A brief insight into ancient Roman wine, different types of wine, ways of drinking it, types of vessel and literary references. In vino veritas!
Wine held an important part in ancient Roman society.Since the earliest times, tools and skills had been developed by the Etruscans to the north and Greeks to the south of Rome. They tamed wild vineyards and fostered the growth of its fruits with its vast religious, social and trade connotations. Roman wine became big business as production techniques, urbanisation and trade enabled it to become affordable and readily available across a broad range of consumers.
Ancient Roman wine was readily available through a variety of outlets of varying repute. They would sell wines of various qualities, rather like an English “Pub”, where people sat and passed time together, playing dice or chatting. It wouldn’t be unusual for the landlord (landlady) to make an extra turn of income by providing further “private” services in the spare room.
The story of a Roman wine retailer
A 3rd-century marble funerary tablet found in one of Rome’s catacombs shows what must have been a relatively upper-class concern, trading in bulk as well as for individual consumption. It presumably commemorates the lady sitting behind the desk with coins piled up along it … A chime, fashioned as the god of trade Mercury hangs above her. She is sumptuously dressed and holds a scroll, likely denoting her ownership of the concern.
She gestures to a young but wealthy man on her right (our left) who we can see is cloaked, carrying a staff and trying some wine from a cup. The cup is of the same fashion as the cup standing on a shelf behind him together with a patera (shallow bowl) and a large spoon or ladle, likely for spooning the wine out of the amphora behind him. The wine amphora stands in a wicker basket to help the amphora stand up, keep it safe from knocks and keep the wine a little cooler.
Bulk international trade: Further behind we have a scene where an older man, also wearing a cloak holds a bag of money and gestures to a younger one who is pouring wine from an amphora into a large vat, using a small column to help him support the amphora. It is interesting to note that at the back of the shop there are amphorae of various sizes and shapes, implying they are of different provenance and quality.
The identity of this older man is unclear: Most simply he could be a trader of large volumes or buying a larger volume of wine and hence is towards the area of the shop where many amphorae are stood. He could be the lady’s husband perhaps, dealing in bulk trade abroad whilst she looks after the shop: He has a similar gesture and posture to hers and whilst she holds the ownership document he holds the money bag (to denote trade?)…perhaps.
Local trade: On the right-hand side we have a rather lively scene where a young lady awaits her turn. The small dog greeting her suggests to us that she has just entered the shop, escorted by two men carrying amphorae in which she will take away some wine (for her household). She waits her turn, ready to pay and have her amphorae filled with wine, presumably by the lad on the far left as soon as he is free.
In conclusion, it is a shame there is no inscription to help decipher the scene but it is a timeless description of every-day life in what was evidently a busy and thriving wine merchant’s concern, owned by a woman. It is possibly run as a family concern and being a funeral monument it wouldn’t be surprising that the entire family be portrayed: mother in the centre (the deceased), father to the left, the son is possibly the lad pouring the wine and their family pet. A touching scene of “Forever together”.
Ancient Roman wine drinking cups
Upper class romans placed great importance in the drinking vessel used for their wine, particularly in receptions, much as we might nowadays place great importance on having our best crystal ware or proper glasses for wine drinking. This importance was reflected in the variety of drinking vessels which might be used to drink wine.
A good feel is to be had from a passage in Juvenal’s first satire where the luxury of the drinker’s cup is given as example of decadence:
“…It is to their crimes that men owe their pleasure-grounds and palaces, their fine tables and old silver goblets with goats standing out in relief…”
Romans mixed their wine and water in their cups (as opposed to the Greeks who would mix it in a larger vessel first). Hence there would be two pitchers: One for wine and the other water. These were called Askos and tended to be shaped like the goat skins of old. There’s a great mosaic from Pompeii of a skeleton holding a pair of these.
Drinking vessels, cups and glasses
Cups could be made of a variety of materials, starting from clay, Terra sigillata being a particularly refined sort (moulded clay with a very red colour), not to mention glass, silver, gold and a variety of semiprecious crystals and stones.
Glass took an increasingly significant role in Roman life starting from the first century BC and throughout the empire period. It could be found in a variety of quality and refinement which bore a direct relationship to how expensive the wares made from it might be, however there were in any case upper class people who continued to disdain it as a cheap forgery of the better quality materials such as crystal or silver. Objects were made in volume whether free blown or blown into moulds and subsequently reworked and a large variety of techniques were developed to imitate the more expensive materials for example by mold blowing wares using strips of different coloured glass to achieve compelling chromatic effects. It might be tinted black or deep red but invariably the most prized was that which was in imitation of crystal: engraved with designes or even made into highly complex shapes which to this day fetch high prices at auction.
“Potoria” and “Pocula” were general terms for drinking vessels.
