Bibamus moriendum est.
Death is Inevitable;
Let’s Get Drunk.
Turn on the news or flip through a magazine and you are confronted with stories of greed, avarice, carnality and debauchery.
Our media outlets believe that such subjects encourage higher ratings, and a whole new species of media personality has sprouted as a result—the pundit. The pundit’s self-appointed mission is to explain us to ourselves, even though only very few of them exhibit any readily identifiable qualifications. Mostly, they just flap their lips, ensorcelled by the sound of their own voices. If you watch these sorts of people long enough (which is about as fun as performing your own dental work) you will eventually hear one of them compare contemporary America with ancient Rome. It happens from one end of the sociopolitical spectrum to the other, and is uniformly meant as an insult.
It’s also really silly. We are no more or less like ancient Rome than we are any other ancient culture. Rome is an easy target, though, because we are fed from grade school with tales of its horrific excesses—empire-making, slavery, ostentatious displays of wealth juxtaposed against jaw-dropping poverty, the shocking brutality of the Games, the ugliness of the vomitorium—exemplified by the (now known to be fictional) story of Emperor Nero contentedly fiddling while Rome burned to the ground around him. While there is no doubt that some revolting shit took place in Rome and among Romans, it happened quite sporadically and was largely confined to a period of a hundred or so years, beginning right after the death of Caesar (44 B.C.) and lasting roughly until the ascension of Trajan (98 A.D.). During this short span of time lived the Emperors whose cruelty, indulgence and insanity became the stuff of legend and besmirched all things Roman for a thousand years—Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
But enough with the history lesson. What’s important to us today is to illustrate one fundamental way Roman culture can reasonably be compared to ours—drinking. The Romans loved to drink every bit as much as we do, maybe even more, and their beverage of choice was Wine.
From its dimmest past to the height of its empire and global influence, Rome adored wine. They drank it for taste, they drank it as part of numerous religious rites, they traded for it in the farthest reaches of their empire, they cooked with it, they studied it with their rudimentary sciences, they dried it out and used it to dye fabric and rouge pale cheeks. It was a key element of their social lives and their medical practices. High-born citizens were judged, not by the silver in their vaults, but by the quality of their vineyards. The middle class, émigrés, and slaves used it to lubricate their days and nights, like an oil of joy. Poets and bards sang its praises in the hovels of plebes and before the thrones of emperors, making wonderful works of art that survive to this day. Romans were the world’s first wine snobs, every bit as picky and condescending as the worst of today’s epicurean assholes. While not the first people to come up with the concept of vintage (the Egyptians were doing it as far back as Tutankhamen) the Romans glommed on to the idea and ran with it, assigning so many qualifiers and descriptors to wine that it must have become hard to tell what you were drinking. They invented the custom of letting a bottle of wine breathe for a while before serving, and, through their relentless desire for new and novel tastes, caused the creation of dozens of new grape species.
No other substance was as important to Romans, or to our understanding of their complex culture, or, and this is the main point, to our understanding of our drunken history.
Let’s go visit.
Import and Export
Romans were never very accomplished at making goods for the export trade. Their only real export was themselves, which they sold at sword-point, and then charged insane taxes for the privilege of living as they told you to. On the other hand, they were mighty, one might even say obsessive, importers, and right at the top of every lading sheet was wine. They brought it to Rome from, literally, every corner of their empire. Roman trade caravans and fleets journeyed across mountains, crossed deserts and sailed oceans year-round to keep thirsts quenched in the world’s jumpin-est city. Their favorite imported wines came from Greece, Spain, and around Transcaucasia (modern Turkey).
These ancient wine connoisseurs created entire trade niches by themselves as different importers started specializing in different vintages. Needless to say, the best wines fetched the most silver, but good wine was far more likely to incur the lust of raiders, and import taxes (borne by the shippers, not the receivers) increased with the quality of the wine. Since most Romans drank mid-level table wines, these formed the bulk of the import tonnage. Importers with a need for quick cash, though, went after low-end wines. It was inexpensive to ship and could be unloaded in bulk quantities.
