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I’ve gathered that ancient Greeks and Romans watered their wine heavily, up to 90% water. Roman-era Talmudic sources speak of wine not being fit to drink until it had been watered (although mixtures weaker than 1:6 wine-water ratios were not deemed suitable for ritual purposes).

Why was this done? Was it to avoid getting drunk, or was this the preferred flavor? Was the wine spiced (ahem) with intoxicants other than alcohol?

Was wine stronger then—but how do you get strengths greater than 14% without distillation? (IIRC, the Romans did have a form of distillation through freezing: was this so prevalent?)

Or was this a way of making the water safe to drink—but is 2% alcohol content enough to make a difference?

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The answer is very simple: To not get drunk (quickly). Wine contains 10-20% alcohol today, it was a bit stronger back then (there's a Roman story about undiluted wine catching fire when it came too close to a lit candle, can't remember the source). –  Yannis Rizos Feb 11 '13 at 2:45
    
I've seen that claim too, but find it hard to accept without specific sources (see my edits). –  J. C. Salomon Feb 11 '13 at 3:09
    
The practice still exists today ... –  Drux Feb 11 '13 at 18:41
    
I don't know about specific spices, but sugar of lead was very common.. made it sweeter but as you can imagine probably caused long term problems. –  grayQuant Feb 12 '13 at 5:44
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up vote 9 down vote accepted

Well alcohol does have a strong anti-bacterial effect,and adding water to wine was a way to create more drink as there was very little clean drinking water. During the fermentation process many microbes die, eventually the yeast too dies in the anaerobic environment. I think adding water to wine and letting the two mix for a while would kill a significant percentage of the microbes, perhaps enough to make a safer drink.

Also because everyone, including young children, drank wine all the time from the beginning of the day until night, dilution was important in order to prevent the people from getting to drunk by the end of the day. In effect, the reliance on wine for hydration meant dilution could kill two birds with one stone.

NPR has a very interesting and informative article where they interview Paul Lukacs and his new wine history book. He talks about the necessity of wine dilution according to his research. http://www.npr.org/2012/12/04/166186416/inventing-wine-the-history-of-a-very-vintage-beverage

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According to this well sourced article, wine was diluted to reduce its strength, in order to avoid over-inebriation. Those who did not drink it diluted were seen as barbaric, uncultured, or besotted.

There are claims on wikipedia and other online sources that the ancients drank diluted wine or small-beer to avoid water-borne illness, but I can't seem to find a scholarly confirmation of this. Indeed, many Islamic cultures certainly got along without wine or beer.

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How would containing a small amount of wine remove pathogens from water? –  Michael Hoffman Feb 11 '13 at 18:19
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