Heavy Drinking and Drunkenness in Roman Society

D’Arms, J.  1995.  “Heavy Drinking and Drunkenness in the Roman World: Four Questions for Historians.”  In In Vino Veritas, eds. O. Murray and M. Tecusan, 304-317.  Oxford: The British School at Rome.

Presenter: Abby Rosensen


  • Amanda Curry
  • Christina Gentil
  • Sean Hipps
  • Sarah Kendall
  • Mallory Pigmon

20 thoughts on “Heavy Drinking and Drunkenness in Roman Society

  1. To start off our discussion, please answer as many of the following questions as you would like. Respond by clicking the “reply” button directly beneath the question you intend to answer. Be sure to explain thoroughly, and support your responses with evidence from the text. In addition, feel free to pose any further, relevant questions.

  2. In class, we have discussed possible functions (apart from eating) of the convivium. Does this article suggest any new functions of the Roman convivium?

  3. What was the author’s main objective throughout the article? Did the author address all necessary aspects of the question at hand? What types of evidence were used? Was the evidence appropriate, given the topic?

  4. What does this article suggest about social status and attitudes or rules towards drinking/drunkenness? How are the two related, if at all? Do the types of evidence available affect our ability to accurately judge this?

    • Based on the article, I believe the aristocracy had to be careful to balance their official life with acts of leisure, to be able to indulge and not be labeled as a drunkard. It seems to me that when a Roman man is able to maintain his composure at work and be an active member of society, he is not labeled as a drunk but rather respected as an individual who knows how to follow the social conventions of drinking. I say this due to the “culturally protective devices to legitimize upper-class drinking,” such as drinking contests (307). However, it must be noted that there is a line between being tipsy, able to hold and make conversation, and being completely plastered. Once an individual crosses that line, they can be looked down upon and such is the case with M. Antonius. He had consumed copious amounts of wine at a wedding and the next morning, while carrying out public business, vomited all over himself. The reason for Antonius’s disgrace wasn’t because he had drunk at the wedding, but rather that he wasn’t able to properly conduct himself at his place of work. Although, Antonius was at the time of the incident already a less favorable member of society for he had chosen the wrong side of the battle of Actium, thus this preconceived notion of his character could have worse the view on the vomiting. Therefor I believe that the more an individual was respected and esteemed by their peers, the more likely they would be able to get away with displays of drunkenness. Thus, attitudes towards drunkenness and social status are related, for when people were capable of maintaining their composure during business hours and justification their drinking, they were able to get away with larger displays of inebriation. This can be seen with Cato, who often indulged in heavy drinking and whose friends explained he only did so due to “passion for literary and philosophical conversation” (307) As with any research on antiquity, it is impossible to be completely sure of anything due to the evidence available, which often if fragmented, written with bias, or taken out of context. D’Arms has used both primary and secondary sources so I believe his theories do have grounds. I think it is also human nature to allow favored individuals get away with more thing than others who are less favored. This is similar in our time how celebrities are more likely to receive special treatment by other individuals or even the justice system, due to their fame.

      • Christina, D’Arms does use a variety of primary evidence, but does the type of primary evidence affect his arguments? Does it matter that most of his sources are elite? Does he acknowledge this in a satisfactory way?

        The article doesn’t necessarily discuss this, but do you think elites had to be more or less careful than lower-status individuals when drinking? You mentioned that many elites already had some sort of general reputation established that might have affected how their drinking habits were received. Do you think this is a benefit or drawback for those of high social status?

        • They way I read the article made me think that drinking was a common practice among elites and that it was more of the after affects which became looked down upon. If after a night of heavy drinking an elite was to hungover to wake up or go do their duties in the communites then that was unacceptable. The way I read the article it seemed that drinking in heavy amounts and being able to keep going became looked at as a feat almost and gained that person praise and a reputation. I think afterwards if that elite threw up as Antonius did, during their daily duties then problems may have occurred.

          I think elites had to be more careful based on who they drank with and how good of connections they had in their community. If an elite who got drunk and then could not even wake up in the morning had poor relations with many other elites he would have easily been disgraced. The true reason not being because he overslept and had a good time drinking but because those elite memebers held no sympathy or like for that upperclass memeber of that society. That concept reminds me of the Senate with Nero, in how they disliked what was about to happen in Rome and because of the power they held they influenced the majority of Rome agaisnt Nero. To me this connects with elites ability to get drunk on a smaller scale but just as impactful to their social standing and reputation.
          Overall I would say that elites had to be more careful because of who they dealt with in their everyday life, many of those people looked for any opportunity to take out competition or move up in their communtiy even if it meant destroying another. I would say it was a drawback of high social status but at the same time you do not have to get plastered every night you drink. Yes it may have been hard some nights not to get plastered based on the drinking rules in Rome, so I would say yes it was a drawback. If an elite was not invited to drink then other elites obviously did not like them, if they did go drink then they could possibly get to drunk to function the next day, it was a tight rope balancing act in my opinion.

