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Wine and Rome

Now nearly extinct in the wild, grapes (vitis vinifera) grew throughout the ancient Mediterranean, the juice readily fermenting as the enzymes of wild yeasts that naturally collect on the waxy skin break down the sugar content of the grape into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In Italy, grape vines were cultivated both in the north by the Etruscans and in the south by Greek colonists. Wine growing was less important to the Romans, who, in the early years of the Republic, were fighting to expand their domination of the peninsula. By the middle of the second century BC, however, with the defeat of the Etruscans and the Samnites, Pyrrhus and the Greeks, Philip of Macedonia and the Carthaginians, Rome controlled the Mediterranean, and there were both the wealth and markets to invest in vineyards.

The earliest work on wine and agriculture was written in Punic. After the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, the Senate decreed that this treatise be translated into Latin, and it subsequently became the source for all Roman writing on viticulture. Ironically, it was Cato who had insisted on the destruction of Carthage in the Punic wars and who, about 160 BC, wrote De Agri Cultura, the first survey of Roman viticulture, which, significantly, also is the earliest surviving prose work in Latin. In it, he discusses the production of wine on large slave-based villa estates, which suggests how important vine cultivation had become in an agrarian economy that traditionally was subsistence farming.

Indeed, by 154 BC, says Pliny, wine production in Italy was unsurpassed. That same year, the cultivation of vines was prohibited beyond the Alps, and, for the first two centuries BC, wine was exported to the provinces, especially to Gaul, in exchange for the slaves whose labor was needed to cultivate the large estate vineyards. (In part, the wine trade with Gaul was so extensive because its inhabitants, writes Diodorus Siculus, were besotted by wine, which was drunk unmixed and without moderation). But, as more land was expropriated by the villa estates, the displaced rural population was forced to emigrate to Rome until, by the first century BC, the city had approximately one million inhabitants.

Mulsum was wine sweetened with honey, mixed in just before drinking (and therefore not like mead) and served as an aperitif at the beginning of the meal. (Conditum had herbs and spices such as pepper added as well.) Often freely dispensed to the plebs at public events to solicit their political support, the demand for mulsum became so great that it was more profitable to sell wine at home than to export it and, by the first century AD, wine had to be imported from Iberia and Gaul. Varro relates the story of an impoverished host serving mulsum to his guests, even though he economized by not drinking it, himself. But mulsum was not always inexpensive or inferior. Martial writes of the best quality being made of Falernian mixed with Attic honey, a drink suitable to be poured by Ganymede, himself, cupbearer to Zeus (XIII.108). The dregs of the wine press should be given to the livestock, suggests Columella, "for they contain the strength both of food and of wine and make the cattle sleek and of good cheer and plump." When soaked in water and allowed to ferment, the grape-skins and stalks left in the vat also produced lora, a thin, bitter brew allocated to slaves. Soldiers and the urban poor usually drank little better.

In 37 BC, Varro wrote Res Rusticae ("Country Matters"), a manual on farming. His discussion of viticulture is more cursory than Cato's, but he does say that some grapes produce wines that must be drunk within a year, before they become too bitter, while others, such as Falernian, mature with age and increase in value. A century later, Pliny was to say the same thing: that nothing experienced a greater increase in value than wine that had been cellered up to twenty years or a greater decrease in value afterwards (XIV.57).

The most comprehensive account of Roman viticulture is by Columella. In De Re Rustica ("On Country Matters"), written around AD 65, he discusses all aspects of the villa system and wine production. The best wine, he says, is that "which has given pleasure by its own natural quality," although the pitch that sometimes was used to seal the inside of amphorae is likely to have dissolved in the wine and imparted a resinous taste. By now, viticulture was highly developed, and most of the practices about which Columella writes still are in use. Yet, there is no longer the confidence that Cato had after the defeat of Carthage about the profitability of wine. Imports from the provinces and a decrease in the supply of slaves were depressing the market.

