Ancient civilizations were quick to recognize the versatility of vinegar. The Babylonians used it as a preservative and Roman legionnaires used it as a beverage. Cleopatra demonstrated its solvent properties to win a bet, Hippocrates extolled its medicinal qualities and when Hannibal crossed the Alps, it was vinegar which helped pave the way. Was vinegar the world’s first bulldozer?
Vinegar has a 10,000 year history, dating from the production of alcoholic drinks – beer, wine and other spirits. Vinegar is a natural by-product of alcoholic beverages and its discovery was almost certainly accidental. People made the discovery in different parts of the world independently, and for as long as there have been undistilled, alcoholic drinks, there has been vinegar. Ancient civilizations as far back as the Sumerians used vinegar as a condiment, a preservative, a medicine, an antibiotic and a detergent, just as we do today.
The Babylonian Beverage.
The earliest written record is 5,000 BC when the Babylonians made vinegar by fermenting the fruit of date palms. An old Babylonian saying that ‘Beer that went sour wandered into the kitchen’ suggests that these early people used vinegar when cooking.
Vinegar is mentioned in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments – in the Book of Ruth and in Proverbs. It is also specifically called for in the making of haroseth in Pesachim, a section of the Talmud, the Jewish book of civil and ceremonial law.
The word vinegar comes from the Latin word vinum meaning wine and acer meaning sour. The French word, vinaigre derives from latin. The word alegar was used for vinegar made from ale or beer. The Romans made vinegar from grapes, figs, dates and rye. The armies of Julius Caesar would drink Posca, a refreshing mixture of water and vinegar, as part of every meal and for its antiseptic properties.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed the drinking of vinegar for his patients in ancient Greece. Many ancient cultures used vinegar and valued it for its medicinal benefits. Aristotle and Sophocles also made reference to uses of vinegar.
The First Bulldozer?
Without vinegar, Hannibal’s march over the Alps to Rome may not have been possible. The chronicles of Livy describing this historic march include the essential role vinegar played in the task of getting Hannibal’s elephants over perilous mountain trails.
Frequently, the passes across the Alps were too narrow for the huge elephants. Hannibal’s solution was to cut branches and stack them around the boulders which blocked their way. Soldiers then set the wood on fire. When the rocks were good and hot, vinegar was poured onto them, turning the stones soft and crumbly. The soldiers could then chip the rocks away, making a passage for both the troops and elephants.
Many paintings discovered in Egyptian burial tombs from the 11 th and 13th dynasty show people busy brewing. legend has it that Cleopatra made her own entry into the vinegar history book by making a wager with Anthony that she could consume a meal worth a million sesterces, which represented a great huge amount of wealth.
How did she go about winning her bet? At the start of the banquet, she placed a valuable pearl in a vase filled with vinegar then at the end of the meal she drank the liquid and won the bet.