In vino sanitas

By Jane Draycott

A well-known fresco from the household shrine of the House of the Centenary at Pompeii shows Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, standing at the foot of Vesuvius. This, in conjunction with the substantial amount of archaeological evidence for viticulture in the Campania region, gives us an insight into the importance of wine in ancient Roman culture and society, not to mention the ancient Roman economy. For those in possession of agricultural estates, wine was relatively easy to make and store, and for those who were not, it was readily available to buy. Wine could be drunk at all hours of the day and night, and depending on the occasion could be mixed with honey (mulsum) or spices (conditum), or diluted (either with water or with snow, depending on your budget). However, the Roman appreciation of wine went beyond its role as a beverage, whether taken in conjunction with a meal, or on its own.

Household Shrine, Bacchus and Vesuvius Fresco. Credit: Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons.
Household Shrine, Bacchus and Vesuvius Fresco. Credit: Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons.

Pliny the Elder, writing shortly before his death in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, stated that ‘grapes hold such an important place among [medicines] that they act as remedies in themselves, merely by supplying wine’ (Natural History 14.3.19). Recipes for wine that survive from the ancient world indicate that certain types were specifically designed to serve as medicaments, whether taken internally as potions, and externally as lotions, and, interestingly, these recipes are not only found in straightforwardly medical treatises, such as Oribasius’ Medical Collections (c. 325-400 CE).

Cato the Elder’s On Agriculture (c. 160 BCE) makes the importance of viticulture in the Italian economy clear, going so far as to state that, in Cato’s opinion, a vineyard was the best sort of agricultural estate to possess (1.7). It contains a number of recipes for different types of wine, and many of these are explicitly medicinal, designed to deal with common medical problems that might arise on an isolated farmstead, such as constipation, retention of urine, indigestion, colic, and internal parasites, by utilising accessible plants as ingredients, such as hellebore, juniper, and myrtle.

Columella’s On Agriculture (first century CE) also recommends myrtle wine for a wide range of complaints, and states that, in Columella’s opinion, it is the type of wine most beneficial to health (12.38.7). Additionally, horehound, squill, and pennyroyal wines are recommended for coughs (12.32, 33, 35) – in fact, an amphora once containing horehound wine has been recovered from the Roman fort at Carpow in Scotland, and it was perhaps used by soldiers for its medicinal properties in order to treat the colds they acquired while serving in the damp province.

Drunken old woman statue, a first century CE Roman copy of a third century BCE Hellenistic original. Credit: Bockschuss, Flickr.

However, while the Romans appreciated that certain types of wine could be beneficial to health, they also recognised that too much of any type of wine could be detrimental to health. Lucretius asked: ‘why, when the sharp power of wine has penetrated into a man … does heaviness come upon the limbs, do his legs impede him as he staggers, does his speech become slurred, his mind become soaked, his eyes swim?’ (On the Nature of Things 3.476-82, early first century BCE). Excessive drinking and drunkenness were frowned upon in both men and women, and just as hellebore could be added to wine to make a purgative, it was also believed to cure the madness brought on by excessive drinking…


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