Max Nelson examines a replica amphoraClassicist Max Nelson examines a replica amphora of the kind that would have transported oil or wine across the ancient Mediterranean. In a new paper, he argues that Greco-Roman societies regulated alcohol by law and custom.

Ancient ideals of moderation extended to alcohol: researcher

Fuelled by popular depictions of drunken orgies and festivals, people tend to have the idea that ancient Greeks and Romans had a casual attitude towards alcohol, says Max Nelson, a professor of Greek and Roman studies.

However, in his article “Regulation of Alcohol in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” he examines the ways that was never the norm.

“The ancients had an ideal of moderation and self-control, and that certainly included the use of alcohol,” Dr. Nelson says. “These regulations didn’t always take the form of laws, but there were social pressures to conform to proper practice.”

Some of these rules would look familiar today — such as prohibitions against minors drinking. Others — like attempts to control over-spending on hospitality — seem somewhat quaint. Still others are quite foreign — like rules against women drinking.

“It comes down to the sexist idea that women were not able to regulate themselves and needed to be supervised by husbands or fathers,” Nelson says.

In contrast, ancient regulations over the manufacture, imports, and trade of wine seem very modern.

“We might be surprised at the various efforts to control pleasures, the concept that pleasures were problematic,” he says. “We tend to see a lot of suggestions by religious authorities and moral philosophers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they turned into laws.”

Legal strictures were less required in Greco-Roman societies, Nelson argues.

“In ancient times, people cared a lot more about their reputations,” he says. “There weren’t things like credit scores, so your good name was key. You would want to appear in a certain way.”

Stories of debauchery were recorded because they were very much the exception rather than the rule, says Nelson.

His paper is published in The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. See an abstract here.

Strategic Priority: