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Ancient Roman Wine

A poignant view of the social aspects surrounding ancient Roman wine may be had from this mosaic found at Pompeii in which a skeleton holds wine vessels. A similar concept is to be had from the "boscoreale skeleton cup": Mating dogs are testimony that life goes on in spite of stoic philosophical debate about life and death (the skeletons around the cup).

By the time these artefacts were produced, wine was deeply embedded deep into all aspects of Roman culture, not only of Rome and other urban centres but also of the many provincial towns which flourished with its production and trade. Pompeii is a particularly vivid example.

Understanding how this came about requires us to take a long step back into the history of Roman wine, its production and the subsequent mercantile supply chain which developed from it.

History of Roman Wine

Common understanding is that wine was brought into Italy by the Greeks via the Greek colonies in southern Italy as well as by trade between Greece and Etruscans some time during the 8th century BC.

Recent scientific research under title of the "VINUM" project studied the genetic print of wild vines growing around Etruscan sites in central Italy (southern Tuscany and northern Latium). The general result has been that the genetic coding of the wild vines near archaeological sites is different from that of wild vines growing at a distance from the sites. This suggests that the wild vines around archaeological sites are in fact descendents of plants which had been "tamed" and selected for specific properties (such as productivity) and which have since then returned to a wild state.

So the likely reality is that whist the resident Etruscans tamed existing local vines in central italy, the Greeks were bringing their own varieties into southern Italy around the eighth century BC. The Etruscans, like the Greeks traded their own produce far and wide across the Mediterranean. The Greeks themselves are likely to have received wine from areas such as Persia or North Africa/Libya. It is likely that with wine they also acquired the cult of the deity Dionysus which they then disseminated in parallel with the wine trade. The same deity was known to the Romans as Liber or Bacchus and to the Etruscans as Fufluns.

The economy of ancient roman wine

ancient roman wineAs Roman civilisation progressed and changed so too did their use and consumption of wine. Initially we can imagine a beverage of moderate consumption, used in a pastoral context as a supplement to nutrition if available and perhaps restricted to religious ceremonies such as sacrifices and funerals. As time progressed consumption greatly increased so that even plebeans had claim to a regular state ration of it together with their bread: consumption greatly increased in step with the discovery and proliferation of soft grain which enabled leaven breads and bakeries to prosper.

The combination of factors such as geographic reach of trading routes (roman traders were often well ahead of the military conquests), influx of wealth, improved infrastructure, population growth around urban centres etc all compounded to enable the fundamentals of a liquid market economy based on supply and demand. Demand for wine was obviously accompanied by investments to create a matching supply: increasing expanses of land were converted from grain to vineyard to the extent that laws had to be passed in order to avoid endangering essential food supply.

The broadening social use of wine as a beverage reached the greatest heights and finesse, not only in terms of variety and uses (one only needs look at the variety of ancient roman recipes which include wine in various ways) but also in terms of the social and cultural connotations. It permeated every sector of life, very much as it does today.

The power of wine also gave it considerable geopolitical significance, a good example of this was the wine trade with Gaul before its invasion by Caesar. The Gauls were extremely keen on wine which consequently made its price very much higher than its cost of production. Payment for the wine was easily converted into the purchase of (gaulish) slaves, which could be used to produce yet more wine....

"And Dellius says that he was also afraid of a plot against him by Cleopatra, of which Glaucus the physician had told him. For he had offended Cleopatra at supper by saying that while sour wine was served to them, Sarmentus, at Rome, was drinking Falernian." (Plutarch "Life of Anthony" ch.59)

Last but not least, understanding ancient Roman wine requires us to distinguish between various classes of product:

1-wine produced locally in small batches for local consumption. These wines would be transported to local markets in simple ox skins ("cullei") which could contain over 500 litres each.

2-high quality wine of prestige which could be aged and sold to the elite. These are the wines which Pliny and other Roman writers have given us news about eg the varieties in Natural History bk14.

3-low quality high volume wine for more or less immediate consumption in the pubs, known as "cauponae", traded internationally for mass consumption. In order to preserve it during transport this wine would frequently be mixed with some quantity of sea water and lime. This is the type of wine which has left us greatest archaeological evidence by way of the amphoras involved in its transport.

The information which has made it down to us is scattered at best and tends to pertain to one or the other type of product.

A broader look at the economy and trade of ancient Roman (and Pompeian) wine has been included as part of our study of Ancient Roman Trade: wine is a product which clearly had a deep impact on the Roman economy and left many traces, starting from references in literature through to amphoras found in shipwrecks and farms in the countryside.

Etruscan, Greek and Roman wine production methods.

Ancient Roman wine was the consequence of wine culture coming from the Etruscans to the north of Rome and the Greeks to the south. This intermingling of Etruscan and Greek culture may also be seen in Pompeii's history timeline - not surprisingly Pompeii was a significant wine production centre.

The Etruscan approach to making wine seems focused on the production of quantity rather than quality of the wine. The vines they selected and nurtured were essentially "vitis vinifera sylvestris" (wild vine) with smaller fruits and generally lower sugar content. Their growing technique would have focused on associating the vines with tall trees into which the vines could freely grow. This would have kept the vines high above the ground and away from the streams near to which the plants tend to grow and thus protecting the fruits from mildew and giving greater exposure to the sun. This would have increased crop as well as aiding sugar content. Harvesting would have been aided by a long pole with a hooked blade: a blade extremely similar to those in use to this day in Tuscany (although now on low pruned plants of "vitis vinifera").

