The large plate with depictions of Bacchus, god of wine, all around the edge, 4th century AD, CC BY-SA 3.0
Ancient Rome, with its sprawling empire and rich cultural heritage, was a society deeply enamored with the art of viniculture. Wine in ancient Rome was more than just a beverage; it was a symbol of status, a tool for diplomacy, and a cornerstone of daily life. The role of wine in ancient Roman society was multifaceted. The wine had cultural significance and economic importance, and left a lasting legacy.
Wine in Ancient Rome: Origins and Evolution
The cultivation of vines and the production of wine have ancient roots in the Italian peninsula, predating the rise of Rome itself. The Etruscans, an advanced civilization that predated the Roman Republic, were already making wine in the region around 800 BCE. When Rome eventually rose to power, it inherited and expanded upon the viticultural traditions of its predecessors.
Pliny the Elder, Roman author and philosopher, in his Natural History says:
“The cultivated vine is kept down by pruning every year, and all the strength of the tree is drawn as much as possible into the shoots, or else thrown downwards to the sets; indeed, it is only allowed to expand with the view of ensuring an abundant supply of juice, a result which is obtained in various modes according to the peculiarities of the climate and the nature of the soil. In Campania they attach the vine to the poplar: embracing the tree to which it is thus wedded, the vine grasps the branches with its amorous arms, and as it climbs, holds on with its knotted trunk, till it has reached the very summit; the height being sometimes so stupendous that the vintager when hired is wont to stipulate for his funeral pile and a grave at the owner’s expense. The vine keeps continually on the increase, and it is quite impossible to separate the two, or rather, I may say, to tear them asunder. Valerianus Cornelius has regarded it as one of the most remarkable facts that could be transmitted to posterity, that single vines have been known to surround villas and country houses with their shoots and creeping tendrils ever on the stretch. At Rome, in the porticoes of Livia, a single vine, with its leaf-clad trellises, protects with its shade the walks in the open air; the fruit of it yields twelve amphoræ of must.
Everywhere we find the vine overtopping the elm even, and we read that Cineas, the ambassador of King Pyrrhus, when admiring the great height of the vines at Aricia, wittily making allusion to the peculiar rough taste of wine, remarked that it was with very good reason that they had hung the parent of it on so lofty a gibbet. There is a tree in that part of Italy which lies beyond the Padus, known as the “rumpotinus,” or sometimes by the name of “opulus,” the broad circular storeys of which are covered with vines, whose branches wind upwards in a serpentine form to the part where the boughs finally divide, and then, throwing out their tendrils, disperse them in every direction among the straight and finger-like twigs which project from the branches. There are vines also, about as tall as a man of moderate height, which are supported by props, and, as they throw out their bristling tendrils, form whole vineyards: while others, again, in their inordinate love for climbing, combined with skill on the part of the proprietor, will cover even the very centre of the court-yard with their shoots and foliage. So numerous are the varieties of the vine which even Italy alone presents.
In some of the provinces the vine is able to stand of itself without anything to support it, drawing in its bending branches, and making up in its thickness for its stunted size. In other places, again, the winds will not allow of this mode of culture, as in Africa, for instance, and various parts of the province of Gallia Narbonensis. These vines, being prevented from growing beyond the first branches, and hence always retaining a resemblance to those plants which stand in need of the hoe, trail along the ground just like them, and every here and there suck up the juices from the earth to fill their grapes: it is in consequence of this, that in the interior of Africa the clusters are known to exceed the body of an infant in size. The wine of no country is more acid than those of Africa, but there is nowhere to be found a grape that is more agreeable for its firmness, a circumstance which may very probably have given rise to its name of the “hard grape.” As to the varieties of the grape, although they are rendered innumerable by the size, the colour, and the flavour of the berry, they are multiplied even still more by the wines that they produce. In one part they are lustrous with a rich purple colour, while in another, again, they glow with a rosy tint, or else are glossy with their verdant hue. The grapes that are merely white or black are the common sorts. The bumastus swells out in form like a breast, while that known as the “dactylus,” has a berry of remarkable length. Nature, too, displays such varieties in these productions of hers, that small grapes are often to be found adhering to the largest vines, but of surpassing sweetness; they are known by the name of “leptorragæ.” Some, again, will keep throughout the winter, if care is taken to hang them to the ceiling with a string; while others, again, will keep by virtue of their own natural freshness and vigour, if put into earthen jars, which are then enclosed in dolia, and covered up with the fermenting husks of grapes. Some grapes receive from the smoke of the blacksmith’s forge that remarkable flavour which it is also known to impart to wines: it was the high name of the Emperor Tiberius that brought into such great repute the grapes that had been smoked in the smithies of Africa. Before his time the highest rank at table was assigned to the grapes of Rhætia, and to those growing in the territory of Verona.
Raisins of the sun have the name of “passi,” from having been submitted to the influence of the sun. It is not uncommon to preserve grapes in must, and so make them drunk with their own juices; while there are some that are all the sweeter for being placed in must after it has been boiled; others, again, are left to hang on the parent tree till a new crop has made its appearance, by which time they have become as clear and as transparent as glass. Astringent pitch, if poured upon the footstalk of the grape, will impart to it all that body and that firmness which, when placed in dolia or amphoræ, it gives to wine. More recently, too, there has been discovered a vine which produces a fruit that imparts to its wine a strong flavour of pitch: it is the famous grape that confers such celebrity on the territory of Vienne, and of which several varieties have recently enriched the territories of the Arverni, the Sequani, and the Helvii: it was unknown in the time of the poet Virgil, who has now been dead these ninety years.
In addition to these particulars, need I make mention of the fact that the vine has been introduced into the camp and placed in the centurion’s hand for the preservation of the supreme authority and command? that this is the high reward which summons the lagging ranks to the eagles raised aloft, and that even in chastisement for faults it tends to reflect honour upon the punishment? It was the vineyard, too, that first afforded a notion, the practical utility of which has been experienced in many a siege. Among the medicinal preparations, too, the vine holds so high a place, that its very wines taken by themselves are efficacious as remedies for disease.”
In the early days of the Roman Republic, wine was primarily consumed as a utilitarian beverage, often diluted with water to ensure its longevity, and to prevent intoxication. When Carthaginian general Hannibal withdrew from Africa, it seemed that wasn’t the case:
“When the horses which he had ordered were ready, he rode during the night to Byzacium-the name of a country district-and the next day reached his castle on the coast between Acylla and Thapsus. There a ship was awaiting him, prepared for immediate departure.  It was in this way that Hannibal withdrew from Africa, the country for whose misfortunes he had felt much more pity than for his own.  That same day he landed in the island of Cercina. Here he found some Phoenician merchant ships lying in the harbour, and on his leaving his vessel there was a general rush to greet him. In reply to inquiries he gave out that he was on a mission to Tyre.  Fearing, however, that one or other of these ships might leave in the night for Thapsus or Hadrumetum and report his appearance in Cercina, he ordered preparations for a sacrifice to be prepared and the ships’ captains to be invited to the solemnity.  He also gave directions for the sails and yards to be collected from the ships that they might serve as awnings to shade them at their feast, as it happened to be the middle of the summer.  The entertainment was as sumptuous as time and circumstances permitted, and the conviviality was prolonged far into the night, much wine being consumed.  As soon as he had an opportunity of escaping the observation of those in the harbour Hannibal set sail.  The rest were all asleep and it was not till late the next day that they rose from their torpor, stupid with the effects of intoxication, and then had to spend several hours in getting the tackle of their vessels back into its place. At Hannibal’s house in Carthage the usual crowd had collected in large numbers in the vestibule.  When it became generally known that he was not to be found, the [10??] crowd surged into the forum demanding the appearance of their foremost citizen.  Some, guessing the truth, suggested that he had fled, others-and these were the loudest and most numerous-said that he had been put to death through Roman treachery, and you might note the different expressions in their faces, as would be expected in a city torn by violent political partisanship. Then came the news that he had been seen in Cercina.”
As Roman society grew more affluent, so did its appreciation for wine. By the 2nd century BCE, the production and consumption of wine had become integral to Roman culture.
Cultural Significance of Wine
Wine held immense cultural significance in ancient Rome. It was not merely a drink but a symbol of sophistication, refinement, and conviviality. Banquets, known as “convivia,” were central to Roman social life, and wine was the lifeblood of these gatherings. The famous phrase “In vino veritas” (in wine, there is truth) captures the idea that wine often loosened tongues and revealed one’s true self.
Feasts featured an array of wine varieties, depending on the host’s means and the occasion’s formality. Fine wines, often produced in renowned regions, were reserved for grand feasts hosted by the wealthy elite. These wines, such as Falernian, were highly sought after for their quality and were a hallmark of luxurious banquets.
Moreover, wine played a crucial role in religious rituals. The god Bacchus, known as Dionysus in Greek mythology, was the deity associated with wine, revelry, and ecstasy. Festivals like the Bacchanalia celebrated the intoxicating power of wine, and it was believed that wine could facilitate a connection with the divine.
Wine as a Symbol of Status and Diplomacy
In ancient Rome, the quality and provenance of wine were closely linked to social status. Fine wines from regions like Campania, Tuscany, and the Falernian Hills were highly coveted. Owning and serving these wines at banquets was a display of wealth and sophistication. The poet Horace, in his writings, often praised the merits of Falernian wine, which had become synonymous with excellence.
Wine also played a significant role in diplomacy. The sharing of wine during negotiations and treaties was a common practice, as it was seen as a gesture of goodwill and trust. The giving and receiving of wine was an established diplomatic tradition, reflecting the role of wine in building alliances and fostering international relations.
Economic Importance and Vinicultural Advancements
The economic significance of wine in ancient Rome cannot be overstated. Vast vineyard estates, known as “villae,” covered the Italian countryside. These estates produced vast quantities of wine, both for local consumption and export. The Roman wine trade extended far beyond the borders of the empire, reaching as far as the British Isles and the Middle East.
To meet the demands of their expanding empire, the Romans developed innovative techniques for viticulture and winemaking. The use of wooden barrels for aging and transporting wine, for example, is a Roman innovation that persists to this day. They also improved grape cultivation methods and developed early pruning and trellising techniques to optimize grape yields and quality.
Legacy of Roman Wine
The legacy of Roman wine endures in various forms. The cultivation and appreciation of wine spread throughout Europe with the expansion of the Roman Empire, influencing the viticultural practices of regions such as France and Spain. The Latin terminology used in modern winemaking, such as “vitis vinifera” (the common grape vine) and “vindemia” (harvesting grapes), is a testament to the enduring influence of Roman culture.
Roman recipes and writings about wine, such as those found in the works of Pliny the Elder, have provided valuable insights into ancient winemaking techniques. Additionally, the Romans’ use of wine in medicine and their belief in its therapeutic properties have contributed to the historical development of wine‘s medicinal use.
Wine in ancient Rome was not just a drink; it was a symbol of culture, power, and civilization. Its journey from a humble beverage to a cornerstone of Roman society is a testament to the profound influence of wine on human history. From the vineyards of Italy to the far reaches of the Roman Empire, the legacy of Roman wine lives on in the enduring appreciation for this ancient elixir. In every sip of wine today, we can still taste the echoes of a bygone era when vinum Romanum reigned supreme.