Women and Wine in Ancient Rome Hot

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Roman Vase with Bacchus Relief, 3rd century CE

Roman Vase with Bacchus Relief, 3rd century CE
Photo © unforth

The idea of denying women a right to drink wine will sound bizarre to modern Westerners, even when talking about a society like ancient Rome. What reason could here be to limit wine to just men? First and foremost, we must remember that wine was more than just a beverage in ancient Rome. Wine might be simply another drink to choose from for us, but drinking wine carried all sorts of religious, philosophical, and social implications for the Romans and Greeks.

The inferior status of women may be expected to have played a role in the division of food within the family. The withholding of wine from women, as recommended by physicians, is a product of the way women were perceived, in a male-dominated society, as weak and fickle, a prey to their emotions, and easily tempted and led astray by the sins of the flesh. The denial of meat and other ‘nourishing’ foods, and the general instruction to restrict food consumption, were represented as a necessary response to the natural concupiscence of young women.

Source: Food and Society in Classical Antiquity, by Peter Garnsey

Oppression of women has occurred throughout history and always relies on a few common themes or arguments. One of the most popular has always been that women need to be protected — whether from dangers lurking in society or from their own "defective" decisions, reasoning, or natures. Paternalism is an essential element of patriarchy because treating women like children who cannot be trusted to make their own decisions is an effective way to put the government and male authority figures in a position to make decisions for women.

The Romans and Greeks were intensely aware of the fact that wine is a double-edged sword. The power of wine to give pleasure or to do good is matched by a power to cause problems as well. Greek philosophers developed idea about the best ways to drink wine in moderation precisely to harness its power to do good without causing harm — but this didn't include prohibiting women from drinking wine.

The Romans evidently thought that denying wine to women was the best course to take and that women needed to be protected because they couldn't control their experiences and reactions:

"Once upon a time the use of wine was unknown to Roman women, presumably so that they would not slip into some disgrace, since from father Liber the next step towards debauchery is usually towards illicit sex [venerem]. However, so that their pudicitia should not be harsh and terrifying but also tempered by a decent sort of kindness – for with their husbands’ indulgence they made use of abundant gold and much purple dye – so as to bring about a more stylish appearance they painstakingly coloured their hair red with ashes: for in those days there was no fear of catching the eye of a serial seducer of other men’s wives, rather innocently seeing and being seen alike were guarded by mutual pudor." (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Words, Book 2)

Father Liber refers to Bacchus, the god of wine, venerem to ‘Venus’ or ‘sex’. In Latin no distinction can be made between the two senses of the word venus since orthography did not distinguish between names and common nouns (as in the case of the personified pudicitia); in English we need to choose according to context which aspect of the term to emphasise. A reference to Venus may sound impossibly mannered to the modern ear when we are talking about sexual intercourse; just ‘sex’ misses the way that venus balances Liber, and also the sense of sex as a force beyond the mortal.

Source: Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome, by Rebecca Langlands

The language may be different, but this complaint sounds remarkably like some of the things said today about the problems which ensue when people are allowed to drink or use drugs. Let me see if I can translate it into a more recognizable form: "There was a time when our kids didn't use drugs or alcohol, but once they start abusing such substances it's just one more step into inappropriate sexual behavior." It's amazing how today's complaints about kids using drugs read like a Roman complaint about women using wine.

Men are trusted to control themselves, except of course when women are involved and creating inappropriate, irresistible temptations with their short skirts, plunging necklines, and visible hair. Women, in contrast, are not trusted to drink wine and still manage to preserve control over their moral, social decisions. Although we might seem to have moved past such attitudes today, I think there are still more moral judgements made about women out drinking and having fun than men.

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