Everyday Life

Wine and Ale: Alcohol in Romano Britain

Alcohol has played a significant role in all cultures and societies of historic Britain.


During the period of Roman occupation in Britain, which lasted from AD 43 to around AD 410, alcohol continued to play a significant role in the lives of the inhabitants.

The Romans, known for their appreciation of wine, brought their drinking customs and viticulture practices to Britain, leaving a lasting impact on the local population. Here we look at alcohol in Romano-British society.

The Britons

The Briton period, referring to the era prior to the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, was characterised by the presence of indigenous Celtic tribes and their unique cultural practices. Alcohol held a significant role in Briton society, serving as a part of religious ceremonies, social gatherings, and medicinal purposes.

Ale and Mead Traditional Beverages of the Britons

Ale, a fermented beverage made from barley, was the most common alcoholic drink among the Britons. It was brewed by the Celtic tribes using traditional methods. Ale played a crucial role in daily life, being consumed by people of all social classes. It was often brewed and consumed within households or communities, with each family or region having their own brewing techniques and recipes.

Pagan
A Romano-British temple. Such buildings used ales in ceremonies.

Mead, a drink made from fermenting honey, was also popular among the Britons. It held cultural significance and was associated with important occasions, such as religious ceremonies, weddings, and celebrations. Mead was considered a sacred drink, and its consumption was often accompanied by rituals and blessings.

Cultural Significance of Alcohol in Briton Society

Alcohol, particularly mead, played a vital role in religious ceremonies of the Britons. Mead was considered a sacred drink, associated with fertility, abundance, and spiritual connection. It was used as an offering to the gods and spirits, with rituals performed to ensure the favour of the divine.

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Alcohol, especially ale, was an integral part of social gatherings and feasts among the Britons. These events fostered communal bonds, celebrated important milestones, and provided opportunities for storytelling, music, and dance. Feasting and drinking were seen as expressions of hospitality and generosity.

Offering and sharing ale and mead were considered acts of hospitality and goodwill. Guests were often greeted with a warm welcome and offered a drink as a gesture of friendship. Sharing drinks was a way to establish alliances and strengthen social connections within the community.

Medicinal Uses of Alcohol

Alcohol in the Briton period was not only consumed for its intoxicating effects but also for its perceived medicinal properties. Herbal remedies and potions were often combined with alcohol to create medicinal drinks, believed to alleviate ailments and promote healing.

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These concoctions were used to treat various conditions such as digestive issues, respiratory problems, and wounds.

Transition and Influence of Roman Culture

With the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, the cultural landscape underwent significant changes, including the introduction of Roman customs and practices. Roman-style wine and its associated drinking culture gradually made their way into the Briton society, albeit primarily among the Romanised elite and those in close contact with Roman settlements.

Roman Era

The Roman period, spanning from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD, was marked by the expansion of the Roman Empire and the spread of Roman culture throughout Europe.

Horse
Even the horses drank wine in Romano Britain according to this Roman tripod.

Wine held a central role in Roman society, reflecting both their appreciation for its taste and its significance in social, religious, and medicinal contexts.

The Elixir of Roman Life

Wine was an integral part of social gatherings, a symbol of status and refinement, and a significant element in religious ceremonies. Wine played a crucial role in fostering social connections and was associated with the luxurious lifestyle of the Roman elite.

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The Romans were renowned for their expertise in winemaking. Vineyards were cultivated across the empire, from Italy and Gaul (modern-day France) to Spain and North Africa.

The Romans improved wine production techniques, such as grape cultivation, harvesting, and fermentation, leading to a variety of high-quality wines. They also developed an extensive trade network to import and export wines, ensuring a steady supply throughout the empire.

Wine as a Symbol of Status

Wine consumption became a status symbol among the Roman elite. The wealthy and influential classes sought rare and expensive wines, showcasing their refined tastes and opulence. They even stored wine in cellars and owned special vessels, such as the renowned Roman amphorae, to display their wealth and discerning palates.

Roman amphora
Roman amphoras. These vessels were a status symbol and were brought to Britain by the Romans to hold wine.

Wine was a staple of the Roman diet, consumed by people from various social classes. It was often diluted with water before consumption to make it last longer and reduce its intoxicating effects. Wine was commonly enjoyed during meals, with the Romans valuing the conviviality and social bonding that accompanied shared dining experiences.

Bacchanalia and Wine Festivals

The Romans held various wine-related festivals, including the Bacchanalia, dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. These festivals were characterised by revelry, dancing, singing, and excessive wine consumption.

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Participants engaged in ecstatic rituals, often in secret cults, where inhibitions were set aside, and wine flowed freely. The Bacchanalia represented a release from everyday social constraints, allowing participants to indulge in pleasure and celebration.

Saturnalia

Another significant festival during the Roman period was Saturnalia, held in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture and abundance.

During Saturnalia, social norms were temporarily suspended, and people engaged in feasting, merriment, and gift-giving. Wine played a central role in these festivities, fostering a sense of camaraderie and joyous celebration.

Alcohol and Social Customs

Roman banquets, known as “convivia,” were renowned for their lavishness and social significance. These gatherings brought together family, friends, and esteemed guests. Wine was served abundantly, with each course accompanied by different varieties of wine. The convivia provided an opportunity for networking, political alliances, and displays of hospitality and generosity.

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Roman banquets followed specific drinking rituals. The host would propose toasts, accompanied by heartfelt speeches, prayers, or witty remarks. Guests would respond by raising their cups and offering well-wishes. Drinking etiquette emphasised moderation and self-control, with excessive drunkenness frowned upon.

Medicinal and Religious Uses

Wine held a significant place in Roman medicine. It was believed to have therapeutic properties and was often used as a base for herbal remedies. Wine-based infusions and concoctions were prescribed for various ailments, such as digestive disorders, respiratory conditions, and as a general tonic.

Bacchus
The Romans literally worshipped wine. A Roman statue of Bacchus, The god of wine.

Wine also played a vital role in Roman religious practices. It was offered as a libation to the gods during rituals and sacrifices. Wine was believed to facilitate communication with the divine and acted as a bridge between the human and spiritual realms.

In addition to its prominent role in daily life, festivals, and social customs, alcohol had specific implications in the Roman period.

Wine Laws

The Roman Empire established laws and regulations regarding the production, sale, and taxation of wine. The emperor Domitian, for example, implemented measures to control vineyard expansion, limit excessive wine production, and ensure quality standards. These laws aimed to safeguard the wine industry and prevent fraud.

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Taverns and wine shops, known as “tabernae,” were prevalent in Romanised cities and served as gathering places for socialising and imbibing. These establishments offered various types of wine and catered to different social classes. Taverns became hubs of activity, fostering a sense of community and camaraderie.

Wine in Roman Literature and Art

Wine was a recurring theme in Roman literature. Renowned authors like Ovid, Horace, and Catullus often referenced wine in their works, celebrating its intoxicating effects, poetic inspiration, and its place in social interactions.

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Wine and alcohol-related scenes were commonly depicted in Roman art. Frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures showcased banquet scenes, vineyard activities, and wine consumption, capturing the significance of wine in Roman society.

Roman Influence on Winemaking and Viticulture

The Romans’ expertise in winemaking and viticulture had a lasting impact on the regions they conquered and influenced. They introduced new grape varieties, cultivation techniques, and winemaking practices to these areas, leaving a legacy that can still be seen in the wine traditions of modern-day Europe.

The Roman period witnessed a deep appreciation for alcohol, particularly wine, in both the social and cultural fabric of society. Wine held a multifaceted role, serving as a symbol of status, an essential component of festivals and social gatherings, a medicinal remedy, and an integral part of religious rituals.

Its influence extended to literature, art, and even the regulation of its production and consumption. Through their love for wine, the Romans left an indelible mark on the history of alcohol and its cultural significance in subsequent periods.

Hungover?

The consumption of alcohol, whether wine or locally brewed beverages, held social and cultural significance in Romano-British society. Sharing a drink and participating in communal drinking rituals fostered social bonds, facilitated networking, and served as a means of demonstrating hospitality and status.

Wine
A water nymph depicted drinking wine.

The Roman occupation of Britain brought with it the influence of wine and drinking customs from the wider Roman Empire. While wine consumption remained primarily associated with the elite, the existing tradition of brewing ale and beer persisted among the local population.

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The integration of Roman practices and the continuation of native drinking customs created a diverse alcohol culture in Romano-British society.

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