A Popular History of the Drinks of Antiquity: Part 2

All Wines Lead to Rome

Although the prestigious Roman civilization was not where wine originated and it did not even play a major part in the initial spread of wine throughout Gaul, then the supposed capital of clan drunkenness, Rome nevertheless greatly contributed to making the “blood of the earth” the symbol of a juicy and blossoming international trade by giving the precious nectar its prestigious image.

Drinking Beer Is Bad

The favourite drink of the peoples of antiquity was not appreciated among the Romans, who considered it the beverage of utterly uneducated “barbarians,” unable even to understand this intentional snobbery that ran through all the strata of Roman society, from the Patrician’s pinnacle to the plebeian’s gutter. Even slaves had their own cheap wine; unrepublican beer drinkers were frowned upon throughout the whole of the Roman empire.

Dead drunk the following morning, they were all slain by a troop of avengers who were bravely able to take back the plundered gold: Rome was not to be trifled with and its wine was endowed with powers that neutralized the magic of the druids.

We must not fail to mention that the vinicultural nectar possessed some sacred properties of its own. Let’s not forget the first sack of Rome, something that would not happen again for centuries, until just before the final fall of the Empire.  This monstrous sacrilege was committed by the Gauls in 390 BC. These unregenerate barbarians added insult to injury by demanding a heavy tribute, after having thoroughly pillaged the city and thrown a Vae Victis! Woe to the vanquished! in the face of the brave victims of the siege who had come to negotiate their freedom. The dastardly deed accomplished, the hairy, moustaschioed barbarians, discovering the fine taste of wine, hastened to celebrate their victory with a typically Gaulish feast … Dead drunk the following morning, they were all slain by a troop of avengers who were bravely able to take back the plundered gold: Rome was not to be trifled with and its wine was endowed with powers that neutralized the magic of the druids.

Those Crazy Romans

“In vino veritas” proclaimed the poet Alcaeus. The virtues of wine can never be praised enough nor its divine origins sufficiently extolled. A host of illustrious personages have hastened to write about the art of vinification. Cato the Elder, Varro, Pliny, Palladius, etc.

Cooked, boiled in cauldrons, mixed with plaster, seawater, fenugreek, but aged, for the fine wines mentioned above, for fifteen to twenty years, the Roman wine of antiquity would evoke, for us, the flavour of a vin jaune of the Jura or Andalusian jerez.

Columella, champion of the rustic agronomics so dear to that noble race of peasant warriors, even wrote a whole volume of poetry on how to cultivate and care for a vine and produce good quality wine from it. Caecuban and Falernian, considered the most renowned wines of antiquity, have inspired many poets and writers, from Horace to Victor Hugo, from Pliny to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau. However, Roman wine would probably bewilder the greatest oenologists of our time. Cooked, boiled in cauldrons, mixed with plaster, seawater, fenugreek, but aged, for the fine wines mentioned above, for fifteen to twenty years, the Roman wine of antiquity would evoke, for us, the flavour of a vin jaune of the Jura or Andalusian jerez, and that’s without mentioning the aftertaste of the pitch that was used to coat the wineskins, the jars, and their corks, so as to waterproof the recipients and thus avoid oxidation of the beverage occurring too quickly. All Roman wines were very sweet; sulphur treatment, which prevents alcoholic drinks from immediately turning to vinegar, not yet being known, the addition of sugar allowed preservation of sorts. It was closer to the sherry, so beloved of the British, than a Bordeaux grand cru. For that matter, the Romans, with apologies to their sensitive French descendants, mixed their wine with water … to make it pleasanter to drink.

Within the Goblet

It may even be reasonable to wonder whether, in the terrible scene of the crucifixion of a prominent Nazarene agitator, the legionnaire who held out a piece of sponge soaked in posca was not expressing some entirely Christian charitable feeling towards the most famous of martyrs?

Whereas, among the “barbarians,” people’s high social status was demonstrated by the richly ornamented goblet they took to banquets, the Romans preferred to use the content, rather than the container, as a mark of distinction. Alongside FalernianCaecubanSurrentinum, and other vintage fine wines, were lesser quality wines and the famous posca, a sort of low-quality wine, watered down and sometimes sweetened with an egg yolk. Posca, wine vinegar, was used as a cheap and popular thirst-quencher. It was used by legionnaires, in particular, to slake their thirst effectively and as a makeshift disinfectant. By adding a drug to this reputedly foul drink, posca could be used as an analgesic just as well as an antiseptic; Roman ingenuity was never found wanting.

It may even be reasonable to wonder whether, in the terrible scene of the crucifixion of a prominent Nazarene agitator, the legionnaire who held out a piece of sponge soaked in posca was not expressing some entirely Christian charitable feeling towards the most famous of martyrs? As for the slaves, of which there were many in Rome, the capital of ancient slavery, they could enjoy their masters’ generosity by drinking the same as them or content themselves with lora, a vile mixture, half rancid, acrid grape juice, half coarse red wine

The Gauls: Star Pupils of Rome

The southern Gauls were already familiar with “good wine” thanks to the Greek colonies of the Mediterranean basin, but Rome’s favourite enemies drank it neat, without adding any water. Those long-haired devils, before sinking into the kind of alcoholic stupor only they could achieve, would also sabre the necks of the amphorae in a furious ritual in which their virile actions paid homage to the blood of that benevolent and beneficent land. While the rest of Gaul, the Celtic lands and the vast Germanic hinterland, preferred beer, wine would begin its civilizing work, spreading far and wide through the work of the Roman merchants who had recently moved into the wealthy Gaulish provinces conquered by the first Caesar.

The Gauls, who were not barbarians at all and whose history is only known through the scornful correspondence of the Romans, would become star pupils when it came to the science of viniculture of Rome’s earliest colony, an ancient skill that they would manage to develop, right up to the present day, to supreme perfection.

The Gauls, who were not barbarians at all and whose history is only known through the scornful correspondence of the Romans, would become star pupils when it came to the science of viniculture of Rome’s earliest colony, an ancient skill that they would manage to develop, right up to the present day, to supreme perfection. Although Italy is in first place in terms of worldwide wine production, France is still first as a global exporter of wine and has the most famous fine wines. While talking about Italian wines in France or French wines in Italy may provoke a hail of insults and curses, both countries maintain a monastic silence when it comes to their favourite non-alcoholic beverage: coffee. This product, entirely the creation of a forgotten African civilization, has undergone breathtakingly rapid globalization in terms of both its production and consumption, as well as achieving a merchandising record that no other drink has yet reached.

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