Return to Wine

Roman Wines

"The Caecuban Plain borders on the Gulf of Caietas; and next to the plain comes Fundi, situated on the Appian Way. All these places produce exceedingly good wine; indeed, the Caecuban and the Fundanian and the Setinian belong to the class of wines that are widely famed, as is the case with the Falernian and the Alban and the Statanian.

Strabo, Geography (V.3.6)

The finest Roman wines were reputed to grow in southernmost Latium and Campania—in particular, the hills of Setia and the marshes of Caecuban, of which, "clad with vines, the juice of whose grapes is extolled by Fame all over the world" (Pliny, Natural History, III.v.60). One of the most celebrated was Setine (Latin Setinum) from "Setia, whose vintage is reserved for the table of Lyaeus [Bacchus] himself" (Silius Italicus, Punica, VIII.376). The grape was delicate (Martial, Epigrams, X.74), the wine costly (X.36, IX.22; Strabo, V.3.10), and Setia itself a good place to own an estate (Martial, XI.29). Pliny even advises that it would be profitable to buy a neglected farm there (or at Caecuban), cultivate its vineyards, and then sell for perhaps four times the original cost, while the vintage is "still hanging from the trees" (XIV.v.50–52). Indeed, advises Columella, in planting a vineyard, "no ground, even the most unfavourable, will fail to yield a return exceeding the expense incurred" (De re rustica, III.iii.12). Such an investment could take years, however, in part because, as he cautions, "vineyards which have become worthless through long neglect...are worst of all if we wish to replant them, because the lower soil is imprisoned in a tangle of many roots" (III.xi.2).

Setia was a small hill town (vines being best adapted to hills, Varro, De re rustica, I.6.5) perched high above the Pomptine (Pontine) Marshes and the Forum of Appius (Martial, X.74; XIII.112), a way station and marketplace at Milestone XLIII on the Appian Way, where the apostle Paul was met by a delegation of followers on his way to Rome for trial (Acts 28:15). Here too, paralleling the cobbled roadway, was a long canal (the Decennovium, "nineteen miles") that provided alternative conveyance through the malarial marsh to Terracina on the coast. Usually, the journey took place at night so passengers could sleep on a ferryboat pulled by a mule (Strabo, V.3.6). Horace, who stopped there on his second night after leaving Rome, was sickened by the bad water. And arguing boatmen, mosquitoes, and frogs made sleep impossible (Satires, I.5.3ff). Cicero, when he was in the Pomptine, also had complained of the croaking of "a powerful chorus of dear little frogs" exerting themselves in his honor (Letters to Friends, VII.18.3). Juvenal would add fear of robbers, who sought refuge in the desolate marshes (Satires, III.306). Curiously, Horace, who once brought out a nine-year-old Alban to celebrate the birthday of his wealthy patron (IV.11) and even wrote an entire ode to an amphora of Massic (Massicum) (III.21), does not mention the famous local wine as he passed through the countryside.

Pliny relates that Augustus "preferred Setinum to all wines whatsoever," as did the emperors who followed (XIV.viii.61). Such imperial favor kept the wine in vogue throughout the first century AD, when it was drunk as an aid in digestion. Indeed, "Of all the wines still produced, those of Setia ensure digestion; they have more body than Surrentine wine, more dryness than Alban and less potency than Falernian" (XXIII.xxi.36).

Juvenal admires Setine sparkling in a golden bowl (X.27) but not the boorish host who drinks wine from the time of the Social Wars (in the second century BC—and so, far too old) but never offers a glass to a friend suffering from dyspepsia or, the next day, drinking a vintage from the hills of Setia so old that the date and name on the vessel have been effaced by an accumulation of soot (V.34). For Martial, Setine tasted like figs (XIII.23) and, strained through a special colander holding snow (colum nivarium), set "snow on fire" (IX.2), the wine both chilled and diluted as it was poured (XIV.103, VI.86). When offered Setine or Massic, however, Martial demurred, the same serving bowl rumored to have been used in killing the host's four wives (IV.69). There was no such hesitation in Pompeii, howeverwhere a fresco on the back wall of a tavern depicts two men, one approaching with a jug, the other holding out his cup, above which someone has scratched adde calicem setinum, "another cup of Setinian," the graffito suggesting at least that the wine was affordable.

Previously, Caecuban (Caecubum) had been favored. The Greek physician Dioscorides, in his first-century AD compendium on pharmacology, describes it as sweet and with a good colorbut fattening (being thicker than Alban, which was thicker than Falernian) and bad for the digestion (De materia medica, V.10). For Horace, who provides the first literary references to Caecuban, it should be reserved to celebrate only the most momentous occasions, such as Caesar's victory at Actium (Epodes, IX), Cleopatra's suicide (Odes, I.37), or Neptune's feast day (III.28). Then, it was brought "from our fathers' cellars" (I.37), where it was kept locked away with a hundred keys, although such precautions will not keep an heir from drinking it all and spilling the rest (II.14). Once, at a lavish banquet, the rich host offered Caecuban to his guests but, if that was not to their taste, then Alban or Falernian. "O, the misery of wealth!" chides Horace (Satires, II.8). Martial, too, satirizes the indulgences of the wealthy and the man who "often gets drunk on Setine, often on Falernian, and drinks Caecuban only through snow water" (XII.17).

By the first century AD, however, the reputation of Caecuban had begun to suffer. Hemmed in by hills, the vineyard was confined to low marshy ground along the Bay of Amyclae. Already neglected by the grower, the vines ultimately were destroyed when the marshland was drained to feed an abortive canal (Pliny, XIV.viii.61). Begun by Nero, the grandiose shipping channel was to have been wide enough for two quinqueremes (Rome's largest warship) to pass one another and extend all the way from Lake Avernus, near the fashionable resort at Baiae on the Bay of Naples, to the port at Ostia outside Rome, a distance of 160 Roman miles. Prisoners from all over the empire were to have been brought to Italy to labor on the project, but it was abandoned when the megalomaniacal emperor was forced to commit suicide in AD 68 (Tacitus, Annals, XV.42; Suetonius, Life of Nero, XXXI.3).

Pliny adds that Caecuban, the "most generous of all" wines (generositas, "noble, excellent"), grew there "in some poplar woods on marshy ground" (XIV.viii.61) and Strabo, that "the Caecuban Plain, although marshy, supports a vine that produces the best of wine, I mean the tree-vine" (V.3.5). The grove seems to have been wild, "born in the middle of the marsh" as Martial phrases it (XIII.115). But when cultivated, poplar, elm, or ash were planted in rows (to ensure equal exposure to the sun), the branches pruned, and then "wedded" with trained vines (Cato, De agricultura, XXXII.2). This use of trees as a natural trellis, which were festooned with vines from one to another, was called an arbustum (Varro, I.7.4; I.8.4; Columella, De re rustica, V.6; Columella, De arboribus, XVI; Pliny, XVI.lxvii.173).

In about AD 84, during the reign of Domitian, Martial published Xenia (confusingly numbered Book XIII of his epigrams, even though it precedes them). Its couplets describe the gifts given to departing guests at the December festival of Saturnalia, a dozen or so of which were presents of wine. Even then, twenty years after construction of Nero's canal had begun, "generous Caecuban is ripened at Amyclae near Fundi" (XIII.115). The last person to comment on having tasted the wine was the Greek physician Galen, who died about AD 200–210. By then, it had deepened to the color of flame and it was not possible even to know whether it originally had been red or white—and too bitter to drink in any event (the treatise in Greek translates as De bonis malisque sucis, "On Good and Bad Juices," VI.805). Writing about the same time, Athenaeus quotes Galen, who thought Caecuban to be "a generous wine but overpowering and strong; it matures only after many years" (Deipnosophists, I.27a).

There is an encouraging note that the grape may have survived the vintner's negligence and Nero's depredation. Writing in about AD 27, when Augustus began his reign, Vitruvius notes that differences in the variety and quality of fruits and vines derive from "the quality of the earth and the nature of the moisture." Otherwise, they all would have the same flavor, regardless of place or country. Rather, it is the "moisture of the earth, penetrating the roots with the particular flavour it possesses [that] imparts to the fruit the flavour of the place and species." And so, there is Mamertine in Sicily, Falernian in Campania, and Caecuban at Fundi—and Terracina (De architectura, VIII.iii.12), which suggests that there was another vineyard.

Bordering the Caecubus Ager (region) on the Via Appia, it is not surprising that Fundi produced its own rich variety (Martial, XIII.113). Fundan (Fundanum) was grown on trellises or trained on small trees (Pliny, XIV.viii.65) and so strong and heavy bodied that Galen says it often was avoided at drinking symposia (Athenaeus, I.27b). Once, it had been of the first rank (like Statanian and Calenian, which adjoined the Falernus Ager) but, by the first century AD, had fallen out of favor. Just as wine is a product of its terroir, so "each locality has its own period and its own rise and decline of fortune" (Pliny, XIV.viii.65).