In AD 77, two years before his death while observing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pliny completed his Natural History. In Book XIV, he reviews the history of wine, its viticulture and vinification. Pliny laments the increased production of cheap wines and the loss of quality vintages. Traditionally, the best wine was reputed to have been Caecuban from Latium, but it no longer existed, the neglected vineyards having been dug up by Nero for the construction of a canal. Augustus was said to have preferred Setine (although Suetonius says it was Rhaetic from Verona). In Pliny's time, the best wine was considered to be Falernian, grown on the slopes of Mount Falernus on the border between Latium and Campania. Next in rank were the wines of the Alban Hills southeast of Rome, and Surrentine and Massic (among others) from the Campania. Finally, there was Mamertine from Messina, first brought into favor by Julius Caesar, who had it served at public banquets.

But it was Falernian that elicits the most praise. Made from the Aminean grape, "a producer of exceedingly good wine," according to Columella, it was brought to Italy by Greek colonists who first settled at Cumae near the Bay of Naples. Pliny says that three types were recognized: Caucinian, which was grown on the higher slopes; and then, midway down, Faustian (grown on the estate of Faustus, the son of the dictator Sulla, and regarded as the best and most carefully produced); and, on the lower slopes, Falernian.

Galen is the last to comment on Roman taste in wine. A doctor at a gladiatorial school in Pergamum before becoming, in AD 169, the personal physician to Marcus Aurelius, he had used wine to bathe the wounds of gladiators and to concoct potions of wine and drugs (theriacs) to protect the emperor from poison. In De Antidotis ("On Antidotes"), he writes that Faustian Falernian had no equal, which was something he discovered by going through the Palatine cellars, beginning with wines at least twenty years old and tasting each vintage until he found the oldest one that still was sweet and had no bitterness. This would have been served to the emperor in goblets carved of myrrhina (fluorspar) or rock crystal, precious metal or blown glass. (In his Meditations, Aurelius also speaks of Falernian. As a Stoic he was less impressed with the wine he drank and reminds himself: "Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination...that the Falernian wine is grape juice.")

Distillation was unknown in the ancient world (and would not be discovered until the early middle ages); wine, therefore, was the strongest drink of the Romans. Falernian was full-bodied (firmissima), with an alcohol content as much as fifteen or sixteen percent (at which point the yeast is killed by the alcohol it produces). A white wine, it was aged for ten to twenty years, until it was the color of amber (Pliny, XXXVII.12). The fabled vintage of 121 BC was a Falernian, the same year that Opimius was consul and had rebuilt the Temple of Concord. This is the wine that Petronius, in the Satyricon, has Trimalchio serve at his dinner banquet, and it is this wine that Pliny says still survived, although so concentrated as to be barely drinkable, to his own time 200 years later. He also speaks of Opimian Falernian being offered to Caligula that was 160 years old.

Vintage wines could be kept for such lengths of time because they were stored in amphorae. These were large tapering two-handled clay jars, with a narrow neck that was sealed with cork plastered over with cement, and held approximately 26 liters or almost 7 gallons. Vines were pruned and tended, and the grapes cut and brought in baskets to be trodden or crushed in the wine press, which the Romans had developed and which produced a second, inferior run.

The must (juice) then underwent fermentation and maturation. Weaker wines were aged in large clay containers (dolia) partially buried in the floor. More full-bodied wines, such as those from the Campania, were fermented in the open air to promote the oxidation characteristic of a mature wine—exposed, says Pliny, "to the sun, moon, rain and wind" (XIV.136). The wine then was racked (transferred) to amphorae either for storage, sometimes in a warm, smoky loft to promote aging; or for transport, which usually was by boat. (It was cheaper to ship wine from one end of the Mediterranean to the other than to haul it seventy-five miles overland, which is one reason why most vineyards tended to be situated on the coast or near major rivers.)

At the time of Augustus, the taste was for strong, sweet wines, which meant that the grapes were left to ripen on the vine as long as possible, sometimes until the first frost of autumn, so as to concentrate the sugar that could be converted to alcohol. Boiling also reduced and concentrated the must (defrutum or sapa, depending upon the concentration), which then was used to provide the necessary sugar for the fermentation of weaker wines or to make others sweeter still. (This sweet grape syrup also had potentially dangerous levels of dissolved lead.) Honey was added as a sweetener, as well, to create mead. Wine also was flavored with spices, resin, or even sea water, all of which helped to act as a preservative or mask sour wine that was turning to vinegar (bacteria oxidizing the alcohol of the wine into acetic acid and ethyl acetate).

