Bars, Beer & Wine in Ancient Rome: An Introduction to Roman Nightlife and Spirits

When they final­ly get those kinks worked out of the time machine and we can take a tourist trip back to Rome—having signed the non-inter­ven­tion paper­work, of course—we’re going to need some­one to guide us. I pro­pose that should be Gar­rett Ryan, host of the Told In Stone YouTube chan­nel, PhD in Greek and Roman His­to­ry, and author of Naked Stat­ues, Fat Glad­i­a­tors, and War Ele­phants: Fre­quent­ly Asked Ques­tions about the Ancient Greeks and Romans. He has made it his job to answer the every­day ques­tions about these two ancient cul­tures that most his­to­ri­ans pass over. But these are the ques­tions we’re going to need as tourists if we think we’re going to go par­ty in Ancient Rome.

Because invari­ably some­body in our tourist group is going to ask “where’s the bars and night­clubs?” Fair ques­tion. Ryan has the answers, all told in the video above.

Much like Las Vegas or Dubai, the real par­ty­ing is hap­pen­ing at the elite lev­els, among the idle rich who could afford day long ban­quets, extrav­a­gant activ­i­ties such as live lion hunts, and import dancers from as far away as Spain. In Ryan’s recon­struc­tion of a debauched night out he fol­lows a typ­i­cal nou­veau riche who goes slum­ming in the grim­i­er parts of the city, picks fights that his body­guards sort out, and then lies his way into a par­ty at a man­sion by claim­ing to know a friend inside. (He also bribes the guards). And then it’s on and on until the break of dawn.

For the major­i­ty of Romans though, the cities weren’t bustling at night. Most peo­ple rose at dawn and slept at dusk. Bars and eater­ies did exist, how­ev­er. After the din­ner hour, these weren’t fam­i­ly-friend­ly estab­lish­ments. There was gam­bling and drink­ing, and har­ried wait­ress­es who didn’t have time for dum­mies, and the beer and wine was cheap and excep­tion­al­ly low qual­i­ty, and…wait, what exact­ly has changed? Not much, it seems.

Ryan’s oth­er videos offer quick his­to­ries on the beer and wine selec­tions you might find in Rome and in the larg­er empire. Although the upper class­es looked down their Roman noses at beer, a major­i­ty of future Europe pre­ferred it, includ­ing Gaul, also known as mod­ern day France. Tac­i­tus con­sid­ered beer (from Ger­many) as bad as spoiled wine. And indeed a lot of it was sour, improved with the addi­tion of sweet­en­ers. The physi­cian Dioscorides didn’t like beer because it caused exces­sive gas. And while that might be true, it’s not like Roman wine would win any gold medals these days.

Both the Greeks and the Romans pre­ferred their wine heav­i­ly watered down, which might have been nec­es­sary for its strong taste. Sweet­en­ers like hon­ey would also be added to improve the taste. And most wine, fer­ment­ed in vats, only last­ed up to a year before turn­ing to vine­gar.

There’s so much more to learn at these videos, you should just dive in. But when the time trav­el trip comes, please keep your 21st cen­tu­ry opin­ions to your­self until we’re safe­ly home.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An 8‑Minute Ani­mat­ed Flight Over Ancient Rome

The His­to­ry of Ancient Rome in 20 Quick Min­utes: A Primer Nar­rat­ed by Bri­an Cox

The Chang­ing Land­scape of Ancient Rome: A Free Online Course from Sapien­za Uni­ver­si­ty of Rome

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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