For Columella, an older contemporary of Pliny (who is the only classical author to cite him), "there is no doubt that, of all the vines that the earth sustains, those of the Massic, Surrentinum, Alban, and Caecuban lands hold first place in the excellence of their wine" (De re rustica, III.8.5). Athenaeus would limit this number to just two: "the pleasantest wines are the Alban of Italy and the Falernian" (I.33b) although, if kept too long, they act like a drug and can be stupefying. Dionysius of Halicarnassus also praises the vineyards of Alba and Falernus, "where the soil is wonderfully kind to vines and with the least labor produces the finest grapes in the greatest abundance (Roman Antiquities, I.xxxvii.2), and Alban (Albanum) is "sweet and excellent and, with the exception of the Falernian, certainly superior to all others" (I.lxvi.3). Invading Gauls, once having plundered the district, grew fat and dissolute drinking Alban—for "the wine produced there is the sweetest of all wines after the Falernian and is the most like honey-wine" (XIV.viii.12).

There were two types, one extremely sweet and the other occasionally dry (Pliny, XIV.viii.64). Galen, too, regards Alban as sweet or dry, both at their best after fifteen years (Athenaeus, I.26d). Indeed, the wines of the Alban or Setine hills were aged so long that the date and district where they had been grown were illegible, blackened by soot (Juvenal, V.33). But even an old Alban of prized antiquity could still be spit out (XIII.214). Although sweetish and thicker than Falernian, it grew harder as it aged, distending the stomach and not being as good for digestion (Dioscorides, V.10).

Unlike most Italian wines, it was made from the Eugenia grape transplanted from Taormina in Sicily, which thrived only in the Alban hills south of Rome. "For in fact, some vines have so strong an affection for certain localities that they leave all their reputation behind there and cannot be transplanted elsewhere in their full vigour" (Pliny, XIV.iv.25). Only there did the grape endure the "cold, dewy ground and climate very well...for in a changed situation they hardly answer to their own name [eugenia, "well-born"]" (Columella, III.ii.16).

Perhaps because of its varied reputation, Sorrentine (Surrentinum) is mentioned more often in the classical literature than any Italian varietal other than Falernian. "In the past there was a strong preference for the wine of Surrentum, followed by one for Alban or Falernian" (Pliny, XXIII.xx.33). While Falernian was good for the stomach but bad for the nerves and Alban better for the nerves but less so for the stomach, "the wines of Surrentum have no such bad effects, nor do they go to the head" (XXIII.xx.35). Strabo, writing about half a century earlier, explains this rise in popularity. Campania was "the most blest of all plains....And indeed it is from here that the Romans obtain their best wine, namely, the Falernian, the Statanian, and the Calenian, though already the Sorrentine wine is taking its place as a rival of the three, for recent tests show that it admits of aging" (V.iv.3), older wine invariably being regarded as better. "As a matter of fact old wine is better not only in taste but also for the health." It aids digestion, is more easily assimilated by the body (being composed of finer particles), increases bodily strength, makes the blood red and easily flowing, and induces undisturbed sleep (Athenaeus, I.26a). For Statius, who was visiting his patron's villa near Surrentum, Sorrentine is the equal of Falernian, itself (Silvae, II.ii.5) and "those Surrentine ridges, dear to sturdy Lyaeus" (II.v.102, IV.viii.9), where it was planted only in trellised vineyardsand not on trees (Pliny, XIV.viii.64). Pliny compares it to wine from the Massic hills, the slopes of Mount Massicus coming down almost to the sea and forming the boundary between Latium Adiectum ("added Latium") and Campania—and serving as the western slope of the Falernus Ager, in which it sometimes was included.

