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Alcoholism among Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman mosaic showing cena
Roman mosaic showing cena

Alcoholism is not only a social problem of modern times. Already Lucretius, a Roman poet from the 1st century BCE, mentions alcoholism as a plague affecting the then elites among others, famous writers of the 1st century CE Seneca the Younger or Pliny the Elder prove the existence of a real social problem.

Certainly, however, politicians who were at the centre of Rome’s social life enjoyed the greatest interest. Their drunken feasts were described by ancient authors and were often associated with accusations of a tendency to excessive alcohol consumption. One such politician was Mark Antony. This is how Plutarch describes it:

Antony grew up a very beautiful youth, but, by the worst of misfortunes, he fell into the acquaintance and friendship of Curio, a man abandoned to his pleasures; who, to make Antony’s dependence upon him a matter of greater necessity, plunged him into a life of drinking and dissipation, and led him through a course of such extravagance.

Plutarch of Chaeronea, Mark Antony

Mark Antony was aware of the opinion circulating in society about his love of alcohol. Therefore, he came up with a short text in his defence On his drunkenness.

Similarly, Emperors Tiberius, Claudius or Vitellius. It was no different in the case of women accompanying the highest figures of the Empire – including Julia, August’s daughter, who was known for her immoral and “partying” lifestyle.

It should be mentioned that the ancient Romans got drunk on wine diluted with water, which in practice was consumed with every dish and throughout the day. Ancient wine, however, was much stronger than the one we know today – this is probably due to the process of wine preservation and long storage after the fermentation process. It is also worth mentioning that the distillation process was not yet known in antiquity. Water, in turn, was added to soften the wine and prevent the public from being completely intoxicated. The wine itself, in turn, having alcohol, has an antibacterial effect, which was extremely appreciated in ancient times, when water was rarely drinkable, especially in the city. Therefore, to protect children from diseases, they were given properly diluted wine to drink.

In addition, the Romans also loved to indulge in “drunk games” during feasts. One such game involved throwing a die and then emptying the appropriate number of wine glasses as quickly as possible. Sometimes the Roman authorities tried to regulate the issue of alcohol consumption. One example was the banning of Bacchanalia – a festival in honour of Bacchus (the Roman equivalent of Dionysus) – in 186 BCE. In the senate’s opinion, ecstatic dances, drunkenness, nudity and lose of morals had a demoralizing effect on the young generations.

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