The weirdest drinking habits of the Ancient Romans

How to party like Caligula


Walk into a buzzy enoteca in Rome’s Ostiense district and you might not think you have much in common with your ancient forefathers in their taverns. 

But you’d be wrong. We owe a huge amount of modern wine culture to the ancient Romans—from the understanding that different harvests produce different vintages to the idea of “terroir”. 

However over the subsequent 1,500 or so years, we’ve also lost a few things - mostly the madder and more disgusting wine traditions of antiquity. Here are some of the most weird and (sometimes) wonderful lost wine traditions of Ancient Rome. 

Drip-feeding dead ancestors 

Wine played a key part in Roman culture—so much so that, according to historians, around 100 BC the average person was consuming about 250 litres a year (the equivalent of about 333 bottles a year, or just under a bottle a day). 

Romans even continued drinking wine after their death. Well…sort of. 

In Ancient Rome, families would install “libation tubes” into the graves of their relatives—essentially tubes allowing them to drip-feed offerings of wine and food to their ancestors. 

It was believed that pouring offerings down the tube would not only appease and honour dead loved ones but also provide them with sustenance in the afterlife. 

It wasn’t just the rich that had libation tubes either—they’ve been found on the graves of poor people too. Even some children had them. 

Mixer, anyone? 

Roman wine was much stronger than what we’re used to drinking today so it was almost always mixed—usually with water. However there were some other slightly more unusual mixers in the ancient repertoire—such as saffron, pepper, dates, honey, ash, myrrh, incense, resin or sap from pine trees, and charcoal (which, according to an old recipe, would correct any bitter taste). Sometimes they added sea water—potentially to make the wine last longer—while chalk or marble dust might be included to reduce acidity. 

Of course, there are worse things to drink. In classical times, charioteers were known to down boiled goat dung (or dried dung mixed with another liquid) as a prehistoric form of energy drink to revive themselves after races. 

Some citizens of the empire began mixing wine with lead by adding grape must that had been boiled in lead vessels. This gave the wine a nice sweet flavour but did, it’s believed, cause lead poisoning in some cases. 

Some historians argue that persistent lead poisoning among the population (which led to diseases such as gout) was one factor in the downfall of the Roman empire. 

Romans also mixed wine into their cooking. One of the strangest ancient recipes involving wine was for patina quotidiana—an everyday dish where wine was reduced and combined with paste of animal brains, milk, eggs and spices to create a kind of boozy brain-soufflé. 

The age-old tactical chunder 

While the pop culture idea of Roman vomitoria is a myth—actually the word referred to entrances and exits in theatres and stadiums that would “spew” crowds into the street, rather than a place for decadent Romans to throw up after gorging themselves—there is evidence the ancients enjoyed a “tactical chunder”. 

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, described in his writing how slaves would clean up the vomit of drunkards at banquets and said that: “They vomit so they may eat, and eat so that they may vomit.”

“Given banquets were a status symbol and lasted for hours deep into the night, vomiting was a common practice needed to make room in the stomach for more food,” says Alberto Jori, professor of ancient philosophy at the University of Ferrara in Italy. A feather might be used, he adds, to help in bringing the food back up. 

Table manners at banquets were generally lacking and, according to Roman historian Suetonius, Emperor Claudius issued an edict to encourage farting at the table. 

Hold the Bloody Marys 

All that gorging and boozing would have taken its toll. Before the days of aspirin and full English breakfasts, the ancients had hangover cures and prevention methods of their own. Writer Pliny the Elder recommended mixing the ashes of a swallow’s beak with myrrh and sprinkling it in wine to prevent intoxication. Alternatively, he advised eating a simple boiled cabbage or a handful of radishes before kicking off the drinking session. 

Pliny did go on to concede that radishes had the “remarkable power” of causing flatulence and belching. 

Another tactic favoured by the ancients was to sport (what they believed to be) curative wreaths on their head made of flowers such as violets and roses that were supposed to prevent headaches. 

To put someone off booze entirely, Pliny suggested mixing the eggs of an owl with wine and giving the concoction to a drunkard for three days. 

Thankfully neither the owl-egg-punch nor any of these other inventions were enough to stop the descendents of the Romans from continuing to make and drink wine for the following two millennia. 

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