For centuries there has been a fascination about the Roman empire. The secrets of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum destroyed in an eruption in 79 A.D. have slowly been uncovered for more than two centuries, and yet each new discovery still mesmerizes.
The Romans built modern cities, roads that survive into the modern era, homes with radiant heating in the floors, and established the foundation for modern repubilcan forms of government. And they had a disdain for beer, at least in the beginning.
The Romans emulated the classic Greeks. Wine was viewed as the beverage of cultivated, educated, “modern” people. Beer was the beverage of choice for slaves, the impoverished and the barbarian.
This elitist perception began to change with the conquest of the Ligurians and Gallic north of the Po River in the 3rd century B.C. Chronicles written after the conquest noted that the Ligurians were a people that bred sheep, drank sheeps milk, and that brewed a barley beverage, beer.
After the end of hostilities a trade network was established between the Romans and Ligurians. Olive oil and wine flowed north, skins, honey and beer flowed south to Roman cities and settlement.
With expansion of the empire, the Romans encountered other beer drinking peoples. First in Asia Minor and Egypt. The Phrygians, Lybians, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians each had a version of beer that was also a popular trade good.
Interaction with northern European peoples such as Huns and Gauls, and the Celts, added to the Romans association with beer. Interestingly, even though beer was growing in popularity in Roman society, writings of the era that reference beer are riddled with prejudices, fanciful claims of the effects of beer drinking, and romanticized tales woven with stories of the gods.
A window into this time when beer was beginning to compete with wine as a beverage of choice in the Roman empire was the discovery of tablets at Vindolanda, a fort near Hadrian’s wall in Great Britain. The fort was built in about 122 A.D. and and was manned by legionaries of the 9th cohort that had served in Batavian, now the Netherlands and Belgium.
Vindolanda tablets chronicle brewing techniques such as the malting of barley or wheat, the sale of spent grains by the brewers, and the surprisingly large volume of beer supplied under contract to the Roman army. They also talk of local brew masters as multigenerational craftsman.
The translated tablets detail prefect Flavius Cerialis efforts to ensure the garrison was supplied with beer. About a dozen of the tablets also detail regional brewing and how soldiers of the garrison preferred beer over wine. The soldiers preference for beer was bolstered by the native Britons, prolific brewers that had been perfecting beer for centuries before the arrival of the Romans.
If you enjoy a delicious craft beer with friends at Mudshark Brewery and Public House in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, give thanks to the Romans for our language, our insititutions of government, principles of engineering, and beer.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America