Hidden away under the Bloomberg Building in the City of London lies the remains of the Roman Temple of Mithras, which you can visit. So what does that have to do with drinking? Our guest today is definitely the one to answer that question!
Francis Grew, one of the fantastic curators of the fabulous Museum of London, knows all about the Romans in London and more specifically what the Romans were drinking in London when it was known as Londinium. He’s our guest today on this episode sponsored by the City of London.
Did you know the City of London is just one square mile and forms the oldest part of London and was founded by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago? And already back then, it was a major trading port with goods including wine coming from all over Europe – how little the change! It even has its own mayor, the Lord Mayor, and government and is run independently from London?
The City has so many things to see and do, before and after work, from quirky independent cafes to internationally-renowned cultural institutions, world-class modern architecture to historic heritage sites. From high-end shopping to vintage stalls, from street food to Michelin-star restaurants, and of course, from small boozers to glitzy wine and cocktail bars, there is a little bit of everything for everyone.
The City of London today is a vibrant part of London with its own unique atmosphere, culture, and history just waiting to be re-discovered, but let’s head back in time with Francis to when the Romans ruled the roost!
The “Square Smile ” campaign is designed to raise awareness of the benefits of returning to the City of London and face-to-face interaction as firms increasingly give their staff more flexibility on where they locate through hybrid working. It showcases the City’s vibrant offerings – ranging from world-class culture, heritage, cuisine, entertainment, retail, architecture, BARS, and so much more. Visit www.squaresmile.london for great ideas of places to visit, to see, discover, and drink.
Francis’s favorite cocktail is the Old fashioned, but we’re going to mirror the Romans. They brought wine to London from afar just like The City of London Distillery makes their Old Fashioned by using a Blackpool-born sweet mash and sweets that might be popular here but were created elsewhere first!
Our cocktail of the week:
Just add a little of your childhood sweets to this cocktail and make it purely English!
- 50 ml Bankhall Sweet Mash
- 10 ml Werther’s Original Sugar Syrup
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
- Garnish: Orange Zest
- Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass
- Add ice
- Stir, stir, stir
- Strain into rocks glass with one gorgeous piece of ice
- Garnish with the orange zest
To make the Werther’s Original Syrup - you need 100 ml of water and 10 candies. Just add the water and candy to a pot and heat it over the stove. When the candies have melted you have Werther’s Syrup! I don’t add extra sugar as I find it sweet enough but you can always add more.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 625Total Fat: 1gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 1mgSodium: 27mgCarbohydrates: 159gFiber: 1gSugar: 156gProtein: 1g
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Francis. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
This transcript is sponsored by:
Francis: Well, I’ve worked at the Museum of London for many years. I’m a curator there. My background really is in archeology. My particular specialism is in the Roman period, but I deal with much wider periods of history than that, but one always comes back to the things that one learned at the age of seven years old and, in my case, it was Latin, so I stuck with the Romans.
Susan: Oh, I was a Latin learner too, very early as well. So I have been thinking about Romans for a long, long time. Now, I haven’t really been thinking about what Romans drank for a long time and that’s what we’re going to be chatting about today. What were Romans drinking in London in the City of London specifically. My first question, what were the Romans doing in London while they were drinking?
Francis: Well, that’s a very interesting question, really. The Romans had started from smallish origins, I suppose, from the city of Rome, they expanded into Italy, then expanded further right out into the East, into the West, across France, into Germany and so forth. It seemed almost, I suppose, inevitable that they would turn their attention to Britain and Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC tried to conquer Britain, but he didn’t succeed for various reasons.
Then a hundred years later, in 43 Christian era, the emperor Claudius invaded Britain in a much more substantial way. A huge army came with him and he gradually conquered most of Southern Britain. It was not entirely easy for the Romans to conquer Britain. There was a lot of resistance. Eventually, by 70 or 80 years later, 120 AD and so forth, the Romans had got as far as Hadrian’s Wall, the lowlands, Scotland area. They never really succeeded in conquering Scotland, that was always outside the Roman empire of Southern Britain, Northern England, very much past the Roman Empire and London was, by a long way, the largest city, the largest town in Roman Britain in Britannia.
