A mead recipe from the Roman empire

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (AD 4 – ca. AD 70) , was one of the most important writer on agriculture of the Roman empire. Little is known of his life but he was probably born in Gades (modern Cadiz, Spain).

From his writing reached us De re rustica (field work) and Liber de arboribus (Book of trees). The first of these works, written in AD 42, is divided into twelve volumes, and inspired by earlier works of other Latin, Greek and Carthaginian authors, it all works on the filed in the broadest sense of the word: from the practice of agriculture, livestock and beekeeping until the cure of animals and the preparation of different products and preserves. In the book De Arboribus discusses plant cultivation, as the vine, until the trees like olive or fruit trees, and even flowers like violet or roses, Columella’s work is considered the most extensive repertoire and documented on Roman agriculture.

 

De re rustica first page and page 157 (vol. XII)
Hand scribe in Nápoles, in 1488 by Giovanni Rinaldo Mennio with Illuminations from Francesco di Antonio del Chierico

In De re rustica, volume XII, page 157, we can find a reference to a mead recipe entitled “De aqua mulsa facienda”:

[Latim transcription]
“DE AQUA MULSA FACIENDA. Itaque seposita elle et ad condituras destinata, per se facienda erit optimo melle aqua mulsa. Haec autem non uno modo conponitur; nam quidam multos ante annos caelestem aquam vasis includunt et sub dio in sole habent, deinde, cum saepius eam in alia vasa transfuderunt et eliquaverunt; nam quotiensque etiam per longum tempus diffunditur, aliquod crassamentum in imo simile faeci reperitur – , veteris aquae sextarium cum libra mellis miscent. Nonnulli tamen, qui austeriorem volunt efficere gustum, sextarium aquae cum dodrante pondo mellis diluunt et ea portione repletam lagonam gypsatamque patiuntur per Caniculae ortum in sole quadraginta diebus esse; tum demum in tabulatum, quod fumum accipit, reponunt.
ALITER. Nonnulli, quibus non fuit curae caelestem inveterare aquam, recentem sumunt eamque usque in quartam partem decoquunt; deinde, cum refrixerit, sive dulciorem mulseam facere volunt, duobus aquae sextariis sextarium mellis permiscent, sive austeriorem, sextario aquae dodrantem mellis adiciunt; et his portionibus factam in lagonam diffundunt eamque, sicut supra dixi, quadraginta diebus insolatam postea in tabulatum, quod suffumigatur, reponunt.”

In 1745, a anonymous translation of De re rustica and Liber de arboribus into English was published by A. Millar (London, UK) with the title “L. Junius Moderatus Columella of Husbandry in Twelve Books and his Book concerning Trees”.

 

De re rustica published by A. Millar, in 1745, first page and page 517 (Chapter XII)

In this English translation of Columella’s work we can find the mead recipe on chapter XII, page 517, entitled “Of the Way to make mead”:

[English transcription]
“Therefore having set apart this bees-wax-water, and destinated it for preserving of fruits, mead must be made by itself of the very best honey ; but it is not made after one manner : for some, many years before, put up rain-water in vessels, and set it in the Sun in the open air ; then, having emptied it from one vessel to another, and made it very clear, (for, as often as it is poured from one vessel to another, even for a long time, there is found, in the bottom of the vessel, some thick settling like dregs) they mix a sextarius of old water with a pound of honey.
Nevertheless some, when they have a mind to make the mead of a rougher taste, mingle a sextarius of water with three quarters of a pound of honey ; and after they have, according to this proportion, filled a stone bottle, and plaistered it, they suffer it to be forty days in the Sun, during the rising of the Dog-star ; then they put it up in a lost, which receives smoak. Some, who have not been at the pains to preserve rain-water till it becomes old, take that which is fresh, and boil it in to a fourth part : then, after it is grown cold, if either they have a mind to make mead sweeter than ordinary, they mix a sextarius of honey with two sextarii of water ; or, if they would have it rougher, they put three quarters of a pound of honey to a sextarius of water ; and, having made it according to these proportions, they pour it into a stone bottle ; and, after they have kept it forty days in the Sun, as I faid above, they put it up in a lost, which receives smoak from below.”

Note about units:
Sextarius – A sextarius is an 1/48th of an amphora quadrantal. The amphora quadrantal was a unit for measuring liquids or bulk goods in the Roman Empire. The volume of a standard amphora is equal to one cubic foot (one foot is about 296 mm) there is about 25.93 liters. The theoretical value for the sextarius is about 540.3 ml.
Libra / Roman pound – The libra is an ancient Roman unit of mass that was equivalent to approximately 328.9 grams. The libra is the origin of the abbreviation for pound, lb. The commonly used abbreviation lbs to indicate the plural unit of measurement does not reflect Latin usage, in which lb is both the singular and plural abbreviation.
The Latin text makes reference to libra so in the english text must be understood as a reference to the Roman pound.

Disclaimer: The formulas (recipes) for mead in this article was commonly consumed in historic times. The recipes and instructions for these meads are for historical and educational purposes only. The author do not recommend the making or use of these meads by the reader. The author shall be held blameless for any injury to the reader that may occur from the ingestion of any of these recipes.