How did the Ancient Romans drink wine?
The Romans’ love for winemaking has more in common with the modern wine world than most people think. Let’s find out why…
Those who have once taken a philosophy class at school might be familiar with the name Seneca – the Roman philosopher and advisor to the infamous Emperor Nero, eventually forced to take his own life by Nero himself.
What is less known is Seneca’s passion for winemaking.
What is less known is Seneca’s passion for winemaking. He purchased one of the best vineyards in Nomentum, near Rome, from a man who had bought it a few years earlier and improved it greatly using innovative viticultural techniques before selling it to Seneca at four times the original price.
Why would a man like Seneca, one of the most powerful men in the Roman Empire, bother to buy an expensive vineyard?
Winemaking was a real art for the Romans. Wine was more than just a drink.
Their love for wine and their sophisticated rules for drinking and making it have more in common with the modern wine world than most people think.
Wine in Ancient Rome
Imagine to be suddenly thrown back to the time of the Romans: as the eager wine lover you are, you immediately start looking for a wine that fits your taste but none of the wines you see sound familiar.
How can you choose?
Fear not! The Haustores, the Sommeliers of the time, are here to help you.
Similarly to our modern Sommeliers, these ancient wine professionals were in charge of tasting and separating the wines based on certain features like color, taste, and many others.
Wines could be red (Vinum Atrum), white (Vinum Candidum) and even Rosé (Vinum Rosatum); the Romans classified wines based on their quality and appreciated wines that had been aged for a long time.
Wait, did you ask for a beer? Please, that’s for barbarians…
At least according to many Ancient Romans. In one of his poems, emperor Julian (emperor between 361 and 363) compared wine to beer saying that wine “smells like nectar” while beer “smells like a goat”.
Roman Aperitif, wine festivals, and a disgusting hangover cure..
Looking for a wine festival?
Our ancient friends got you covered! There were two major wine festivals called Vinalia; the first one, celebrated on April 23rd, was the occasion to taste the new wine.
And can you imagine a Roman banquet without wine?
The Romans even had their own version of aperitif known as gustatio, consisting of a selection of appetizers accompanied by mulsum, a honey-sweetened wine very popular at the time.
But the dinner didn’t end with gustatio, and neither did the wine toasts: faced with the problem of recovering from overdrinking, our ancient friends found their own answer to the timeless question “how do I cure this hangover?”; according to Roman philosopher Pliny the elder, eating a fried canary or raw owl’s eggs was the best cure!
Women, wine, and alcohol tests
Livia, the wife of the first Roman emperor Augustus, was said to have reached a very old age thanks to her favourite wine, the Pucinum.
By the beginning of the Empire, it had become common for women to drink wine: however, in more Ancient times in Roman history, women were not allowed to drink wine.
In order to make sure that the woman didn’t drink the husband was allowed to kiss her, a practice known as ius osculi, and a positive result of this “alcohol test” could have terrible consequences.
The best wines in Ancient Rome
If you think the Romans didn’t have their wine preferences, think again!
For a long time in Roman history, Greek wines were among the most appreciated, but the Italian potential for winemaking had already been noticed, and the Greek historian
Herodotus and other contemporaries referred to the south of Italy as Oenotria (land of wines).
Thanks to their well-known pragmatism, the Romans didn’t miss out on learning the secrets of viticulture and winemaking from the cultures they integrated, and Italian wines gained ground to become extremely famous during the golden age of Roman winemaking.
The most highly prized at the time were Falernian and Caecuban wine, both produced in the Center-South of Italy: Caecuban wine was considered by many the best of all wines, and it was chosen to celebrate the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra.
Do the wines of the Romans still exist?
It was estimated that at the peak of its wine production Rome was consuming the equivalent of a bottle of wine per citizen every day.
For the Romans, wine was not a luxury, but a daily necessity, and as they expanded throughout Europe they brought their knowledge of viticulture and love for winemaking with them: some of the regions where they first planted vineyards have become today’s most famous wine regions.
But what happened to the wines of the Romans? Were they lost in time?
Partially they were, but not entirely: in the region of Rome, some of the ancient grape varieties that were used to make these wines survived to our days, and the legacy of the Romans lives on thanks to the work of some local winemakers
The Imperial Meals Project is bringing together winemakers, farmers, archeologists, writers, and photographers from the region of Rome to uncover the legacy of the Romans in the wine and food of our region.
This guest post was written by Manuel Cirulli exclusively for Social Vignerons.
The Imperial Meals Project brings together winemakers, farmers, archeologists, writers, and photographers from the region of Rome to uncover the legacy of the Romans in the wine and food of our region: together, we are writing the stories of the local producers that continue the legacy of the Romans.
Learn more at ImperialMeals.agritales.it
Article References and Interesting Related Reads
The Romans and Trade – André Tchernia
Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy – N. Purcell
The Stoic: A biography of Seneca – Francis Caldwell Holland
Il vino nell’Antica Roma: così bevevano i Romani – Lorenzo Dalmasso
Natural History – Pliny the Elder
The Oxford Companion to Wine – Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding
A short history of wine – Rod Phillips
On Agriculture – Columella
Roma Caput Vini: la sorprendente scoperta che cambia il mondo del vino – Giovanni Negri, Elisabetta Petrini