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Ancient Roman Wine Cups
One of the most amazing things gift to us by the ancient Romans is wine. The drink is so amazing and so enjoyable, therefor is no surprise Romans appreciated it so much and praised it for its unique qualities. It was one of the most important parts of ancient Roman life and one of its main pleasures. Since Roman times wine-making techniques have gotten much more refined and a lot of varieties of wine were created, many of them Romans couldn’t even imagine. But what was it like – to have a cup of wine in ancient Roman world, and what would that cup look like? What would it feel like to hold it in your hands and which purpose would it be used for? How different would it be if you would be a patrician or a plebeian and what did the Emperors’ cups could look like?
Romans drunk their wine from special wine cups, just like we do nowadays. They could be made from silver and gold, stones, and beautifully decorated in case if the host was a rich person. But they could also be made of clay, which was very common and often the vessel used by the common man. Terracotta was a more expensive kind of clay that lasted longer and had a rich reddish hue to it which made it more prized, so middle class people most likely had this in their homes. Glass was a rare material to find, but after Egypt was annexed into Rome the famous glassblowers of Alexandria began importing many of their wares to the great city. It was a very precious material and much loved by the patricians because of all the different colors it could be made in.
The words potoria and pocula were general terms for drinking cups, although more specific ones exist with their own names. Perhaps this was just a broad word, like how we sometimes say wine glass instead of Bordeaux glass.
The scyphus is the most well-known of these kinds of cups, as it was very common around the Roman dinner table. It was a Greek cup, but Romans often took things from Greek culture to use in their own lives, so it is no surprise these can be found in Rome. They would often be made of glass or ceramic or metal, but there also exist more expensive ones made from precious metals like gold and silver. Richer ones would have images carved on the outside. They looked like regular cups but were very deep and often had a low base, along with two handles on opposite sides that were equipped with a little thumb rest on the top of them.
Cantharus cups resembled scyphus ones, except there were no thumb rests and the shape was a little more variable. It comes from another Greek cup known as a kantharos, which is where it gets its shape. Its handles were elongated and they have been found in terracotta, but most of the cups recovered are made of silver, indicating it was probably for wealthier people.
Unlike the last two, the calix or calyx was a cheap cup—basically it was a bowl with a leg. These were used for drinking in public, like a bar or restaurant or even a banquet, because they were easy to produce due to their simple shape. Ironically the word calix is the root word for chalice, a cup we i the modern day associate with royalty and decadence. As time went on the chalice became more and more elegant, rising from its humble beginnings to sit at the tables of kings and churches. Nowadays it is mostly used for religious ceremonies and is usually very beautifully decorated with carvings and precious metals.
A phiala, or patera, was a very special bowl that was not used for drinking. It had reliefs carved into it and a little knob in the center, and was used in religious ceremonies for offering wine to the gods. IT is a very old type of vessel, as images of it have been found on Etruscan tombs.
There is also the diatretum or diatreta, known to the modern day as a “cage cup,” that is a very special and rare kind of cup that deserves a mention because of its uniqueness. It has an inner layer and an outer layer, but with how they are attached together it looks like it is all one piece of material. The outer skin is carved and punched through with various designs and reliefs to show beautiful images and the inner material through it. Most of them also have letters, since the way this cup was produced made it easy to put writing on them. There were phrases such as “Drink well, live forever,” and “Drink and you will live for many years,” showing the attitude ancient people had towards drinking in the past.
These kinds of cups were extremely difficult to make and therefore expensive and not many of them have been found. The most famous of the cage cups is the Lycurgus Cup, which is not just the only complete cage cup ever found (most are missing their stems) but it is made of remarkable color-changing glass; it looks red when lit from behind and green when the light hits the front. It is on display in the British Museum in London, and there are other diatretum cups in cities like Munich, Milan, and Pljevlja.
Another special vessel to mention is not in its shape, but the material. Murrina cups were especially valuable, being made from fluorite, which was extremely rare at the time as it was only found in the area of modern day Iran. Emperor Nero was known to have paid over a million sesterces (a large brass coin) for a single cup. The vessels were extremely beautiful, with colors of violet, green, white, and yellow shown clear from the fluorite, and carved with various images. There was a special resin that was painted all over the stone to hold it together while the cup was being made, and this was known to also give a special flavor to the wine as it was drunk, another reason why the cups were so treasured. Pliny the Elder even writes about how the taste was so enjoyable that one Roman noble liked to chew on the edge of his cup.
Compared to our plain glass cups, these Roman ones were a thing of true beauty and variety when we look at them. Romans loved to have all sorts of colors and materials decorate their lives and you can never see one cup that looks exactly like another.