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Savoring the Grape Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Stuart J. Fleming

For Romans, wine was the elixir of life, from cradle to grave.

There, when the wine is set, you will tell me many a tale--how your ship was all but engulfed in the midst of the waters; and how, while hastening home to me, you feared neither hours of unfriendly night nor headlong winds of the south....
--Ovid, The Amores II.xi

Rome's poets and philosophers extolled the virtues of relaxing with friends to enjoy good conversation and good wine. For most Romans, the family dinner table would have been the usual place for such relaxation. Everyone had been up since dawn, and those who had gone into fields, or had business in the marketplace, sustained themselves through the day with little more than a light lunch of bread and fruit, and a beaker of well-diluted vin ordinaire. A late afternoon dinner at home was an opportunity to enjoy a slightly better quality wine, surely savored by those who could afford it.

During a Roman dinner of substance, a guest might expect first to be served some hors d'oeuvres, then a honeyed wine--a mulsum. Its sweetness would offset the taste of salted fish and pig's feet that, along with hard-boiled eggs and stuffed artichokes, were among the appetizers. Better wines would be offered after each of the subsequent two courses--mensa prima, which would be meat-, poultry-, or fish-based; and mensa secunda, which would be fresh fruit, a custard, or some honey-sweet dessert. During a convivium, a banquet with emphasis on richly prepared and novel food, the partaking of which was a pleasure--a conviviality--which would be accompanied by a generous flow of wines.

Did the Romans drink a lot? Apparently so, at least by modern standards. We should hesitate to censure such behavior too quickly. Most Romans drank wine simply because the water being piped into their cities was none too pure and sometimes disease-ridden. And I would not be the first to suggest that general urban squalor drove many a poor Roman to drown his sorrows. Horace asked: "Who, after his wine, harps on the hardships of campaigns or poverty?" Petronius, describing a banquet in his novel Satyricon, wrote, "Just then some glass jars carefully fastened with gypsum were brought on, with labels tied on their necks.... As we were poring over the tags, Trimalchio clapped his hands and cried, 'Ah me, so wine lives longer than miserable man. So let us be merry. Wine is life.'"

Stuart J. Fleming, scientific director for the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of VINUM: The Story of Roman Wine (Glen Mills, PA: Art Flair, 2001).

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America