Food, too, was strongly seasoned, as one can read in the cookbook of Apicius. Fermented fish sauce (garum), garlic, fruits such as figs and apricots (which would have been sweetened and preserved in sapa), honey, and wine all were used to flavor the food. Often, such condiments completely overwhelmed its natural taste, which was just as well with meats that were beginning to go bad.

Wine almost always was mixed with water for drinking; undiluted wine (merum) was considered the habit of provincials and barbarians. The Romans usually mixed one part wine to two parts water (sometimes hot or even salted with sea water to cut some of the sweetness). The Greeks tended to dilute their wine with three or four parts water, which they always mixed by adding the wine. The intention of the symposium was to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of the wine, to be intoxicated just enough to have the mind released from inhibition and conversation stimulated. At its Roman counterpart, the convivium, there was a tendency to get drunk more blatantly.

The Campanian coast around Pompeii and the Surrentine peninsula were popular with Romans of wealth and fashion, many of whom had vineyards and villas there. Greek culture still was strong, and its vines were considered among the best in Italy. Smothered by ash in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, Pompeii preserves a vivid picture of Roman life at the time. Wine prices were posted and varied for wines of different quality (one, two, three, or four asses per sextarius or pint; by comparison, a loaf of bread cost two asses). On one wall of one tavern, the price list still can be read, "For one as you can drink wine; for two, you can drink the best; for four, you can drink Falernian." In fact, genuine Falernian, a wine drunk by emperors, was not likely to have been available. The daily drink usually was red wine not more than a year old, drawn from amphorae stored at the counter, and drunk from earthenware mugs.

Some two hundred taverns or thermopolia have been identified in Pompeii, many near the public baths. Pliny, who had retired to the Bay of Naples to command a small naval detachment, writes of how a thirst can be acquired. First, he says, one goes to the baths, getting so hot as sometimes to become unconscious, then rushing out, often still naked, to grab a large vessel of wine and swill down its contents, only to vomit it up again so more could be drunk (XIV.136).

The eruption of Vesuvius destroyed some of the best vineyards in Italy. Growers replanted everywhere they could, at times even replacing fields sown for grain. By the time Pliny wrote in the first century AD, Iberia was an important producer of wine, and wine first was beginning to be imported from Gaul, with new vines being planted at Narbonensis in the south (viticulture would spread northward and new vines introduced that were more suitable to the region, one of which was the biturica, the ancestor of cabernet varieties). Eventually, there was a glut. With the intention of preserving the supply of grain and, possibly, to protect the domestic wine industry, Domitian banned, in an edict of AD 92, the planting of any new vineyards in Italy and ordered the removal of half the vines in the provinces.

When, in AD 212, Caracalla conferred citizenship on all free inhabitants of the empire (the Constitutio Antoniniana), it eliminated the privilege of cultivating vines that had been the prerogative of Roman citizens. Now, all those in the provinces were permitted to grow wine grapes. In AD 280, the edict which Domitian had imposed almost two hundred years earlier was revoked, although it may never have been enforced in the first place. Any restrictions on the development of viticulture now were completely removed.


The picture was taken in Alsace one day in September.


References: A History of Wine (1961) by H. Warner Allen; Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade (1991) by Tim Unwin; Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989) by Hugh Johnson; Wine in the Ancient World (1957) by Charles Seltman; The Origins and Ancient History of Wine (1995) edited by Patrick McGovern, Stuart Fleming, and Solomon Katz; Vinum: The Story of Roman Wine (2001) by Stuart J. Fleming.

Pliny: Natural History (1945) translated by H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library); Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella: On Agriculture (1941) translated by Harrison Boyd Ash; Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella: On Agriculture (1954) translated by E. S. Forster and Edward H. Heffner (Loeb Classical Library); Marcus Porcius Cato: On Agriculture and Marcus Terentius Varro: On Agriculture (1935) translated by William Davis Hooper, revised by Harrison Boyd Ash; The Meditations of Marcus Antoninus (1944) by A. S. L. Farquharson; Apicius: De Re Coquinaria (1936) translated by Joseph Vehling (Dover reprint, 1977); Euripides: The Bacchae (1959) translated by William Arrowsmith; Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture (1914/1960) translated by Morris Hicky Morgan (Dover); Dioscorides Pedanius of Anazarbus: De Materia Medica (2005) translated by Lily Y. Beck.

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