Cantharus, likely derived from the Greek Kantharus, often associated with the god of wine Bacchus or Dionysos. It had two elongated handles like large ears extending above the lip of the cup. It might have had a stem also and a number examples have survived in elaborately styled silver.
The Scyphus likely derived from the Greek Skyphos although changed in shape over time. It was relatively common on roman dinner tables – imagine a large breakfast cup with 2 round finger handles (and a thumb rest on top) on opposite sides – made of ceramic, glass or metal. In spite of the common shape, silver pieces made by prestigious craftsmen could command high prices (but not as high as vessels made of Murrina – fluorspar). Such cups would frequently have relief figures round the outside.
The Calix was cheap and cheerful: a clay bowl, possibly with some relief radiating from the centre (like a flower). No handles. Often used for drinking wine in public places. Simple to make and cast. They could of course also be made of precious materials and even of murrina. As large as 1.5 litres in volume and of simple bowl shape. Apicius refers to it as a kitchen measure (much as we might refer to water glasses as a measure of volume)
Phiala & Patera – a low bowl with a central knob or figure rising from the centre. Likely used in religious situations and wine offerings to the gods. It is often seen on Etruscan funerary sculptures (the sort with a statue of the deceased lying on top of his sarcophagus, usually shown holding the Patera with which he or she made offerings).
“Cimbium” – small wine cup or a tall glass beaker.
Then we have a variety of ladles which would have been used to take wine from the amphorae or mixing bowls. For example the murrina vessels of Pompey in 61BC as part of the spoils he took from his war against Mithridates (Pliny, N. H., xxxvii 18). These ladles were known as Capis, Cyathus or Simpulum.
The domestic wine ladle was the “Trulla” which had a long spout along which the wine would flow.
The Roman Cage Cup
In terms of elaborated complexity, the “diatreton” (cage-cup) deserves special mention. Description of it isn’t simple, but it was like a double skinned cup where the outer skin is carved and punched through into complex shapes. The outer form being connected to the inner cup here and there but otherwise looking as if it is free standing. An example is the Constable-Maxwell Cage-Cup which was sold at auction for over 2.5M pounds sterling. Other examples are the Munich cage-cup and Cologne cage-cup and even more impressively the “dichroic” Lycurgus cup (4thCentury AD) at the British Museum. “Dichroic” meaning that the glass changes colour according to the angle of lighting through it eg dull green to glowing red. This effect is achieved by introducing tiny impurities of other substances such as silver, gold, magnesium. Being a centre of excellence for glass it is likely that Alexandria would have been a place where such items might be manufactured.
It is worth having a look at the lycurgus cup in the British museum…
Roman Murrina cups
A quote from Horace’s satires book II.8.20 makes reference to goblets from Allifae (a city in the Campania region south of Rome which made large drinking cups) but by far the most prized vessels were those known as “murrina” or “murra” or “murreus”. which made its first appearance around the first century BC and grew in social appreciation during the 1 and 2nd centuries AD.
These vessels were particularly valuable and prestigious, an often quoted example being the 1M sesterces (3M USD) spent by Nero on such a cup. Another reference to Nero’s prized drinking cups is found in Suetonius’ “Life of Nero” ch.47:
“and dashed to the ground two favourite drinking cups, which he called “Homeric,” because they were carved with scenes from Homer’s poems”
Much of the information we have about murrina cups is from Pliny’s Natural History although it is somewhat difficult to reconcile the information provided with other information and examples we have to hand. It is some form of glass or crystal ware possibly closely associated with Fluorite or Fluorspar. Fluorite is particularly interesting due to its relatively low melting point and above all its ability to fluoresce when certain impurities are present in the crystal. It reputedly gave a particular flavour to the wine.
It is interesting to note however that the use of such valued material came into Roman culture from the Orient as a result of Pompey the Great’s successes in the Middle East which extended Roman trade and flow of produce from such regions. Interestingly the geographical source of the material is understood to be the distant Parthian kingdom (Iran) which in itself was a hugely hostile region to Rome and which brought Rome more than one heavy military defeat.
Some examples of Murrina wine cups are at the British museum: “The Barber cup”dating back to the 1st century AD. Associated with the Barber cup is the “Crawford cup” – a Kantharos for wine drinking.
Varieties of ancient Roman wine
We know of a great variety of wines, taking a lead from texts such as Pliny and Horace who lived around the 1st century AD we notice a great variety, principally from Italy and Greece. The writer Horace seems to have a predilection for Falernian.
A variety of the wines known to the Romans are listed below:
- Alban wine = from the Alban hills to the south side of Rome. White wine from this area is still popular for example the “Colli Albani” or “Frascati” wines.
- Defrutum a cooked wine – ie obtained by boiling down the must – grape juice – to half its initial volume.
