Rome, classical

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

  • About

Vita vinum est’ (‘Wine is life’), exclaimed Trimalchio to his dinner guests (Petronius, Satyricon 34).

Wine was deeply embedded in Roman culture at all levels; it was as much a staple for the poor as for the wealthy. So the evidence is particularly rich, detailed, and varied—as rich, indeed, as for any aspect of ancient society. There are the casual, but often illuminating, references in the poets, in letters, and even in the graffiti scratched on inn walls. All the agricultural treatises, one of the largest bodies of technical literature to survive from antiquity, devote great space to detailed discussion of viticulture (see in particular cato, De agri cultura passim, from the 2nd century bc, varro, De re rustica, Book 1, from the end of the 1st century bc, columella, De re rustica, particularly Books 3–5, 12, and the separate work ‘On trees’ from the mid 1st century ad, and his contemporary pliny, Natural History, Books 14, 17, and 23, and palladius from late antiquity). What these reveal is a lively debate, which has its modern counterpart, about climate, vine varieties, planting and pruning techniques, technological developments, and the economics of viticulture. A more surprising source of information is Roman law; the sale of wine, particularly wholesale, raised considerable problems for the law of sale, when there was the question of what guarantee of quality the buyer might reasonably expect. The legal texts tell us much about the details of how wine was marketed. Equally interesting material comes from medical writers. Wine played an important role in medical treatment, and much of the information about the colour, quality, and effects of particular wines owes far less to the tasting books of Roman connoisseurs than it does to the notes of the doctors (see medicine). Finally there is archaeology, of which the most spectacular recent achievement, inspired by the underwater excavation of Roman wrecks, has been the identification of the types of amphorae used to carry the wine and the recognition of the scale and pattern of the wine trade.