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Roman Vintages

"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 regions of Latium and Campania were reputed to produce the finest Roman wines, of which Setine was the most celebrated. The vines grew on the hills of Setia, above the forum of Appius (Pliny, XIV.61; Martial, XIII.112), an important stop on the Appian Way, where canal boats pulled by mules allowed conveyance through the Pomptine marshes, a journey that usually took place at night, although Horace complained that the mosquitoes and frogs made sleep impossible (Satires, I.5). It was here, too, that Paul was met by followers on his way to Rome (Acts, XXVII.15). Pliny relates that Augustus "preferred Setinum to all wines whatsoever," as did the emperors who followed, owing to the fact that it did not cause indigestion (XIV.61). The luxurious wine, sharp and fiery, was chilled and diluted with snow, and tasted like figs (Martial, IX.2.5, XIII.23).

At one time, Caecuban was even more prized. A "generous wine," it was thought by Athenaeus to be overpowering and strong, maturing only after many years (Deipnosophistae, I.27a). Grown near Fundi, which produced its own strong and full-bodied wine (I.27a), the vineyard was situated, much to Martial's surprise (XIII.115), on marshy ground, where it was trained on poplar trees. But, owing to neglect and, even more, to a canal begun by Nero at Baiae, this wine, which was "the most generous of all," disappeared when its single vineyard was destroyed, the water from the marsh to be used to feed the canal (Pliny, XIV.61; Tacitus, XV.41).

Columella praises these regions, as well. "For 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). The wine of the Surrentinum peninsula is ranked by Statius as the equal of Falernian, itself (Silvae, II.2.5), and Pliny compares it to wine from the Massic hills, the slopes of which came down almost to the sea, forming the boundary between Latinum and Campania. Tiberius, however, thought Surrentinum "only a generous vinegar" and Caligula that it was no better than a "best quality flat wine," although the insipid thinness did recommend it to convalescents for its health giving qualities (Pliny, XIV.64). Athenaeus cautions that the wine was "barely wholesome except for those who use it continually" and began to be good only after twenty-five years, being slow to ripen because it was so rough and dry (I.26d). Perhaps it still was too young or should have been drunk from the clay cups for which Sorrento was famous (Martial, XIV.102). Or, as Horace suggests, mixed with the lees of Falernian, the sediment collected by the yolks of pigeon eggs (Satires, II.4.55ff). Pliny considers Surrentinum to be in the third rank, as is Alban, from the hills just south of Rome (XIV.64). Sweet, although occasionally dry, it only was best after fifteen years (Athenaeus, I.26d).

Statan, too, was said to resemble Falernian, the vineyards of which were adjacent, but to be lighter (Athenaeus, I.26). Pliny places it in the third rank, a reminder that "each locality has its own period and its own rise and decline of fortune" (XIV.65). Among the lesser wines was Mamertine, from Messana in Sicily, favored by Julius Caesar, who served it at banquets (Pliny, XIV.97), a "sweet, light, and vigorous" wine (Athenaeus, I.27d), and Rhaetic from Verona, praised by Virgil, who admits that even it was surpassed by Falernian (Georgics, II.96).

Caesar also had offered Falernian to the public in celebration of his conquest of Spain. Although in the second rank and beginning to pass out of vogue by Pliny's time, it is Falernian that has the most outstanding reputation. Indeed, "No other wine has a higher rank at the present day" and was the only one to ignite when a flame was applied (XIV.62). Noted for this fiery quality (Horace, Odes, II.11), Falernian was not drinkable, says Galen, until at least ten years old and then good from fifteen to twenty years (Athenaeus, I.26c). Even then, it was diluted with snow (Martial, IX.22.8). It existed as both a white and a red, and in two styles, dry and sweet.

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, 162ff).

In 121 BC, during the consulship of Lucius Opimius, growing conditions were recognized as perfect and an exceptional vintage of Falernian was produced. This Opimian wine is mentioned by Pliny (XIV.55) as still surviving some two hundred years later, "though they have been reduced to the consistency of honey with a rough flavour" and are so over-ripe as to be bitter and fit only as a seasoning to improve other wines. Cicero agrees that, although acknowledged to be the best, it was well past its prime and scarcely drinkable (Brutus, CCLXXXVII.287-288). Writing in the reign of Tiberius, Velleius Paterculus even asserts that none of the wine could still exist (II.7.5), although in this he seems to have been mistaken.

The wine served as the famed banquet of Trimalchio is from glass amphorae labeled as "Falernian Opimian, one hundred years old" (Satyricon, XXXIV). By then, at the time of Nero, the wine would have been one hundred and eighty years old. Too bitter to drink, one suspects that Trimalchio has been duped in his purchase, the absurd label celebrating a vintage before they even were recognized (Pliny, XIV.94) and an incorrect date at that. Still, how irresistible it must have been to the parvenu.

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 carved myrrhina or Surrentine cups of clay, may we all.

In remarking on oratorical style, Cicero makes a comparison with wine.

"It is as if a man were fond of Falernian wine, but did not want it so new as last year's, nor again so old as to search out a cask from the vintages of Opimius [121 BC] or Anicius [160 BC]. 'But those brands are acknowledged to be the best!' Yes I know, but too old a wine has not the mellowness which we want, and in fact it is scarcely longer fit to drink. If that then is one's feeling, need he go to the other extreme and hold, if he wants a potable wine, that it must be drawn from the fresh vat? Certainly not; he would look for a wine of moderate age" (Brutus, LXXXIII.287-288).

Aulus Gellius (XIII.5) relates a charming comparison, as well. When Aristotle, who died in 322 BC, was too old to continue leading the peripatetic school at Lyceum, his disciples pressed him to name a successor. Two men excelled their fellows in learning, Theophrastus of Lesbos and Eudemus of Rhodes. Later, in the presence of both men, 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. (Indeed, Diogenes Laertes, VI, remarks that Aristotle gave Theophrastus his name, "divine speaker," because of his eloquence.) And so the man was chosen.

Writing the first century AD, Dioscorides compares wines from different countries in the Medica Materia (V.10). Falernian was old and easily digested but not too much should be taken as a drink. Caecuban is sweet, fattening, and with good color but bad for the digestion. Surrentine affects the head less "because it has light particles" and becomes more pleasant when older. Mamertine from Sicily has thick particles and affects one's strength less because of its mildness.

A bibliographic note: "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 this author lifting whole passages verbatim from the earlier work without acknowledgement.

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.

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