At their height, the ancient Romans drank 47 million gallons of wine every year: a bottle a day for every man, woman, and child in the city. Wine was a staple of both the rich and the poor, drunk at every meal. Even slaves, no better than dogs, were given a weekly wine allowance of 5 quarts each in order to preserve their strength. Though wine was always popular, the Romans did not being planting their own vineyards until they had secured control of the Italian peninsula in the 2nd century AD. Vineyards quickly sprung up all over the Roman countryside and the beyond. By the first century, wine was being imported from Gaul and Iberia (modern day France and Spain) in order to quench Rome’s endless thirst for it. Transporting wine over such vast distances posed a serious challenge. Wine vessels needed to be airtight in order to prevent oxidation, strong enough to keep from breaking, and light enough to be hand carried. It was also important that the vessel be constructed out of a neutral material that wouldn’t upset the wine’s flavor and be kept at a cool, stable temperature in to prevent spoilage, a major concern for wine makers to this day. The Romans used clay, oak, and alcohol to solve these problems, creating one of the greatest and most wine-soaked cultures in all of history.
Amphora are clay jars originally invented in Egypt were so useful for storing and transporting wine that they were eventually adopted by all of the cultures around the Mediterranean. It’s uncertain when they first arrived in Rome, but Greek colonists in southern Italy may have been the first to introduce them. Previously, wine had been stored in leather sacks, but amphora offered several advantages to the Romans. They were airtight, strong, relatively lightweight, and had two large handles that made them easy to carry, an important feature at a time when almost everything had to be transported by hand. Like modern wine bottles, amphora had long, narrow necks that limited the amount of wine exposed to the open air. Some had a concave bottom to collect sediment, similar to modern wine bottles, but most were tapered at the end. It made them easy to bury in the ground, which kept them cool during the warm months. If the amphora were being shipped overseas, the ship’s hold would be filled with sand and the amphora buried inside. A rope might be strung through the handles as well, to prevent them from shifting during the voyage. The inside of an amphora was lined with wax, to prevent the wine from seeping into the clay.
Sealing up the top of an amphora was a major difficulty and a variety of methods were used. The Egyptians stopped theirs with leaves and reeds covered with clay. The Greeks and Romans used pitch or gypsum. Rags and cork were sometimes used as well. None of these techniques provided an airtight seal, so Aleppo Pine resin was used so seal the gaps around the top. It became so popular that resin was sometimes added to the wine in order to improve its flavor. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, recommended adding resin to wine during fermentation and believed resin made from trees in the mountains created a better aroma than resin made from trees in the lowlands. This mixture of wine and resin mixture was known as restina, and the wine is still drunk today in Greece. If an amphora was not going to be moved, a thin layer of olive oil was poured over the top to protect it from oxidation.
Though each amphora was constructed by hand, they were surprisingly uniform. Roman amphoras held one cubic foot of liquid, exactly seven gallons, and eventually became a standard unit of measurement throughout the Roman Empire. Unlike Greek amphora, Roman amphoras were not decorated. Before it dried, each amphora was given a stamp with the name of the workshop where it was manufactured or the workshop’s owner. Once the amphora was filled, its weight and contents were painted on the side.
If they needed to store very large quantities of wine, Romans used dolium: massive jars made of fired clay. Unlike amphora, dolium varied greatly in size. Some reached as high as six feet tall and could hold over 340 gallons of wine (50 amphora quadrantal). The insides were lined with pitch or wax and they had a wide brim, a rounded body, and no neck or handles. Like amphora, dolium were buried in the ground to keep their contents cooled and often used for fermentation. Surprisingly, given their size, dolium were also used to transport wine on ships. Two or three rows of dolium would be placed in the ship’s hold and filled to the brim. A full boat could hold 9500 gallons. Though they were initially loaded and unloaded onto the ship by hand, they were later cemented to the keel in order to keep them from rolling around while the ship was underway. Though amphora were routinely thrown away (a hill in Rome named Monte Testaccio is made of 53 million discarded amphora), dolium were often kept in use for several decades, due to the cost of manufacturing them.
As the Roman Empire expanded into central Europe, keeping their armies supplied with wine became more difficult. Carrying amphora long distances over land was not practical and access to ports became more tentative as the legions moved north into Gaul and Germania. Fortunately, one of the cultures they came into conflict with provided them with the solution to their problem: wooden barrels. The Gauls first started producing wooden barrels around 100 BC and used them primarily to store beer, their drink of choice. Merchants in Mesopotamia been transporting wine in barrels for several centuries, but because their barrels were made from palm trees, whose wood is difficult to bend, the technology never became widespread outside the Middle East. The Gauls used fir and oak, which were abundant and easy to bend. The Romans who saw them marveled at these curious, new inventions, in the Roman world. After Julius Caesar completed his conquest of Gaul in 50 BC, Roman soldiers quickly re-purposed Gallic barrels to store and transport wine. Wooden barrels possessed three major advantages over clay amphora. They were lighter, stronger, and easier to move. All you had to do was push them over onto their sides and roll them among the ground. Later Roman settlers planted vineyards all over Gaul to keep local garrisons supplied with wine. As Rome’s thirst for wine grew in the first century, these settlers began shipping wine back Italy in wooden barrels. Wine makers noticed that often after a long journey, the wine would arrive tasting better than it had when it left. The oak had given the wine a unique flavor and oak barrels were later used to age and ferment wine as well, a system still in use today. Gallic wine eventually became so popular the Emperor Domitian ordered the destruction of vineyards in the provinces, in order to protect Italian wine makers. Oak barrels, however, were not banned, and by the third century they had completely supplanted clay amphora throughout the Roman Empire.
One of the key reasons why the Romans were so successful transporting wine over great distances was the high alcohol level in their wine. Sugar is the key ingredient in fermentation, so the sweeter the grape, the stronger the wine. The warm Italian climate meant Roman wine makers often let their grapes ripen until the very end of autumn, which created wines with as much as fifteen or sixteen percent. At this level, the alcohol actually kills the yeast and bacteria in the wine. Without any active organisms to continue fermentation or alter its taste, wine lasts for an extremely long time. There are stories of Roman wines that were still drinkable decades or centuries after they had first been bottled. Pliny the Elder, writing on Roman viniculture, described 200-year-old wines being served at banquets, their taste still perfectly preserved. A 160-year wine was once offered to Caligula, though we have no record of its taste.
A wine with enough alcohol to last 200 years isn’t easy to drink, and the strong alcohol content was one of the reasons the Romans preferred to dilute their wine rather than drink it straight. That was for provincials and barbarians. The Romans mixed their wine with three to four parts water for every one part wine. Spices, lemon, seawater, and honey were also used. Honey in particular was especially popular. When it was mixed with wine, it created a drink called mulsum, originally serves as an aperitif before meals. Later, it was given to commoners during public events, where it became so popular that provincial wine had to be brought in to meet demand, the plebs having exhausted the supplies from the local Italian wineries.
Romans & Their Legacy
The drinking habits of Ancient Rome exerted an enormous influence on European culture. As they conquered Europe, they not only brought their laws, but also their customs, exporting their love of wine throughout their empire. They were the first to plant vineyards in the Rhone Valley and across France. They introduced wine to Germany and Britain, and used their knowledge of wine craft to transform and expand Spanish vineyards. Roman study of viniculture not only improved the wine’s quality, but helped ensure its survival following the collapse of Rome and the turmoil of the Middle Ages.