Tiberius, however, thought Sorrentine to be no more than generosum acetum, "generous vinegar" and Caligula, that it was nobilem vappam, a wine that has gone flat and lost almost all its flavor. It is this very vapidity, however, that recommended it to convalescents for its health-giving qualities (XIV.viii.64), wine being generally regarded as warming and moistening and the aged to be cold and dry in their humors. Athenaeus cautions that the wine was "barely wholesome except for those who use it continually," which is to say that it appealed only to those who drank it regularly, and began to be good only after twenty-five years, being slow to ripen because it was so rough and dry (I.26d). Perhaps these disparaging comments were because it still was too youngor should have been drunk from the clay cups for which Surrentum also was famous, as Martial recommends (XIII.110, XIV.102). Dioscorides regards Surrentine as very hard but light and so affecting the head lessbut when old, becoming more pleasant and good for the stomach (V.10). Horace suggests that it be mixed with the lees of Falernian, the sediment collected by the yolks of pigeon eggs (Satires, II.4.55ff). This is his only mention of the wine; indeed, before the second book of Horace's Satires appeared in about 30 BC, there were very few mentions of wine by any name. Thin and light, dry and hard, it was good for the digestion, a fellow with a queasy stomach ordering "smooth Surrentine" while he sat in his bath (Persius, Satires, III.93)unlike the richer, heavier and sweeter wines such as Caecuban and Falernian.

Quoting Galen, Athenaeus says that Statanian (Statanum) was one of the best wines, "resembling the Falernian, but lighter, and innocuous" (I.26e). Indeed, for Pliny, it "unquestionably once reached the first place" (XIV.viii.65) and still was "not much inferior" to Setine, Sorrentine, Alban, and Falernian (XXIII.xxi.36). Calenian (Calenum), too, was "light and more healthful than Falernian" (Athenaeus, I.27a), unsurprisingly perhaps, given that the vineyards at Cales were adjacent to Falernusas were those at Statana (Pliny, XIV.viii.65). Horace, himself not a rich man with a well-stocked cellar, imagines inviting his friend, the poet Virgil (who had died six years earlier), to drink with him, as long as he brings a flask of nard (an expensive aromatic oil) as a gift; in turn, he will fetch some Calenian (Odes, IV.12). In time, however, both Statanian and Calenian fell from favor—or, at least, the number of references to them.

Signine (Signinum) was grown at Signia, "whose foaming wine is bitter" (Silius Italicus, VIII.378), just north of Setia on the Via Latina. As did other hard, white wines (such as Falernian, Sorrentine, and Caecuban), it excelled "for use in times of health" (Dioscorides, V.11). Because it was so astringent and excessively dry, however, Pliny regards it more as medicine (XIV.viii.65) and very beneficial to disordered bowels (XXIII.xxi.36). Martial agrees that Signine repressed the bowels and therefore should be drunk sparingly (XIII.116). Strabo, too, in speaking of Setia and Signia, remarks that Signine was best for checking the bowels (V.iii.10)—as does Celsus, who recommends Rhaetic and any other dry, resinated wine for a disordered stomach but, if none are available, then "the harshest possible, especially Signine wine" (On Medicine, IV.xii.8, xxvi.9). For Galen, Signine at least was better in its sixth year and much better still when aged (Athenaeus, I.27b).

In fourth place was Mamertine (Mamertinum), which was grown near Messina in Sicily and had been favored by Julius Caesar, who brought the wine into favor by serving it (along with Falernian) at public banquets (XIV.viii.66; XIV.xvi.97). It is "sweet, light, and vigorous" (Athenaeus, I.27d) and characterized by Dioscorides as having thick particles, mildly astringent, and tending to age quickly (V.10). Martial remarks that the host can call an amphora of Mamertine anything he wants, since the label will be illegible in any event (XIII.117). He says the same of wine grown at Nomentum outside Rome, where Martial had a small country estate (I.105). Strabo is more enthusiastic: the countryside is "exceedingly productive of wine" and Mamertine itself "rivals the best of the Italian wines" (VI.ii.3).

"Among the remaining wines" was Rhaetic (Raeticum), "reckoned by Virgil inferior only to Falernian" (Pliny, XIV.viii.67), who cautions, "How can I do you justice? Yet even so, seek not to rival Falernian cellars!" (Georgics, II.96). Seneca agrees, chiding that it "must not seek to compete with the Falernian bins" (Natural Questions, I.11). Gown in Verona, the wine could not successfully be cultivated elsewhere (Pliny, XIV.iv.26). Catullus was born there and celebrated by Martial with Rhaetian wines (XIV.100). Strabo, too, comments on Rhaetic, "which has the repute of not being inferior to the approved wines of the Italic regions" (

But it is Falernian that most was celebrated (and mentioned five times more often than Surrentine). Writing in the first century AD, Silius Italicus tells the story of a legendary Falernus, who once plowed the bare ground of Mount Massicus, which then had no vines. When Bacchus arrived as a guest at the humble cottage, milk and bread and the simple foods of the garden were put before the god, who rewarded the old man's hospitality by causing the wooden cups to fill with wine. When the drunken man awoke the next morning, he saw that "all Mount Massicus was green with vine-bearing fields, and marveled at the leafage and the bunches shining in the sunlight." The fame of the mountain grew and, from that day, even the best Greek wines have "all yielded precedence to the vats of Falernus" (Punica, VII.162ff).

Although Pliny places it in the second rank, after Caecuban (another sweet, full-bodied wine, which by then likely was no longer in production) and Setine (which was more a digestif), "No other wine has a higher rank at the present day" (XIV.viii.62). It was favored by Catullus, who would drink it undiluted, declaring "This wine is Bacchus's own" (Carmina, XXVII). The poet, a contemporary of Caesar and Cicero, died in 54 BC, and this is the earliest literary reference to Falernian. It also was served by Cleopatra (Lucan, Pharsalia, X.163).

Brought to Italy by Greek colonists who first settled at Cumae near the Bay of Naples, Falernian was made from the venerable Aminean grape, a white variety and "a producer of exceedingly good wine," according to Columella (III.ii.12). For Pliny, "the highest rank is given to the vines of Aminaea, on account of the body of that wine and its life, which undoubtedly improves with age" (XIV.iv.21). Very rough in flavor but exceptionally strong, the grape grew on the slopes of Mount Falernus (Mount Massicus) but also was cultivated on Mount Vesuvius and the hills of Sorrento. In other parts of Italy, however, it "only flourishes when trained on trees," which better helped it withstand rain and stormy weather (XIV.iv.22). Pliny says that three types were recognized: a dry Caucinian, which was grown on the higher slopes and then, midway down, a sweeter Faustian that was cultivated on the estate of Faustus, the son of the dictator Sulla, and regarded as the best and most carefully produced. On the lower slopes, was Falernian proper, a thin, light wine (XIV.viii.62–63). Athenaeus recognizes only two types, however: a dry yellow wine and a darker, sweeter variety (I.26c), as does Galen, who speaks of a sweeter, amber-colored wine and a drier, whiter one (Kühn, VI.801). Horace, too, mentions a dry Falernian (Odes, I.27).

Falernian was full-bodied (firmissima), with an alcohol content as much as 1516% (at which point the yeast is killed by the alcohol it produces). A generous wine such as Falernian therefore was the strongest drink know to the Romans (distillation not being discovered until the early middle ages). It was the only wine to ignite when a flame was applied (i.e., it flared when poured over a flame) (XIV.viii.62) and noted for being fiery (Horace, Odes, II.11) and strong (Satires, II.4.24), which may explain why it was mixed with melted summer snow (Martial, V.64) but shattered crystal when served hot (IX.73).

It was not drinkable, says Galen, until at least ten years old and then good from fifteen to twenty years (Athenaeus, I.26c), which no doubt is why it was stored in the back of the cellar (Horace, Odes, II.3). For Pliny, the wine was most salubrious at fifteen years, when it was neither too new nor too old (XXIII.xx.34). Then, no doubt, it was drunk with enthusiasm: banqueters inundated in it (Petronius, XXI); masseurs swilling and spilling it (XXVIII); cups brimming with old Falernian (Catullus, XXVII.3); drenching the table and foaming in the cup (Propertius, Elegies, II.33); poured unstintingly, the cup brimming over (Tibullus, Elegies, III.6); old Falernian brought out, the sober person disgraced (II.1).

Like most Roman varietals, Falernian was a white wine but, exposed to the sun and air, was aged so long that it often madeirised (as Madeira is deliberately oxidized by heating). The result was that the wine turned amber in color. Indeed, says Pliny, the most highly approved specimens of amber were called Falernian because "they recall the colour of the wine" (XXXVII.xii.47). Martial speaks of "dark Falernian" (II.40) and "my Falernian blacken snow" (IX.22) and says "Let the clear crystal grow dark with old Falernian" (VIII.77). He remarks, too, on the sweet aroma of an amphora "of black Falernian broken, but a long way off," comparing the fragrance, among other things, to that of faded balsam, ripening apples, and warmed amber (XI.8).

Wine amphorae usually were inscribed with the origin and age of its contents, which was indicated by the Roman consuls then in office, the more remote the consuls, the older and more respectable the wine. And so, at one banquet, having been asked under what consul his wine had been dated, the host replied "There wasn't one," implying the wine was as old as the kings of Rome (Martial, XIII.111). The fabled vintage of 121 BC was a Falernian, the same year that Lucius Opimius was consul and restored the Temple of Concord to symbolize a renewed harmony between patricians and plebeians after his involvement in the death of Gracchus, their champion (Plutarch, Life of Caius Gracchus, XVII.6). That year, growing conditions were recognized as perfect and an exceptional vintage was produced, prompting from about this time renewed interest in the origins of Italian wine. Seventy-five years later, Cicero comments that, even if an older wine from the consulship of Anicius Gallus in 160 BC commanded a higher price than Opimian, "when it has too much age, it has lost that delicious flavour which pleases the palate, and, in my opinion, is scarcely tolerable" That is not to say that an immature wine should not be drunk but to recognize that "there is a certain age, when good wine arrives at its utmost perfection" (Brutus, LXXXIII.287–288).

Pliny writes that Opimian still survived to his own time, nearly 200 years later, "though they have been reduced to the consistency of honey with a rough flavour" and so concentrated and bitter to be fit only to season other wines (, which suggests that he actually may have tasted it. To be sure, Martial does say that the best quality of wine was made of Falernian mixed with Attic honey (Epigrams, XIII.108), and it is possible that the additional sugar could have raised the alcohol level of the wine and so increased its longevity. Opimian Falernian even was being offered for sale in the reign of Caligula that at the time was 160 years old—and costing, with interest, 960 sesterces for an amphora (Pliny,

Writing almost half a century earlier, Velleius Paterculus presumed that, after such a lapse of time, the wine no longer existed (The Roman History, II.7.5). In chastising the Romans for their luxuriant living in a time of peace, Diodorus Siculus relates how they would not deign to drink ordinary wine but only Falernian and other such fine wines, driving up the price until "a jar of Falernian wine was sold for a hundred drachmas" (The Library of History, XXXVII.iii.3, 5). Certainly, it was expensive. Horace professes not being able to afford it but offering instead his patron (who himself drank Caecuban and Calenian, Falernian and Formian) a local wine from the Sabine hills (I.20). An inscription on a tavern wall in Pompeii advertised "if you give me four [asses], I'll have you drink some Falernian," four times the price of the cheapest wine on offer. An as originally was valued at ten to the denarius (hence the name) but later retariffed at sixteen. When a silver denarius was the typical wage for a day laborer and somewhat more for that of a soldier, to pay a quarter of the coin's value for a cup of Falernian was a dear tipple indeed.

This is the very wine that the parvenu Trimalchio served at his famed dinner banquet from glass amphorae labeled "Falernian Opimian, one hundred years old" (Petronius, Satyricon, XXXIV). Now, about AD 64, two years before Petronius was obliged to commit suicide at the insistence of Nero, the wine would have been about 185 years old. One suspects that Trimalchio has been duped in his purchase, however, the label celebrating a vintage that was not even recognized at the time, which is why the wine had only the name of the consul (Pliny, XIV.xvi.94). As the guests are reading the labels and drinking the wine, Trimalchio has a silver skeleton brought to the table, its articulated joints assuming different postures. Then he moralizes

"Alas! how less than naught are we;
Fragile life's thread, and brief our day!
What this is now, we all shall be;
Drink and make merry while you may."

Whether from goblets of variegated myrrhina or cups of Surrentine clay, may we all.

Although not a practicing physician himself, Celsus wrote (as part of a larger encyclopedia) the most important medical treatise in Latin since the Hippocrates corpus. A contemporary of Pliny (who cites him), Celsus prescribes a light, dry wine for a weak stomach (I.viii.1) and warns against wines that are treated with seawater, thin, or too sweet; rather, one should drink wines that are "dry and fuller-bodied, and not too old" (On Medicine,, those that are only a few years old, whether dry or rich, being intermediate in quality (II.xviii.11). For Pliny himself, "each wine has an age—its middle age—when it is most pleasant," wines of a very pale color becoming unwholesome as they age and the more generous a wine, the thicker it becomes and the more injurious to health (XXIII.xxii.39–40).

