Vitis vinifera and Rome: How Wine Helped Forge a Civilization
When people think of the ancient Roman civilization, notions of trained legions bent on conquering territory and evocative oratory from celebrated politicians often come to mind. And while early Romans will always be credited for both their insatiable military expansion and their enlightened ideas of government, the rapid growth of Rome was not built on these two pillars alone. Indeed, what led to the rise of such a dominating power in a matter of centuries was not simply from the end of a sword, but from that which grew from the earth -- what the people cultivated, traded and consumed. One very significant agricultural need of a growing population that transformed the bounty of the harvest into a cultural ritual and tradition of Roman life was wine. This presentation will demonstrate how the beverage became a locally grown and manufactured staple that played a powerful role in the social, institutional and economic life of the civilization.
The Roman writer and naturalist Pliny the Elder, in his treatise Naturalis Historia states “there is nothing more useful than wine for strengthening the body, while, at the same time, there is nothing more pernicious as a luxury, if we are not on our guard against excess.” Years before he wrote those words, wine had in fact come from humble origins outside Italy itself. Furthermore, the process of fermenting grapes goes back thousands of years, and its beginning can be traced to where the wild grown grape-vine, vitis vinifera, flourished and was actively utilized for this reason.
Grape residue inside ancient wine jars – amphorae - have been recovered from Neolithic and Late Uruk sites along the rivers inside the fertile region of Upper Mesopotamia, the southern Caucuses, present day Israel and in the Nile Valley. From a written perspective, references of wine are mentioned in many ancient texts, including the Old Testament. A form of the word wine - inu - was used in the language of the Babylonians dating back more than 1,800 years BCE. The Hittites were known to use the word wiyanas, while the Hebrews termed it as yah-yin. In cuneiform script it is uiian, while the Greeks used the term oinos. The Latin word for wine, vinum, first comes to being in the works of Livius Andronicus in the 3rd century BCE, as the borrowing into Etruscan and Latin languages was implemented.
Although wild grapes of the vitis classification were common in Eurasia and all could be fermented, knowledge and skill were required to turn these grapes into a form of palatable wine. This level of expertise was likely passed along the trading routes that emerged from the Caucasus and Zagros Mountains down through Mesopotamia and to the Mediterranean, eventually reaching city-states along the Lebanese and Israeli coast. From there, it moved into Macedonia, Egypt and westward through North Africa. Eventually, two geographic areas outside the peninsula –...