In fact, it’s probably the only place really, maybe York, that a visitor from France or Gaul or Northern Italy or something would actually recognize as being a city or a town that had anything like urban values in the way that they thought of them.
Susan: Did they create a big city in London at that time?
Francis: Yes, they did. I mean, as far as we know, there was very, very little occupation in the area of London before the Romans invaded, various reasons to do with geography. I suspect that the Thames, for example, in early days was both a means of communication, but also a dividing line as it always has been actually. People in South London today distinguish themselves from some people in North London to put it mildly.
There was nothing much here. So for the Romans, the River Thames was so important to them because they saw it was a way of giving access to Britain from the rest of the Roman empire. The ancient world was very, very much based on seaborne transport. We think of things like Roman roads and so forth and of course these are hugely important to moving armies and so forth, across huge, huge distances, but in terms of trade and transport, of commodities and goods, it was always seaborne traffic that was important.
That’s how it had been in the Greek world, Athens, the islands, and so forth, and the coast of Asia, Minor and modern Turkey. Then in the Roman period, the Western Mediterranean Italy, Spain, Southern France, Northern Africa, all these places were linked as it were by sea. So the Romans thought instinctively in terms of sea transport.
The river systems of Gaul or France are very good. The main, major rivers such as the Rhone, a very, very important river, flying into the Mediterranean, but then heading up into modern city of Lyons and beyond. Then, of course, the Rhine and the Danube are hugely important rivers. So the Romans, if you like, were able to use these river systems as an extension of their trading network, their seaborne traffic system from the Mediterranean. So, the Thames and the Thames estuary and the future site of London fitted in perfectly to that kind of scenario and that was the importance really of London and why they made it into a substantial town.
Susan: Tourists sometimes can have a bad reputation for wanting to make the place that they are visiting recognizable to them and have the foods that they love and the drink that they love. Since we’re here to talk about what the Romans were drinking, was it a case that they said, all right, we love what we’re drinking at home and we’re going to bring that wine here.
Or did they go immediately to let’s grow some vineyards here. We like drinking wine. We don’t like what the locals are drinking. So we’re going to create our own. Tell me a little bit about that progression into them starting to drink wine in London.
Francis: Well, I think it’s a mixture of all those things really. It’s a very complex picture, which we will never fully understand. I think we come back to the army and the fact that over 50,000 soldiers actually came to Britain and London was always quite a military place. There were always soldiers around, part of the time, actually for much of the time, actually a substantial fort of soldiers were in London, but also as a transit place for soldiers going up the east coast of Britain towards Hadrian’s Wall.
These people brought with them stuff, because most of these people in the early stages were incomers. Some of them had come indeed from as far afield as Italy, but many of them had come more from places like Germany and Gaul (France). So Spain, Greece, two very important Spain, particularly for calvary. These people brought with them if you like a culture. That culture in food was very, very strong. Of course, wine drinking was part of it.
So a huge amount of wine will have been brought into London to supply the army either for the troops actually garrisoned here in London or for trans-shipment further away to other Roman garrisons, but of course the army then had a huge impact. People came to London to work; they were attracted to this center.
Some of them came as forced labor. Undoubtedly, some of them came as slaves and enslaved people. Some of them were free British people who came to London to work here and do things. Some of them just were manual laborers. Some of them would be more than that. Also these people will have married into the coming population.
London was a hugely cosmopolitan population. We talked about the military and the British, if you like, but there will also be increasing numbers of merchants, traders who will be coming in because it was a new market, an attractive market to them. They were the people who brought olive oil, fish sauce, and of course wine. They traded in it, they dealt with it, supplied the army, all these other people.
It was a change in culture, an introduction, if you like, of Mediterranean style of cuisine and taste in drinks and everything else, but actually not a direct copy of Mediterranean. The cuisine would not have been exactly the same as you find in Campania, in Pompei, or Rome, for example, it would already have been adapted and converted, as it had gone across France and Germany and everything.
It would’ve been an amalgam of things already when it came into London, but it would’ve been something fundamentally different from people who had lived in Britain before. The Britains that we know they drank beer. It was very important to them. But so far as we know, they didn’t actually drink wine. No doubt, one day maybe somebody will find evidence for it, but at the moment, we know about the beer, but wine, no.
