Patricia Gillespie -  Volunteer Guide

Wine

Wine-making was a serious business for the Romans. It was popular for drinking and as an ingredient in cooking. Soldiers would have frequented the tavern outside the west gate of the fort. It would have surely served posca to them – a lower quality vinegary wine from the fourth pressing of the grapes, mixed with water and made as a beverage for soldiers and slaves. This was probably the type of wine which the soldier offered in a sponge to Christ at his crucifixion (ref. 4).

Some wines had fruit juice, herbs, spices or honey added to them. One drink, conditum – wine, hot water with the addition of honey, pepper and spices – was a popular wine in Roman bars (popinae).  Spiced wine may have served as a pick me up for a hangover! (ibid).

Wine was consumed heartily in Gaul (modern day France). Roman writers like Diodorus commented on the quantity drunk by the Celts and the violence which could occur because the Celts preferred to drink their wine without water.  Diodorus commented that as they drink their fulsome moustaches ‘act as it were a kind of strainer’ (ibid).

In the Vindolanda museum look out for the fine fragments of the Gladiator glass, part of which was found in the tavern - the remains of a fine painted drinking vessel which had travelled all the way from modern day Cologne.

Amphorae and wooden barrels

Wines for all tastes make an appearance at Vindolanda and were imported in amphorae and wooden barrels from the south of France.

Amphorae produced in Languedoc and Provence contained Aminneum wine, a fine Greek variety, imported first to Italy then probably to Gaul; Picatum, resinated wine; Massiliense, from Marseille and Passum, made from sun-dried raisins.  They circulated from the mid first century to the end of the third century. At Vindolanda they appear in periods II to VII, AD90 to AD275.

The remains of wooden barrels have been found at Vindolanda.   The most common woods are larch and fir. The barrels were inscribed with their contents.  Fir and larch were found together only in the foothills of the Alps and the technique of striking an inscription with a sharp implement is known only in the Rhone and Rhine valleys, which leads to the conclusion that the containers made of these woods were used to ship wine – or sour wine (acetum) – probably from the Rhone Valley, to the army (ref. 12).

The Elder Pliny in his Natural Histories mentions a case of poisoning in Gaul, caused by drinking from travelling containers (vasa viatoria) made of yew. Hopefully no-one met a sticky end from the wine in this barrel!

And what about beer?

Early garrisons at Vindolanda, the Tungrians and Batavians, were from the northern provinces of the Roman Empire and clearly had a taste for beer. There are several references in the writing tablets to Celtic beer and in writing tablet 628 the Decurion Masclus, from the 9th cohort of Batavians, out-stationed with a vexillation, group, of soldiers is asking for orders on what to do next and ends his letter with ‘my men have no beer – please order some to be sent’.

On two occasions shortly before the New Year and again in February, a metretes of cervesa (beer) is listed in writing tablets. This was a measure containing 100 sextarii, about 50 pints, and the cost was only eight asses. (An as is a very low value bronze coin). The Batavians and the Tungrians clearly consumed beer in large quantities and had their own regimental brewer. Atrectus is named in writing tablets relating to the 9th cohort of Batavians.

This early variety of beer was brewed without hops and did not keep for long. It was often brewed from barley and was mildly intoxicating and more like barley wine or ale than beer. A cereal called bracis is mentioned several times in the writing tablets, which is likely to be spelt, which is thought to have been used in brewing. Flavours could be added to the wort, such as alecost, brought to Britain by the Romans to improve the bland taste, and honey could also be added (ref. 4).

Summary

The Vindolanda evidence – bones, environmental analysis, writing tablets, pottery, wood and more – helps to illustrate the wide variety of foods available for the military community.  Some foods were grown and obtained in the local area and others like olive oil and wine travelled many hundreds of miles on the trade networks to satisfy the tastes of people who had come from all over the Roman Empire, tastes which some of the native population also acquired.

A nourishing diet could not have been achieved by everyone in Roman Britain. Evidence from skeletons shows how under-nourishment and a life of unremitting hard labour took its toll, both on the body and life expectancy.  To a great extent your health reflected your wealth and station in life.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

References:

1 Birley, Robin (1998) The Fort at the Rock on Hadrian’s Wall, Magna and Carvoran (Roman Army Museum Publications)

2 Bowman Alan K. (1994, 2003) Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its people (The British Museum Press)

3 Birley Andrew et al (2003) Vindolanda Report Volume 1: The Excavation of 2001 and 2002 Environmental samples by JP Huntley, Durham University, Department of Archaeology.

4 Alcock Joan P. (2010) Food in Roman Britain (The History Press)

5 Roman Britain romanbritain.org

6 Birley Andrew (2013) The Vindolanda Granary Excavations (Roman Army Museum Publications)

7 Birley Robin, Blake Justin, Birley Andrew (2002) The 1997 Excavations at Vindolanda Praetorium site (Roman Army Publications).

8 Birley Robin (2009) Vindolanda: A Roman Frontier Fort on Hadrian’s Wall (Amberley Publishing)

9 Croom, Alexandra (2011) Running the Roman Home (The History Press)

10 Birley, Anthony (2007) Garrison Life at Vindolanda: A Band of Brothers (Tempus Publishing)

11 Bowman A.k., J.D. Thomas and A. Meyer with a contribution by Birley A. and Meyer A. The Vindolanda Writing Tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses IV, Part 3): New Letters of Iulius Verecundus (Britannia 2019 doi: 10.1017/S0068113X19000321)

 12 Birley, Anthony Barrels and amphorae at Vindolanda

13 Hobbs Richard, Jackson Ralph (2010) Roman Britain (The British Museum Press)

14 Grainger Sally (2019) Cooking Apicius (Prospect Books)

15 www.dovesfarm.co.uk    Doves Farm, Organic flour specialist

 Vindolanda Tablets online:         vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk