Today, I’d like to cover some ancient beliefs in regard to wine’s therapeutic uses. This “nectar of the gods” hasn’t won the hearts of many and transcended the years for its mere taste alone. We’ll move on to the origin of its making one day soon, but “why” it was used seems more intriguing to me at the moment. Plus, let’s remove you from the History class temporarily, shall we?
Romans believed that wine had both healing and evil destructive powers. It could cure the mind from depression, memory loss and grief as well as the body from various ailments-including bloating, halitosis, snakebites, tapeworms, urinary problems and vertigo, there’s more, but I’ll spare you the gory details. Talk about a multi-faceted brew!
Soothsayers, Mystics and Historians wrote at length on its medicinal uses including supporting a recipe for creating wine that could aid as laxatives by using grapes whose vines were treated to a mixture of ashes, manure and hellebore. They wrote about how the flowers of certain plants like juniper and myrtle could be soaked in wine to help snakebites and circulatory problems. Ancient Healers believed that a mixture of old wine and juniper, boiled in a lead pot could aid in urinary issues and that mixing wines with very acidic pomegranates would cure tapeworms.
Galen, a 2nd century AD Greco-Roman physician, provides several details about how wine was used medicinally in later Roman times. In Pergamon, Galen was responsible for the diet and care of the gladiator. He made liberal use of wine in his practice and took pride in himself that not a single gladiator died in his care. He would bath wounds in wine as an antiseptic. He would also use wine as an analgesic for surgery. When Galen became the physician of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, he worked on and developed pharmaceutical drugs and potions made from wine known as theriacs. The abilities of the these theriacs developed superstitious beliefs that lasted till the 18th century and revolved around their “miraculous” ability to protect against poisons and cure everything from the plague to mouth sores. In his works, Galen notes the trend of Roman tastes from thick, sweet wines to lighter, dry wines that were easier to digest.
Romans were also aware of the negative health effects from wine, particularly the tendency towards “madness” if consumed beyond moderation. They warned that wine could provoke a fury in one’s soul and lead to quarrels. Some believed that drinking wine exaggerated the physical and psychological defects in the drinker. Drinking wine in excess was frowned upon and those that did were considered dangerous to society. The Roman politician Cicero would frequently accuse his rivals of being drunkards and a danger to Rome—most notably Mark Antony who apparently once drank to such excess that he vomited in the Senate. Seems many modern day politicians continue these practices today. Tsk tsk! We’ll touch a bit on wine’s religious uses tomorrow—much more bizarre than these medicinal uses!