As we visit ancient monuments in Greece and Italy, or read myths, we imagine how our ancestors lived over two thousand years ago. Back in the day, the Mediterranean cradle of our culture and civilisation was already quite developed, and one of the many everyday manifestations of this advancement was the production and consumption of wine. Southern Europe, where wine is sometimes cheaper and more accessible than water, is where vineyards have their ancient origins. But did Ancient Romans use to have a glass of chianti with their dinner as we do?
On the Mediterranean Sea, sometimes referred to in Latin as ‘our sea’ owing to the fact that our modern culture is deeply rooted in the heritage of Ancient Mediterranean civilisations, wine was drunk and Dionysus was worshiped. Interestingly, the Greek god of wine has Oriental origins. According to myths, he came to Olympus from Thrace, and this claim tallies with the oldest traces of wine-producing tradition found in Georgia and in the steppes around the Black Sea. He was worshipped in processions of singing and dancing devotees, and this unusual cult was gradually adopted in Greece. So good was it that Dionysian festivals gave birth to theatre, thus permanently linking wine with literary – both dramatic and lyrical – creativity.
Vino pellite curas! ‘Drive away your cares with wine’, encouraged the greatest Roman poet, Horace. On the other hand, visual arts, as evidenced in particular in some well-preserved examples of Ancient ceramics and mosaics, often depict scenes from Dionysian festivals and revellers holding cups of wine in their hands.
And who is the barbarian here?
Ancient Romans did not drink from glass, but from small, flat cups. Drinks were stored in terracotta amphorae protected not only with cork, but often also with tar or resin! As a result, sieve was necessary for pouring wine into cups. Drinking pure wine called merum was considered uncultured and regarded as a barbaric practice. Ancient Greeks and Romans used large craters for mixing wine with water. A drink would normally contain a minimum of one third of water, but often this amount was much greater: the ratio could reach four parts water to one part wine! Merum was used solely for medical purposes; in addition, water could also conceal certain imperfections of wine. Spices were often added to the mix, almost like in vermouths. Mulsum, or wine with honey, was most revered. At present, adding ice or sugar to wine is considered uncouth, and some regard the Austrian custom of serving spritzers in the summer as rather peculiar. However, it seems that the descendants of barbaric Germans may have copied it from the sophisticated Romans.
In addition to the many simple, everyday wines served with the evening meal, there were sophisticated, famous and expensive drinks for special occasions. Interestingly, they were not produced in regions that we associate most with the Italian viticulture of today, although back in the day, Tuscany and Piedmont were already known for their grapes. By the way, as Romans conquered subsequent regions of Europe two thousand years ago, they also designated the most important wine-producing regions, from Italy to Portugal. They used their knowledge and experience, referred to by Virgil in his poetic treatise on farming. Bacchus amat colles apertos (Georgica II, 113), or ‘vines love open hills’ is a principle that remains valid to this day. Consequently, the majority of European vineyards make use of the naturally sloping banks of river valleys. In Roman times, vines grown on the volcanic soils of Campania at the foot of Mount Vesuvius were most esteemed and valued. The most famous was the wine with the geographical name of Falernum. Although it delighted ancient writers and philosophers, it would probably disappoint, or at least astound us today, just as white wines from the area around Naples would.