Did the Romans Have Coffee?


Coffee is an everyday staple for people all across the modern world. Some even consider it a necessity for their morning routines. It seems like humans’ love of coffee has been around forever, but how far back does it actually go? Did the ancient Romans enjoy coffee as much as people do today?

Romans didn’t have coffee. The “ancient Rome” period dates from 753 BC to 476 AD, and coffee didn’t make it to Europe until either the 16th or 17th centuries. (Scholars disagree on the precise date.) Wine was the most commonly consumed drink among the ancient Romans.

The remainder of this article will explain when coffee most likely came to Rome. It will also discuss other popular drinks that the Roman people enjoyed.

Also see Did the Romans Invent the Steam Engine? to learn more.

coffee beans
What cold drinks did the Romans have? See below

When Did Rome Get Coffee?

Coffee likely came to Rome sometime in the 17th century. In most of the 16th century, Ethiopia, the first place to discover the drink, was the only place that had it. However, it didn’t take long for the Ethiopians to realize what they had, and they soon began distributing it far and wide.

Scholars disagree about whether coffee came to Europe in the 16th or 17th century, but it almost certainly didn’t make its way to Rome until the 17th. [1] Either way, there’s no denying that Romans were enjoying it at least infrequently long before Rome’s first-ever coffee shop opened its doors in 1760. [2]

The famous Caffè Florian opened nearly four decades before in Venice, and it was a very popular spot for those living in Venice and those just passing through. Additionally, Pope Clement VIII supposedly “baptized” coffee before his death in 1605. [3]

While the truth of the coffee baptism story is widely disputed, those two facts alone are evidence that Italians and Romans had been exposed to coffee very early into the 17th century. It’s possible that the drink first made its way to Rome even earlier in the late-16th century, but it’s somewhat unlikely. 

Also see Did the Romans Lift Weights? to learn more.

coffee grounds
What hot drinks did Romans have? See below

What Cold Drinks Did Romans Have?

There weren’t a lot of “cold” drinks in ancient Rome. Most things were drunk at room temperature or hotter. However, during the summer months, some Romans surprisingly had access to ice that they’d carefully preserved in mountain caves. [4]

In the hottest months of the year, they’d bring this ice to the market so that people willing to pay for it could have cold drinks. 

Some of the cold drinks the ancient Romans enjoyed include:

  • Chilled wine
  • Wine slushies
  • Water
  • Fruit juice

Wine was easily the most popular drink in Rome, though only “barbarians” drank it to get drunk. Primarily, Roman citizens drank wine diluted at a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio with water. [5] Doing so allowed them to drink wine regularly without becoming intoxicated, which they considered disgraceful. 

If they had access to ice, they’d sometimes drink their wine chilled or even in a “slushie” kind of drink

To a lesser extent, Romans also drank water. However, only the very wealthy had access to safe drinking water in a private capacity. All other Romans had to get their water from public fountains to ensure it was potable. Usually, water wasn’t “cold,” but it was refreshing, and they could drink it without boiling it as long as it came from these fountains.

Just as Romans had easy access to vineyards for wine, so, too, did they have plenty of fruits and berries to make non-alcoholic fruit juices. These were sometimes enjoyed chilled (assuming ice was available) or at room temperature.

Also see Did the Romans Have Ice? to learn more.

Roman coffee
Did the Romans drink milk and beer? See below

What Hot Drinks Did Romans Have?

Because there were no refrigerators or freezers in the ancient Roman civilization, most of the drinks the Roman people enjoyed were hot or “room temperature.” (That means that even those drinks included in the cold section above were sometimes enjoyed hot, as well.)

The hot drinks Romans drank included: 

  • Wine
  • Calida
  • Mulsum
  • Posca
  • Cider
  • Beer (only rarely)
  • Milk (only rarely)

In the cooler months, Romans sometimes drank diluted wine plain, as mentioned above, only warm. However, more often, they drank what people today would refer to as “mulled wine.”  

They added spices and herbs to the wine to give it a richer, more full-bodied flavor. This herb-infused hot drink was called calida. Mulsum, too, was a type of warm wine. However, it was slightly different from calida because the Romans sweetened the drink with honey. They usually served it before or after meals. 

Posca was a popular drink among slaves, soldiers, and the poor. Anyone who couldn’t afford diluted wine would drink posca instead. The beverage was basically a mixture of vinegar (or spoiled wine) and water with plenty of herbs and spices added to improve its taste. 

Even today, people still sometimes make their own posca. For example, this recipe for posca calls for the following ingredients: 

  • 1 and ½ cups red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon crushed coriander seeds
  • 4 cups water

The directions for making posca instruct chefs to boil all the ingredients until the honey dissolves. Then, after the drink has cooled to room temperature, the chef should filter the coriander seeds. They can then drink the posca at room temperature or serve it chilled after putting it into the refrigerator for a few hours. (That wasn’t an option for the Romans, so they usually drank it hot or at room temperature.)

Cider was much the same as modern-day cider; the Romans sometimes enjoyed it in the fall. 

Beer and milk were also available for ancient Romans to drink, but they rarely did. In fact, consuming either beverage for any reason other than medicinal purposes was considered barbaric and low class. 

Even so, many slave and poor Romans often supplemented their diets with milk — usually goat’s milk — because it was inexpensive and relatively easy to obtain. And there are always people who will drink beer, whether they should or not.

Conclusion

Unfortunately for them, the ancient Romans didn’t have access to coffee, but they did frequently enjoy wine, fruit juice, and potable water from public fountains. 

Also see Did the Romans Have Steel? to learn more.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source

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