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Wine information > History of wine > Wine in Roman history
Wine in Roman history
In history as it is generally written, there are to be seen only great personages and events, kings, emperors, generals, ministers, wars, revolutions, treaties. When one closes a huge volume of history, one knows why this state made a great war upon that; understands the political thinking, the strategic plans, the diplomatic agreements of the powerful, but would hardly be able to answer much more simple questions: how people ate and drank, how the warriors, politicians, diplomats, were clad, and in general how men lived at any particular time.
History does not usually busy itself with little men and small facts, and is therefore often obscure, unprecise, vague, tiresome. I believe that if some day I deserve praise, it will be because I have tried to show that everything has value and importance; that all phenomena interweave, act, and react upon each other - economic changes and political revolutions, costumes, ideas, the family and the state, land-holding and cultivation.
There are no insignificant events in history; for the great events, like revolutions and wars, are inevitably and indissolubly accompanied by an infinite number of slight changes, appearing in every part of a nation: if in life there are men without note, and if these make up the great majority of nations - that which is called the "mass" - there is no greater mistake than to believe they are extraneous to history, mere inert instruments in the hands of the oligarchies that govern. States and institutions rest on this nameless mass, as a building rests upon its foundations.
I mean to show you now by a typical case the possible importance of these little facts, so neglected in history. I shall speak to you neither of proconsuls nor of emperors, neither of great conquests nor of famous laws, but of wine-dealers and vine-tenders, of the fortuned and famous plant that from wooded mountain-slopes, mirrored in the Black Sea, began its slow, triumphal spread around the globe to its 21st century bivouac, California. I shall show you how the branches and tendrils of the plant of Bacchus are entwined about the history and the destiny of Rome.
For many centuries the Romans were water-drinkers. Little wine was made in Italy, and that of inferior quality: commonly not even the rich were wont to drink it daily; many used it only as medicine during illness; women were never to take it. For a long time, any woman in Rome who used wine inspired a sense of repulsion, like that excited in Europe up to a short time ago by any woman who smoked. At the time of Polybius, that is, toward the middle of the second century B.C., ladies were allowed to drink only a little "passum", - a kind of sweet wine, or syrup, made of raisins. About the women too much given to the beverage of Dionysos, there were terrifying stories told. It was said, for instance, that Egnatius Mecenius beat his wife to death, because she secretly drank wine; and that Romulus absolved him.
It was told, on the word of Fabius Pictor, who mentioned it in his annals, that a Roman lady was condemned by the family tribunal to die of hunger, because she had stolen from her husband the keys of the wine-cellar. It was said the Greek judge Dionysius condemned to the loss of her dower a wife who, unknown to her husband, had drunk more than was good for her health: this story is one which shows that women began to be allowed the use of wine as a medicine. It was for a long time the vaunt of a true Roman to despise fine wines. For example, ancient historians tell of Cato that, when he returned in triumph from his proconsulship in Spain, he boasted of having drunk on the voyage the same wine as his rowers; which certainly was not, as we should say now, either Bordeaux or Champagne!
Cato, it is true, was a queer fellow, who pleased himself by throwing in the face of the young nobility's incipient luxury a piece of almost brutal rudeness; but he exaggerated, not falsified, the ideas and the sentiments of Romanism. At that time, it was a thing unworthy of a Roman to be a practised admirer of fine wines and to show too great a propensity for them. Then not only was the vine little and ill cultivated in Italy, but that country almost refused to admit its ability to make fine wines with its grapes. As wines of luxury, only the Greek were then accredited and esteemed - and paid for, like French wines today; but, though admiring and paying well for them, the Romans, still diffident and saving, made very spare use of them.
Lucullus, the famous conqueror of the Pontus, told how in his father's house - in the house, therefore, of a noble family - Greek wine was never served more than once, even at the most elegant dinners. Moreover, this must have been a common custom, because Pliny says, speaking of the beginning of the last century of the Republic, "Tanta vero vino graeco gratia erat ut singulae potiones in convitu darentur"; that is, literally translated, "Greek wine was so prized that only single potions of it were given at a meal." You understand at once the significance of this phrase; Greek wine was served as today - at least on European tables - Champagne is served; it was too expensive to give in quantity.
