wine and beer in Roman Colchester
Today (6th February) is the feast of St Amande or Amandus who is, apparently, the patron saint of wine- and beer-makers, vine growers and wine merchants, inn-keepers and bartenders. Bacchus was the Roman god of wine and wine-making, the grape harvest, fertility, ritual madness and the theatre. Bacchus was celebrated in ancient Rome during one three-day festival – the infamous Bacchanalia – which was held once a year. At some point, this became a monthly five-day festival…
However, the Roman empire was a wine culture, and wine was an essential, daily staple. There was a wide range of wine or wine-based drinks and these were consumed by all groups of people, from the élite to soldiers and slaves. The expensive white wine, especially Falernian wine, was drunk by the élite (evidence for Falernian wine has been found in Colchester). A taberna was a Roman tavern where the common people (men) could meet and drink cheaper wine. Romans added different elements to their wine, both during the wine-making process and after, ie water, and even sea water; preservatives such as frankincense; sweeteners, including lead; spices and herbs to make conditum; or honey to make mulsum. Passum was a sweet wine made from raisins. Lora was a low-grade wine and posca was an even lower-grade wine drink (see Drink: a tippler’s miscellany by Jane Peyton (2015)). Acetum was the cheap wine provided to Roman soldiers as a daily ration: it was diluted to make it drinkable or added to water to purify it, and it was also used as an antiseptic (see To rule Britannia: the Claudian invasion of Britain, AD 43 by John Waite (2011)). Grape syrup (defrutum) and wine vinegar were other viticultural products.
Wine-drinking in Roman Britain was a largely urban activity. Beer was brewed and drunk around the Roman empire by non-Roman peoples or by Roman and Romanised people if wine was not available. (Barm – the foam from fermenting beer, which contained yeast – was also used to make bread.) The Trust has excavated grain and barley from a re-used barrack-block on the Culver Street site in Colchester, which was sprouted, perhaps to create malt for brewing beer. The remains of a possible Roman store room (on the Telephone Exchange site) produced a large number of amphoras and flagons, as well as some wheat. The remains of a possible domestic Roman store room which the Trust excavated within the Williams & Griffin store in 2014 produced the evidence of grapes, spelt wheat, gristed grain, emmer wheat, millet and barley, for domestic cooking and, perhaps, for domestic baking and brewing beer. (Romans could use a leaven made from millet and grape juice to help ferment some of their breads; the juice contained yeast from the grape skins.) Wine would be used in cooking and this room also produced fragments of a wine amphora.
Colchester has produced evidence of Roman amphoras for wine from a large number of sources, ie from Gallia (including Bordeaux and the Rhone valley), Italy (Campania, Etruria), Spain, Gaza, the Nile region, possibly the Aegean, and even within Britain. (Amphoras were large pottery vessels for the transportation and storage of foodstuffs.) Wine was a lucrative industry and large numbers of amphoras of wine were imported to Colchester for centuries: to pre-Roman Camulodunum, to the Roman fortress, to the Roman town before and after AD 61, and to the later Roman town. Industrial wine-making in Roman Spain, for example, produced large quantities of wine for export. Colchester is interesting because it has produced evidence of a remarkable group of amphoras, with both a large number of amphoras and also a wide range of amphora types. Colchester was a major Roman urban centre, and it was not only an important market for wine but also, apparently, a trading centre for wine, perhaps based at Sheepen (see A macro economic and spatial analysis of long-distance exchange: the amphora evidence from Roman Britain by Cesar Carreras Monfort, 1994, PhD thesis at the University of Southampton, at http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/374875/1.hasCoversheetVersion/95028710.pdf ).
Apparently, Britain has produced over 400 Roman artefacts with representations of Bacchus, including at Roman Colchester, suggesting that he was a popular god here. Part of a 1st-century picture lamp shows a mask of Bacchus, from the Roman fortress at Colchester, which was excavated by the Trust at our Lion Walk site in 1971-4 and published in Colchester Archaeological Report 2: The Roman small finds from excavations in Colchester 1971-9. A complete example of a picture lamp with this mask of Bacchus, also from Colchester, is held by the British Museum. Both lamps were probably locally made, and part of a lamp mould showing this mask was found at the Telephone Exchange site in Colchester in 1964.
The images show the mask of Bacchus from Colchester crowned with a wreath of ivy (© Colchester Archaeological Trust); a terracotta figure of Bacchus from Colchester held by Colchester Castle Museum; and an almost-complete wine amphora retrieved by the Trust from a site at Playgolf Colchester in February 2013 (the amphora handles and mouth are to the left). (The figure of Bacchus shows him carrying his staff topped with a pine cone and wearing a wreath of ivy – he is usually shown also carrying a drinking-cup. The original photo. was taken by Carole Raddato in 2011 and generously published online, in the public domain, on Flickr at www.flickr.com/photos/carolemage/6764874677/in/album-72157629036703301/ .) Amazingly, we posted the photo. of the amphora, with Trust archaeologist Emma Holloway, in this blog exactly four years ago today, on the 6th February 2013!