Wine in Roman History

In history as it is generally written, there are to be seen only great personages and events, kings, emperors, generals, ministers, wars, revolutions, treaties. When one closes a huge volume of history, one knows why this state made a great war upon that; understands the political thinking, the strategic plans, the diplomatic agreements of the powerful, but would hardly be able to answer much more simple questions: how people ate and drank, how the warriors, politicians, diplomats, were clad, and in general how men lived at any particular time.

History does not usually busy itself with little men and small facts, and is therefore often obscure, unprecise, vague, tiresome. I believe that if some day I deserve praise, it will be because I have tried to show that everything has value and importance; that all phenomena interweave, act, and react upon each other - economic changes and political revolutions, costumes, ideas, the family and the state, land-holding and cultivation. There are no insignificant events in history; for the great events, like revolutions and wars, are inevitably and indissolubly accompanied by an infinite number of slight changes, appearing in every part of a nation: if in life there are men without note, and if these make up the great majority of nations - that which is called the "mass" - there is no greater mistake than to believe they are extraneous to history, mere inert instruments in the hands of the oligarchies that govern. States and institutions rest on this nameless mass, as a building rests upon its foundations.

I mean to show you now by a typical case the possible importance of these little facts, so neglected in history. I shall speak to you neither of proconsuls nor of emperors, neither of great conquests nor of famous laws, but of wine-dealers and vine-tenders, of the fortuned and famous plant that from wooded mountain-slopes, mirrored in the Black Sea, began its slow, triumphal spread around the globe to its twentieth century bivouac, California. I shall show you how the branches and tendrils of the plant of Bacchus are entwined about the history and the destiny of Rome.

For many centuries the Romans were water-drinkers. Little wine was made in Italy, and that of inferior quality: commonly not even the rich were wont to drink it daily; many used it only as medicine during illness; women were never to take it. For a long time, any woman in Rome who used wine inspired a sense of repulsion, like that excited in Europe up to a short time ago by any woman who smoked. At the time of Polybius, that is, toward the middle of the second century B.C., ladies were allowed to drink only a little passum, - a kind of sweet wine, or syrup, made of raisins. About the women too much given to the beverage of Dionysos, there were terrifying stories told. It was said, for instance, that Egnatius Mecenius beat his wife to death, because she secretly drank wine; and that Romulus absolved him (Pliny,Nat. Hist., bk. 14, ch. 13). It was told, on the word of Fabius Pictor, who mentioned it in his annals, that a Roman lady was condemned by the family tribunal to die of hunger, because she had stolen from her husband the keys of the wine-cellar. It was said the Greek judge Dionysius condemned to the loss of her dower a wife who, unknown to her husband, had drunk more than was good for her health: this story is one which shows that women began to be allowed the use of wine as a medicine. It was for a long time the vaunt of a true Roman to despise fine wines. For example, ancient historians tell of Cato that, when he returned in triumph from his proconsulship in Spain, he boasted of having drunk on the voyage the same wine as his rowers; which certainly was not, as we should say now, either Bordeaux or Champagne!

Cato, it is true, was a queer fellow, who pleased himself by throwing in the face of the young nobility's incipient luxury a piece of almost brutal rudeness; but he exaggerated, not falsified, the ideas and the sentiments of Romanism. At that time, it was a thing unworthy of a Roman to be a practised admirer of fine wines and to show too great a propensity for them. Then not only was the vine little and ill cultivated in Italy, but that country almost refused to admit its ability to make fine wines with its grapes. As wines of luxury, only the Greek were then accredited and esteemed - and paid for, like French wines to-day; but, though admiring and paying well for them, the Romans, still diffident and saving, made very spare use of them. Lucullus, the famous conqueror of the Pontus, told how in his father's house - in the house, therefore, of a noble family - Greek wine was never served more than once, even at the most elegant dinners. Moreover, this must have been a common custom, because Pliny says, speaking of the beginning of the last century of the Republic, "Tanta vero vino graeco gratia erat ut singulae potiones in convitu darentur"; that is, translating literally, "Greek wine was so prized that only single potions of it were given at a meal." You understand at once the significance of this phrase; Greek wine was served as to-day - at least on European tables - Champagne is served; it was too expensive to give in quantity.