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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