- Caecuban wine = an Italian white wine of good quality from Caecubum south of Rome (southern Latium, before the region of Campania).
- Calenian = mentioned by Juvenal in his Satires,sat1 as a high quality wine symbol of a decadent Roman society.
- Carenum = new wine, spiced, boiled down to one half of its volume.
- Cariotum = Palm or Date wine
- Caricarum = fig wine (of Carica figs)
- Chian wine = from the island of Chios off the coast of Ionia – Horace BkIISatIII:111-141
- Coan wine = white wine from the island of Cos in the Aegean sea.
- Apicius mentions “cumin wine” – perhaps wine flavoured with Cumin?
- Posca = wine, water, vinegar (or lemon juice)
- Oenogarum = Garum (fish sauce) with wine mixed in.
- Opimian wine mentioned by Pliny in NH bk 14.55 wasn’t a type of wine but rather a given year, vintage, of wine which coincided with the consulate of Opimius. There was still a quantity of it about some 200 years later and had acquired the consistency of honey (it wouldn’t be drunk neat).
- Falernian wine came from the Falernum district of Campania (eg Pompei, south of Rome)
- Surrentine wine – from Sorrento, not far from Pompeii.
- Massic wine – from Mount Massicus also in Campania
- Methymnian wine = from the island of Lesbos
- Minturnian wine = from Minturniae a port south of Rome near the border with Campania, a Roman colony as of the C3rd BC.
What Roman literature has to tell us about ancient Roman wine:
- From Varrus’ book I on agriculture (De Re Rustica): “what useful product is there which not only does not grow in Italy, but even grow to perfection? What Spelt (a form of rustic grain) shall I compare to the Campanian, what Wheat to the Apulian, what Wine to the Falernian….”
- Horace, Satires, BookII,8 gives us an idea of the variety of wines available, even at a single upper-class dinner: “The lees of Coan wine, (residues of wine), Caecubian, Falernian, Albanian (ie from the Alban hills south of Rome)….”
- Pliny’s Natural History includes a list of a broad variety of Roman wines. The Campanian wines include Vesuvium and Pompeiana which according to pliny tended to give a head-ache if drunk too much. Campanian wines are also noted as being fermented in the open air, exposed to the sun, wind and rain (NH Bk14,136)
Link to an interesting article about Roman wine vintages
Wine was frequently mixed with water (possibly hot water when the weather was cold) and a person drinking it neat would be regarded as a sort of degenerate. The mixing had dedicated vessels or might be undertaken directly in the drinking cup. Water was most commonly used but not unique.
The mixing could achieve high degrees of finesse, as we readily appreciate from Horace: Satires, Book 2 ch.2.15 on a frugal life: “refuse to drink the wine which isn’t Falernian mixed with honey from Hymettus” (Hymettus was a mountain south of Athens famous for its wild flowers and bees.)
“nisi Hymettiamella Falerno ne biberis diluta”
- Mixing wine with sea water was a great favourite, supposedly discovered when a slave was caught drinking his master’s neat wine and diluting it with sea water to hide the change in volume.
- The military were keen on watered down vinegar known as mulsum, possibly with a rusty nail placed in it to provide iron to the body.
- Wine mixed with honey was also very much appreciated, this is generally known as meade. See Horace’s quote above.
- Wine mixed with various herbs and spices or herb seeds such as fennel for example, especially to hide the taste of lesser quality wines or wines which were turning rancid.
Refined tricks of the Ancient Roman wine lover
Reading Roman literature such as Horace’s satires we can quickly gain an idea of how wine lovers in ancient Rome had collected many tricks of the trade and reached extremely high degrees of technical skill. A few examples are given below:
“If a guest suddenly descends on you in the evening, to whose palate a tough fowl might not be the answer, you’d be wise to plunge it alive in diluted Falernian: That will tenderise it.“ (Horace Satires Book 2 Sat4:1-23 Catius on the Culinary Arts) “Si vespertinus subito te oppresserit hospes, ne gallina malum responset dura palato, doctus eris vivam mixto mersare Falerno: hoc teneram faciet.”
“If you decant Massic wine under a flawless sky, any cloudiness will be cleared by the night-time air, the bouquet that sets the nerves on edge will fade: But its full flavour’s lost if it’s strained through linen”.(Horace Satires Book 2 Sat4:40-69)
“Cleverly add the lees of Falernian to Surrentine, and collect the sediment using a pigeon’s egg, The yolk sinks to the depths with any impurity”. (Horace Satires Book 2 Sat4:40-69)
“You’ll drink wine bottled in Taurus’ second term, between marshy Minturnae, and Mount Petrinum near Sinuessa. If you’ve better, have it brought, Or obey orders!……” (Horace’s Epistles – Book 1 Ep5:1-31)