The Roman empire: does wine has really eclipsed beer?


There is little to say about the Romans and the beer brewing, because the Roman culture has been alien to beer from its very beginning. The first expansion of these wine drinkers took place towards the north of Italy at the end of the 3 century BC. The Romans cross the Po river and conquer two beer brewing peoples: the Ligurians and the cisalpine Gallic. Strabon (-58~+25) says about the Ligurians people that they breed sheep, drink milk and a barley beverage (beer). They exchange skins, herds, wood and honey for olive oil and wine sold by their southern neighbours, the Romans. This first act of the Roman expansion sums up all the following ones about the relationship between the two fermented beverages.

There is no trace of beer among the Romans, except perhaps among slaves of foreign origin to the Roman world. The Roman literary tradition more or less follows the attitude of the Greeks. Wine is the beverage of the cultivated urban elite, beer that of the rustic and the people they called "barbarians".

The expansion of the Roman Empire brought the Roman elite into contact with beer-drinking peoples to the north and west, but also in Asia Minor and Egypt. The first, Celtiberians, Gauls, Germans, Teutons, Britons, Huns are without writing. On the other hand, the oriental peoples are the holders of ancient and very advanced literary cultures: Phrygians, Lydians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Lybians, etc. Hence the perplexity of Latin authors recognising the high culture of these beer-drinking oriental peoples.

Almost all Latin cultural authors will elaborate on the theme of decadence (moral, political or historical) to explain what remains a paradox in their eyes. How did the oldest civilisations of the Mediterranean world build themselves and be satisfied with beer? The myth of Dionysus, god of the vine and wine, visiting in turn the "barbarian" peoples to give them the gift of the high culture of wine, was a Greek answer to this historical paradox. This fiction of Greek origin was taken up and rationalised, from a political and moral point of view, by the Latin authors.

Northern European peoples without writing therefore. We use the Roman literature to verify the reality of these beer brewing cultures. It gives some flesh to the somewhat dry archaeological evidence that is now accumulating and traces the origin of brewing in Europe long before the Celts, the Germans, and the Gauls.

Roman authors give us vernacular names for beer. Some of them are romanized like the cervesia of Gaul. Isidore of Seville (560~636) gives a late folk etymology (Ceres + Vis = Force du Grain) which will then be repeated over and over again until today. It is more likely that cervesia (cervisia) derives from a Celtic root (Gaelic cwrw or cwrf) latinized by the Roman authors. It would be an aberration that Celtic or related peoples, with older brewing traditions than the Romans, would have had to invent a word for beer with the Latin language, a term which would be lacking in their own languages !

Latin sources must be handled with great care for two major reasons. They are written by a Roman elite hostile to beer. And second reason, beer is summarily described by authors who know nothing about brewing techniques. Their writings are full of prejudices and technical errors. Their etymologies are fanciful. Their observations are more than sketchy.

The idea that brewing was transmitted from the Near East to Europe through the Romans, or even the Greeks, must be definitively abandoned. An absurd idea that would make wine-growing peoples the vehicles of a technical and cultural tradition that was foreign and rejected by them. From Spain to Central and Northern Europe, the peoples of Europe brewed beer several millennia before the founding of Rome or Athens (Bell Beaker Europe).

Studies of the Vindolanda tablets
(Beer-Studies)Tablette 291 Vindolanda



However, all is not lost. A file deserves a lot of attention. The tablets discovered in the military fort (castrum) of Vindolanda, near the Hadrian's wall in Great Britain, have a great historical value. The construction of the fort began in the year 122 and it shelters the legionaries of the 9th cohort. A dozen tablets, out of a corpus of 752 discovered to date, document some interesting beer brewing matters at the time of the Roman occupation. The legionaries are Bataves (todayNetherlands) or Brittons (British Isles), origins which explain the care that the prefect Flavius Cerialis takes to guarantee their beer supply.





02/05/2012  Christian Berger