Dioscorides agrees. Although pleasant to the taste, old wines is injurious to the senses, and new wine is hard to digest. "That of a middle age avoids either of these evils" (V.7), and "wines of a middle age are best for drinking, such as those of seven years" (V.11). Color, too, is important, as white wine tends to darken as it ages. "White wine is thin, easily digested and good for the stomach....[and] should be chosen both in health and sickness," whereas "dark wine is thick and hard to digest" (V.8). Generally, all hard white wines (unmixed with seawater) are good for the stomach, of which the wines of Campania (Falernian, Sorrentine, Caecuban, and Signine, as well as Mamertine) excelledunlike thick, black ones, which are bad for the stomach (V.11).

Athenaeus adds that there are three kinds of wine: white, yellow, and dark. "As to the white, it is by nature thinnest, diuretic, and heating; while it is a digestive, it makes the head hot; for this wine is heady. Dark wine, if not inclined to be sweet, is very nutritious, also astringent. But the sweet varieties, both of white and yellow wines, are the most nutritious. For sweet wine smoothes the tract through which it passes, and by thickening the humours more, tends to incommode the head less" (Deipnosophists, I.32c).

The belief that dry white wines (such as Setine) aided in digestion is based on the Hippocratic concept of the bodily humors, as developed by Galen in the second century AD. This was the notion that the elements of the universe (earth, air, fire, water) corresponded both to four fundamental qualities (cold, hot, dry, moist) and the fluid humors of the body itself (black bile, blood, yellow bile, phlegm, respectively). Black bile was thought to be cold and dry; blood, hot and moist; yellow bile, hot and dry; and phlegm, cold and moist. So, too, were there four resulting personality types or temperaments (melancholic, sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic) based on the preponderance of any one humor—all of which were in fluctuating balance and the admixture affected by food and drink.

Black bile, earth, and autumn are dry and cold; blood, air, and spring are moist and hot; yellow bile, summer, and fire are hot and dry; and phlegm, water, and winter are cold and moist. As with the seasons, so too for the ages of man, the humors arising according to the season. Blood increases at puberty and so teenagers are cheerful and keen on games; yellow bile predisposes adolescents to anger and sexual drive; black bile then asserts itself, making this stage of life devious, revengeful, and stubborn; phlegm in old age makes one lethargic and forgetful—just as old age itself is moist and cold and puberty, hot and moist (Galen, On the Humours).

There also was thought to be a causal relation between the physical appearance of food and its nutritional benefit. Thick, red wines, for example, were thought to have more nutritive value because they produced blood of a similar nature and changed it the least. In On the Properties of Foodstuffs (De alimentorum facultatibus) Galen writes that "White, thick, harsh wines are less nourishing than these, and the wines that are white in colour but thin in consistency are the least nourishing of all" (III.39). He elaborates on this notion in his treatise On the Thinning Diet (De subtiliante diaeta), so named because of its effect on the humors, especially the thick and phlegmatic—which caused indigestion and were brought about by excessive eating. "Sweet wines which are clear and transparent, a light or bright yellow colour, are the least to be feared....All these kinds of wine produce a humour of a medium composition. Thick, black, sweet wines fill the veins with thick blood; white, thin ones cut the thick humours and cleanse the blood through the urine. Thus, yellow, sweet, transparent wines, which are somewhere between these types in their appearance, will naturally lie between them in their effects too: they do not thicken the humours, as do the black wines, nor do they have the diuretic effects of the whites" (XI).

Foods have the same effect. And so, in choosing "between what are thinning and what are thickening; or warming and cooling; or drying and is not the consumption of what is like them that is valuable, but of what is the opposite" (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, III.41). The intention is to restore humoral imbalance in the body. If indigestion is caused by cold, moist phlegm, so a hot, drying remedy should be prescribed. "Any food which irritates and bites the senses is obviously sharp and endowed with the ability to cut through the thickness of the humours....thinning them by virtue of some sharp, cutting facility" (On the Thinning Diet, I). Vegetables, for example, that have a sharp, biting, hot taste or smell have this cutting, thinning effect. Those that tend to be bland and excessively moist, therefore, should be enlivened with vinegar or fish paste (garum) (III). Salted fish (because of its drying astringency) and garum (because of its added piquancy), often enhanced by vinegar or wine, counterbalance a cold, moist phlegmatic humor.

