A Study of Rome’s Greatest Wine

In 60 BC, Julius Caesar presented a national treasure to his guests at a banquet in honor of his conquests in Spain: an amphora of Falernian wine, the greatest wine the Roman world had ever known. It hailed from the legendary “Opimian vintage” of 121 BC, named after one of the acting consuls for the year, Opimius. Most of the vintage had been consumed in the intervening 61 years, and what remained was likely more akin to fruity vinegar than to wine. The clay amphora, containing 26 liters—the equivalent of nearly 35 modern bottles—must have suffered from severe aging, and the red lettering ‘FAL’ (for Falernian) on the cap would have faded considerably. Perhaps, as the pitch-sealed cap was removed, the amphora issued a deep groan as new air rushed to mix with the aged contents. If the contents truly hailed from the Opimian vintage, the resulting aromas of old wine—wilted flowers, overripe berries, a deathly sick-sweet—would have permeated the room within minutes. As Caesar sipped the Falernian, perhaps he reflected on the history it had witnessed: born the same year Gaius Gracchus was murdered, it had survived the Sullan reforms and the Catilinarian conspiracy, outliving many potential customers who were put to death. It was 20 years Caesar’s senior. And now, at its end, the Roman world’s greatest wine was being consumed by one of its most powerful men.

“For one as you can drink wine, for two you can drink the best, for four you can drink Falernian.” – advertisement outside the Bar of Hedone, Pompeii (CIL IV.1679)

Beginning with the rise of Roman fine wines in the 2nd BC, Falernian captivated the palates and minds of the Roman elite, who commemorated the wine in farming manuals, poetry, satires, letters, and philosophical treatises. Preeminent figures of the Republic and Empire—Cato, Cicero, Ovid, Martial, Pliny, Petronius, Catullus, and Horace—mention Falernian in their works, and likely enjoyed a good deal of the wine in their leisure time. “No other wine has a higher rank at the present day,” wrote Pliny the Elder in his section of Natural History devoted to wine. Any competitor, wagered Virgil in his Georgics, could “cope not with Falernian cellars.”

Silius Italicus, who attributed the wine’s quality to divine favor, felt that even the best Greek wines (conventionally held to be the finest in the Mediterranean) “all yielded precedence to the vats of Falernus.” As Italy came to dominate the wine trade in the late Republic, Falernian represented the acme of skilled viticulture, enjoying a reputation of unparalleled excellence that may have outlasted its actual quality.

Reasons for Falernian’s outstanding quality ranged from the viticultural to the mythical. One account of Falernian’s origins claims attests to a divine pedigree. Silius Italicus, writing in the 1st c. AD, sited Monte Massico as the myth- ological origin of winemaking. Breaking off from his narrative of Hannibal’s destructive march through Campania (during which he burned the ager Falernus), Italicus tells of Bacchus’ visit to Falernus, an ancient proprietor of the fields upon Monte Massico before vines grew there. Falernus, unaware of his guest’s divine origins, receives Bacchus into his humble home, and serves him an ordinary meal. The god’s response, however, is extraordinary:

“Touched by the old man’s generosity, Bacchus determined that there should be wine. Suddenly, miraculously, the beechen cups foamed with wine, recompense for the poor man’s hospitality. Wine filled the milk pail and the wooden bowl was awash with the fragrant juice. ‘Here, take some!’ said Bacchus, ‘It is unfamiliar now, but one day it will make famous the name of Falernus the vintner.’”

Falernus proceeded to (liberally) enjoy the new drink until falling asleep. Rising from his drunken slumber the next day, he discovered “all Mount Massicus was green with vine-bearing fields…The mountain’s fame swept through the land and from that day Falernian wine surpassed the vintages of Lydia, Chios, and Lesbos.” Thus Silius attributes Falernian’s excellence to its divine origins. It is not simply a man-made product, but a blessing of the god of wine himself. Moreover, by placing wine’s origin in the ager Falernus, Italicus not only highlights Falernian as the paramount expression of fine wine, but also portrays Italy as the divinely appointed cradle of the wine world. Falernian paired well with Roman hegemony, exhibiting its power to create a product superior to any other: better wine, better armies, and a better society.

Such lavish praise begs the question: how did Falernian taste? While amphorae of Falernian have been salvaged from wrecks in the Adriatic, none still contain the wine itself; the sea has had two thousand years to wear away at the clay containers, and the contents have leaked out.

Even if an excavation serendipitously yielded the legendary drink, it would be nearly impossible to reverse-engineer Falernian from the long-spoiled contents within. Therefore the answer to the most tantalizing question regarding the wine lies not at the bottom of the sea, but somewhere else.

Taste is a subjective sense and inconsistent across palates. Personal and cultural preference doubtless cloud the ‘tasting notes’ of ancient writers, and extracting a coherent flavor profile from a handful of sources may leave us only with a Frankenwine, a motley hodgepodge of sensations awkwardly sewn together.

