Drink Like A Roman

Roman glass beaker with elaborate glasswork around it

If you like Roman history, you’ve probably heard they drank wine.  At the high point of the Roman empire’s history of wine, around the first century AD, it has been estimated that Rome consumed 180 million liters, or 47 million US gallons of wine annually – about a bottle each day for every citizen.  Romans were proud of their viticulture.  They grafted vines and trained them to climb, paying attention to how various vines preferred to grow, all in search of that special vintage.  Modern experts comment how good Roman viticulture techniques were –  clearly, they understood and cherished their vines.  I get a lot of questions about whether people in other time periods cared about vintages, and whether they aged their wines.  The Romans surely did.  Better wines were often aged.  The value of ancient vintages stayed very high, and were prized beyond any merit of the wine itself.

Of course, different wines excelled in different years.  Stuart Fleming gives the top three Roman wines of all time as Setinum, Caecuban, and Falernian; William Younger lists the top ten Roman wines of all time, including these three; six of the top ten come from the same region, around the border between Latium and Campagna, just north of Naples on the west coast of Italy – within easy reach of Mt. Vesuvius.

mosaid showing two Romans gathering grapes
Roman mosaic showing the grape harvest

Setinum Wine  Falernian wine seems the best known classical Roman wine nowadays, but it was only one of the many wines made by Rome.  In its day, it was perhaps the third best wine overall.  Setinum and Caecubum produced wine that had better overall reputation.  Of course, all three competed with imports, as well as the many other vineyards in “Rome”, or Roman-controlled Italy.  Setinum was the  wine Augustus Caesar favored.  Pliny noted it was declared the imperial wine because it did not cause Augustus indigestion; of course his preference increased its popularity significantly.  As the name indicates, Setinum was grown in the hills of the region called Setia.

ancient Roman amphorae from Campania stacked in rows against a wall, some broken
Roman Campania amphorae

Caecuban Wine   Caecuban seems to have been the most prized grape variety up to Imperial times, after which it was perhaps considered the second best Roman wine overall.  Its vineyard was not that far from either Setia or Falernus.   It was supposedly a white wine which turned fire-coloured as it aged, which I surely would have liked to have seen.    The poet Martial (40 – c. 122 AD) wrote that Caecuban wine was still maturing in cellars at Amyclae (Peloponnean Greece), long after production had ceased.  Galen (129-200AD) is latest classical writer we know tasted Caecuban wine;  it which would’ve been something like a century after destruction of the single vineyard that grew Caecuban grapes.

Falernian Wine 

Fresco of a Roman servant presenting a jar of wine
Fresco of a Roman servant presenting a jar of wine

Falernian wine is the famous Roman wine today.  When you ask scholars or English teachers about Roman wine, that’s the name they remember.  Falernian wine originated in legend.  A humble old Roman farmer named Falernus worked the soil of Mt. Massico, about 30 miles north of Naples, when one day he was visited by Bacchus in disguise. Falernus prepared him a simple meal, and in gratitude for the hospitality, the god of wine caused the cups at the table to fill. When a hungover Falernus awoke the next day, Bacchus was gone, and the whole mountain was blanketed with healthy vines.  Mt. Massico remained the terroir for Falernian wine.

Roman clay amphora
Roman amphora for storing and tranporting wine

Falernian wine had a most memorable year in 121 BC.  The vintage was dubbed “Opimian”, after Lucius Opimius, the Roman consul at the time.  In the first century BC, Falernian wine cost 100 times as much as the standard daily wage of a free Roman laborer.  Varro wrote in 37 BC  that Falernian increased in value as it matured, and history bears him out.  Pliny (23-79AD) wrote that Opimian Falernian from 121 BC was served in 60 BC at a banquest honoring Julius Caesar for his martial success in Spain (though Caesar would have returned to Rome from Hispania around 49BC; need to check that).  Pliny wrote that the Opimian wine served was so concentrated as to be barely drinkable, but as Romans watered their wine, I think that warrants further investigation.   He also mentions an Opimian Falernian being offered Caligula (12-41 AD, ruled 37-41); at that point it would’ve been close to 150-160 years old, but there was still some of it around, valued highly enough to offer to an Emperor!Roman mosaic of a fraught-looking young Bacchus

Falernian wine was made from what Romans called the Aminea Gemina grape, brought to Campania by Greek settlers.  That grape may still exist in modern Aglianico wines (Aglianico vintners surely say so), but no one has conclusively identified the DNA yet.  Aglianico grapes are deep ruby colored, very powerful and full-bodied.  If Falernian wasn’t Aglianico, it might be today’s Greco di Tufo, which is a white grape.  We don’t know whether classical Falernian wine was white or red, or both.

stone carving of a Roman wine ship
Roman wine ship; sure looks Norse!

Managing Roman Wine Supplies

When Mount Vesuvius blew in 79AD (giving us the word “volcano”, btw – a festival of Vulcan was just winding down in Pompeii when the mountain blew.  Rome had never seen a volcano before and had no word for it.)  -when Vesuvius blew, it devastated the Roman wine industry.  Vesuvius is just south of Naples; the great vineyards were all around that part of the Italian coast.    Vineyards and warehouses were destroyed in great numbers, resulting in a “wine famine”.    Trading ports were damaged enough to hinder the flow of wine in from the provinces.  As a result wine prices rose sharply, and soon it was available only to the richest.  Panicking Romans planted vineyards to such an extent that they were ripping up grain fields in their hurry.  All the new vineyards in turn created a wine surplus a few years later, which lowered the prices enough to damage trade again; the reduction in number of grain fields contributed to food shortages in the growing city of Rome.  Finally, in 92 AD the

Roman mosaic of a wine jar
Roman mosaic of a wine jar

Emperor Domitian issued an edict that banned new vineyards in Rome and ordered the uprooting of half of all vineyards in the provinces.  It’s not clear that this was ever completely carried out, but you see the point.  The Roman wine trade never does seem to have regained stability.  Years later, in 212 AD, Emperor Caracalla (188-217, ruled 198-217) conferred citizenship on all free inhabitants of the empire (the Constitutio Antoniniana) – but eliminated entirely the privilege of cultivating vines that had been the prerogative of Roman citizens.

stone carving of cupids gathering and pressing grapes
Carving from Roman wine festival Vinalia

The End of Falernian, Setinum and Caecuban Wine

Emperor Nero (37-68AD, ruled from 54 AD) supposedly intended to build a ship canal across the land that both Setinum and Caecuban were on.  In reality he wanted to excavate to find a legendary treasure Dido was supposed to have buried in the region hundreds of years earlier, around the 8th century BC.  Caecuban was grown in a single vineyard, which was demolished in the process.  Nero’s canal project functionally ended Setinan wine production as well.  It appears that a combination of events eventually ended the famous Falernian vineyards; Mt. Vesuvius certainly didn’t help.  It is likely that cuttings were taken at some point in the vineyards’ history, and planted elsewhere.  There are vineyards around Mt. Massico today, but it’s not yet clear that the modern vineyards on Mt. Massico grow the same grapes the ancient Romans did.

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