Alongside an abundance of wine, the Romans were nuts for importing fancy containers from which to drink it. This was especially true of the wealthy, who loved showing off for their friends and rivals by serving excellent, expensive wine in equally costly glasses.
The most beautiful, hardest to import, and costliest were calices tepidique toreumata Nili, or “engraved glasses from the warm Nile.” Made in Egypt by master crafters, Nile glasses were etched with scenes from popular stories, and painted in soft, elegant hues. Almost paper-thin, more broke in transit than ended up on Roman tables, but this only added to their allure.
Running a close second to Nile glasses were the wine cups imported from Parthia, a region toward the eastern edge of the empire, near what we now call Pakistan. They were carved of murrina (fluorspar) in a time consuming, exacting process that involved repeatedly heating and cooling each cup while removing fissile leftovers by impregnating the fluorspar with resin, usually myrrh. Parthian cups were prized for their luster and for their rich purple and red coloring, but were most noted for the way they subtly altered the taste of wine, a result of the myrrh aromatizing with the wine. Seasoned wine drinkers wiled away many fine hours experimenting with Parthian cups, checking how the cups changed the taste of different wines.
People with less money and more brains contented themselves with earthenware glasses and simple cups carved from stone. They seem to have taken the poet Martial at face value when he said, of the hoopla surrounding wine consumption, “You will make the wine good by drinking it.”
Gimme That Old Time Religion
Looking back through history, it’s hard to find another populace that worshipped a larger or more complex array of gods, demigods, immortal heroes and other assorted supernatural beings than did the ancient Romans. They were great borrowers and stealers. When they swept in and forcibly welcomed another nation or territory to the Empire, the area’s indigenous religion, instead of being stamped out, was embraced and invited to continue operating with little interference from the State. As a result, Rome positively frothed with spiritual options—at least until the emperor Constantine lurched onto the scene and told the people they had two choices: One, they could become Christian, or, Two, they could develop a deeper understanding of the various effects a spear has on innards, but all that happened later.
There was, however, one constant amid the chaos of Rome’s religious scene, a sort of hub around which every sect, cult and faith revolved. Whether we’re talking about very ancient Etruscan animism (where every rock, leaf, stream, shrub, etc., was thought to be the home of an individual god), the almost equally ancient Hebrew cult of Judaism, Greek Olympianism, the Mystery Cults of Isis (burgled whole-cloth from Egypt) and Mithra, or even early, non-state-sponsored Christianity, wine figured, by degrees, into all religious observances.
Some Romans made offerings of wine to their gods in fancy temples, while others offered the same to favored trees or attractive stones. They set out small cups of wine in their homes, where every good Roman citizen kept a shrine. Some poured wine in secret, hidden in tiny rickety churches devoted to a rabble-rousing flower child who, according to a growing percentage of the population, once turned water into wine. Many rites required worshippers to drink a fair few jugs of wine, too, which wasn’t what you’d call a hardship.
Like their Etruscan forebears, the majority of Romans burned their dead. The body of the deceased was wrapped in linen and placed on a tall metal or stone stretcher-like structure which had been erected over a large stack of wood. Wine was then poured in honor of the deceased and to propitiate the gods, and the wood set ablaze. After the flames of the pyre died down, mourners poured wine on the ashes to cool them, then placed the ashes in an urn, which was taken home by the next of kin. The quality of the urn varied, depending on the wealth of the family and, probably, the dead guy’s overall popularity, and might be made of anything from simple fired clay to hammered gold. After nine days of mourning the family delivered the urn to their family tomb. They poured more wine (following the Greek notion of “libations”) honoring the gods so that they might grant the deceased a happy afterlife, and sealed the urn inside the tomb. There followed a banquet, complete with wine enough for all, and many hours of shouting, joking and flailing about, which, because of the vast amount of wine present, may or may not have qualified as dancing.