Although we know actually that they were beginning, before the Romans came to conquer Britain, the elites, and so forth were beginning themselves to import wine from the continent because it reinforced their status as the top people in their society. So it was something new that came in part of the kind of Roman culture.
I think, actually, the more we look into and learn about the people who lived in London, one time archeology certainly was very much focused on the buildings and the places and the material, whereas now, I think, we look much more at the people and their social, how they lived and what they did. It’s becoming more and more obvious that an incredibly cosmopolitan population lived here, so these people brought all this stuff with them, including wine.
Susan: One of the questions that I should have asked at the beginning was how did the Romans drink wine? Was it that their water, when you think of gin production in the 1600’s, people were drinking gin because the water or beer because the water was so bad? Was it the same kind of thing where it was watered or, I don’t know, I’m just guessing, it was watered down wine? How was it drunk?
Francis: Well, this is a very interesting question. Undoubtedly, the poor quality of the water supply would’ve encouraged people to drink wine. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. We know that from writers who talk about estate management and so forth, they make it clear that huge quantities of wine was drunk. It was probably fairly low in alcohol compared with what we’re familiar with today as table wine.
In fact, actually in the Roman army, huge amounts of wine were consumed. It would appear actually that, we read actually, it was posca which we usually refer to as the drink of the soldiers, which is a more vinegar thing.
In fact, in that context, it’s quite interesting, I recall from the Bible, the scene when Jesus Christ is on the cross, and has been crucified and there is a passage where a soldier, a Roman soldier, comes up to him and offers Jesus a sponge containing, and it’s usually translated as, vinegar. It’s usually assumed that this is an insult, whereas, in fact, actually I think, this is probably a sign of comradeship, that he is taking pity on Jesus on the cross and giving that. I think that interesting and maybe a slight sideline, but I think it shows the quantity was there.
That’s one thing that’s, if you like, the ordinary rough kind of country wine which was produced on estates in huge quantities. The other side of the thing I think is that there was, undoubtedly, in the top echelons of society, a taste for wine drinking of a very, very different order.
This was a people who wanted to collect and drink and indulge in the top-class wines. Now the Romans always believed that their wine had come from Greece. This is how they always believed it had happened. In fact, it’s quite interesting that archeology is beginning to suggest that’s the very origins of wine making.
We must distinguish, of course, wine making from grape growing, that just having grapes is not necessarily indicative that people are making wine, but, as far as I can understand it, the archeological evidence is tending to suggest that the origins of wine come from the Near East, from Turkey, Syria, that’s further east into Afghanistan, these kind of places, so Iran and so forth, that area.
Then it would’ve come into Greece and then into Italy. It may well be that archeology is kind of supporting what the Romans believed, that in the Greek world, there is a huge amount about wine. We know it was hugely important. One only has to go to the British Museum or museums in Athens and you’ll see huge amount of apparatus: wine cups, big craters they’re called, which are the big bowls for serving wine and so forth. All this was part of the apparatus.
There was a tradition of making very, very fine wines and the Romans, we’ve talked about how Britains, if you like, took over Roman culture, well, before that, of course the Romans themselves have very much taken over Greek culture and wine drinking was one of those aspects of the classical culture, which they took over.
Indeed, Greek wines were very sought after in the Roman period at the time when we’re talking about Roman Britain or maybe a little bit earlier, but Greek wines are very important. Now, there was one important thing, which you alluded to Susan actually, which is quite important. In the classical world, wine was normally diluted. This is why a lot of this kit that you get in the Greek world is for mixing wine with water. It wouldn’t be drunk neat.
It would be mixed very often with additional spices and herbs and everything like that as well. Then it would be served. In fact, the Greeks and the Romans, of course, cast scorn, really, they were very scornful of the north Europeans, the Gauls and so forth because they drank their wine neat and to them, it was terrible. It was a symbol of barbarity.
Susan: It’s funny that the French and Italian wine drinking, even then, they’re competing, when it was just being introduced.