In his Odes, Horace describes Falernian as strong (forte), weighty (severum), and later burning (ardens). Other writers confirm the strength and heat of Falernian, a result of its high alcohol level. Martial too found it ardens, and to Galen it was warm (θέρμος). Pliny goes so far as to claim “it is the only wine that takes light when a flame is applied to it,” although in a time when distilled spirits were unknown, this is highly unlikely. Galen, who had the privilege of tasting through the imperial cellars, confirms two of Pliny’s three styles: one sweet (γλυκύς), one rougher (αὐστηρός) and astringent (ὑποστῦφον) by comparison. He does not mention Pliny’s third, the tenue Falernian. We can only guess as to why this is so: perhaps in the period between Pliny and Galen’s writing, Falernian producers narrowed their production to a single style; perhaps Pliny perceived a distinctive third style that others did not; perhaps Galen simply did not do his research. Dionysius of Halicarnassus is even more sparing, mentioning only one style—the sweet—in his Roman Antiquities. Thus while the number of Falernian styles varies across authors, certain characteristics—its power, heat, and sweetness— emerge as a constant throughout.

Other styles of Falernian certainly were produced, but the sweet, aged wine emerges from classical sources as the preeminent style of antiquity. The Opimian vintage, that coveted harvest which ushered Falernian into the pantheon of fine wines, was sweet. No wonder, argues wine writer Hugh Johnson, that sweet Falernian was the choicest drink; the Augustan era was the heyday of robust flavors. “Powerfully savoury tastes, fermented fish sauce, garlic, and most of all asafoetida—a strange onion-smelling root that to some modern sensibilities is a byword for nausea— were combined with every sort of sweetening from raisins to honey, including a drench of the sweetest wine.” Pliny’s Natural History is littered with recipes for wine cocktails with all sorts of additives: honey, seawater, snow, pitch, and myrrh. It was not until the 2nd c. AD, when Galen lived, that “Roman taste [shifted] away from the thick, sweet wines that had made Campania the most prestigious region” in favor of lighter and drier styles. While it certainly appealed to the palate of the Roman elite (as evidenced by the wine’s prevalence in both the archaeological and literary record), Falernian also bore rich symbolic value which conveyed the superior ‘taste’ (i.e. sensibility, discrimination, aesthetic judgment) of the Romans who consumed it.

The reasons behind the Roman obsession with Falernian, however, are not limited to its physical sensation. Falernian’s fame can in part be understood through Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital: “the esoteric knowledge required to collect, blend, and ‘properly’ consume” objects both material and immaterial. This is a strictly class-bound form of capital. Bourdieu further divides cultural capital into the embodied, the institutionalized, and the objectified state, the latter of which encompasses “pictures, books, instruments, dictionaries, machines, etc.”—and wine. Fine wine, and Falernian most of all, perfectly encapsulates objectified cultural capital, for it was in the collection, consumption and appreciation of wine that a Roman could accrue and maintain his social standing. Moreover, the symbiotic relationship between economic and cultural capital—namely, that an increase in one form guaranteed an increase in the other—ensured that Falernian was a ‘liquid asset’ in two ways. First, the purchase of Falernian communicated the economic capital of a Roman aristocrat. Second, the consumption and appreciation of Falernian had its own immaterial value: it bespoke an esoteric knowl- edge that distinguished him from his contemporaries. Thus, while Romans may have balked at the 1200 sesterces price tag, they still participated in the purchase and consumption of Falernian, tacitly acknowledging its cultural capital in addition to its economic value.

That fine wine is a luxury item is no surprise: unpre- dictable growing season weather, labor-intensive harvest, and costly production tools make for an expensive and often scarcely available product. Moreover, it produces a pleasant effect upon the mind and body when consumed in measured quantity. As such, fine wine became a mode of conspicuous consumption for the Roman elite, the only clientele who could afford to enjoy it. Conspicuous consumption, a phrase first coined by Thorstein Veblen at the end of the 19th century, arises from the leisure class’ need to consume non-essential goods in order to demon- strate their superiority within their class. “The ceremonial differentiation of the dietary is best seen in the use of intoxicating beverages,” writes Veblen. “If these articles of consumption are costly, they are felt to be noble and honorific.”

The ‘noble’ and ‘honorific’ are locked in a tautological exchange with the leisure class, where drinking fine wines is noble because the leisure class does it, and the leisure class does it because it is noble. As a result, for the wealthy Roman male “it becomes incumbent on him to discriminate some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur… in manly beverages.” This explains the rankings of fine wines by Pliny and Martial, the preferences for specific regions expressed by Cicero, Caesar, Augustus, Horace, and a host of Roman elites. A man of nobility had to have a discriminating palate, and such a quality was part and parcel of conspicuous consumption of luxury goods.