The collected grapes would have been brought to be pressed by foot in vats dug out of stone. These vats would likely have been in pairs or threes, one higher than the other and interconnected by way of an outlet. The outlet would be stopped up with clay, the grapes pressed and left to stand for a day or two. After this the clay stopper would be taken out and the juice pressed through to the next vat.

It is my own personal conjecture that the Etruscans might have then added honey to raise the sugar contents and introduce the yeast required to achieve a proper fermentation giving a result closer to meade although I repeat this is personal guess any input would be most welcome.

The greek contribution would have been in terms of quality: given their provenance from the east they are credited with the importation of suitable grapes of higher sugar content and hence capable of improved fermentation and flavour.


etruscan and roman wine vine pruning toolAn obvious deduction is that the quality of wine improved when pruning techniques were introduced and also that pruning wouldnt exactly be easiest when the plants were tall and tutored into live trees.

The first references related to pruning can be had through Pliny the Elder (NH, 14) where he refers to the laws made by Romes second king Numa in the 8th Century BC relating to the use of wine for sacrifices: "dont douse the fire with wine", within the same law he declares unholy the wine offerings made with wine coming from un-pruned vines: hence dissuading those who produced wine into the perils of climbing up high into the plants.

Within the same book (NH 14,10) Pliny mentions a further interesting detail which alludes to some form of insurance to protect those involved in pruning the vines which had grown high into poplar trees. It seems evident that the techniques of plant selection and pruning developed greatly during the end of the eighth century BC ie during the period of king Numas reign.

Roman absorption of Etruscan culture, the gradual colonisation of Italy and successive military campaigns enabled wine commerce to grow and flourish. This clearly implied an evolution of its cultivation in order to render it more productive (intensive) and in order to make labour associated with it cheaper: the vines were pruned and trained along lower supports. Its quality, particularly that for cult and religious uses was under heavier scrutiny and control. It is not surprising that (according to Pliny, Natural History book XIV) the earliest laws concerning wine dated back to the roman king Numa, successor of Romulus, who was known for his piety.

The general quality of wine produce devoted to general commerce also improved: international trade not only included the wine itself but also the varieties of vine plant, rich consumers became increasingly critical as to what constituted a good or a bad wine. The use of the wine became increasingly complex, for example in its use for refined cooking. Ample testimony is provided by a number of roman texts, which on the one hand are very open regarding what is to be regarded a good or bad wine suited to various situations, and on the other hand deal in great depth with agriculture and provide significant detail as to how to maintain a farm, the vineyard and maximise its output.

Some of these writings include Cato, Columella, Horace, Pliny and others. Within our account about ancient Roman wine we shall mention a number of these writers and what they tell us about wine in Roman times.

The impact of territorial growth and land division on ancient roman wine production:

Mosaic from Ostia port of a roman wine trading shipAs Rome expanded its territories into those of the Etruscans (around the 2nd century BC) the land they took was subdivided into lots of about 1.5 hectares (1 hectare being about 2.5 acres) and assigned a lot per head to the men (soldiers going into retirement). This went hand in hand with the construction of roads into and across Italy which permitted transport and communications with the major ports and harbours.

By the end of the 2nd century BC the small farm holdings were losing ground to large estates. These estates had a different economic model to them: a great deal of land for cattle and agriculture, manned by great numbers of slaves. The buildings to manage such a farm would therefore cater for residential quarters as well as productive activities. These "villae" were clearly the property of rich men, often of patrician rank living in Rome, who according to tradition would spend the wealth they received from the war campaigns they financed in agricultural productive activities rather than in "dirty" mercantile trade. For example, it was untoward to be the owner of ships so "clients" (clientes) would be used to complete the mercantile chain.

The ancient Roman economic cycle:

  • Military campaigns = land & wealth & slaves which make their way onto Romes markets.
  • Wealth goes to those who finance the campaigns (patricians) and to some degree to the state and retiring soldiers (1.5 hectares each). Land distribution was a bone of contention with the plebeians who demanded redistribution (see the Roman social wars and Gracchi brothers).
  • Patricians spend the wealth on land and large holdings which they farm intensively by use of the cheap slaves.
  • Clients then ship and trade the produce into the provinces and along trade routes which are either hospitable or rendered hospitable by yet more military campaigns.
  • This "virtuous" economic cycle clearly generated a number of ancillary trades such as pottery and Roman amphoras to carry the produce in and shipbuilding to carry it to foreign markets such as Gaul. Interestingly the invention of the barrel is attributed to the Gauls -  a further indication of how increased internationalism enabled the development of trade.

The economic model around ancient Roman wine production was eventually hit by a variety of negative influences:

  • when imperial power began to take hold of large areas of land removing them from the landowners.
  • when Italian produce was in reduced demand ie when similar and cheaper produce began elsewhere or when the populations which had purchased such produce were impoverished or found alternatives
  • when the cheap supply of slaves began to falter after the empire had reached its maximum expansion

Further understanding of Ancient Roman wine, its consumption and its production can be had by looking at:

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"Ancient Roma Wine" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments