Wine in Ancient Rome

iStock_000008055108Small bacchus at vineyardWe’ve all seen movies with scenes of ancient Romans lounging at sumptuous banquets enjoying copious amounts of food and wine, but how important was wine to Roman culture, and what role did Rome play in spreading the tradition of viticulture throughout the world?

Wine was an integral part of ancient Roman culture and religion. Romans drank wine with every meal, but sometimes it was simply enjoyed for its relaxing or intoxicating effects. Romans embraced Dionysus—the Greek god of grape harvests and winemaking—and the mystical Dionysian cult, which had taken root in Greece around 1500 BC, was brought to Rome more than a thousand years later. Bacchanalia, named for the Roman god Bacchus (formerly Dionysus), were drunken, ritualistic festivals celebrating the wine deity. In 186 BC they were banned by the Roman Senate and after that, wild drunkenness was not tolerated in ancient Rome.

Early wine was incredibly high in alcohol, made without the additives and methods used today that help control taste and alcoholic content. In most cases, the wine the Romans made was barely drinkable without dilution with water. Individuals added other ingredients such as honey, lemon, salt, herbs, spices—even chalk and garlic—to reduce the bitter taste of the fermented liquid. Wine also was routinely added to water to purify it and improve the potability of bad-tasting, stagnant or otherwise dangerous-to-drink water. The widespread custom of adding wine to drinking water to disinfect it contributed to the establishment of the deep-seated wine culture in the Roman Empire. Usually the dilution ratio was about 3-4 parts water to 1 part wine.

Thousands of years before the Roman Empire existed, Etruscan and Greek settlers made wine in the area that is now southern Italy. During the second century BC, Romans had begun cultivating very large vineyards. They became prolific grape-growers and expert winemakers, developing new techniques and introducing significant barrel storage and bottling improvements. Towards the end of the first century AD, glass-blowing was perfected to such an extent that clay jugs and cups began to be replaced with glass containers. This innovation greatly improved the taste of wine. Many coastal areas were home to enormous grape plantations, cultivated by slaves. Roman law initially prohibited all viticulture outside of Italy, so exportation of wine to the provinces—especially to Gaul, Hispania, Germania, and Britain—was constant. Later, a goal of the Roman Empire was to spread viticulture and wine production throughout all the colonies. In areas where winemaking had already existed for thousands of years, Roman rulers sought to change local wine production methods so the end product would always conform to Roman standards.

All of Western Europe adopted the Romans’ fundamental belief that wine was a necessity of life for every human being, regardless of social class. Everyone from slave to aristocrat drank wine. The importance of wine to the Roman culture is well-documented over a period of more than 500 years. Cato the Elder, Horace, Columella, Virgil, Pliny the Elder, and Palladius wrote extensively on the subject. Palladius published his “Opus agriculturae” in the fourth century AD. This work, sometimes titled “De re rustica,” was translated into several languages. Many of its instructions were followed well into the Middle Ages. Here’s one of his wine tips: “Cloudy [wine] will soon turn clear if one puts seven pine cones into the jug. Stir it and let it stand for a while…strain and serve.”