On moderate drinking

Sextarius, a Roman measure for liquids…. This measure held two cotylae, or heminae, being about an English pint and a half…. The sextarius was also the sixth part of a congius, a liquid measure of ten libra in weight (about one gallon). It was the moderate quantity of wine which persons of sober habits drank at their meals…


That\’s (using American pints) .7 of a litre or so, or 4 ish of a standard modern glass of wine.

Nowadays, a standard glass of wine is served in a 175ml glass and is often up to 13% ABV, which adds up to 2.3 units.

Hmm, so a moderate quantity of wine which a person of sober habits would have with their meal was about 9 units.

We are told, for instance, that for women 14 units of alcohol a week is the recommended limit, and for men 21

So Roman women could have one and a half meals a week, Roman men two and a half.

No wonder they\’re all dead then.

16 thoughts on “On moderate drinking”

  1. roughly a 750ml serving then – I wonder if this is the origin of the modern standard wine bottle size, in the same way that Roman cart tracks ultimately led to the gauge of modern railways?

  2. They’re a’ deid, but wha’s like them?

    Actually, those unit guides are just another stupid, interfering, knowall government edict based on some poorly-executed, half understood research in Wingnut, Alabama. I imagine.

  3. What Kay Tie said, plus wine today is a lot higher in alcohol content than it was then. Fermentation relied on wild yeast, apart from anything else, so it was pot luck (sorry) how much of the sugar got turned to alcohol. (In Old English, the word for yeast was godisgode, which shows both the right attitude to booze and a lack of control of the process.)

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  5. I was always taught that the drinking of wine, and ale, became established when people learned that water could kill you.

  6. I have no proof of this story but I have no reason to doubt it.

    Playing golf last year I raised the Times story about the alcohol units as a bit of a rant and it turned out that one of my playing partners was closely involved with the story with offered this version.

    It turned out that he had been a senior researcher with a well known drugs company, he’s now retired and his research meant that he worked closely with the liver unit at Kings College Hospital.

    It turned out that some time back Kings were asked to recommend safe levels of alcohol for the average man. Bearing in mind this is a few years ago and wine wasn’t as strong as it is now, the answer went back two bottles a day. To which the the Government response was not good enough, try again. Anyway, after some tooing and frowing it ended with the Government telling them what the limit should be.

    Make of that what you want but I played golf with the guy a few times and I’ve no reason to doubt the veracity of his claim, especially as another member vouched for him having been a senior researcher and working on liver drugs.

  7. “I was always taught that the drinking of wine, and ale, became established when people learned that water could kill you.”

    Indeed. Weak beer instead of water. Or “small beer” as it was known.

  8. “Anyway, after some tooing and frowing it ended with the Government telling them what the limit should be.”

    Ah, policy-based evidence at its best.

  9. In my experience it’s the lifestyle associated with really heavy drinking that does the most damage: the staying up sll night, the hangovers, the lassitude the day after. If you get plenty of water and get to bed early you can drink like a fish to no ill effect.

  10. @Monty – I’ve seen the argument advanced that Europe overtook the Arab lands in terms of development around the time that Islam forbad alcohol, thus meaning that Europeans had access to healthy, sterilised booze while the Arabs had to make do with polluted well and stream water

  11. To add to DG’s comment… ISTR reading a report done by an American university medical school concerning liver damage due to heavy drinking – which appeared to conclude that it was only when consistent alcohol intake exceeded 100 units per week that any noticeable damage occurred.

    I may have mis-remembered, but in the light of the actuarial finding that a man has to drink approx 63 units per week in order to reduce his life-expectancy to that of a teatotaller, I don’t think that I have.

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