Ancient Roman Women and Wine

The ancient Romans had much in common with today’s wine culture. Wine was an art to the Romans, and ancient sommeliers would classify wine by taste and color.

But where did women fit in? There is a lot of recorded history from Ancient Rome, all, for the most part, written by men about men. Although the details of women’s lives from this time often fall under the radar, we do have some information from written documents.

Did Ancient Roman women drink wine? Were they allowed to drink in public? Were they allowed to drink other alcoholic beverages? This article will explore the lives of women in Ancient Rome and their relationship to wine.

Roman Wine Culture

Wine played a prominent role in the everyday life of Romans. They enjoyed drinking the beverage and the science of making it. Many cultural events and personal moments were celebrated with a glass – or two—of wine.

The biggest wine festival was in honor of the god Bacchus. Bacchus was adopted by the Greeks and was the god of freedom, intoxication, and ecstasy.

, Ancient Roman Women and Wine

Bacchus Marcus Aurelius, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As wine growth became more successful, wine drinking became ubiquitous. Cato wrote that enslaved people should have over a gallon of wine in their rations every week.[1]

Wine was the beverage of choice for everyone. Beer, however, was reserved for Barbarians. According to the emperor Julian, the wine smells like nectar, and beer smells like a goat.

Roman Women’s Rights

Since the Greeks highly influenced Roman culture, women were defined by the men in their lives in Ancient Rome. In the first century, women weren’t allowed to serve in politics or be taught how to write.[2]

Legally speaking, non-enslaved women were considered citizens of Rome – only with fewer rights. How many rights Roman women had depended on their rank. Although wealthy women sometimes participated in private political negotiations, women still were never allowed to vote.[3]

Women did have a unique role in religion. The Vestal Virgins were priestesses who were devoted to study and rituals. It was their job to keep Rome safe through their offerings to the gods – a position a man was not allowed to hold.

Roman women were allowed to participate in more public events than Greek women. They could attend Forum debates, public games, and theatre performances. Some Roman generals would take their wives with them on their military campaigns. Women dined in private until later in the empire, when they would attend public dinner parties, much to the chagrin of more conservative members of society.

Roman Women and Wine

There are many theories about whether women drank wine. Some historians say that the Romans took after the Greeks and disapproved of women drinking. Others say that wine wasn’t allowed because it made women cheat[4] or lose a pregnancy.[5]

The reality is whether women drank wine in Ancient Rome depended on the period, the type of wine, and the circumstances. Archaic Roman women were not allowed to drink most wine. Archaic Roman women were allowed to drink specific kinds of wine imported from Greece, Phoenicia, and other designated alcoholic beverages.

Temetum, the archaic sacred wine of Jupiter, was forbidden for women in early ancient times. Women could be punished by death for drinking this wine.

There was one exception. Women drank Temetum during the exclusive and secretive female Bona Dea festival. Only women could attend this event, where they would drink this wine, which they nicknamed “milk” or “honey.”[6]

These rules all changed when the Roman Empire began. Romans believed that wine was a daily necessity that should be available to everyone, regardless of status or gender.

Women took part in more festivals like public wine production events. Treated by the elite, ordinary men and women would sample the old year’s wine in the name of Venus.

The wife of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, supposedly reached such an old age thanks to her favorite wine, Pucinum. Women still didn’t have the same political rights as men but were allowed to enjoy cultural events and wine.

This Day in Wine History

200 BCE: The first Bacchanalia, or Bacchus festival, was celebrated. This festival was a solemn and strict religious experience, starting with ten days of abstinence. What followed was three days of orgies and crime. “Anything goes,” was the name of the game.[7]

March 17th: The Bacchanalia was banned in 186 BC, and a tamer festival took its place. This more innocent celebration was called Liber.

September 28th, 29 AD: The wife of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, Livia, died on this date at the age of 86. Her old age was claimed to be because of the unique wine she drank. Livia was made Augusta and a god by her grandson, Claudius.

 

, Ancient Roman Women and Wine

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, Ancient Roman Women and Wine, Ancient Roman Women and Wine
 

References

[1] R. Phillips A Short History of Wine pp. 35–45 Harper Collins 2000

[2] The Roman Empire in the First Century Women. https://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/women.html

[3] Kristina Milnor, “Women in Roman Historiography,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 278; Ann Ellis Hanson, “The Restructuring of Female Physiology at Rome,” in Les écoles médicales à Rome: Actes du 2ème Colloque international sur les textes médicaux latins antiques, Lausanne, septembre 1986(Université de Nantes, 1991), p. 256.

[4] Noailles, P., ‘Les tabous du manage dans le Droit primitif des Romains’, in Fus et Jus. Études de droit romain (Paris, 1948), 21Google Scholar.

[5] Durry, M., ‘Les femmes et le vin’, REL 33 (1955), 110–12Google Scholar.

[6] Wildfang, Robin Lorsch, Rome’s vestal virgins: a study of Rome’s vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2007, p. 41)

[7] Bacchanalia. Leonhard Schmitz, Ph. D. accessed: May 3, 2022 https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Bacchanalia.html

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