The Ancient Romans might’ve fizzled out a few millennia ago, but their appetite for drinking – and drinking well – survived the Middle Ages and is thriving at modern-day liquor stores. After researching Ancient Roman wine, I discovered how unusually they prepared it and how different our modern relationship to the grape is.

For us, wine is a classy addition to any party and washes down steak or stew perfectly; for the Romans, it was their main source of hydration. I decided to try Ancient Roman wine recipes and drink it the way they would’ve – namely, diluted and from sunrise to well after sunset.

Wine in the Ancient World

Mackenzie Patel

In contrast to our modern view of wine as “just a beverage,” the Romans’ connection with wine was both a spiritual and necessary one. Since wine fermentation is all-natural, it was a direct pipeline to gods such as Bacchus and easy enough for the Romans to cultivate. Many aspects of Roman culture had ties to the terrestrial and supernatural world (i.e. Vestal Virgins), and wine was no exception as it was used during rituals and dinner parties.

The Romans didn’t know about fermentation, but they understood the cleansing properties of wine. Ancient Roman water wasn’t exactly spotless, so wine was added as a purifying element. From morning to evening, Romans of all ages guzzled down this diluted mixture – even the infants. Pliny the Elder even recommended using salt water with wine, which was also the Ancient Greek way of drinking it.

“The people of Kos mix sea-water in large quantities with their wines, an invention which they first learned from a slave…”

- Pliny The Elder, Natural History

There was also a social element to drinking water with wine – according to the Romans, drinking strong, undiluted wine or beer was a mark of barbarism and low class. The image of long-haired, dirty-skinned barbarians drunk on wine by 10 a.m. was prevalent for the Romans, albeit probably an exaggeration . 

Ways of Preparing Wine

Mackenzie Patel

The Romans had tricks up their sleeves to make wine more palatable (besides adding water). Paul Lukacs, author of Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures, said in an NPR interview that Roman wine was rancid for most of the year.

“…Wine would sour rapidly, and of course it could only be made once a year, at the harvest…So it might have tasted, to our palates, decent in September, but it sure would have tasted bad come spring.”

To combat this, the Romans would add lead, honey, ash, myrrh, incense, fresh resin and pitch from pine trees, and a slew of other spices. No wonder the life expectancy of Romans was so short – they were drinking lead as babies. A particularly coveted drink was Mulsum, a type of wine mixed with honey.

The ancient writer Apicius, author of Cookery and Dining in Ancient Rome, has recipes for this honey wine, although his version also includes crushed pepper, saffron, roasted date stones, and charcoal.

My Ancient Roman Wine-A-Thon

Mackenzie Patel

To fully experience wine the way Ancient Romans would’ve, I drank diluted wine for 12 hours, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mixing three cups water and one cup of Merlot (regular and blueberry flavor), I created a fruit juice that was both natural and refreshing. Seriously – this concoction was a tastier version of Welch’s grape juice.

There wasn’t any point I felt tipsy or off-kilter at all; I could drive, read Cicero,and take care of my one-month-old nephew. I understood how the Ancients could drink amphora after amphora of this liquid – it was like drinking a breeze, nothing difficult about it. And the next morning, I didn't have any hint of a hangover (just some confused parents asking where the wine went). 

In Wine, There's Truth

Mackenzie Patel

The words above were written by Pliny the Elder over 2,000 years ago – and this was before a good merlot was invented! Despite the ancients’ puzzling relationship with wine, their ways of manipulating it served many purposes: sanitation, flavor, and social status.

Wine was also an integral part of the Ancient Roman farming economy, along with olive oil and grain. The Romans even imported so much wine that a rubbish pile – surviving to this day – created a mountain of discarded amphora pieces (Monte Testaccio in modern Rome). Drink up!