Vini avidum genus, affectans ad vini similitudinem multiplices potus, et inter eos humiles quidam, obtunsis ebrietate continua sensibus, quam furoris voluntariam speciem esse Catoniana sententia definivit, raptantur discursibus vagis, ut verum illud videatur quod ait defendens Fonteium Tullius: ‘Gallos post haec dilutius esse poturos quod illi venenum esse arbitrabantur.’
[The Gauls:] A people desirous of wine, who concoct many drinks similar to wine; among those [Gauls] there is certain [type], with their sense dulled by continuous drunkenness (which Cato has defined to be a form of voluntary madness), they are seized by aimless vagaries, so that they seem truly just as Tullius said defending Fonteius, “What the Gauls once judged to be poison [i.e. wine], after, they drink diluted [with water].”
This is from a short description of the Gauls and their customs in a late history of Rome. The section is among a passage discussing the period of the Caesar Constantius (late third-early 4th c. CE). Ammianus Marcellinus also mentions beer in the same book, but in a later passage (both in time, and relatively in the book) when discussing the battles the late emperor Valens in Dalmatia.
Ammianus Marcellinus describes the Gauls, a Celtic people whom we have discussed in several passages (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) for their predilection for beer. By the fourth century, they seem to have developed a taste for wine. According to one tradition, the Gauls brought grape-vines to France in the 4th c. BCE after an invasion of Italy. In the following centuries, wine became a drink of the elite (See: Poseidonius). Despite this early presence of wine, the Gauls were assuredly and steadfastly beer drinkers. We know of several varieties of Celtic beer, such as, camum, korma, and cerevisia, that were enjoyed by all classes. This preference for beer was owed (in part) to the abundance of grain that grew in the region; this grain, moreover, was known to be of the highest quality.
Ammianus Marcellinus also perpetuates the stereotype that the Celtic barbarians were inveterate lushes. Beer (i.e. the “many drinks similar to wine”) was often associated with decadence or primitiveness (see Aristotle via Athenaeus). Just being a “barbarian,” cast a negative impression in the eyes of the Greeks and Romans, and the consumption of beer likely underscored this. Does this mean that the Gauls were not alcoholics? Who knows. But, other texts suggest that many of the Gauls had their wits about them.
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.
WikimediaCommons. “Drunk Father” by George Bellows; Library of Congress, Call number FP – XX – B435, no. 60 (B size) [P&P], Reproduction number LC-USZC4-4623