The Romans used to drink “posca”, a mix of water and vinegar that was sold in the streets, similarly to coconut sellers in modern times. Posca was believed to give strength, while wine would make you drunk. (Posca fortem, vinum ebrium facit). A sponge soaked in posca was offered by a praetorian to Jesus on the cross.
In fact it was not a cruel gesture, but a sign of mercy of the soldier for a man agonising on the cross. Acetabulum, a bowl containing a glass and a half of vinegar, where table companions used to soak small pieces of bread during the meal to favour digestion, was always present on the table, at the time of the Roman banquets.
Almost all the recipes created by Apicius, a famous Epicurean gastronomist in Roman times, contained vinegar. Columella, a contemporary of his, has left some vinegar recipes; acid yeast was used to favour fermentation, while incandescent bars and hot fir cones were put in wine to purify it and remove any bad odours.
The Romans had several vinegar sauces, from very simple ones to the famous garum, an odd mix of ingredients that vinegar had to blend. Vinegar was also used as a dressing for “acetarie”, meat and vegetable salads or vegetables served between the main courses. The Romans introduced the marinating process to keep fried fish. Plinius the Elder recommends vinegar in his Naturalis Historia to treat several conditions and render life more pleasant.
Roman legionaries always had vinegar available. They used it in the moretum, a salad made with garlic, onion, rue, goat’s milk cheese and coriander, dressed with oil and vinegar, their usual meal before a battle.
Vinegar was also used during the military campaigns to quench the thirst, mixed with water, to clean the body, prevent and treat conditions caused by the life in the camps and small wounds.
Hannibal Barca, a famous Carthaginian general (247-183 b.C.), crossed the Alps at the Piccolo San Bernardo pass with foot soldiers, knights and elephants, thus avoiding the sea dominated by the Romans, in the decisive battle between Rome and Cartago. It is a well- known event. The way he crossed the Alps is less known. The trails were narrow and winding, impossible for the enormous elephants. Hannibal had enormous branches stacked between the rocks that blocked the trail and set fire to them. Then he had vinegar poured on the hot rocks; the rocks got friable and the soldiers could break them so that the troops and animals could go through.