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
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 2:45
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    I've seen that claim too, but find it hard to accept without specific sources (see my edits). Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 3:09
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    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
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 5:44
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    @Yannis Sorry, but it sounds totally false. The highest alcohol content you can reach with fermentation is 14% (just like nowadays wines), and it cannot burn up to 40%. Could it be happen that they are talking about resina or similar wines, and pieces of resin or some oil remained in the wine.
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 20:06
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    Another point is that Romans often sweetened their wine, so it could really be pretty strongly flavored. They added sapa or desfrutum, which were made of concentrated unfermented grapes. As an aside, some of these were boiled in lead containers, which made them extra sweet, with lead acetate. Mmm. Note that addition of sapa would not generally lead to higher alcohol content, because that was probably as high as it could get, already.
    – AlaskaRon
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 8:01

7 Answers 7


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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    " 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. " this statement makes no sense. Why? Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 17:53
  • @ssdecontrol I think it was a common practice, but I agree the resulting drink may not be entirely sanitary. Alcohol is anti-bacterial and an environment with enough alcohol will kill off germs.
    – grayQuant
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 17:56
  • Which is why your statement about "adding water" makes absolutely no sense. Diluting it will make it less effective. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 17:57
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    @ssdecontrol Dilution doesn't make the wine better at sterilization, but it does give you more safe fluid to drink. Start with 1 pint of safe wine and 1 pint of unsafe water. Combine. Wait. Now you have 2 pints of safe(ish) weak wine. For the purposes of this question it doesn't matter if the practice actually worked, it matters if they believed it worked.
    – Schwern
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:19
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    @pokep, at least from what I've read, in what is now the UK, in early London and such, water was notoriously unsafe to drink, as it had mostly been contaminated by sewage... In particular, so far as I've read, the issue about safety of water has been on peoples' minds for several centuries, at least. Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 21:47

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.

  • How would containing a small amount of wine remove pathogens from water? Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:19
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    @MichaelHoffman: Exactly how an alcohol swab kills bacteria on the skin - because alcohol is highly toxic to many, possibly even most, microbes. Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 4:13
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    Just because the ancients were not aware of the mechanism why these drinks are safer, they still could drink for the benefit. Pure water was drink in few places if possible. For similar reason they drunk (stll drink) tea in the East.
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 20:11
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    Islamic cultures and a lot of other non-European cultures that got along without wine, used tea and other drinks made by boiling water, therefore unknowingly but effectively sterilizing water.
    – Pere
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 0:11

I don't have a particular source for this, but I remember my high school Latin teacher telling us that Roman wine was more like a strong, thick concentrate much stronger than the wine we drink today, intended to be diluted before drinking. Think like those 100% berry juices you can buy at health food stores in the US, that are undrinkably tart without adding water.

Moreover, we spent an entire class period learning about the central social role of the person designated to choose the dilution strength at each dinner party, known as the arbiter bibendi, the "drinking master." Choosing the wrong mix (too much water -- wine sucks; too little water -- everyone gets too sloshed) could result in social consequences among the Roman elite, i.e. not being invited to more dinner parties. We read about one of these situations, but I can't remember who the author was. Might have been Horace, or probably someone more lowbrow.

As to why it was made so strong in the first place, I have no clue.

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    Shipping a barrel of dilute wine costs the same as a concentrated one, but the concentrate makes more wine to the end user and can be sold for more money.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 19:36
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    Fermentation Technology? Even now we just let the stuff sit in a container while the bugs eat sugar and piss out alchohol.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 21:26
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    Concentrated wine has less weight and less volume making it easier to transport. The higher alcohol content would allow longer storage and longer trips. Cheaper to ship and less spoilage means more profit.
    – Schwern
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:23
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    How would they have achieved the concentration? You can't make wine stronger just by adding more fermentable carbs, because the yeast will still go dormant after they produce a certain amount of alcohol. Some strains are more alcohol-tolerant than others, but basically wine is already about as high in alcohol as you can get with yeast. You also can't concentrate it by boiling or evaporation in the sun, because the alcohol will evaporate faster than the water. Does anyone have an actual historical source for this claim?
    – user2848
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 17:33
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    I think everyone has this backward. The wine would not be concentrated, the grapes would. There are many styles of wine that are made with concentrated grapes. These could be dried in the sun to make raisins, left to freeze to give ice wines, a fungus to give botrytis. The flavor is highly concentrated and lends itself to dilution, but it is still 14% alcohol.
    – Tavison
    Commented Dec 17, 2016 at 2:37

Whist adding wine to water even in small quantities does help to purify it, I don't believe that this was a primary motivation. The water used would most probably have been finest spring water anyway or occasionally sea water. Wine with added water is more refreshing and it also doesn't give as much of a hangover. Roman sources are forever talking about good or bad for the stomach etc and thus this side of healthiness - avoiding hang overs and stomach acidity, can be considered a reason too.

A little sea water gives a more mineral expression and as many of the sites most favoured by the Romans (Falernum, Vesuvius, Messina, Mosel etc) produce mineral wines, we can possibly assume that the Romans added sea water to heighten this minerality.

The Greeks certainly sun dried grapes and concentrated musts which might have allowed them to get their wines up to around 16% - mix 50/50 and it's the strength of a Moselle. Mix in 4 parts water and it's still the strength of a light beer. The alcohol is absorbed more readily at this strength and with less ill effect.

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    Sources would help for this; please share the research.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 17:50

It was done because the very best wines came from Greece where dried grapes were used instead of the normal harvest. This produced a much sweeter wine that required dilution to make it drinkable. It was expensive and thus reserved for special occassions such as a wedding - like the one in Cana that Jesus attended.

Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (2010), Gil et.al.


They also believed that they were not worthy to drink straight wine- only Dionysus and other gods could do that. They believed that the only reason they had access to wine was because the gods sent it to them.

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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 19:41
  • -1. They just considered it uncivilised, not arrogant or impious.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 1:44

No. I think it is because of the lack of grapes (hard labour to cultivate the small fields unlike today where machines come and do up acres.

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    This is in need of some evidence. Wouldn't cheap slave labour offset the lack of mechanised harvesting? Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 22:18

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