Wine, Women, and the Polis

Russell, B.F. 2003.  “Wine, Women, and the Polis: Gender and the Formation of the City-State in Archaic Rome.”  Greece and Rome 50(1): 77-84.

Presenter: PC Peterson


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

20 thoughts on “Wine, Women, and the Polis

  1. Is the prohibition of wine to women merely an attempt at social control over them by men? Does this notion evolve into a safeguard to the purity of the Roman state itself?

    • Roman men prohibited women from drinking wine because it was perceived that women did not have the willpower to conduct themselves properly when inhibited. They were viewed as weak individuals, who became powerless when drunk as their propriety vanished. I believe this notion can evolve into controlling the image of the Roman state. I think the Romans had the mentality “you are only as strong as your weakest link” and when it came to drinking, that meant women. Thus, the act of controlling the alcohol consumption of women was meant to uphold the standard of the idealized, Roman woman, who sat at home while her husband attended banquets. Russell also mentions the idea of how rape damaged not only the reputation of the woman but also her family and by extension the rest of the Roman state. Thus, by prohibiting women from drinking wine, it was believed that rape could be avoided, which could be detrimental to the image of the state, because as we all know it’s always the woman’s fault if she gets raped……..

    • What are our sources for this prohibition? Do we believe it was actually in place, or is this a fiction of later authors with a biased interest in presenting such a case?

      • I think the case that women were completely prohibited under pain of death, as Cato suggested, is a bit of an exaggeration. If so, why allow women to celebrate the goddess Bona Dea when the men knew that the “milk” was actually wine? Also, the wives in the last example by Livy are condemned for “wasting time” with their friends, which could suggest that they were drinking and having a good time without their husbands being there. And if so, Livy makes no mention of those wives being slaughtered on the spot. So although the abstention from wine was seen as ideal, women’s complete denial to wine seems a nice fiction supported by later puritanical sources.

        • Ideal vs. real is key here. There seems to be a gap in the evidence that needs to be explained. Early Roman women and their Etruscan Central Italian counterparts were clearly wine-drinkers and their Late Republican counterparts were as well. I find it difficult to believe that the intervening period saw a key cultural difference. Do you believe that the moment of urbanization and state formation provided the necessary conditions to create an anomalous social pattern for a period of a couple of centuries? How could have this happened? what were the operative mechanisms?

          • I agree that Ideal vs. real is a key factor in the article, as it is in many historical sources concerning multiple subjects. I think it is ideal to believe that women never drank in secret and stayed away from the temptation of wine, just as it was ideal in Cato’s mind to think gigantic estates would flourish the empire as the common home. I do not believe the moment of state formation and urbanization instantly creatded a different social pattern then what had been in place long before that period of time. I do not believe that change at the level could have been so easily switched into a norm which had been disputed and somewhat pushed back for so long. I do think that over time in that period of centuries change may have occurred slowly. To say that change instantly took place and women gained standing and rights they had never before held I think would be a bit to optimistic. In my eyes change takes time and it has the ability to happen over a couple of centuries but it will not be established as soon as urbanization and state formation took place. Women could have realized their value to society and the standing which they deserved, along with male voices which believed in equality taking place slowly, allowing women to help more and have more responsibilities. I think an operative mechanism would have been women realizing their value to society mixed in with taking notice of other societies which held women in high regard and allowed them to have equality among men. Coupled with support from more open male thinkers I think women could have pushed for a different social pattern then the past had held.

  2. In Roman household, the powerful taboo surrounding female consumption of alcohol was apparent in the ritual of the Bona Dea, the Good Goddess. Why was it customary to bring wine into her temple not under its own name, but the vessel in which the wine had been put was called a honeypot and the wine was called milk?

    • Due to the sett restrictions of wine consumption of women during Roman times, it is only logical that rituals, such as the one mentioned in the article for Bona Dea, appeared. Women did not have the freedom their male counterparts possessed, thus they only way they could partake in drinking parties with other females, without men present, was to call it a ritual. The ritual was used as a coverup for their wine consumption. By calling the wine “milk” and carrying it in vessels called “honeypots”, any man that would question the liquid would receive an honest and innocent answer. According to Roman law, if any woman where to be caught drinking or, heaven forbid, drunk, her “crime” would be considered as bad as if she had cheated on her husband. Adultery was punishable by death and according to Russell, Cato the Elder suggests that a Roman man had the right to kill his wife over her drinking. Therefore, women had to be sneaky in order to not get caught and suffer the consequences, hence the name change of “wine” to “milk”. It is ironic that the name of the cult stems from the wife of the god Faunus who, according to Plutarch, was caught drinking by her husband and was beaten to death. One would think Roman men would find it inappropriate for their women to celebrate a goddess who was known for drinking. However, it was sacrilegious for men to be present at the rituals so they must have not fully understood the meaning of the cult, or they just didn’t care enough to investigate. Although Russell mentions an incident where a man went undercover and, dressed up as a woman, attended such a ritual to meet up with one of the women. Ironically, that’s why we know so much about the cult.

      • According to the mythology, the Bona Dea was beaten to death by her husband for drinking wine. The ritual women practiced to honor her included the offering of wine referred to as “milk” and the vessel it was carried in referred to as a “honeypot”. These euphemisms served to further constrict women in this ancient society. Whether the women partook in drinking as part of the offering, or whether it was purely offered to Bona Dea can have significant differences on the meaning of the practice. I like Christina’s viewpoint that the women created the ritual as a way to side step the restrictions that were put on them. Of course there is also the possibility that the ritual was created by men, meant to further put women under their power, forcing them to honor a woman that did wrong and was punished for her wrongdoing and put to death, so they are constantly remanded why the must not partake in drinking. If this is so, they power control goes so far as they cannot even refer to wine as wine, but must refer to it as milk.

  3. There is a general perception that emerges in the works of Roman writers that women were less able to control their own unruly desires than their male counterpart. Do you agree with this? If not, could this have been characteristic of a more deep-seated fear on the part of Roman men?

    • Without a doubt there is a perception in ancient Roman works that puts women in a light of being unable to control their own desires. The ancient Romans were only so brilliant as far as misogyny can allow brilliance to go (not very far). My own reading often refers to this theme, and it is nigh on impossible to find a work that does not display females in some sort of negative light. However the possibility of fear on the part of Roman men is an interesting proposal. Certainly there is much evidence saying that those in power will limit the freedoms of those they rule over, out of fear of an uprising. It’s classic governmental dystopian themes at work. The thought is not without its validity. There is much antigenic literature where women take rather frightful roles of power (cough cough, Hera), and most (all?) ancient monsters in literature are female (Cerberus, Scylla, Harpies, Sirens, ect.)

      • I agree with the assesment Amanda made on the question posed. I do not agree that women were less able to control themselves and their unruly desires. I believe that it was fear of men that formed the statement that women could become and usually were more unruly then men. Men in teh Ancient world had for the most part held themselves above women in society. To allow women to drink as men did and have control over the amount they consumed would have put each sex on equal standing which would have been absurd. Also as Amanda stated the fear of uprising had to have played a factor in the thought of men attempting to keep women below them. If women realized their abilities and rights, that they could handle themselves the same as men, and began becoming bolder then the hierarchy of the sexes could have come falling down. By labeling women as unruly and unpredicatble under the influences that men could handle with ease and stay calm under, the Roman men kept the distance between men and women becoming equal in society. Men had to have feared women gaining status and recognition as a sex that could accomplish tasks that had always been a male job.

        • I don’t quite agree with the idea that the men were afraid of an “uprising” by the women. The Amazons considered themselves more than a match for men, and yet even this raw symbolism of female power does not seem to breed more women warriors. Spartan women in Greece were treated very well and held in the same esteem as their men. I think the Romans wanted to create a more docile female; to reinforce her place in the home as a faithful mother and daughter, rather than trying to keep some potential wild woman contained.

      • Did Romans believe that women were more susceptible to a lack of control, or did they just believe that women needed to maintain control where men did not in the same way? What is the operative factor here?

        • I think the statement that women were more susceptible is more of a cover up for the true reasons men wanted women to refrain from the actions they involved themselves in. I think you are correct VP in the question where you state men may have wanted women to maintain control where men could not. Two have both husband and wife taking part in drinking and say both get drunk and involve themselves in taboo actions there would have been chaos. I think men also knew that they needed their wives and that their wives did play influential parts in their lives. Men may not have wanted to have admitted it so publicly as to seem weak in some fashion so instead used the poor wording that women would become unruly if allowed the same items as men. I believe an operative factor in this is how women seem to have been recognized as having power in their own way. That women could gain more rights and equality at any moment and that they had a importance to men and their lives, the majority of men seem to have just not wanted to admit it openly.

  4. The anthropological construct of the big-man had been applied with results to the Greek Dark Age and can be applied to early Roman society. Do you think there was competition with one another in Roman society for prestige and power by ostentatious displays of martial valor, gift-giving, and feasting?

    • From our discussions in class and blackboard articles that we have read I would say there was competition between Romans for prestige and power. To me there would have been a difference between the ways of acquiring both power and prestige. To gain power I think people would go about that behind the scenes and behind their rivals back, they would not try to gain power in public but be sneaky about it. Gaining prestige I believe would be a huge public spectacle for a Roman elite back then. As we learned feasting could be public and private, both illustrated prestige and ability of the person holding the feast. By the food served, gifts given after the feast, murals and images around the feasting area all showed the prestige of that Elite. Power could also be shown at these feasts by the way an Elite commanded their servants, the rare dishes served, and the way the host led the night through wine consumption and conversation. Romans strived for higher honor and notoriety in their society, by gaining presitge and honor they would achieve their other goals. Elites also never wanted to be the weakest or lowest in their class and had to have wanted to out do one another throughout their lives whether by feasts, gift giving, or aid to their society as a whole.

  5. Since social relations in the polis were essentially indistinguishable from political relations, were women therefore socially marginalized?

    • Is this statement necessarily true? What about Roman women like Tanaquil, or the wife of the emperor Augustus, Livia? What about the role of aristocratic women in fostering the family’s political fortunes?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *