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A Roman wine strainer, c.1st century AD (Walters Museum CC BY-SA 3.0)

In The Life of Brian, John Cleese as the leader of the People’s Front of Judaea asks the defiant question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” As the awkwardly plentiful answers at first trickle, and then eventually flood, in — the aqueduct, sanitation, the roads, education, law and order — one of the suddenly thoughtful revolutionaries suggests “wine”.

Whether or not the Romans did in fact introduce the cultivation of wine to Palestine — it seems hard to credit, given what we are told in chapter 9 of Genesis about Noah, the vineyard he planted, and the unfortunate consequences which overtook him when “he drank of the wine, and was drunken” — it is nevertheless easy to believe that the Romans, restless and innovative above all in agriculture, greatly improved the quality of wine wherever they went.

It is the Elder Pliny who in book XIV of his Natural History provides a wealth of information about the cultivation of vines and the making of wine in the Roman empire. The Romans had not always been particularly devoted to the grape, even though when Pliny is writing he estimates that Italy produced two thirds of all the various kinds of wine, and was in some sense wine’s natural homeland:

Supremacy in respect of the vine is to such a degree the special distinction of Italy that even with this one possession she can be thought to have vanquished all the good things of the world, even in the matter of scents, since when the vine is in blossom all over the country it gives an unsurpassable scent.

Pliny dates the beginnings of wine’s importance to the Romans around the 600th year after the founding of the city (that is, about 150 BC).  For the earliest Romans the most important symbolic liquid had been milk.  Romulus used milk for libations, and Numa forbad funeral pyres to be sprinkled with wine — presumably because wine was then such a scarce commodity. Ancient records of votive offerings specified milk, not wine.

But once their interest in wine had been aroused, the Romans pursued it with their customary energy. Pliny tells us about several Roman wine-growers who enjoyed especial success. There was Acilius Sthenelus, a plebeian, the son of a freedman, who improved a vineyard of not more than 60 iugera in the region of Mentana which he sold for 400,000 sesterces. Above all there was the grammarian Remmius Palaemon (an early example of the natural affinity between literature and wine), who bought a farm for 600,000 sesterces in the same region of Mentana. He had the vineyards dug and re-trenched under the superintendence of Sthenelus, and finally got the estate into such superb condition that within eight years a single vintage while still hanging on the trees was knocked down to a purchaser at a price of 400,000 sesterces

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