Introduction: An Eruption and a Buried Town: Pompeii in 79 AD

Sometimes, the study of the history of wine is made interesting by unusual occurrences. For instance, a vast amount of what we know about ancient Egypt is owed to the fact that the microclimate around the Nile River allowed entire papyruses to survive for thousands of years. Simply by lying in a jar or a tomb, these items survived when they would have disintegrated almost anywhere else. In the case of the Roman Empire and its wine trade, our knowledge is amplified by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and what was found under the molten lava.

The area near Pompeii had been occupied by various people for centuries before it became a Roman colony in 80 BC. It sat overlooking the Bay of Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. This was an affluent part of Italy, where wealthy Romans owned country villas to escape the noise, smell, and overpopulation of Rome. Thus, Pompeii was growing with upwards of 15,000 inhabitants.

Pompeii

Scene four from the frescoes on the Villa of the Mysteries walls. The figure on the left is Silenus, a close companion of Dionysius/Bacchus, the god of wine. He gives wine to a satyr here. 

The people of Pompeii were not entirely unaware of the danger of their town’s location next to Mount Vesuvius. The Romans believed that the demi-god Hercules had once passed through the region and discovered a hill from which fire erupted that was full of bandits. Moreover, an earthquake in 62 AD was a small sign of the devastation that would follow less than two decades later.

Pompeii Rediscovered and Excavated

After being buried for over a thousand years under a pile of lava, ash, and rock the ruins of the city were finally discovered in the late 16th century. Not long after, individuals begin to take an interest in the Roman artifacts that were being unearthed in the region of Pompeii. By the late seventeenth century, it was evident that a Roman town of some kind had once stood there. Still, it was not until the 1740s and 1750s that systematic excavations began on the site of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a nearby town. These excavations have continued to modern times.

French Wine History

What archaeologists such as Karl Jacob Weber began to unearth from the mid-eighteenth century were the most well-preserved Roman ruins in the world. The volcanic ash had effectively sealed this town inside a tomb, perfectly preserving it since the day of the eruption in 79 AD. When the rock, ash, and debris were scraped back, life, as it had been lived here in the first century AD, was revealed.[3]

Villas, houses, amphitheaters, public baths, temples, restaurants, and gardens were all revealed once Pompeii was excavated. Indeed, the remains of the victims of the eruption were even uncovered. Today the life of Pompeii can be recreated, and tourists can walk the town’s streets and view it much like it was before the eruption.[4]

Wine Production at Roman Pompeii

From the archaeological and written evidence available to us, Pompeii and the surrounding area played a prominent role in the Italian wine industry before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Indeed, the Campania region in Southwestern Italy was probably the epicenter of the peninsula’s wine production. Our primary written evidence comes from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which described Pompeii wine as ‘headache inducing’ because of its strength. A local vine was named the ‘Holconia’ after a prominent family.[5]

The archaeological evidence is even more interesting. It reveals large farm villas outside the town of Pompeii itself, with extensive vineyards, large presses for grapes, and vats for fermentation. Perhaps most curious is that these wineries in the suburbs of Pompeii were supplemented by small market vineyards in back gardens and other plots within the town itself.[6]

From this evidence it is unsurprising to learn that Pompeii was known for exporting wine throughout the empire. It may well have developed a significant tourist industry based on viticulture. Numerous inns and wine bars clustered around the town’s main gates and forum support this theory.[7]

Wine Culture in the Town of Pompeii

The significance of wine production in Pompeii and the wider Campania region of Southern Italy are evident not just through the archaeological evidence of vineyards, wineries, and wine bars. It was also deeply rooted in the town’s culture. This not surprising considering wine is thought to have been produced and consumed here since 1000 BC by people such as the Etruscans and Greeks, who settled here long before the Romans.

One of the strongest evidence attesting to the wine culture in Pompeii was found in a fresco in the House of the Centenary, the residence of one of Pompeii’s wealthiest citizens. The fresco depicts Mount Vesuvius with trellised vines growing along its slopes. Below it, Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of Dionysius, the god of wine, is shown covered in grapes. At the same time, a serpent, believed to be Aghatodaemon, the ‘good spirit’ of vineyards, is also displayed.[8]

Pompeii

The fresco of Bacchus and Mount Vesuvius from the House of the Centenary

Another clear example of the wine culture in Pompeii was found in the frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries, a large villa in the suburbs of the town. These are all preserved in one room and appear to show the various stages of initiation into the Bacchic Mysteries, a quasi-religious ceremony that involved the use of intoxicants. Several of the seven murals involved here depict the consumption of wine.[9]

Although the denizens of Pompeii in 79 AD would undoubtedly have not considered themselves lucky, modern people are relatively fortunate that the preservation of the town’s ruins has opened such a window onto life of Roman Italy in the first century AD. The ruins of Pompeii have preserved how wine was produced, consumed, and how central it was to the town’s culture.

_____________________

 Pliny the Younger

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, more commonly known as Pliny the Younger, was a Roman legal official, politician, and writer. He was born in a rich Italian family in 61 AD, the most famous scion of which was his uncle, Pliny the Elder, a polymath who wrote several major historical works and one of the world’s first encyclopedias, which he entitled the Natural History. Both Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder were in southern Italy when Mount Vesuvius erupted in October 79 AD. The uncle had been in charge of the Roman fleet at Misenum at the northern edge of the Bay of Naples. Our only written source for what happened following the eruption comes from Pliny the Younger, who wrote his eye-witness description of seeing the volcano explode from across the Bay of Naples over twenty years later to the Roman senator and historian Tacitus. In this, he described how “broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night…it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.” [10] Pliny remained out of harm’s reach, but his uncle, who had tried to lead a rescue operation to the seaside resort of Stabiae, became trapped there during the eruption and died. The elder statesman was a notable wine critic and had written extensively on viticulture in his many works.