When Romans of a certain mindset really wanted to spiritually cut loose, they traveled to the small rocky island of Eryx off the coast of Sicily. For hundreds of years Greeks went there to worship the goddess Aphrodite, and Romans continued the custom, paying homage to the goddess they renamed Venus, patron of love and sex. Her worship days were pretty much exactly what you think of when you hear the word “orgy.” For hours and even days on end worshippers drank and danced, danced and screwed, drank and screwed, and drank and drank and drank, and then enjoyed a long nap.
Back in Rome, stodgier elements of the city tried to stop Venus worship, probably because it made them all-too acutely aware of their own lack of charisma and sexual attractiveness. Their schemes were routinely thwarted, however. Squads of sober, stiff-necked, sex-free nerds didn’t stand a chance against a drunken horde of horny love zealots. Imagine the Retirement Ministry from the First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kansas marching to invade and overthrow Las Vegas.
Wine was such an important part of daily life, that Rome’s greatest physician, Galen, in his book On Good and Bad Juices, proscribed it as a daily regimen for healthy, happy living. He also suggested wines from different regions as curatives for different ailments. Wine generally was given to patients suffering from arthritis, gastric build-up and depression, called an excess of dark humor. Some physicians also saw the curative value of full-bore drunkenness, noting (as drunkards have for centuries) that, upon the onset of a cold, a good bender will leave the sufferer free of symptoms…once the hangover departs, I assume.
Very strong, unwatered, wine was used as an anesthetic for dental work, amputations, and even a limited kind of brain surgery. The wine’s deadening effect didn’t last long, so a good surgeon was a fast surgeon.
Mothers calmed fussy babies by having them suck on a twist of wine-soaked cloth. If this failed to quiet the tot, some mothers and wet nurses drank the wine themselves (lots of it), infusing their milk with an ongoing (and, cleverly enough, portable) supply of the calmative. As they got older, Roman children were given wine to drink with meals. They softened their oatcakes in it at breakfast, and drank a cup or two with the evening meal. It cannot be a coincidence that Roman children were known to be particularly robust and well-behaved.
On the Road
“All roads lead to Rome.”
In the heyday of the Empire, this claim was more or less entirely true. The creation of a network of roads linking all corners of the Roman world to the city of Rome was one of the supreme achievements of the Empire (and its vast bureaucracy). Archeological traces of these roads can still be seen today, and certain modern European motorways follow courses originally plotted by Roman engineers over 1500 years ago.
In addition to performing regular maintenance on these important arteries, Rome posted garrisons along them in order to insure the safety of travelers and goods. The roads were constructed with state-of-the-art technology, but that still meant cut-stone paving and traversing them in wooden-wheeled carts and wagons was a bit like sitting in one of those paint-can shakers at Home Depot. To alleviate the problem Rome arrived at a most excellent solution. They erected inns at comfortable intervals, funded them with public money, and regulated them, in some cases, right down to the décor. Some became so well known they were destinations unto themselves, and many more were considered to be some of the finest drinking establishments in the known world. These were classy places. They can be compared to their modern counterparts, like, say, a Motel 6, in much the same way as enjoying several bottles of exquisite red wine over a fine meal served in elegant surroundings can be compared with sitting naked in a wet hole, slurping Applejack and eating grass while lots of angry ugly people fling poo at you.
Travelers with enough coin, or enough prestige, or, happiest of all, both, could while away their stay at an inn doing…well…pretty much anything they wanted.
Food was available ranging from light snacks to multi-course gastronomic fantasies. Guests were free to eat in the privacy of their rooms, but could also avail themselves of a table in the ground-floor common room or rent one of several private banquet rooms. The wine made available to guests came in even larger varieties than the food, and the quality and quantity depended solely upon how much you wanted to spend. A decent, hardy red might cost only a handful of coppers and the prices went up from there, right into the monetary stratosphere, the sort of breathtaking vintage that only those people right at the pinnacle of the economic mountain could even afford to look at, let alone purchase and drink. But on the positive side of things, travelers were free to drink as much as they could pay for. No one was cut off or 86’d for drunkenness, so you could go ahead and get as sloppy as you wanted. You could tipple your way right into a violent, yarking blackout (Crapulentus sum!—“I’m so wasted!”) and, so long as you refrained from killing anybody or insulting someone more important than you, you remained free from managerial harassment. Besides, Roman inns had staff to spare, each of them trained and ready to towel you off and prop you up in time to begin round two. It was all part of the service.
