For hardened drinkers, looking for the perfect hangover cure is like the search for the fountain of youth. To drink and drink without any consequences is the stuff of fantasy – and it’s one that’s been indulged by countless civilisations. A return to one’s GCSE classics days proves it. It’s nice to know what Grumio really got up to in that culina when he wasn’t coquebatting.
For the ancients, getting drunk was a sign of civilisation, proof of masculine virtue and bloody good fun. Athenaeus, a writer who flourished at the turn of the 2nd century AD and the beginning of the 3rd, wrote masterfully about dining and drinking and included in Book Two of The Deipnosophists a recognisable tale of a group of young men who became so intoxicated that they were convinced they were aboard a ship: 'they threw all the furniture, and all the sofas and chairs and beds, out of the window, as if they were throwing them into the sea, fancying that the captain had ordered them to lighten the ship because of the storm. And though a crowd collected round the house and began to plunder what was thrown out, even that did not cure the young men of their frenzy.' When the equivalent of the police arrived the next day, the boys explained that they weren’t hungover so much as seasick.
The Romans and Greeks thought that one way to determine the condition of a hangover was to wear the right thing on your head. Vine wreaths, which were associated with Bacchus, would increase tipsiness. But hanging ivy, dedicated to Jupiter, would keep you relatively sober. Hazel, crocus and henna could retrain someone from drinking too much. And anyone with a headache would do well to don roses or violets.
The ancients did indeed have a metaphysical approach towards illness: healthy spirit, healthy body. But they also approached the problems of hangovers with practical sagacity. For instance, they recognised the ability to wild cabbage to detoxify the liver and so would urge the eating of cabbage both before and after getting trolleyed. And they were also aware of the potential for fatty food to soak up the grog – hence they would deep-fry little yellow canaries in oil, salt and pepper and chew on them in the morning. Pliny preferred owls' eggs in wine, to be drunk for the next three days about a binge. An eel 'suffocated in wine' would do the trick, too. And he describes the symptoms of the illness rather well: 'pallid hue, those drooping eyelids, those sore eyes, those tremulous hands… on the next day there is the breath reeking of the wine-cask, and a nearly total obliviousness of everything, from the annihilation of the powers of the memory'. If things are really that bad, many Romans would simply induce vomiting. Although I’ve always thought that tantamount to giving in.
Going further east, the Mesopotamians ingested liquorice. The Assyrians would grind swallows’ beaks into myrrh and knock it back as quickly as possible. The Chinese would eat a small amount of horse brains, or else drink tangerine juice while eating strawberries.
Finally, the ancient cultures recognised the value of the hair of the dog. One sure fire way to cure a hangover is to take a slice of lemon, some ice, some tonic water and some gin – mix them in a glass and resume drinking. You’ll find that feelings of nausea and guilt have receded by lunchtime. Although do observe the warning that this medicine may be accompanied by loss of job, marriage and dignity.