This condition of things began to change after Rome became a world power, went outside of Italy, interfered in the great affairs of the Mediterranean, and came into more immediate contact with Greece and the Orient. By a strange law of correlation, as the Roman Empire spread about the Mediterranean, the vineyard spread in Italy; gradually, as the world politics of Rome triumphed in Asia and Africa, the grape harvest grew more abundant in Italy, the consumption of wine increased, the quality was refined. The bond between the two phenomena - the progress of conquest and the progress of vine growing - is not accidental, but organic, essential, intimate.
As, little by little, the policy of expansion grew, wealth and culture increased in Rome; the spirit of tradition and of simplicity weakened; luxury spread, and with it the appetite for sensations, including that of the taste for intoxicating beverages.
We have but to notice what happens about us in the modern world - when industry gains and wealth increases and cities grow, men drink more eagerly and riotously inebriating beverages - to understand what happened in Italy and in Rome, as gradually wars, tribute, blackmailing politics, pitiless usury, carried into the peninsula the spoils of the Mediterranean world, riches of the most numerous and varied forms. The old-time aversion to wine diminished; men and women, city-dwellers and countrymen, learned to drink it. The cities, particularly Rome, no longer confined themselves to slaking their thirst at the fountains; as the demand and the price for wine increased, the land-owners in Italy grew interested in offering the cup of Bacchus, and as they had invested capital in vineyards, they were drawn on by the same interest to excite ever the more the
eagerness for wine among the multitude, and to perfect grape culture and increase the crop, in imitation of the Greeks. The wars and military expeditions to the Orient not only carried many Italians, peasants and proprietors, into the midst of the most celebrated vineyards of the world, but also transported into Italy slaves and numerous Greek and Asiatic peasants who knew the best methods of cultivating the vine, and of making wines like the Greek, just as the peasants of Piedmont, of the "Veneto", and of Sicily, have in the last twenty years developed grape-culture in Tunis and California.
Pliny, who is so rich in valuable information on the agricultural and social advances of Italy, tells us that it opened its hills and plains to the triumphal entrance of Dionysus between 130 and 120 B.C., about the time that Rome entered into possession of the kingdom of Pergamus, the largest and richest part of Asia Minor, left to it by bequest of Attalus. Thenceforward, for a century and a half, the progress of grape-growing continued without interruption; every generation poured forth new capital to enlarge the inheritance of vineyards already grown and to plant new ones. As the crop increased, the effort was redoubled to widen the sale, to entice a greater number of people to drink, to put the Italian wines by the side of the Greek.
At the distance of centuries, these vine-growing interests do not appear even in history; but they actually were a most important factor in the Roman policy, a force that helps us explain several main facts in the history of Rome. For example, vineyards were one of the foundations of the imperial authority in Italy. That political form which was called with Augustus the principality, and from which was evolved the monarchy, would not have been founded if in the last century of the Republic all Italy had not been covered with vineyards and olive orchards. The affirmation, put just so, may seem strange and paradoxical, but the truth of it will be easy to prove.
The imperial authority was gradually consolidated, because, beginning with Augustus, it succeeded in pacifying Italy after a century of commotion and civil wars and of foreign invasions, to which the secular institutions of the Republic had not known how to oppose sufficient defence; so that, little by little, right or wrong, the authority of the "Princeps", as supreme magistrate, and the power of the Julian-Claudian house, which the supreme magistrate had organised, seemed to the Italian multitude the stable foundation of peace and order. But why was Italy, beginning with the time of Caesar, so desperately anxious for peace and order? It would be a mistake to see in this anxiety only the natural desire of a nation, worn by anarchy, for the conditions necessary to a common social existence.
The contrast of two episodes will show you that during the age of Caesar annoyance at disorder and intolerance of it had for a special reason increased in Italy. Toward the end of the third century B.C., Italy had borne on its soil for about seventeen years the presence of an army that went sacking and burning everywhere - the army of Hannibal - without losing composure, awaiting with patience the hour for torment to cease. A century and a half later, a Thracian slave, escaping from the chain-gang with some companions, overran the country, - and Italy was frightened, implored help, stretched out its arms to Rome more despairingly than it had ever done in all the years of Hannibal.
What made Italy so fearful? Because in the time of Hannibal it had chiefly cultivated cereals and pastured cattle, while in the days of Spartacus a considerable part of its fortune was invested in vineyards and olive groves. In pastoral and grain regions the invasion of an army does relatively little damage; for the cattle can be driven in advance of the invader, and if grain fields are burned, the harvest of a year is lost but the capital is not destroyed. If, instead, an army cuts and burns olive orchards and vineyards, which are many years in growing, it destroys an immense accumulated capital. Spartacus was not a new Hannibal, he was something much more dangerous; he was a new species of "Phylloxera" or of "Mosca olearia" in the form of brigand bands that destroyed vines and olives, the accumulated capital of centuries.
Whence, the emperor became gradually a tutelary deity of the vine and the olive, the fortune of Italy. It was he who stopped the barbarians still restless and turbulent on the frontiers of Italy, hardly over the borders; it was he who kept peace within the country between social orders and political parties; it was he who looked after the maintenance and guarding of the great highways of the peninsula, periodically clearing them of robbers and the evil-disposed that infested them; and the land-owners, who held their vineyards and olive groves more at heart than they did the great republican traditions, placed the image of the Emperor among those of their Lares, and venerated him as they had earlier revered the Senate.
Still more curious is the influence that this development of Italian viticulture exercised on the political life of Rome; for example, in the barbarous provinces of Europe, wine was an instrument of Romanisation, the effectiveness of which has been too much disregarded. In Gaul, in Spain, in Helvetia, in the Danube provinces, Rome taught many things: law, war, construction of roads and cities, the Latin language and literature, the literature and art of Greece; more, it also taught to drink wine. Whoever has read the "Commentaries" of Caesar will recall that, on several occasions, he describes certain more barbarous peoples of Gaul as prohibiting the importation of wine because they feared they would unnerve and corrupt themselves by habitual drunkenness.
Strabo tells us of a great Gaeto-Thracian empire that a Gaetic warrior, Borebiste by name, founded in the time of Augustus beyond the Danube, opposite Roman possessions; while this chieftain sought to take from Greek and Latin civilisation many useful things, he severely prohibited the importation of wine. This fact and others similar, which might be cited, show that these primitive folk, exactly like the Romans of more ancient times, feared the beverage which so easily intoxicates.
This hesitation and fear disappeared among the Gauls, after their country was annexed to the Empire; disappeared or was weakened among all the other peoples of the Danube and Rhine regions, and even in Germany, when they fell under Roman dominion; even also while they preserved independence, as little by little the Roman influence intensified in strength. By example, with the merchants, in literature, Rome poured out everywhere the ruddy and perfumed drink of Dionysos, and drove to the wilds and the villages, remote and poor, the national mead - the beverage of fermented barley akin to modern beer.
The Italian proprietors who were enlarging their vineyards - especially those of the valley of the Po, where already at the time of Strabo the grape-crop was very abundant - soon learned that beyond the Alps lived numerous customers. Under Augustus, Arles was already a large market for wines, both Greek and Italian; during the same period, there passed through Aquileia and Leibach considerable trade in Italian wine with the Danube regions. In the Roman castles along the Rhine, among the multitudes of Italians who followed the armies, there was not wanting the wine-dealer who sought with his liquor to infuse into the torpid blood of the barbarian a ray of southern warmth. Everywhere the Roman influence conquered national traditions; wine reigned on the tables of the rich as the lordly beverage, and the more the Gauls, the Pannonians, the Dalmatians, drank, the more money Italian proprietors made from their vineyards.
I have said that Rome diffused at once its wine and its literature: it also diffused its wine through its literature, a fact upon which I should like to dwell a moment, since it is odd and interesting for diverse reasons. We always make a mistake in judging the great literary works of the past. Two or three centuries after they were written, they serve only to bring a certain delight to the mind; consequently, we take for granted they were written only to bring us this delight. On the contrary, almost all literary works, even the greatest, had at first quite another office; they served to spread or to counteract among the author's contemporaries certain ideas and sentiments that the interests of certain directing forces favoured or opposed; indeed very often the authors were admired and remunerated far more for these services rendered to their contemporaries than for the lofty beauty of the literary works themselves.
