Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum 26.8.2

Ad quam obsidendam, cum huius modi pugnarum peritis, Vadomario misso, ex duce et rege Alamannorum, Valens Nicomediam pergit. Exindeque profectus, oppugnationi Chalcedonis magnis viribus insistebat, cuius e muris probra in eum iaciebantur, et irrisive compellebatur ut Sabaiarius. Est autem sabaia ex ordeo vel frumento, in liquorem conversis, paupertinus in Illyrico potus.

To besiege the city, Valens pressed onwards to Nicomedia and Vadomarius, a former leader and king of the Alamanni, was sent off along with others [who were] skilled in this manner of fighting. Having set out from there, he besieged Chalcedon with great strength; from the walls of this city, [the enemy] hurled down insults against him, and addressed him derisively “Sabaiarius.” “Sabaia” is a poor-man’s drink in Illyricum – a liquor [made] from barley or grain.

This passage describes the battles of the eastern Roman emperor, Valens (328-378 CE). The description of sabaia, here used as an insult against the emperor, is not otherwise contextualized to provide any more information about the drink.

Illyricum was a Roman province that originally comprised Illyrium and Pannonia; it was extended to include almost all of the Balkans in the later Roman empire.

Apparently, “beer-face” (or equivalent) was an insult back in the fourth c. BCE. We can add that to our growing list of beer-related personal attacks. Again, beer has a bad reputation among the Romans and hopelessly remained a drink of the lower classes. Such an association is also attested in 3rd c. CE Egypt.

Recently, BCS has spent much time looking at the beer history of the Illyrian region and surroundings, with entries on the beer drinking habits of the Pannonians and the Paeonians. These accounts span nearly 1000 years of history (480 BCE to 390 CE), suggesting a long-standing (perhaps, continuous?) tradition of barley drinks in that region. In the Pannonian and Paeonian descriptions, however, such drinks are made with both barley and millet (check out our two millet-beer experiments: here). Ammianus Marcellinus does not mention millet specifically in this passage, but he does indicate that sabaia is made from barley (ordeum) and grains, more generally (frumentum). With such a short description of the drink, it is impossible to determine if the Illyrians and surrounding groups had ceased to brew with millet by this time. Because the Paeonian description is from only 150 years prior to today’s passage, I am inclined to think that sabaia was also brewed with millet (though, this cannot be proven). Alternatively, it could represent an entirely different type of beer from the unnamed varied described by Cassius Dio in the early 3rd c. CE.

Author’s Note
Ammianus Marcellinus (ca. 325-400 CE)
A historian and Roman soldier who wrote about the Roman emperors from the 1st c. CE to Valens’s defeat in 378 CE at the Battle of Adrianople. Only the passages describing the final years of his history survive.

Image Source
WikimediaCommons. Gold Solidus, Emperor Valens. Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

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