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Medical Misconceptions

A Roman couple

Such an attitude might imply that the Romans thought that women were more liable to intoxication than men, and therefore more prone to let inebriation loosen their morals. Yet, many an ancient writer presented reasoned "medical" explanations that the very opposite was true. Thus, one guest at Plutarch's convivium noted how women possessed a moist temperament which was responsible for their delicate, smooth skin. This natural moisture would heavily dilute the wine and so make it lose its edge. This rationale was bolstered through comparison to the way that old men responded to wine quite differently—reputedly with trembling limbs, irascibility, and a wandering mind—all signs that apparently were due to a dryness of substance which would soak up wine like a sponge, keeping it locked and heavy within the body—thus, the wonderful observation: "Nothing is more like an old man than a young man drunk." (Plutarch, Table Talk III.650).

Again, it is intriguing how much such a Roman notion is at odds with modern medical opinion, which reckons that a woman's body contains lesswater (relative to fat), so that the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will increase more rapidly in her tissues that in those of a man of equal weight. And we now know that the enzyme, Alcohol Dehydrogenase, which is involved in the metabolism of alcohol within the body has a lower activity in women, so that they become drunk significantly more rapidly than their male counterparts.