Francis: Well, this is absolutely right, actually. Much of what we know about the real heyday seems almost of the Italian and the Roman wine industry was, in the first century Christian era and a bit later, but this was the real heyday of it, where we have a lot of information in the poets and the writers and so forth.
In fact, it was becoming quite clear that, although the real heartland of Italian wine production was the Campanian region and to the north, that Southern French wines were beginning to be important. People were going to beginning to recognize something that was well worth drinking.
Susan: So coming back to London and, I’m using in quotations “English wine” or Roman wine found in Londinium, were those grapes brought from what was Gaul or France or Italy, and grown and planted in England at that time obviously, or were there grapes already growing there?
Francis: Well, we don’t really know whether there were grapes actually growing in Britain. There may well have been. But of course, great grapes don’t necessarily produce good wine. There are specific varieties of grape that produce decent wine. Now in London, we’ve kind of seen this background of how London was a center for trade and dealing in wine.
Interestingly, actually, I mean, it would’ve been very analogous actually to the present London, that London for hundreds of years has been a great center for trading and dealing in wines. We think of these great firms like Berry Brothers and, so forth, Justerini & Brooks. Great wine dealers in London. That is a tradition, which has its origins if you like in the Roman period.
It was quite clear in many aspects of culture. The Romans tried because they were very, Roman traders and merchants, were very aware of the costs of transport. We’ve talked about how the difficulty of bringing stuff in the Mediterranean and so forth up the river system. So very, very expensive. They were aware of the costs and they were always on the lookout if it would be able to produce it locally.
They were actually very successful in some things, for example, they found that they could produce a lot of the pottery for use in the kitchen, and particular types of mixing bowl and so forth. They didn’t need to import what they could produce successfully locally. The higher-grade stuff was harder, that always had to be imported the more expensive, more desirable. It was the more expensive and so on.
It’s quite clear now that they made an attempt, for the same reasons, the same vein, to produce wine locally in Britain as well in the region of London and the evidence for this is quite remarkable actually, because it’s very difficult as an archeologist to identify a vineyard.
There have been a couple of vineyards, really one major vineyard, which has been identified in Northamptonshire, I think so, Bedfordshire anyway, a bit to the north of London and the archeologist there found trenches, bedding, plots and so forth where vines had been established and set in the ground.
They also found remains of the juice or, whatever it is, remains of grapes that were suitable for producing wine. So we have quite good evidence, but it’s very, very rare that you find that. So it was with great excitement that really that one day we were looking through the stores of the Museum of London and we found some very interesting pots or in fact wine jars.
Now we looked very carefully at these wine jars. We know quite a lot about where pottery comes from. We can trace it from the clay fabric, you can go and find the clay, where it comes from. We were very, very surprised when we found that these wine jars which were of types that when normally made overseas in Spain, Italy, France, were made just the north of London. Just, near Edgeware, which is on the Northern outskirts of London. So they were made there.
These jars are very, very distinctive. They’re very large amphorae as the Romans call them. They’re in two types, one is like a huge cylindrical thing with appointed spike, two small handles and weigh about, 30 kilograms or something. So it is a big thing. It would’ve carried a lot of wine, very thick walled.
The other is more like a large pitcher. It’s like a very big jar. It’s flat based, not spiked. It has handles and it’s much wider. It’s not cylindrical. It’s much wider. So these were two very different types of amphora, of wine jar. These relate to two very different traditions and places of making wine. The former, the tall, cylindrical spiky one is much more Italian or that’s the typical, the classic Italian form of wide jar. The other one, the fatter squatter flat based one, Southern French. That’s the typical wine jar produced in the areas of Marseilles, in particular, a huge center for winemaking in the Roman period and the Roman valley.
So very distinctive, two different things. Now you may say, well, maybe they just made these things in Britain, just for decanting wine, they imported the wine and then they just poured it into these things. Well, that is, I suppose, possible, but the evidence from elsewhere in the Roman empire, isn’t that at all really
It’s not that these wine jars were always made very, very close to where they produced the wine. They were for transport. They’re for primary transport. They’re not for decanting and secondary transport. Very often the potteries in Southern France and Italy are on the same estates as where they actually produce the wine.
