Thursday, 18 October 2012

Drinking in Roman Britain

That's right, it's the blog you've all been waiting for: What did the ancient Britons drink, and where can we get some?


It's the booze we're all familiar with, it's the staple of student life, and it's one of the cheapest things avaliable. It was pretty cheap in Roman Britain too. My A-level ancient history teacher once told me that with one day's pay for a Roman soldier, you could buy 200 pints of local beer- and that's why it took so long to build Hadrian's Wall! I can't find anything to back this up, so we'll have to assume it's just a nice anecdote.

What would it have tasted like? Well, different, for certain. Hops weren't used in European beer until the 12th century, so the beer enjoyed by the Britons would have been more like ale, and have had a shorter shelf life. This was probably an excuse to drink more of it, and who would say no to that? In Southern Britain, beer was probably brewed from spelt wheat, and in the North they seem to have used barley.

There were broadly two kinds of beer: strong ale, and small beer. Small beer, as you might expect, was only weakly alcoholic and was probably drunk in lieu of water by most parts of the population, including children.

A shopping list from Vindolanda suggests that an average weekly consumption for the commander's household was at least 90 litres! Given that beer had a short shelf life, it is not unlikely that the army had dedicated brewers and malsters, as both would have been vital to the upkeep of morale. I like to imagine the Roman temporary camps had a hierachy of Most Important Jobs: first, they had to build the camp walls, set up the ovens for the soldiers to bake their own bread, and then doled out the booze.


Wine was a bit more up-market, then as now. Prior to the Roman conquest in 43 CE, there was already a faction of upper-class Britons importing really good Roman wine from Campagnia and Sicily. This was the real deal, both expensive and classy. Wine was at that time stored in large pottery jars called amphorae (below), and there are remains in southern Britain that attest to its presence. Of course, it is possible that is was less good wine from the same area, like cheap fizzy wine from the Champagne region. Pliny dismissed the Falerian wines, saying they gave him a headache that lasted until midday the next morning.

There are also gorgeous wine strainers decorated in a very Celtic style (La Tene to be more precise) as pictured below.  One of my lecturers has looked at the evidence, and has suggested that the wine was used for some kind of ritual purpose. This was probably just getting drunk in worship of a particular god, so not that different from modern day Kent.

Much of the wine imported during the Roman occupation of Britian was probably for the army, and it's hard to know how much of it the Britons might have come by. However, there was at least one successful attempt to grow vines in Britain by the Romans, at Wollaston in Nene Valley, and not on a small scale. This one site could probably have produced between 10,000 and 30,000 litres of wine.  

The Roman manner of drinking wine involved mixing it with water, and there were a large number of different kinds of utensil and ladle for doing so. The Romans were not a people to do things by halves. Again, I like to imagine the wealthiest Britons attempting to get the hang of this complex ritual: "So I start at the outside... and work in?"


Well, not really. But Apicius offers a recipe for Roman absinthe...

1 comment:

  1. Logic says we need to be cautious in drinking or else we will become drunk or drunkards which is Anti-biblical.