One of the best reasons to drink at a quality Roman inn was the astonishing variety of live entertainment they offered their guests. You could hire an individual musician and have him quietly strum his lyre in the corner, or a whole band—lyre, drum, flute, and optional vocalists—and enjoy your wine to the accompaniment of a medley of popular ditties. If you wanted something a little more active, jugglers and acrobats were available, as were clowns who told naughty stories and lampooned the great and powerful. On the off chance you were in the mood for a more contemplative drinking atmosphere, many inns had philosophers at hand who, for a few pennies, would engage your mind with tricky logical and epistemological conundrums. Strippers could be hired, as could prostitutes, both ready to supply a feminine, er, touch, to your evening, but the pinnacle of female entertainers were the ambubaiarum collegia, or “companies of flute girls,” who, in a nutshell, were dancing girls, but dancing girls of such renown, talent, and overall hotness, they drove their audiences daffy with desire. The anonymous author of an ancient text called the Copa described one such girl, named Surisca (“young Syrian bar-girl”), who was emblematic of these fine ladies: “her hair caught up in a Greek headband, trained to sway her quivering backside in time to the castanet, dancing tipsily, wantonly, in the smoky tavern, smacking the noisy reed-pipes against her elbow.” By the first century AD, they had become so popular that they were given as gifts to powerful foreign kings, most notably the Chinese emperor Han, who reserved a special place at his court for these “skilled performers.”
How much better would your average bar be today if it staffed a “company of flute girls”?
Dinner at Eight
Upper-class Romans were bonkers for fancy dinner parties. No occasion was too small, no cost too great. Dinner parties of similar sweep and decadence would not be part of the upper-crust scene for another thousand years, when members of the English and French aristocracy would elevate them to even more eye-popping heights of ostentation and bad taste.
Well-to-do Roman hosts competed to set the most expensive, exotic table, wowing their guests with new and rare delicacies from around the Empire—cold fish stews aswarm with living guppies, bowls of sugared flamingo tongues, roasted python stuffed with duck and swan, cutlets carved from bear, elephant and giraffe, soft-boiled chicken eggs, complete with a soft-boiled, half-formed chick inside, and wine, wine, and more wine. Wine of every vintage, wine of every color, wine by the gallon. Getting plowed while reclining on a chaise and nibbling honey-dipped newborn mice was considered to be the absolute acme of chic. The only tricky part of the evening was that you had to regulate your alcohol intake so that you got drunk but not so drunk that you said anything that might, even remotely, be misconstrued or taken out of context, and used later to cause you harm.
Wealthy Romans, especially those who were, or aspired to be, close to the Emperor, were in almost constant danger of suffering a painful, untidy death, and the quickest road to one was to let yourself get all lip-flappy at a dinner party. The other guests were not your friends. They were pieces in your machination of the day, just as you were theirs, and in the game of Political Advancement, information was hard coin. One slip of the tongue, one spilled opinion, was all it took for you to find yourself on the less-snuggly end of a really sharp short sword. Even the seemingly benign act of describing to your fellow guests the dream you had last night could, if someone interpreted it to his advantage, result in your making the sudden, ugly and thoroughly final acquaintance of a well-starved tiger who cared not one whit that your dream about slurping honeyed wine from the navel of a serving girl had absolutely nothing to do with the Emperor’s eldest daughter.
All of which brings us to the vomitorium, that fabled room found in every high-end Roman home where one adjourned to divest oneself of those things which the evening had so far required you to put in your stomach. The very existence of such rooms has been hotly debated among antiquity scholars. Those who say that vomitoria never existed seem to feel so out of the thinly-veiled but well-nurtured idea that Romans were simply too hip and with it to engage in something as yucky as vomiting on demand, while those on the pro side of the question maintain that a bit of intentional upchuck in no way blightens ancient Roman achievement.
