Return to Notae

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 collected on the waxy skin and broke down the grape's sugar 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 themselves, who in the early years of the Republic were fighting to expand their dominion over the peninsula. But with the defeat of the Etruscans and the Samnites, Pyrrhus and the Greeks, Philip of Macedonia, and the Carthaginians, Rome eventually gained control of the Mediterranean and, by the middle of the second century BC, there were both the wealth and the markets to invest in vineyards.

Cato the Elder had returned from Carthage on an embassy in about 150 BC. He was an old man who would die the next year, discomfited that tribute imposed by earlier defeats had not diminished the city's power but only made it more expert in war (Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder, XXVI.3). Once, when a fig that he contrived to spill from a fold in his toga was admired by the Senators for its size and beauty, he warned that it grew only three days' sailing in a country that would forever threaten Rome. He admonished them that Delenda est Carthago, "Carthage must be destroyed" (XXVII.1)—and so it was in 146 BC after a two-year siege that ended the Third Punic War.

In fact, there is no exact translation of Cato's famous declaration; compare, for example, its presentation in Pliny (XV.xx.74), Aurelius Victor, Lives of Illustrious Romans (XLVII.89), and Florus, Epitome of Roman History (I.xxxi.4). Nor is there any indication in the classical literature that the fields of Carthage were sown with salt—an assertion that should be taken with a pinch of the same. Used to preserve meat and fish, the commodity was far too expensive for such an endeavor. Rather, it was a symbolic act signifying the annihilation of a city and ruination of the land more often found in the Old Testament. "He took the city, and slew the people that was therein, and beat down the city, and sowed it with salt" (Judges 9:45; cf. Psalms107:34, Deuteronomy 29:23, Job 39:6). The walls of Carthage were battered down, the city razed to the ground (e.g., Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, XXXII.14)and the books of its libraries given to the "petty kings of Africa" (Numibia) (Pliny, XVIII.iv.22).

One set of scrolls was retained by Rome however—a treatise in twenty-eight books on agriculture written in Punic by Mago of Carthage, who Columella called "the father of husbandry" (On Agriculture, I.i.13). The Senate decreed that it be translated into Latin (I.i.10; Pliny, XVIII.v.22)in spite of the fact that Cato himself already had written a similar manual on agriculture. Composed in about 160 BC, De agri cultura was the first Roman survey of farming and the earliest complete prose work in Latin. In it, Cato discusses the cultivation of grapes and olives and the grazing of livestock on large slave-based villa estates, which suggests how important viticulture was becoming in an agrarian economy that traditionally had been only subsistence farming. There are, for example, recipes for mixing wine for workers on the estate, reducing the juice of the grapes and adding seawater (CIV) or, if not near the ocean, adding salted water (CV)—as well as determining whether a wine will keep, making sharp wine sweeter, removing a bad odor, imparting a sweet aroma, making a Greek-style Coan wine, and preparing a laxative wine (CVIIICXV).

In 37 BC, when he was eighty years old, Varro wrote Res rusticae ("Country Matters"), a manual in three books on farming and animal husbandry. Of the fifty or more authors to which he refers, "all these are surpassed in reputation by Mago of Carthage" (I.i.10). His discussion of viticulture is more cursory than Cato's, but he does say that wine should be aged in a cool cellar for at least a year, old wine bringing a better price than new (I.22.4). Grape varieties that sour quickly should be drunk sooner while others, such as Falernian, mature with age and increase in value (I.65.1). 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 ( For Columella, the dregs of the wine press should be given to the livestock, "for they contain the strength both of food and of wine and make the cattle sleek and of good cheer and plump" (On Agriculture, VI.iii.5). For Varro, the grape-skins and stalks left in the vat were used to produce lora, a thin, bitter brew allocated to slaves (I.54.3).

Pliny boasts that wine production was unsurpassed in Italy (XIV.xiii.87), no doubt assured by the prohibition in 154 BC of vine cultivation beyond the Alps (Cicero, Republic, III.9). 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 vineyards of villa estates. Eventually, the demand for wine became so great that it was more profitable to sell it at home than for export. By the first century AD, wine actually had to be imported from Iberia and Gaul. But, as more land was expropriated for vineyards, the displaced rural population was forced to emigrate to Rome until, by the first century BC, the city had approximately one million inhabitants.

What they drank there was mulsum, a white wine sweetened with honey that often was freely dispensed to the plebs at public events to solicit their political support. It was not necessarily inexpensive or inferior, however. Martial writes that the best quality was made of Falernian mixed with Attic honey, a drink suitable to be poured by Ganymede, himself, cupbearer to Zeus (Epigrams, XIII.108). And Pliny agrees that "the best honey wine is always made with old wine" (XXII.liii.113). Varro relates the story of Appius Claudius Pulcher, brother of the notorious Clodia (the "Lesbia" in Catulllus' poetry) who in his youth served muslum to his guests but supposedly was too impoverished to drink it himself (De res rusticae, III.16.2).

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" (XII.19.2), 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 were 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 varieties, viticulture, and vinification—and laments the increased production of cheap wines and the loss of quality vintages. "Who can doubt," he asks, "that some kinds of wine are more agreeable than others" (XIV.viii.59). 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 (XIV.viii.61), although Suetonius says it was Rhaetic from Verona (Life of Augustus, LXXVII).

Now, the favored wine was Falernian; indeed, "No other wine has a higher rank at the present day (Pliny, XIV.viii.62). Next in rank were the wines of the Alban Hills southeast of Rome, and Surrentine (thin and sweet, although Statius ranks it with Falernian, Silvae, II.ii.5) and Massic (among others) from the Campania. Finally, there was Mamertine from Messina in Sicily, first brought into favor by Julius Caesar, who had it served at public banquets (XIV.viii.64-66).

In Book XXIII. xix-xxvi, Pliny returns to the topic of wine, this time commenting on its properties as medicine and relation to sickness, but also mindful that "to treat of the various kinds of wine one by one is a vast and baffling task" that he intends to treat with "Roman seriousness" (XXIII.xix.32). In the past, there was a preference for Surrentine, followed by Alban or Falernian, although now not even the nobility enjoy really genuine wines, which have been adulterated with impurities as soon as they are poured into the vat (XXIII.xx.33). Indeed, "the most wholesome wine is that to which nothing as been added" (XXIII.xxiv.46). Seawater was particularly injurious, as was seasoning with resin. As to the medical benefit of the wines themselves,

Columella would agree about which were the best Roman varietals. "There is no doubt that, of all the vines the earth sustains, those of the Massic, Surrentine, Alban, and Caecuban lands hold first place in the excellence of their wine" (III.viii.5). Martial, too, in describing the various presents given at the winter festival of Saturnalia, mentions the best wines. Aside from muslum made with Falernian, there is Surrentine, best drunk, not from murrhine or gold, but from an earthenware cup for which the region also was famous (XIII.CX)—as well as Alban (CIX), Falernian (CXI), Setine (CXII), Caecuban (CXV), and Mamertine (CXVII).

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. It also provided nourishment, thick, red varieties being "the most useful of all wines for the production of blood, since they require the least change to it" (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, XXXIX). Concoctions of wine and drugs also were used to make a theriac or antidote to protect the emperor from poison. In its preparation, falernian is prescribed —not a sweet Faustian but a sharper Caucinian from the summit of the mountain (On Theriac to Piso, XIV). 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" (VI.13).

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 meat or fish going bad.

Wine almost always was mixed with water for drinking; undiluted wine (merum) was considered the habit of provincials and barbarians. The Gauls were besotted with wine, which was drunk unmixed and without moderation (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, V.26.3). Plato criticizes the Scythians and Thracians for drinking wine neat and, moreover, for regarding such behavior as "a noble and splendid practice." The Persians indulged in such habits as well, if in a more orderly fashion (Laws, I.637e). An embassy returned from Persia is satirized by Aristophanes for having been obliged by their hosts to drink their wine unwatered (Acharnians, 73ff), and Herodotus blames the Scythians for the madness of Cleomenes, the Spartan king who, having consorted with them, learned to drink unmixed wine and later killed himself in prison by self-mutilation (Histories, VI.84, 75). And yet the Scythians- felt themselves superior to the Parthians, another nomadic people, their ambassador observing that, "the more the Parthians drank the thirstier they became" (Natural History, XIV.148)

Wine drunk "Scythian fashion" is discussed at length by the symposiasts in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus (X.424.89-94)in contrast to the Greeks, who diluted their wine, first adding water to the mixing bowl and then the wine (Xenophanes, Fragments, IV). Sometimes, the wine was mixed equally (Aristophanes, Wealth, 1132) but more often with twoor, according to Hesiod, three parts of water (Works and Days, 596). The proverb was to "Drink either five or three or at least not four" (Athenaeus, X.424.72-88).

This cryptic admonition is explicated by Plutarch in his Moralia (Symposiacs, Question IX). Drinking "five" is to mix three cups of water with two of wine; "three," two cups of water with one of wine; and "four," three cups of water with a single cup of wine—thin stuff and a proportion "sober and weak enough" to be appropriate only for the magistrate or logician, who must keep a clear head. A ratio of two to one, on the other hand, elicits "the turbulent tone of those who are half-drunk," neither fully sober nor so besotted as to be utterly witless. Rather, it is a mixture of three parts of water to two of wine that is the most beneficial, causing one "to sleep peaceably and forget all cares...stilling and appeasing all proud and disordered passions within the heart, and inducing instead of them a peaceable calm and tranquility." This also happens to be the proportion poured by Athena herself, who "thirded" the wine (Aristophanes, Knights, 1189), the proportion deriving from the fact that Athena was born from the head on Zeus on the banks of the River Trito (Theogony, 929) and also was known as Tritogenia, "third-born of the gods" (Iliad, IV.597, VIII.44).

And yet, undiluted wine also was thought beneficial. It should be prescribed to someone who has became chilled, example (Celsus, On Medicine, I.3.10). Old men, too, should drink undiluted wine to warm themselves (I.3.32), presumably because their humor naturally was chilly and their blood cold (Aristotle, On Rhetoric, II.13). Aristotle also thought that old men got drunk more readily than women but provides no reason for the assertion—which prompts a symposiast in Plutarch to suggest his own (Symposiacs, Question III). Women simply are more moist, as evidenced from their smooth, soft skin, and this retained moisture dilutes and waters the wine and lessens its effect. Old men, on the other hand, are dry and therefore soak up wine more readily. Too, their distracted forgetfulness, faltering tongue and shaking body already display the symptoms of drunkenness, with the result that the condition does not induce any new symptoms so much as aggravate those already there. At least, wine mitigates against "the crabbedness of old age" (Plato, Laws, II.666b).

For the Greek lyric poet Alcaeus (sixth-century BC), a contemporary of Sappho, drunkenness would seem to be the very point of drinking. "Let's drink! Why are we waiting for the lamps! Only an inch of daylight's left. Lift down the large cups, my friend, the painted ones; for wine was given to men by the son of Semele and Zeus [Dionysis] to help them forget their troubles. Mix one part of water to two of wine, pour it in up to the brim, and let one cup push the other along" (Fragments, 346).

Writing half a century later, Anacreon reverses the proportion, mixing water with his wine in a ratio of two to one and enjoining his fellow symposiasts "not to practice a Scythian portion at our wine" but to drink responsibly (Athenaeus, 427b). For the topos of Scythian excess to have resonated with his audience, it already must have been a familiar motif to the Greeks. Settling on the north coast of the Black Sea only a century or so before, the irony is that Greek colonists had introduced wine to the nomadic tribes, who had been accustomed to drinking only water or mare's milk (Iliad, XIII.5; cf. Strabo, Geography, VII.3.7)).

If a woman drinking wine was something the Greeks "would look upon as the least of all faults," Numa, who succeeded Romulus as the second king of Rome, enjoined Roman matrons to refrain from wine entirely (Plutarch, Comparison of Lycurgus and Numa, III.5). And Cato says that the reason women are kissed by their male relatives was to discover if they had been drinking (Natural History, XIV.89). As censor in 184 BC, Cato the Elder was one of the magistrates responsible for public morals and conduct. Determined to preserve the ancestral mores of the old Republic, he inveighed against the Greeks for undermining them. Aulus Gellius, having copied passages from On the Dowry, a lost oration by Cato, relates that it once was the custom for women to kiss their kinsfolk so that, had they been drinking, their breathe would betray them (Attic Nights, X.23.1-5), although they did drink sweet raisin wine (passum) and spiced wines.

But even then, relates Polybius in a fragment (possibly emended and exaggerated) that is preserved by Athenaeus, it was impossible for a woman to drink without being detected, for "she must kiss her own and her husband's relations down to cousin's children, and do this every day as soon as she sees them. Finally, since the chances of meeting make it uncertain whom she will encounter, she is on her guard; for the situation is such that if she but take a small taste, nothing more need be said by way of accusation" (Deipnosophistae, IX.440e; from The Histories of Polybius, VI.2). Plutarch, too, was fascinated by the same question, suggesting that women kiss their kinsmen on the lips to determine if they had drunk any wine (Roman Questions,VI).

To be sure, Cato regarded the drinking of wine by a woman to be no less criminal than if she had committed adultery, which itself was punishable by death. Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, regarded the resulting drunkenness and inevitably adultery as "the gravest offences women could be guilty of" and meriting death (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, II,25.6). Indeed, Pliny relates that a husband did beat his wife to death with a cudgel for having drunk wine—and was absolved of the murder by Romulus himself (Natural History, XIV.89; recounted by Valerius Maximus, Memorial Doings and Sayings, VI.3.9, who adds that all agreed the death to have set "an excellent precedent").

Martial reverses the typical impression of the unscrupulous innkeeper when he writes that, once having asked for wine in Ravenna that was to be mixed with water, he was sold unmixed wine, the humor being that the town, often being inundated by the sea (Strabo, Geography, V.1.7) was better supplied with wine than drinkable water (Epigrams, III.57). But then he berates the man who does not mix his wine. "The warm water would have failed the attendants who bring it, were it not, Sextilianus, that you drank your wine unmixed" (I.11; but he also cheerfully admits that "I can do nothing sober, but when I drink, fifteen poets will come to my aid," XI.6). And not only poetry but truth itself, according to the famous adage In vino veritas ("In wine, truth").

The intention of the symposium, which was moderated by a symposiarch, 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 more blatantly drunk, although it, too, was ruled by the magister bibendi elected by a throw of the dice (Horace, Odes, I.4.18). There also were parties in which no ruler was appointed and the guests could drink as they wished, "not bound by crazy laws" (Horace, Satires, II.6.69). That having been said, the Romans usually mixed one part wine to two parts water (cool, warm, or even with sea water to cut the sweetness).

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.xxviii.139).

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 above was taken on a September day in Alsace.

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; Plutarch: Morals (Vol. III) (1878) edited by William W. Goodwin (Symposiacs, Book III, Question IX); Plutarch: Moralia (Vol. IV) (1936) translated by Frank Cole Babbit (Loeb Classical Library); Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Roman Antiquities (Vol. I) (1937) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Aulus Gellius: Attic Nights (1927) translated by John C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation (199) translated by Andrew M. Miller; Plutarch: The Parallel Live (1914) translated by (Loeb Classical Library); Martial: Epigrams (1968) translated by Walter C. A. Ker (Loeb Classical Library); Galen: On the Properties of Foodstuffs (2003) translated by Owen Powell; "Martial's Christmas Winelist" (1999) by T. J. Leary, Greece & Rome, 46(1), 34-41.

Return to Top of Page