Falernian was used to police the boundaries of the elite: in that sense, it was as much a measure of taste as it was a marker of it. Let us return to the testimony of those Roman writers lucky enough to have tasted the wine. The Roman authors included Falernian in satires and social critiques of the corrupting power of wealth and the vulgar overindulgence of the aristocracy. Diodorus Siculus, writing at the end of the Republic, bewails the “pernicious tendencies” of modern Romans:

“Young men turned to a soft and undisciplined manner of life, and their wealth served as purveyor to their desires. Throughout the city lavishness was preferred to frugality… Elaborate and costly dinner parties came into fashion…Of wines, any that gave but moderate pleasure to the palate were rejected, while Falernian, Chian, and all that rival these in flavor were consumed without stint.”

For Diodorus, as well as for many of his contemporaries, the manner of consumption—conspicuous and hedonistic—was symptomatic of the greater moral decay of Rome. Horace, too, mentions Falernian as a primary tool in the abuse of luxury. His Odes III, in which Falernian appears alongside symbols of luxury such as Phrygian marble and purple-dyed garments, is written in praise of simplicity in contrast to aristocratic ostentation. “Since, then, distress is not relieved” by the accumulation of such luxuries, Horace reasons, “why should I struggle to build a towering hall in the modern style with a doorway that arouses envy? Why should I change my Sabine valley for riches that will bring an increase only of trouble?” It is not, however, total abstention from luxury that Horace promotes; instead it is the balance of the luxurious with the rustic that distin- guishes the truly elite from the parvenu. The uninitiated misunderstands luxury as the be-all, end-all of elite life; the more luxury one acquires, the more elite one becomes. Yet, as commentators Nisbet and Rudd note, “[a]ristocratic ostentation led to disharmony…Horace rejects luxury because it does not lead to happiness, not because it is socially and politically unacceptable.” One ought not eschew luxury entirely, nor embrace it wholeheartedly. To Horace, it is by tempering luxury with moderation and simplicity that one truly achieves elite status.

The same goes for Trimalchio, the comically wealthy freedman from Petronius’ Satyricon. During an evening of outrageous overindulgence, his guests are shocked to discover that the slave masseurs are sipping Falernian—and spilling it, no less. A household in which even slaves can casually enjoy such a luxury would be absurd to the Roman reader; such a fine wine was wasted on an unappreciative palate. Later on, “some glass jars carefully fastened with gypsum were brought on, with labels tied to their necks, inscribed, ‘Falernian of Opimius’ vintage. 100 years in bottle.’” This would tickle the Roman wine enthusiast: Falernian was never bottled in glass jars, nor was the vintage indicated like so, nor would it be 100 years old — it would be closer to 180! The deliberate inaccuracies illustrate, and mirror, Trimalcho’s status as an impostor. Trimalchio’s conspicuous consumption here, which suggests that similar if less absurd displays took place, represents his attempt to “do as the Romans do.” Even to the boorish Trimalchio, it was clear that Falernian was a component of Romanitas (Roman-ness) — in fact, one of the easier components to acquire. Unlike dignitas, or a gift for oratory, or military distinction, Falernian was a commodified element of Romanitas that was available for a price. There is a double irony in Trimalchio’s ostentation: mimicking the practices of the Roman elite, his lavish banquet both fails and succeeds to convey his Romanitas.

Throughout Petronius’ account, however, Falernian is not on trial; it is the unwitting victim of Trimalchio’s excess. The presence of Falernian is not outrageous, but its casual treatment by slaves and clear counterfeiting is. It is not Trimalchio’s possession of Falernian, but his abuse upon acquiring it, that reveals him to be a poseur unfit for the ‘true’ Roman elite. The irony of Trimalchio’s lifestyle lies in the fact that, while he is mocked for crudely aping the Roman elite, he nmay actually be the most Roman of all. If the production of Romanitas includes lavish banquets, careless expenditure, and the conspicuous consumption of Falernian, Trimalchio is in good company with the most eminent Romans, including Maecenas, Pliny, Martial, and Petronius.

Falernian’s fame endured for at least five hundred years after its heyday in the 2nd century AD, longer than any other wine in history. But how long the wine itself actually endured is the subject of some debate. There is no certain evidence that the wine was being exported in the fifth and sixth century, though it was received literary attention. According to classicist Paul Arthur, “late references to Falernian wine may have been no more than examples of literary glossing, the wine’s rarity or non-availability rendering it a token sign of luxury.” Half a millennium after Falernian’s rise to fame, it still bore symbolic connotations of luxury to the (post-)Roman world.

The strength of its symbolism was what allowed Falernian to endure for so long, bolstering and preserving the fame the wine initially achieved by virtue of unparalleled quality. Connotations of Roman hegemony, Romanitas, and luxury (in both its distinguished and notorious forms), all of which were central features of the Roman elite, adopted and preserved Falernian in Roman culture. Falernian was a component of the lifestyle of the Roman elite, and as such would always have a clientele as long as the Roman elite existed.

Michael Beam is a senior at Pomona College, majoring in Classics. His interests include stand up comedy, viticulture (haha), and acapella singing.