The simple facts are these: while there may or may not have been special rooms in Roman homes devoted to regurgitation, many partiers, upon finding themselves unsafely snockered, took themselves away and used a finger, or the finger of a handy slave who’d been coached-up, to induce the contents of their insides to rejoin the larger outside world. They did this so that they might return to the dinner party and continue drinking with fresh control over their untrustworthy mouths. That the act also made it possible for you to keep drinking for hours, and even days, on end without the possibility of a horrifically dangerous blackout and without suffering an inconvenient or incapacitating hangover, did not go unnoticed by savvy Roman winesots.
So what, then, constituted safe dinner party conversation? Probably the most popular was sex. Since naming names would’ve been mind-bogglingly stupid, the talk remained general and theoretical, yet it was simultaneously pornographic. That many ritzy Roman dinner parties ended in orgiastic couplings should come as no surprise to anyone.
In ancient Greece learned and powerful citizens met in the evening for wine and conversation, in events called symposia. They drank many bowls of strong wine while talking politics, art and philosophy. Years later, Romans with letters and learning revived the idea, calling it a convivium after the warm and convivial feeling that overtakes people upon consuming lots and lots of good red vino.
Throwing a convivium was really simple. All the host had to do was gather a small collection of smart, well-connected people, dispense a bounty of top-notch imported wine, kickstart the conversation with a provocative query, and enjoy. The Romans altered Greek custom a bit by occasionally allowing women to attend. (Many Roman women, the wives and daughters of powerful men, were forces unto themselves and didn’t take to exclusion with the meekness of their Greek forebears.) And, Rome being Rome, a convivium was a lot more ostentatious than a symposium; the food, the wine, and the surroundings were much more plush. The poet Martial describes the scene of one gathering, held at the lavishly furnished country villa owned by one of his patrons: “couches encrusted with first grade tortoiseshell, solid Maurusian citronwood of a weight rarely seen, silver and gold on a fancy tripod, and boys standing to attention” ready to serve the guests’ every need.
From time to time the convivium was preceded by a fine meal in the host’s dining area. At the end of the feast the host lead his guests in a game called a commissatio, a ritualized drinking contest. The host and the host alone dictated the terms of the contest—number of cups to be consumed, from one to eleven, the order in which guests drank, etc. Each guest was expected to drink his cup dry in one long pull without removing it from his lips. Every guest participated, drinking as many cups as the host demanded. Refusing to participate was a massive breach of etiquette that could lead to the party pooper’s exclusion from future convivia, or even to his being ostracized by Rome’s movers and shakers. Almost as bad as shirking one’s drinking obligations was belching in the middle of the game. If someone suddenly felt a burp coming on, he was bound by custom to hold it in until he could get out of the room. A little strict perhaps, but those were the rules.
The closest thing we have today to a convivium is, sadly, the book-club meeting. The resounding difference between the two is that the conversation at a convivium often resulted in far-reaching changes in state policy or a profound philosophical insight into the nature of the universe, while book-club meetings rarely result in anything more than tipsy repetitions of “I really liked it!” and the giddy sipping of wine coolers.
What a good time a true convivium must have been.
Take a walk around any fair-sized city and you are likely to discover a neighborhood almost wholly given over to the needs of drunkards—bars every few feet, lots of options for cheap food, convenient flop houses, and lax policing. Rome’s incarnation was called the Subura, and, like in Frank Miller’s Sin City, you could knock on any door there and get anything you wanted. Anything.
