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date: 20 April 2024

alcoholism, Romanfree

alcoholism, Romanfree

  • John Maxwell O'Brien
  •  and Barney Rickenbacker


  • Latin Literature
  • Roman History and Historiography
  • Roman Material Culture

The ancient Romans were as interested in the harmful effects of excessive drinking and chronic intoxication as their Greek counterparts. In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius writes that wine's fury disturbs the soul, debilitates the body, and provokes quarrels (3. 476–83). The younger Seneca warns that habitual drunkenness so weakens the mind that its consequences are felt long after the drinking has stopped (Ep. 83. 26). He notes that some men become so tolerant of wine that even though they are inebriated they appear to be sober (Ep. 83. 11). Seneca also suggests that drunkenness tends to disclose and magnify character defects (Ep. 83. 19–20). In his Naturalis historia, Pliny (1) the Elder finds irony in the fact that men spend hard-earned money on something that can damage the mind and cause madness (14. 137). Like the Greeks, Pliny comments on truth in wine (‘in vino veritas’), but emphasizes that the truths therein revealed are often better left unspoken (HN 14. 141). Seneca's and Pliny's descriptions of the psychological and physical effects of chronic intoxication presage modern observations: memory loss, identity confusion, narcissistic self-indulgence, antisocial behaviour, impaired speech and vision, distended stomach, halitosis, quivering, vertigo, insomnia, and early death (Sen. Ep. 83. 21, 95. 16; Plin. HN 14. 142). Sulla, Cato (Uticensis), M. Tullius Cicero (2) (son of the orator), Mark Antony (M. Antonius (2)), Iulia (3) (daughter of Augustus), and the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Vitellius, and Commodus are among the prominent Romans accused of notorious tippling.

The alcoholic beverage of choice for both the ancient Greeks and Romans was wine, customarily diluted with water, except perhaps in the case of the Macedonians who were reputed to drink their wine akratos, or unmixed. Distilled spirits, such as brandy and whisky, had not yet been invented, and beer was looked upon as a swinish potation better left to barbarians.


  • G. A. Austin, Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800 (1985).
  • V. D. Hanson, The Western Way of War (1989), 126–31.
  • O. Murray (ed.), Sympotica (1990).
  • J. M. O'Brien, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy (1992).
  • J. H. D'Arms, ‘Heavy Drinking and Drunkenness in the Roman World: Four Problems for Historians’, in O. Murray (ed.), In Vino Veritas (1995).
  • A. M. Eckstein, Moral Vision in The Histories of Polybius (1995), 285–9.
  • J. N. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: the Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1997), 36–69.