Assuming it’s that same model, same process in Britain, we have, I think pretty certain evidence for an attempt to make wine in London, just north of London. What I find, it is exceptionally interesting, is that there must have probably two, at least two winemakers from these two entirely different traditions, the Italian, and the Southern French, both of whom had come to London and attempted to make their own wine.
To return to your original question, Susan, my guess is that they brought their vines with them. Their vines will be carefully wrapped, transported, and they would be sewn in the soil of Southern Hertfordshire or North London, maybe the Romans did it deliberately because they wanted to see which of these two methods worked. They quite possibly had different wine making methods as well, which of them, if either of them, would be successful, better in the British situation.
Susan: Okay. Hopefully you don’t hate this question, but being the cynic that I am, and this leads to how difficult it is to understand wine from an archeological aspect is, maybe those two style of jugs or amphorae were used to collect oil or something else. Is there a way to find out what was actually inside those?
Is there a little, a scent of grape or is there some residual stuff, sorry for my ignorance for not knowing the actual words, or should I say archeological terms you use, but are there remnants of grape residue or something like that that says, okay, this was for a drink that was made with grapes?
Francis: Yes. We talked about how these amphorae are distinctive to areas and actually the shapes are also very distinctive for the contents. So for example, an olive oil amphora was usually very much larger than the wine amphora and, but again, the same principle applied, these were made for transport.
They were made very close to where the olive oil was produced. Fish sauce, another important commodity in the Roman period, very, very distinctive shape of amphora in different region. How do we know about the contents though and match them? Well, there are two things. The first is yes. Sometimes we can look at the residues on the inside of these.
This is a science, which is very much in its infancy because we are looking into organic chemistry and a lot of the more volatile type things, like the alcohol, for example, will all have gone disappeared. People are beginning to do that and there have been quite successful identifications of, in particular, olive oil rather than wine.
One of the difficulties that you have with that, in addition to the chemistry, is that Roman amphorae were generally lined with pitch, which probably gave to wine a retsina type taste. So we have to bear that in mind. Also we have to bear in mind, fortunately, as with the examples that we’ve got that a lot of these were collected years and years ago. These were excavated 50 years ago, and people just scrubbed and clean, unfortunately, without, because there was no possibility of doing that.
There is another way we can work on content and that’s actually been very, very profitable really. That is the Romans very helpfully often wrote labels on the outside of the amphorae. These are extraordinary documents really which give us information, certainly about the products. There are many types of product, in addition to wine actually, which we would never have guessed. These would been written on the side, an example of that is a product called Defrutum, which is a grape juice. It’s more like pure grape juice, little alcohol content, which is used extensively in cooking.
We see that written on the outside of some of these amphorae. So, the writing is very helpful because it tells us the product. It sometimes tells us things about the weight of the product. It tells us where it came from, it tells us about the estate that produced it. Sometimes it tells us about the shipper as well. People have actually spent their lives analyzing these things, which are often found in large quantities on shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. That’s been a big source of knowledge of this with the increase of underwater archeology. So that’s very, very important. That’s how we’re able to identify these things.
Susan: We love those crafty Romans for putting it right on the bottle.
Susan: Now, did they ever put on what grapes they were using to make the wine?
Francis: Well, I wish that they did. I mean, that’s something that we just don’t know actually. The tracing, as it were, from the Roman period through medieval times into something that we would currently recognize and know and identify to my knowledge, nobody has actually done that yet.
It may well be possible, particularly as things like DNA analysis is increasingly added to it. It’d be very, very exciting actually, if that were possible, if you could identify it actually matches up with Chardonnay, or something like that.
Susan: I know that. It would be fab. Now other than the amphorae and the vessels to cart around the wine, did you find, in London, bottles or glasses and or things that would show how the Romans drank the wine or enjoyed it?
Francis: Again, as in the world today, we have utilitarian glassware bottles and so forth, but on the other end, there are some very luxurious vessels as well, which are very often to do with drinking. Some of these would’ve been beer glasses. We’ve talked about how Britains, had a beer industry. You had to remember actually that the beer industry continued throughout Roman Britain. In fact, actually, I think it would be fair to say that the Romans were actually here for four centuries after all, towards the end of that period, beer drinking was much more important than wine drinking in Britain.