Most upper-crust Romans went out of their way to avoid the Subura. The poet Virgil derided it as “greasy,” Pliny said it smelled bad, and while other critics weren’t even that nice, the Subura wore their scorn as a badge of honor. It was the sort of place that frightened people who put too much stock in their own status and self worth. Which is not to say that these types never visited. For some, the potential for fun was too great to ignore. The statesman Gallus, nephew of Constantine the Great, was a regular. He came costumed as a plebe, and would spend the night drinking wine and asking strangers what they thought of “that fellow Gallus.” Emperor Nero himself loved the Subura. He too visited in disguise, but since he didn’t give two figs what the people thought of him, spent his nights drinking whole jugs of wine as he reeled from brothel to brothel in a hedonistic stupor.
There was lots to do in the Subura. The place had a carnival atmosphere and nothing ever closed. It was the original “city that doesn’t sleep.” Everywhere you looked people sold stuff, hawking their goods from the doors of rickety shops, shouting to make themselves heard over the din. Depending upon your mood, you might take in a naughty play, or throw dice in one of the many dozens of gambling parlors, or perhaps lay a small wager on a cockfight or on the outcome of a deadly match between trained war dogs and an enraged rhinoceros. One of the Subura’s principle attractions were the Suburabae puellae, or, “girls of the Subura,” the most revered prostitutes in the land. They were expensive, but apparently worth it. If you lacked the funds for such an extravagant night of slap-n-tickle, however, you could always lower your standards (such as they are) and rent a more common street walker for a few tawdry minutes in a dingy, screened inscripta cella, an “alcove with a price list.” No matter what you found to do with your evening, however, you did it with wine. The stuff practically ran through the streets.
Wine was available in shops dedicated to the purpose, comfortable joints of varying quality, but none so spiffy you would want to enter unarmed. They announced their wares with signs reading asse vinum, or “wine for an as (a few pennies).” Vendors pushed winecarts through the smoky streets selling cheaper wine for a few coppers, everyone drinking from the same common dipper.
If you felt like you’d had enough fun, you could rent a cot in a flophouse, where, even as you slept, the party continued, as several thousand of your bedmates—also known as fleas—threw a little insect rave in your hair. If you lacked the cash for a cot or were not the sort of person who associated with fleas, you still had options. Many dark alleys and out-of-the-way gutters presented themselves to wineheads in need of naps. There was always the danger of being robbed while you slept, but snoozing in gutters generally disabused thieves of the notion that you had anything worth stealing. Even members of the local garrison, soldiers pressed into duty as peace-keepers, would probably leave you alone. The odds that a given soldier was as drunk or drunker than you were about even. Instead of arresting you, a soldier was more likely to buy you a cup of wine or poke you with his sword until you rolled out of bed and got the hell away from his fleas.
There was no such thing as being too drunk in the Subura. Being too sober…well…that’s another story.
The Great Outdoors
Romans liked to kick around out in the country, on picnics and so forth, soaking up the sun and snoozing in the tall cool grass. The poet Martial described such a scene:
As you recline in the flowery meadow, where a stream rippling between sparkling banks stirs the pebbles, and all your troubles are far away, may you crush ice into your black measure of wine, your brow red with garlands and just one most innocent girl to tickle your fancy.
Of all the places Romans like to drink, this one, to me, sounds best.
The drinking habits and customs of ancient Rome are simultaneously just like ours and completely different. But, details aside, Rome is a vital part of our drunken history. Many of their ways are now our ways, a perfect illustration of how some aspects of human behavior are Good and have Staying Power.
Next time some cop pulls you over give him a dose of ancient Rome, just to see how he reacts. Unroll your window, present him with the pertinent documents, slap a friendly smile on your face, look him spang in the eye, and say:
Potstone ill machine pneumatodocimastica ad linguam Latinum accommodari?
Which means, roughly: “Does that Breathalyzer have a Latin setting?”
If you’re lucky, you’ll get off. How could any cop fail to be impressed by such a literate drunkard?
(Notes: 1. All Latin translations by Andrew Dalby and Henry Beard. 2. The Author is indebted to the works of Edward Gibbon, Edith Hamilton, John T. Cullen, Cyril E. Robinson, Andrew Dalby, F.R. Crowell, Henry Thompson Rowell, Jerome Carcopino and Tom Holland.)