        • I don’t necessarily think D’Arms’ use of primary evidence, mostly concerned with the elite, affects his argument because he deals with the attitudes of the elites towards drinking and the elites’ drinking habits. Often is it difficult to use such evidence when looking at a certain population as a whole for they do not give an accurate representation, but in this case it is necessary. Although, it must be said that such evidence can contain heavy bias due to the attitudes of the author. The article we read on Nero, which Sean has mentioned bellow, discusses the issues of using such evidence and relaying on them completely. Even in the article by D’Arms, where the sources mostly cover the elites, one must take the evidence presented with a grain of salt, for we can never be a hundred percent sure of its accuracy. However, his use of such evidence is only satisfactory when discussing the habits of the elites. When the discussion turns towards the drinking habits of the lower class, I believe there is little evidence to support his arguments. He uses Satyricon as evidence, which is a work of fiction, is surprising for it is not a historical document even though it might mirror drinking customs at the time of its creation. I find it highly problematic for D’Arms to use this book as evidence. D’Arms also uses legal documents stating ancient DUIs, which is quite humorous to think they existed even back then, but they only turn up in Egypt and not in Rome. The problem with using these legal papyri documents is they are found in Egypt and not in Rome, which could suggest that this only happened in Egypt and not in Rome.

          I think elites had to be much more careful than individuals from the lower class due to their position in society. Their reputation was everything to them and if they were to be disgraced, elites could ruin their chances of climbing the social ladder or move up in politics. Thus, being a member of the elite came with heavy burdens of maintaining an active presence at parities and partaking in heavy drinking, and being able to wake up the next day and go to work. The general reputation already established for certain individuals could be a drawback for they’re heavy drinking could very easily push them further out from the “inner circle” of the powerful elites. I also believe there was little room for error for elites with poor reputations and it would be very difficult for them to alter the preconceived notions about their character. Also, they could probably drink and party as much as the next guy but they would receive the disgrace because they already had a bad reputation.

      • Given the nature of intense political rivalry at Rome during the Republic, why do you suppose elites covered for each other rather than exposing the failures or excesses of members of their own classes to public scrutiny?

        • The reason I could see is that those members would have all be “on the same page” to say if there was corruption and illegal activites going on. To take down another elite and have to replace him with a fresh person could have meant a hiccup in the activities going on behind closed doors. I also think that showing the failures and disgraceful behavior of fellow elites would have brought the upperclass closer to regular people in the society. It would have shown how elites can not handle their alcohol just as peasants and lower class citizens. Shining a light on one or two elites would have created a label among all elites not just those couple and would have brought elite status close to other common people which would have been disgraceful during that time.
          Elites would have had to band together and spread propaganda on one man to have him removed without that man’s actions being linked to elites as a whole.

  5. Describe the concept of decorum. According to the author, is Roman drunkenness an indication of moral or physical health? How does this fit into the concept of Roman decorum, as it is described in the article?

    • In this article, it refers to the term ‘decorum’ as ‘propriety’ or the accepted standard behavior during alcohol consumption in the antiquity. Maybe I don’t quite understand the next part of the question, but I think Roman drunkenness is an indication of both moral and physical health in this article? It talks about the physical effects (vomiting and such) as a hindrance, but also the immorality of drunkenness as well (the illegal acts and violent acts against others). I think these describe an individual who has “breached” decorum and done what would have been unacceptable in that time.

      • Mallory, in the section titled “Doctors and Wine, ” the author suggests a certain reading of drunkenness in antiquity which differs from our own reading today. To some extent, this alternative view explains why proper drinking was expected and why improper drinking was a breach of decorum, or propriety.

      • I agree with Mallory that I also think Roman drunkenness was both moral and physical health. I agree with her already stated examples of both categories and would like to add to moral the example of elites not being able to do their duties in society. To me the beginning examples in article almost fit under both moral and physical when described, he tells of Piso and Cossus both whom after a heavy night of drinking could not wake up during the day. Obviously the physical part is shown in how niether man could wake up and the moral part comes from their choice of such heavy drinking that it put them in a state of slumber.
        I agree with Mallory’s description of a breach of decorum and think it is also fair to note that ones connections could help influence how big of a breach those activites proved to be.

        • Decorum is described as a connection of proper control of physical gesture with proper behavior. I don’t if drunkenness or being drunk necessarily signifies physical health. The article states that doctors would prescribe wine for illnesses, so I equate this to the assumption that being strung out on prescription drugs makes you healthy. The importance is in the moderation. However the Romans clearly had a different opinion about drunkenness than us, so mental health could most definitely be linked with drunkenness. Even in today’s world, I’m sure many would be impressed by someone who could maintain decorum while completely smashed.

  6. How do Roman attitudes and rules towards drinking and drunkenness compare to our modern standards? What is similar? What is different?

    • I think this is a really good question because I think D’Arms’s definition of decorum lends a hand to it. I think they are actually very similar to our modern day drinking habits BECAUSE decorum is not static. It always depends on the where, when and with who when it comes to drinking and drunkenness, in the ancient world AND the modern one.

      • Mallory, I certainly agree that the flexibility of decorum likens Roman drinking rules to those of our own culture. I think a large percentage of the expectations were very similar; however, there is at least one key difference, which actually relates to the other question you answered above!

        For anyone else who wishes to answer this question: What specific aspects of the Roman drinking tradition differ from/are similar to our own modern tradition (i.e. age of “learned drunkenness,” acceptable drinking environments, perceptions of alcoholism, etc.)?

        • Mallory has a great point. What is deemed appropriate varies so greatly from place to place and person to person. There is certainly a paralegal between both our modern view and the Roman view that a person able to maintain decorum while drunk is admirable. Our society makes a distinction between “lightweights” and “heavyweights”.

  7. What questions do you have after reading this article? Was the article organized in an effective manner? Would additional pieces of information have been helpful? Explain.

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