No-one, says Pliny, can doubt that "some kinds of wine are more agreeable than others....and consequently each man will appoint himself judge of the question which wine heads the list" (XIV.viii.59). And there very well might have been such a recognized classification. Trifoline (Trifolinum), for example, was an earthy, more slowly maturing wine than Surrentine (Athenaeus, I.26e) grown in Campaniawhich "has lately excited consideration by some new names" (Pliny, XIV.viii.70). A few years later, when Martial published his Xenia, Trifoline, even if not of the first vintage, was "seventh among wines" (XIII.114)a number that approximates that of Pliny, for whom Setine was in the first rank (as Caecuban was "no longer produced," XXIII.xx.35); Falernian in second; Alban, Surrentine, Statanian, and Calenian "in various degrees" in third (XIV.viii.64), Signine being dismissed "as a medicine" (XIV.viii.65); and Mamertine in fourth.

Repeatedly, the classical literature speaks of a sweet white wine being aged so long that it darkens or turns the color of flame or amber. This late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc had 30 ºBx (each degrees Brix equaling 1 gram of sugar per 100 grams of grape juice) and 9% residual sugar (90 grams/liter) at harvest. A 1983 vintage, the grapes were picked late in the year and the wine poured in July 2022, having been laid down for almost 39 years—and still delicious.

Aulus Gellius relates a charming story. In 323 BC, when Aristotle was forced to retire from leading the peripatetic school at the Lyceum in Athens, his disciples pressed him to name a successor. Two men excelled their fellows in learning: Theophrastus of Lesbos and Eudemus of Rhodes. In the presence of both, Aristotle complained of the wine he was drinking and asked for a foreign vintage, something from both of those regions. Tasting the Rhodian, he said that it truly was a sound and pleasant wine but that the Lesbian was sweeter. And so Theophrastus was chosen (Attic Nights, XIII.5). His name "divine speaker" was given to him by Aristotle, in fact, because of his eloquence (Diogenes Laetius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers: Theophrastus, VI). In Enquiry on Plants, the first systematic study of botany, he writes that poplars thrived in wet and marshy ground (IV.1). And, in De sensibus ("On Perception")—

"But if the sweetness and bitterness are not perceived by everyone the same way, the nature of what is bitter and sweet still remains the same for all, which Democrites himself seems to say. Because how could what is perceived as bitter by us be considered sweet or sour by others, if there were no preexistent nature for all these flavors?" (LXX).

Two bibliographic notes: "Vinum" in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquites (1875) edited by William Smith provides a satisfying overview of Roman vintages and is cited in the bibliography of Wine in the Ancient World (1957) by Charles Seltman. One is disconcerted, however, by the author appropriating verbatim whole passages from the earlier work (which had come into the public domain just a few years before) without acknowledgement.

Galen provides the most detailed descriptions of individual wines and the greatest number of citations (just a few more than Pliny, who cites more individual wines). The primary texts, in Greek with a translation in Latin below it, have been edited by Carl Gottlob Kühn in twenty volumes under the title Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia (1821–1833)—to which the index alone runs to 676 pages. Citations are to the volume and page, e.g., VI.805.

References: "Martial's Christmas Winelist" (1999) by T. J. Leary, Greece and Rome, 46(1), 34-41; "Opimian Wine" (1967) by Barry Baldwin, The American Journal of Philology, 88, 173-175; "Opimian Bitters or 'Opimian' Wine" (1968), The American Journal of Philology, 89, 347-349; Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000) edited Richard J. A. Talbert; Gods, Men, and Wine (1966) by William Younger; Velleius Paterculus: Compendium of Roman History (1924) translated by Frederick W. Shipley (Loeb Classical Library); Horace: Odes and Epodes (2004) translated by Niall Rudd (Loeb Classical Library); Horace: Satires (1926) translated by H. Rushton Fairclough (Loeb Classical Library); Silius Italicus: Punica (1934) translated by J. D. Duff (Loeb Classical Library); Dioscorides Pedanius of Anazarbus: De Materia Medica (2005) translated by Lily Y. Beck; Locus Classicus: Origin Brands in Roman Luxury Markets, c. 100 BC–c. AD 130 (2017) by Roderick Thirkell White (PhD thesis); Galen on Food and Diet (2000) by Mark Grant; Galen: On the Properties of Foodstuffs (De alimentorum facultatibus) (2003) translated by Owen Powell; Galen: Selected Works (1997) translated by Peter Singer; Empire of Pleasures (2000) by Andrew Dalby.

Return to Top of Page