The first wines that came into note seem to have been those of southern Italy, especially Falernian, and Julius Caesar seems to have done much to make it known. Pliny tells us that, in the great popular banquet offered to celebrate his triumph after his return from Egypt, he gave to every group of banqueters a cask of Chian and an "amphora" of Falernian, and that in his third consulate he distributed four kinds of wine to the populace, Chian, Falernian, and Mamertine; two Greek qualities and two Italian. It is evident that he wished officially to recognise national wines as equal to the foreign, in favour of Italian vintners; so that Julius Caesar, that universal man, has a place not only in the history of the great Italian conquests, but also in that of Italian viticulture.
The wines of the valley of the Po were not long in making place for themselves after those of southern Italy. We know that Augustus drank only Rhetian wine; that is, of the Valtellina, one of the valleys famous also today for several delicious wines; we know that Livia drank Istrian wine.
I have said that Italy exported much wine to Gaul, to the Danube regions, and to Germany; to this may be added another remark, both curious and interesting. "The Periplus of the Erytrian Sea", attributed to Arrianus, a kind of practical manual of geography, compiled in the second century A.D., tells us that in that century Italian wine was exported as far as India; so far had its fame spread! There is no doubt that the wealth in the first and second century A.D., which flowed for every section of Italy, came in part from the nourishing vineyards planted upon its hills and plains; and that the Italians, who had gone to the Orient for reasons political and financial, had fallen upon yet greater fortune in contrabanding Bacchus from the superb vineyards of the aegean islands, and transporting him to the hills of Italy; a new seat whereon the capricious god of the vine rested for two centuries, until he took again to wandering, and crossed the Alps.
We may at this juncture ask ourselves if this enologic pre-eminence of Italy was the result only of a greater skill in cultivating the vine and pressing the grapes. I think not. It does not seem that Italy invented new methods of wine-making; it appears, instead, that it restricted itself to imitating what the Greeks had originated. On the other hand, it is certain, at least in northern and central Italy, that, although the vine grows, it does so less spontaneously and prosperously than in the aegean islands, Greece, and Asia Minor, because the former regions are relatively too cold.
The great fame of the Italian wines had another cause, a political: the world power and prestige of Rome. This psychological phenomenon is found in every age, among all peoples, and is one of the most important and essential in all history. What is beautiful and what is ugly? What is good and what is bad? What is true and what is false? In every period men must so distinguish between things, must adopt or repudiate certain ideas, practise or abandon certain habits, buy certain objects and refuse others; but one should not believe that all peoples make these discernments spontaneously, according to their natural inclination. It always happens that some nations succeed, by war, or money, or culture, in persuading the lesser peoples about them that they are superior; and strong in this admiration, they impose upon their susceptible neighbours, by a kind of continuous suggestion, their own ideas as the truest, their own customs as the noblest, their own arts as the most perfect.
Athens and Alexander the Great had given to Greek wine the widest reputation, all the peoples of the Mediterranean world being persuaded that that was the best of all. Then the centre of power shifted to the west, toward the city built on the banks of the Tiber, and little by little as the power of Rome grew, the reputation of its wine increased, while that of Greece declined; until, finally, with world empire, Italy conquered pre-eminence in the wine market, and held it with the Empire; for while Italy was lord, Italian wine seemed most excellent and was paid for accordingly.
This propensity of minor or subject peoples to imitate those dominant or more famous, is the greatest prize that rewards the pre-eminent for the fatigue necessary to conquer that place of honour; it is the reason why cultured and civilised nations ought naturally to seek to preserve a certain political, economic, and military supremacy, without which their intellectual superiority would weaken or at least lose a part of its value. The human multitude in the vast world are not yet so intelligent and refined as to prize that which is beautiful and grand for its own sake; and they are readily induced to admire as excellent what is but mediocre, if behind it there is a force to be feared or to impose it.