A kiss to detect wine on her breath: the violent policing of women drinking in Ancient Rome

Ancient Romans revered wine.

It was widely available, an essential part of Roman life and commerce, and a staple in the economy. It was used for a variety of purposes: as a medical treatment, as an ingredient in cooking, and as a libation offered to the gods during religious ceremonies.

The ancient sources confirm that despite its importance in the daily life of Romans, it was not a drink for women.

Ancient Rome was a patriarchal culture in which women were viewed as objects by men.

Roman law and tradition were obsessed with the regulation of women’s bodily autonomy. Ancient male writers contextualized and appraised the boundaries of female morality based on notions of auctoritas and dignity.

Women’s drinking habits were one of the ways that this control was codified.

Punishment for drinking

The punishments used in the early Roman customary law were designed to enforce the discipline of sobriety among women.

In the early periods of Rome’s past, and until the Middle Republican Period, it was socially acceptable for husbands to punish their wives who drank. In many Ancient Roman texts, female drinking and adultery are mentioned together.

Julia, the daughter of Augustus, was banished from Rome in 2 B.C.E. by her father due to her adulterous behavior. Augustus prohibited Julia from drinking wine, which was one of his many restrictions.

Caroto Giovanni and Sophonisba drinking poison, first half of the 16th century. Castelvecchio Museum

Augustus, by banning wine as a direct response to his wife’s adultery and establishing a precedent that is fundamentally Roman in its ideology and history, has set a precedent.

The belief was that women’s evil was caused by their drunken desires, in some cases, to death.

Various sources confirm that Ignatius Mescenius, a Roman contemporaneous of Romulus, was bludgeoned to death for drinking wine.

This list of stories is endless. One wife was starved to death after stealing the keys to the family wine cellar. Another woman was fined her entire dowry because she had drunk too much wine.

Sobriety enforced by the state was associated with virtue and feminine propriety.

According to some sources, it was common for men to kiss their female relatives in order for them to detect traces of alcohol on their breath. A discernible odor would then justify the punishment.

Acceptable drinking

According to some ancient Roman historians, women were forbidden from drinking wine. Recent scholarship has shown that old Roman women drank wine.

The amphora or wine jar dates to the first or second century B.C.E. (c) The Trustees of the British Museum CC-BY-NC SA

Archaeological evidence confirms their drinking habits as far back in ancient writings as they do not state otherwise.

Recent excavations in Italy have revealed numerous female burials containing Amphorae jars of imported wine and drinking paraphernalia dating back to the Archaic Period.

It is now believed that women drank wine, but only certain varietals or alcoholic strengths.

In the strict confines set by gendered drinking guidelines, certain types of wine, such as Passum (a sweet raisin-based wine), were possibly acceptable.

Women are known to have drunk at the Bona Dea festival (the “Good Goddess”) – a female-only religious cult where wine is offered as a ritual to the goddess and then consumed by the women.

Even here, drinking wine is shrouded by innuendo. It’s always described as “milk,” and it’s carried in a honey-pot.

The goddess, the titular character of the story, could not escape from the consequences of her own mythologized drunkenness: According to the legends of the time, Bona Dea had been beaten to death for her excessive consumption of wine by the god Faunus.

Socially acceptable drinks

We know about the drinking habits of women in early Roman history from Greek and Latin texts written centuries later. These texts were written by men who heavily mythologized history to show the evils of the present.

Ancient writers emphasized a correlation between drinking and social behavior expected of women when constructing an ancient practice of female sobriety.

Abraham Janssens I: Ceres Bacchus Venus between 1605-1615. Brukenthal National Museum

Women began to drink wine around the first century B.C.E. when the Roman Empire replaced the Republic. The Roman convivium, a type of dinner party or banquet, and the increasing appreciation of viticulture led to a greater acceptance of women’s drinking.

Livia, the wife of Augustus, attributed her long life to a varietal of wine from Istria. Women of ancient Rome did not consider drinking wine as a matter of indifference.

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