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A breathalyser for the women of Ancient Rome

When you are driving along the road and you see a Guardia Civil vehicle in the distance, your brain automatically gives the order to raise your right foot, even if you are driving at the speed limit. In addition, if a member of the Guardia Civil pulls you over and tells you to pull over to the side, your body starts to sweat, you do a mental check of where your papers are and what the reason for the stop might be, you look at the MOT sticker to see if it is in order and if there is a warning light on the dashboard indicating any anomaly, you ask if all passengers are wearing their seatbelts and in the rear-view mirror you make sure that the dog and cat are properly secured...

Still, you are convinced that something is missing. You politely respond to the officer's greeting and put on your best smile, expecting something along the lines of "Do you know what...? But no, this time it's "breathalyser" .... and you curse your brother-in-law for insisting you drink that beer. Then, I wake up and realise that I'm in 753 BC, the year of the foundation of Rome, where they already had a very particular breathalyser: it was only for women and testing positive could cost you your life.

wine women rome

From the origins of Rome, women were forbidden to drink wine and were obliged to kiss their husbands on the mouth. Both, prohibition and obligation, were directly related and had to do with the ius osculi, the alcoholometer of the time.

By means of the ius osculi (right to kiss), the husband kissed his wife on the mouth to check whether she had drunk wine. Unless the wine consumed was prescribed by a doctor, because wine was also used for medicinal purposes, the punishment for a wife who tested positive was a beating, repudiation or even death. This last case is cited by the historian Valerius Maximus (1st century) when he tells the story of a certain Mecenius who beat his wife to death for drinking wine. It was a notorious case in Roman society at the time, but not because he killed her, which he was entitled to do, but because of the method used. According to Pliny the Elder, women condemned for this type of "crime", comparable to adultery, were to be locked in a room in the house and left to die of starvation, as was done with the wife who stole the keys to the cellar where she kept the wine from her husband. Even so, as he only erred in form, his case was, as we would say today, dismissed.

The accused wife could ask for a "counter-analysis" which, unfortunately for her, was carried out by the relatives of the accusing party. The wife had to encourage her husband's relatives, who would surely confirm her positive. Returning to the Mecenius story, Valerius Maximus' commentary on this story "justified" why this crime should be punished: Any woman who is greedy for wine closes the door to virtue and opens it to all vices.

mosaic woman wine rome

Over time this prohibition was relaxed and women were able to enjoy the pleasures of Bacchus.

Javier Sanz
Storyteller through his blog, books, collaborations in the press and radio with the sole aim of bringing history in an entertaining and entertaining way to those who have left it aside. Director of the digital and interactive magazine "iHstoria". Collaborations in the newspaper Diario de Teruel, the magazine Iberia Vieja and the magazine Clío. Radio collaborations in La Rosa de los Vientos (Onda Cero), Gente Despierta (RNE) and La Noche es Nuestra (EuropaFM).


  1. This may have been true in some cases, but it certainly seems to be one anecdote among many in Roman society. Martial in his epigrams constantly alludes to women who were fond of drinking, both married and unmarried. Pliny the Younger likewise alludes in many letters of his Epistolary to great aristocratic banquets where women shared wine and pleasures as well as men. Therefore, we must remember that Valerius Maximus collects in his "Memorable Facts and Sayings" anecdotes and stories to enhance the mos maiorum and the virtue of traditional Roman morality. Therefore, I believe that to generalise that all husbands killed their wives for drinking wine is misplaced. Exceptional cases and exceptional historical sources should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, congratulations to the author for bringing the subject up for discussion. Best regards.

  2. Hi Carlos.
    In the text I say "the punishment that the wife who had tested positive would receive was a beating, repudiation and even death", in no case is it said that all husbands killed their wives. Moreover, I cite an "extreme" case in which the husband kills his wife, precisely in the time of Augustus when the Princeps wanted to recover the traditional values and customs of old Rome. In fact, at the beginning of the text I place myself in the year of the foundation of Rome and at the end I quote "with the passage of time this prohibition was relaxed and women were able to enjoy the pleasures of Bacchus".


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