But we are actually talking about the early parts of this period and yes, indeed, we have glassware. We also have ceramic vessels, ceramic beakers. A lot of them, the glasses are quite recognizable in many cases to us as tumbler shapes. We get those and we could be quite happy to drink out of them today. The Romans understood cutting of glass. So we have cut glass tumblers, which are not unlike a whiskey tumbler which would probably be the wine rather than the beer glass. Interestingly, some of them are much more enclosed, little cup shaped things really. We do sometimes get, in the ceramic ones, nice lettering on the outside, which have the inscription bibere or something. Cheers!
Susan: I love that.
Francis: So you do get those as well. They’re nice.
Susan: Now I remember you telling me they weren’t just drinking wine for fun; it was also used in a religious practice. Can you just tell me a little bit more about that?
Francis: Well, that’s right. I mean, I suppose, in addition to convivial purposes, if you like, the two uses of wine actually, were in alcohol, were in medicine. The one thing that we have to remember that a lot of the herbs and so forth, would’ve been actually used for medicinal purposes and one imagines too that, until quite recent times, before the introduction of chloroform and everything like that, you gave people huge doses of alcohol to knock them out, if you’re going to amputate their leg or something.
So the medicinal purposes, important, but also there is the religious purpose. Of course, it’s not entirely separate from the convivial purpose because we have to think that, after all, in the classical world, there was a God of wine, Dionysus to the Greeks, or Bacchus to the Romans. We have actually in the Museum of London, a couple of rather nice pieces that relate to the God Bacchus. We have a nice statue group, a model statue group, which shows Bacchus and his followers somewhat the worse for drink, actually staggering along, with a vine branch above their heads.
We have another nice little figurine of the God and another, rather the nicest, silver plaque too, which shows not the God himself, but perhaps one of his followers actually carrying the thersus, the wand that was particularly associated with Bacchus, which was like a staff, but had vine leaves, twelve round the end of the thing.
Bacchus was very much worshiped and important. Now, he was, of course, celebrated and worshiped for his convivial side for what he brought, but there was also the side to Bacchus that he was seen as a liberator God. This goes right the way back into the ancient history of Dionysus and Bacchus, where Dionysus, if I remembers the mythology, made a slightly later appearance than most of the other gods.
They had Zeus and all the rest of it for a long time. Then Dionysus appeared and Dionysus was always seen as being something of an outsider who produced this different element in life, which provided release from the daily life. He also was often seen by the authorities as being something very destructive and dangerous because under the influence of drink, people would seem to be stepping outside the normal bounds of civilized behavior.
So it was a very big problem for them. It was also a problem certainly in Greece and also in Italy actually. Bacchus made his appearance in Italy in the second, third centuries BC and he was associated sometimes with women. This of course was a very big problem and it’s quite a big focus of study actually by, predominantly, women writers and classicists who are looking at the position of women in society.
It’s certainly the case that when one looks back to the original myth of how King Pentheus was torn to pieces by women under the influence of drink, of Dionysus, followers of Dionysus. Many people now see this actually as a strong anti-female feeling of a predominantly male society who were concerned and worried about the release that this new religion is given to women whom they may wish to have repressed and keep repressed in this society.
It’s very important and, as in many other societies and any other cultures, wine drinking because of its obvious intoxicating effects are seen to release the spirit, release the mind, to have closer contact, if you like, with the spiritual, as opposed to the physical, the mundane. Now we’ve spoken about it and it could sometimes be seen as in society. But in later times it was perhaps actually seen as something kind of slightly, more analogous to a ‘serious,’ in inverted commas, religious experience.
We have, for example, in London, a temple to the God Mithras. This, in fact, was an all-male religion, for what it’s worth. There was a temple to Mithras in London and when they excavated the site, they found a very nice little silver canister and strainer which seems to be associated with the infusing of particular spirits, alcoholic spirits, combinations of wine and herbs. One imagines which would’ve been used in the worship of Mithras and would’ve given his followers, if you like, this release from the practical, the humdrum, the everyday to have this experience with their God.
