.’
- The Romans, as did the Greeks before them, mixed their wine with water. They usually drank it with food.19
- The Dionysian rites (Bacchanalia, in Latin) spread to Italy during this period. So the Senate outlawed them.20
- The Romans had practices that encouraged excessive drinking. They drank before meals on an empty stomach, vomited to have more food and wine, and played drinking games. The latter included, for example, rapidly consuming as many cups as indicated by a throw of the dice.21
Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) recommended that people drink wine in moderation and defended its medicinal value. He said the flowers of juniper, myrtle, hellebore and pomegranate soaked in wine were useful. Cato thought it useful against snake bites, constipation, gout, indigestion, diarrhea and other conditions.22
Significantly, Cato gave viticulture priority over other crops in his famous agricultural treatise, De Re Rustica.23
Second Century B.C.
By the second and first centuries B.C., intoxication was no longer a rarity. But most prominent men of affairs such as Julius Caesar and Cato the Elder drank in moderation. However, as the republic continued to decay, excessive drinking spread. Some, such as Marc Antony (d. 30 B.C.), even took pride in their destructive drinking behavior.24
The roman Senate outlawed the cult of Bacchus. However, it continued to exist.25
The Roman Senate ordered the translation of a Carthaginian treatise on viticulture. It resulted in De Agri Cultura, by Marcus Porcius Cato. The book detailed every aspect of vineyard management, right down to the rations of slaves, and their clothing allowances.26
Cir. 100 B.C.
The Phoenicians invented glass blowing. This enabled them to produce glass cups for wine drinking.27
Late Second Century B.C.
- Beginning in the late Second Century B.C., large quantities of Italian wine were available for both domestic consumption and trade. By 100 B.C. wine was apparently the daily drink of Romans, both rich and poor.28
- During this period, per capita consumption was about 250 liters per year. Over the next approximately 500 years, the public often received inexpensive and even free wine. The state even used wine as payment.29
First Century B.C.
‘During the first century BC, wine production in Italy increased enormously and export became highly lucrative.’30
Winemaking began in Britain and every important villa raised vines.31
First Century A.D.
- Roman citizens and soldiers drank an average of about 100 gallons of wine per year.32
- Archaeologists have found in San Marino a wine press and other wine-production artifacts from the period.33
Post cir. 20 A.D.
Jesus used wine (Matthew 15:11; Luke 7:33-35) and approved of its moderate consumption (Matthew 15:11). On the other hand, he severely attacked drunkenness (Luke 21:34,12:42; Matthew 24:45-51). The later writings of St. Paul (d. 64?) deal with alcohol in detail and are important to Christian doctrine on the subject. He considered wine to be a creation of God and therefore inherently good (1 Timothy 4:4).
St. Paul also recommended its use for medicinal purposes (1 Timothy 5:23). But St. Paul consistently condemned drunkenness (1 Corinthians 3:16-17,5:11,6:10; Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 13:3). He recommended abstinence for those who could not control their drinking.
Post cir. 30 A.D.
The earliest Biblical writings after the death of Jesus (cir. A.D. 30) contain few references to alcohol. This may reflect the fact that drunkenness was largely an upper-status vice with which Jesus had little contact.34
Mid-First Century A.D.
- Roman abuse of alcohol appears peaked around mid-first century.35
- The four emperors who ruled from A.D. 37 to A.D. 69 were all abusive drinkers. However, the emperors who followed were very temperant. Literary sources suggest that problem drinking decreased substantially in the Empire. There continued to be some criticisms of abusive drinking over the next several hundred years. However, most evidence indicates a decline of such behavior.36
- Wine had become the most popular beverage. As Rome attracted a large influx of displaced persons, it was distributed free or at cost. This led to occasional excesses at festivals, victory triumphs and other celebrations, as described by contemporaries.37
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder reported vineyards around the port city that is now Bordeaux.’38
The massive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed vineyards surrounding the area. This severely disrupting wine production and trade for years. Because of the great demand for wine, vineyards, a cash crop, often replaced food crops. The resulting shortage of grain threatened Rome’s food supply. The Emperor then banned the planting of new vineyards. In addition, he ordered that food crops replace half the existing vineyards.39
Cir. 90 A.D.
There was a glut of wine and a scarcity of grain. So Emperor Domitian banned the planting of new vines in Italy. And he called for the destruction of some vineyards in the rest of the empire.40
First through Fifth Centuries.
Romans discovered that mixing lead with wine was desirable. The lead gave wine a sweet taste, a pleasant feeling in the mouth, and helped preserve it. This, along with lead plumbing and lead utensils, sometimes caused lead poisoning. Some consider chronic lead poisoning to be one of the causes of the decline of Rome.41
Late Second Century-Early Fifth Century
- Late in the second century, several heretical Christian sects rejected alcohol and called for abstinence. By the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the Church responded. It advocated moderate drinking but rejected excessive or abusive use as a sin. Those individuals who could not drink in moderation should abstain.42
- The early Church decreed that alcohol was an inherently good gift of God for humans to use and enjoy. Although Christians could choose to abstain, it was heresy to despise alcohol.43
- Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are clear and consistent in their condemnation of drunkenness.
- The spread of Christianity and of viticulture in Western Europe occurred simultaneously.44
- The rise of Christianity was converting many Jews. In an effort to maintain traditional Jewish culture, rabbis incorporated into the Talmud detailed rules concerning the use of wine.45 Importantly, many religious ceremonies included wine.46
- Social and political upheavals rose as the Roman empire declined. Rabbis feared that Judaism and its culture were in increasing danger. Consequently, they laid down more Talmudic rules for the use of wine. These included the amount of wine one could on the Sabbath. The way in which one should drink it. The legal status of wine in any way connected with idolatry. And the extent of personal responsibility for behavior while intoxicated.47
- ‘Roman poetry between 200 and 300 AD celebrates the glory of wine.’48
- Christianity gradual displacement the previously dominant religions. As this occurred, the drinking teachings of the New Testament began to influence Europeans .49
Cir. 300 A.D.
Roman Emperor Theodosius proclaimed the death penalty for anyone who destroyed vineyards. Many landowners had started cutting them down to protect themselves against exhorbitant taxes. Therefore, viticulture was starting to decline.50
Cir. 320 A.D.
Alcohol among the Greeks remained important. The Greek scholar Athenaeus wrote extensively on drinking and advocated moderation. He paid much attention to drinking, famous drinks, and drinking cups. Athenaeus even described 100 different drinking cups. This reflected the importance of wine to the Greeks.51
Cir. 350 A.D.
- St. Martin of Tours (316-397) both spread the Gospel and planted vineyards.52
- Viticulture began near Paris.53
- ‘Anglo-Saxons employed a variety of drinking vessels – cups, mugs, glasses, and cattle horns.’54
- Anglo-Saxons generally ate and drank in a mead hall. ‘Every village contained one or more of these edifices that were the houses of the elite. Owners used them to perpetuate their wealth, fame, and power through the liberal distribution of food, drink, and gifts. Halls were the epicenters of Anglo-Saxon culture.’55
Cir. 370-454 A.D.
‘The short-term influence of the Huns on the production and consumption of alcohol in Europe was significant. They destroyed vineyards, butchered their workers, and drank the cellars dry.’56
In 476 Rome fell. The law and order that the Roman Empire had given western Europe for a thousand years evaporated. Western Europe fell into chaos. Let’s follow the story of alcohol and drinking through the resulting Middle Ages.
Popular Books about Alcohol among the Greeks and Romans
Franke, P., et al. Wine and Coins in Ancient Greece. Athens : Hatzimichalis, 1999.
McGovern, P. Ancient Wine. Princeton: Princeton U Press, 2019.
Phillips, R. Greece and Rome: The Superiority of Wine. In Phillips, R. Alcohol: A History. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Press, 2014.
Seltman, C. Wine in the Ancient World. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957.
Wilkins, J. Nadeau, R. A Companion to Food in the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2015.
1 Babor, T. Alcohol: Customs and Rituals. NY: Chelsea, 1986, p. 7.
3 Sournia, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 6.
4 Charters, S. Wine and Society. Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006.
5 Johnson, H . The Story of Wine. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2005.
6 Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, p. 4.
7 Lucia, S. A History of Wine as Therapy. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963, pp. 36-40.
8 Gately, I. Drink. NY: Gotham, 2008, pp. 13-14.
9 Esteicher, S. Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century. NY: Algora, 2006, p. 24.
10 Institut Viti-Vinicole. Luxembourg website.
11 Babor, p. 5. Sournia, pp. 8-9.
12 Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1985, pp. 23, 25, and 27. Covers alcohol among the Greek in detail.
13 Austin, p. 11.
14 Raymond, I. The Teaching of the Early Church on the Use of Wine and Strong Drink. NY: Columbia U Press, 1927, p. 55. Sournia, pp. 5-6.
15 Babor, p. 4.
17 Taber, G. Judgment of Paris. NY: Scribner, 2005, p. 25.
18 Gately, p. 32.
19 Engs, R. Do traditional Western European drinking practices have origins in antiquity? Addict Res, 1995, 2(3), p. 234. Good treatment of alcohol among the Greeks and Romans.
20 Lausanne, E. The Great Book of Wine. NY: World, 1969, p. 4.
21 Babor, p. 10.
22 Sournia, p. 10.
23 Cottino, A. Italy. In: Heath, D., (Ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. Pp. 156-167. P. 159.
24 Austin, pp. 28 and 32-33.
25 Esteicher, p. 27.
26 Gately, pp. 29-30.
27 Esteicher, p. 21.
28 Younger, W. Gods, Men, and Wine. Wine and Food Society. Hyams, E. Dionysus. NY: Macmillan, 1965, pp. 130-131. Engs, p. 231.
29 Jellinek, E. Drinkers and alcoholics in ancient Rome. J Stud Alco, 1976, 37, 1718-174. Jones, A. The Later Roman Empire 284-602. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press. 1986, p. 704. Purcell, N. Wine and wealth in ancient Italy. J Roman Stud, 1985, 75, 1-19. Pp. 13-15.
30 Sournia, p. 10.
31 Stevenson, T. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. London: DK, 2005, p. 398.
32 Esteicher, p. 33.
34 Raymond, pp. 81-82.
35 Jellinek, pp. 1,736-1,739.
36 Austin, pp. 37-44, p. 46, pp. 48-50.
37 Babor, pp. 7-8.
38 Taber, 21.
39 Estreicher, p. 35.
40 Unwin, T. Wine and Vine. London: Routledge, 1996. Charters, p. 293.
41 Estreicher, p. 32.
42 Austin, pp. 44 and 47-48.
43 Austin, ibid.
44 Lausanne, p. 12.
45 Wallbank and Taylor, p. 227.
47 Austin, pp. 36 and 50.
48 Sournia, p. 10.
49 Babor, p. 11.
50 Cottino, p. 159.
51 Austin, pp. 45-46.
52 Patrick, pp. 26-27.
53 Hyams, p. 158.
54 Gately, p. 54.
55 Gately, p. 55.
56 Gately, p. 52.