 Herculaneum

While Pompeii is famous today as the town buried under volcanic ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, its smaller cousin, the city of Herculaneum, is less well-known. Lying further north than Pompeii and directly on the coast of the Bay of Naples, Herculaneum was a seaside resort with a population of approximately 5,000 people in the first century AD. It may have been smaller, but it was more affluent, with the villas and houses excavated here being generally larger and more decadent than those found at Pompeii. Herculaneum is also notable for the rocks and other pyroclastic material which covered it from the eruption, having carbonized. This has resulted in wood, food, papyrus, and other organic materials have been better preserved here than at Pompeii, which means that evidence of wine production and consumption at Herculaneum is generally more revelatory for viticulturists than the remains found in the larger town.[11]

_____________________

Further Reading:

Ernesto De Carolis and Giovanni Patricelli, Vesuvius A.D. 79: The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Los Angeles, 2003).

Emlyn Dodd, ‘Pressing Issues: A New Discovery in the Vineyard of Region I.20 Pompeii’, in Archeologia Classica, Vol. 68 (2017), pp. 577–588.

Haraldur Sigurðsson, Stanford Cashdollar and Stephen Sparks, ‘The Eruption of Vesuvius in A. D. 79: Reconstruction from Historical and Volcanological Evidence’, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 86, No. 1 (January 1982), pp. 39–51.

Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, ‘Large Vineyard Discovered in Ancient Pompeii: Root and Stake Cavities Reveal Vineyard of AD 79’, in Science, Vol. 180, No. 4088 (May 25, 1973), pp. 821–830.

*******************

This Day in Wine History

October 24, 79: Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano in southern Italy overlooking the Bay of Naples, erupted. In the hours that followed, Vesuvius spewed forth an enormous cloud of gases, molten rock, lava, and hot ash, which exploded 33 kilometers into the sky. This descended on the nearby Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, burying them under volcanic ash. Thousands of people were killed, and the remains of these two settlements were hidden beneath the volcanic rock. When they were finally rediscovered and excavated from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, historians began to understand that Pompeii had not just been a major Roman town but was also one of the foremost centers of viticulture in Italy in Roman times. Since then, historians and archaeologists have determined that the region around Pompeii would have been dotted with vineyards. Paintings depict wine production and consumption, as well as elements of the worship of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.[12]

August 12, 1712: Karl Jacob Weber was born in the town of Arth in Switzerland. Having trained as an architect and an engineer, he subsequently became involved in excavating numerous sites in Southern Italy, which had been buried under volcanic ash nearly seventeen centuries earlier when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Weber would become a senior figure in this work and lead the first scientific excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 1750s. Weber and his team began to make the first discoveries concerning the wine industry in Roman Pompeii, a major center of viticulture in Italy during the early imperial period. In time the Swiss man’s work and those who followed after him have allowed for the reconstruction of how wine was produced and consumed in this part of southern Italy during the first century AD.[13]

Want to read more? Try these books!

Pompeii, Pompeii & Wine Production in Southern Italy during Roman TimesPompeii, Pompeii & Wine Production in Southern Italy during Roman Times

References:

[1] Haraldur Sigurðsson, Stanford Cashdollar and Stephen Sparks, ‘The Eruption of Vesuvius in A. D. 79: Reconstruction from Historical and Volcanological Evidence’, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 86, No. 1 (January, 1982), pp. 39–51; Ernesto De Carolis and Giovanni Patricelli, Vesuvius A.D. 79: The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Los Angeles, 2003).

[2] Colin Amery and Brian Curran, The Lost Worlds of Pompeii (New York, 2002), p. 31.

[3] Christopher Charles Parslow, Rediscovering Antiquity: Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae (Cambridge, 1995).

[4] Andrew Wallace-Hardill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton, 1994).

[5] ‘Pompeii’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[6] Emlyn Dodd, ‘Pressing Issues: A New Discovery in the Vineyard of Region I.20 Pompeii’, in Archeologia Classica, Vol. 68 (2017), pp. 577–588; Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, ‘Large Vineyard Discovered in Ancient Pompeii: Root and Stake Cavities Reveal Vineyard of A.D. 79’, in Science, Vol. 180, No. 4088 (25 May 1973), pp. 821–830.

[7] ‘Pompeii’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[8] https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/vesuvius.html [accessed 9/7/22].

[9] Jarrett A. Lobell, ‘Saving the Villa of the Mysteries’, Archaeology (March/April, 2014).

[10] Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, Letters 6, nos. 16, 20; Lauren Mowery, ‘Pliny the Elder, the First Wine Critic and Why he Still Matters’, Wine Enthusiast, 10 October 2019; A. N. Sherwin-White, ‘Pliny, the Man and his Letters’, in Greece & Rome, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1969), pp. 76–90.

[11] M. E. A. Pirozzi, Herculaneum: The Excavations, Local History and Surroundings (Naples, 2000); Andrew Wallace-Hardill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton, 1994).

[12] Emlyn Dodd, ‘Pompeii is famous for its ruins and bodies, but what about its wine?’, The Conversation, 4 November 2020.

[13] Christopher Charles Parslow, Rediscovering Antiquity: Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae (Cambridge, 1995).

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!