It’s probably not a coincidence that after the Temple of Mithras fell into disuse at the end of the third century Christian era, that the temple, we believe we’re not entirely certain, it seems very low, was converted into a temple to the God Bacchus. So in fact, this continuation really goes through this. I don’t think it was a coincidence that this Mithras temple which relied a lot on the experience and this very personal experience of God in the later, very end of Roman Britain became a temple to Bacchus, to the old God, if you like, the ancient God of release from the everyday world.
It’s there from that temple of Bacchus, the likely temple of Bacchus, that the stone sculpture to which I referred comes. Of course, you can today go and visit the temple of Mithras. It’s preserved underground in the new Bloomberg building, near the Bank of England in the City of London.
Susan: I love that. I love that there’s a temple to Bacchus right in London, in the city of London
Susan: I can’t wait to go and visit it. I think we’ve pretty much delved as far as we can go into the Romans’ drinking wine, unless there’s any other tidbits or something that you think we should know, other than everything you’ve told us already.
Francis: No. I mean, I think we’ve talked a lot about Roman wine. I think it’s of interest really in that it seems to fall into a pattern of the wine industry, of wine growing in Britain for thousands and thousands of years. As we all know, Britain is kind of on the fringe of the area where you can successfully grow wine.
It’s has always been on this edge position, which has persisted in Britain for 2000 years, that we now, of course, learn a lot about global warming, climate change and everything that rises in temperatures. There were fluctuations in the past, perhaps there was in the Roman period. Maybe it was slightly warmer. We don’t know. I think the jury is very much out on that. I wouldn’t like to comment, but, of course, just rising temperatures doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be great for growing grapes because it may mean a much wetter climate, as we are beginning to see at the moment. Actually, we seem to have a lot of rain, so it’s not an unmitigated bonus for growing wine throughout kind of history, really.
People in Britain have tried to grow wine successfully and I think probably very analogous to the kind of experiments that we see in the Roman period. We can think of King Henry II, for example, or in the medieval times, he tried to get grapes grown, vineyards on his estate.
Certainly the Marquis of Salisbury, who lived at Hatfield House, which is not very far from, North London. He most certainly had quite an ambitious scheme to grow wine there. He had vineyards on his estate and it was quite successful that they produced quite a lot of palatable stuff.
In the 19th century as well, people grew wine. There was actually some wine production, I believe, in South Wales, believe it or not in the end of the 19th century, which actually found its way into London clubs and so forth. So it must have been quite palatable. It fits into where we are now. It’s a very exciting time in terms of English wine because
maybe we’re helped to some extent by the change in climate, but we’re certainly helped enormously by the great scientific improvements in understanding grape varieties and so forth.
For the first time, we are seeing in England, grape and wine production on a really significant scale, we’re beginning to see the ten and twenty thousands, up to a hundred thousand bottle production on some of these estates. Interestingly, I believe a French champagne house has actually even opened a vineyard now in Southern England. So the English wine industry is really beginning to go places. The world I do find quite interesting actually, is that much of the output of the English wine industry is of course in white wines, predominantly sparkly wine, which wins prizes all over the world for champagne type wine and it was predominant in the Roman period too.
It was white wine that was predominantly drunk, that these great vintages, the Falernian
and so forth of the ancient world, were white wines. The great difference though is that they were sweet wines, that the grapes would’ve been grown late in the season. So very saturated. They’re the opposite of what we have today, but nonetheless, it is a white wine and I find that a pleasant pleasing, a turning of the circle, that we come around here.
Susan: Of course, I feel that as well. It’s great to think that thousands of years ago, the Berrius Brothers, there could have been a shop in the same spot as Berry Brothers has today, and they’re making the same thing and selling the same thing.
So it has been such a lesson today. I want to thank you so much for your time and we will all visit you at the Museum of London and see some of those things that you mentioned, plus so many other things. As I said, it’s such a fantastic museum and, for all of us who haven’t been there for the past two years, it’s time to time to start visiting things again.
I know that if I have any more questions about Roman wine, I know who to come to. Again, thank you for being on the show.
Francis: It’s been a pleasure. It’s been talking to you.
Susan: You too.
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