Posca: A Popular Drink of the Ancients

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

If you have not checked us out before, then you should know a few things before we get started. We LOVE Ancient Rome and we LOVE all that was encompassed there (locations, people, history, food & drink, etc).

We that in mind, we are taking a drinking expedition to quench our collective palates on Posca, the wine of the people!

Soldiers and Peasants the focus group of Posca.

Posca was a popular drink among the Roman soldiers and citizen poor. Popular in Ancient Rome and Greece, Posca was usually made by watering down low quality wine (or even vinegar) and then adding flavoring herbs & spices to make it taste better.

Having originated in Greece as a medicinal mixture, it quickly became an everyday drink for the Exercitus Romanus (Roman Army) and the lower classes from around the 2nd Century BC. It was so popular that Posca‘s usage continued throughout Roman History, and even into the Byzantine period.

The word Posca is derived from either the Latin potor (to drink) or from the Greek epoxos (very sharp). It was an unfamiliar beverage in the largely Greek-speaking eastern Mediterranean region, where sweet wines were preferred.

A Byzantine campaign in the Balkans (594 AD).

As the Greeks lacked a word for Posca, sources written in Greek, such as Plutarch and the Gospels, use the word oxos (vinegar) in its place (translated as acetum in the Vulgate Bible). The word eventually migrated into Greek from about the 6th Century AD onwards, as the Byzantine Army continued the Roman tradition of drinking what they termed phouska.

It was not usually drunk by the upper classes (Patricius, Plebis, Senatorial rank, Equites, Nobiles) since it was associated with the peasants. It was made by reusing wine spoiled by faulty storage.

Roman Soldiers drinking

Posca was increasingly heavily used by the Roman Army during the Republican period when it became a standard beverage for soldiers. The drinking of quality wine was considered a sign of indiscipline, to the point that some Generals banned imported vintage wine altogether.

Appian records both Posca and wine as being among the provisions of the Army of Lucullus in his Spanish campaign of 153 BC. It had evidently become part of the customary rations by the 1st Century AD.

The Legio Romanus (Roman Legions) used to receive a lot of vinegar in rations, which they would then add to water in order to turn it into drinkable Posca. The Roman Legions were known to carry huge barrels of Posca during their military campaigns.

High ranking Roman Generals would also drink it together with troops to show their allegiance to the Legion. Even the great Emperor Hadrian always drank Posca when in campaigns, to show his men he was one of them.

The Roman Soldier pushes a sponge with Posca up to Jesus.

The Christian Gospels describe Roman Soldiers offering Jesus sour wine on a sponge during the Crucifixion. The Historia Augusta records that by Hadrian’s time sour wine was a standard part of the normal cibus castrensis (camp fare).

According to Plutarch, Cato the Elder was particularly noted for liking PoscaGirolamo Cardano, in his Encomium Neronis (1562), attributed the superiority of the Roman Armies to only 3 factors: the great quantities of levies; their sturdiness and ability to carry heavy weights due to training; and good foods such as salted pork, cheese and the use of Posca as a drink.

Since water sanitation in those times was quite sub-standard, and normal drinking water was usually contaminated, this only added to Posca’s popularity. The acidity of Posca killed most of the germs and kept the drink from early stagnation.

It also had important dietary advantages to water, aside from not being full of germs and bacteria. As well as being a source of liquid, it provided calories and was an antiscorbutic, helping to prevent scurvy by providing vitamin C.

Ingredients for Posca

No recipes for Posca are known to have survived. An approximate recreation of the beverage can be made by combining 1½ cups of vinegar with ½ cup of honey, 1 tablespoon of crushed coriander seed, and 4 cups of water.

The mixture should be boiled in a saucepan to dissolve the honey before being allowed to cool to room temperature. After straining out the coriander seeds, it can be served.

Hopefully you enjoyed today’s journey. Maybe you’ll even try to make (and possibly enjoy) yourself some Posca.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

Cardano, Girolamo. Nero, An Exemplary Life (translated by Angelo Paratico). Inkstone Books, 2012. ISBN 978-988-99939-6-2.

Dalby, Andrew. “Posca”. Food in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-23259-7.

Kaufman, Cathy K. Cooking in Ancient Civilizations. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006. ISBN 0-313-33204-5.

Nealon T. De Condimentis: Drunken Vinegar.

Roth, Jonathan. The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C.-A.D. 235). BRILL, 1999. ISBN 90-04-11271-5.

Showalter, Dennis E. Soldiers’ Lives Through History. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 0-313-33348-3.

“Top 10 Ancient Roman Foods and Drinks”. Ancient History List.

“The Roman posca or the drink of the plebeians” (Recipe). Romae Vitam.