Pompeii and Wine Production in Southern Italy in Roman Times

An Eruption and a Buried Town: Pompeii in 79 AD

Sometimes, the study of the history of wine is made interesting by unusual occurrences and survivals. For instance, a vast amount of what we know about ancient Egypt is owed to the fact that the microclimate of the River Nile allowed entire papyruses to survive for thousands of years. Simply 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 the wine trade within it, our knowledge is amplified by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the covering of the town of Pompeii in molten lava.

The Greeks and others settled the town of Pompeii for centuries before it became a Roman town towards the end of the fourth century BC. It sat overlooking the Bay of Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. This was an affluent part of Italy, where the wealthy elite of Rome had their country villas where they could retreat far away from the noise, smell, and overpopulation of the city 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. 

Pompeiians of the early imperial period 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 had cleared it of bandits. When this story emerged, the mountain was thought to be a hill from which fire had erupted. Moreover, the presence of the town next to a tectonic plate and the possible implications of that had become evident in 62 AD, when an earthquake shook the region and badly damaged towns such as Pompeii.

All this paled into significance compared to what occurred in late October 79 AD—an event that we have first-hand accounts of from the Roman author and politician, Pliny the Younger. On a late autumn morning, the volcano erupted in an explosion that produced 100,000 times the amount of thermal energy released by the bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945. In the hours that followed, lava and volcanic rock jettisoned over thirty kilometers into the sky and down the volcano’s slopes, eventually burying Pompeii under a lake of molten lava. Thousands perished, and the town was buried under several meters of ash.[1]

Pompeii Rediscovered and Excavated

For hundreds of years after being buried under the ash and rock which had bathed the area following the eruption of 79 AD, Pompeii and the other small settlements in the region were destroyed during the eruption, such as the town of Herculaneum were left undisturbed. Indeed, Pompeii and Herculaneum were consigned to an even deeper grave as the years went on. Further eruptions of Vesuvius in the fifth and sixth centuries added additional layers of rock and ash on top of those deposited in the first century.[2]

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw individuals begin to take an interest in the materials regularly unearthed in the region of Pompeii and which seemed to be Roman artifacts. 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 of the site of Pompeii and Herculaneum were first initiated. They have continued in varying ways ever since.

French Wine History

What archaeologists such as Karl Jacob Weber began to unearth from the mid-eighteenth century were the most well-preserved remains of a Roman town anywhere in the world. The volcanic ash had effectively sealed this town inside a tomb in a perfectly preserved state when it erupted 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 in early imperial times.[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 Pompeiian wine as ‘headache inducing’ because of its strength. A local vine was named the ‘Holconia’ after a prominent Pompeiian family.[5]

The archaeological evidence is even more revelatory. This reveals that there were large farm villas outside the town of Pompeii itself, with extensive vineyards and 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]

Given all this, 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 its viticulture. This would suggest itself by the fact that numerous inns and wine bars were clustered together around the main gates of the town and in the forum.[7]

Wine Culture in the town of Pompeii during the Early Imperial Period

The significance of wine production to Pompeii and the wider Campania region of southern Italy are evident not just through the archaeological evidence of vineyards, wineries, and wine bars here. It was also deeply rooted in the town’s culture, an understandable occurrence given that wine was made since 1000 BC by people such as the Etruscans and Greeks, who settled here long before the Romans.

One of the most explicit expressions of this wine culture at 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 Greek 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 this centrality of wine culture to the lives of Pompeii’s citizens is 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, we are relatively fortunate today that the preservation of the town’s ruins has opened such a window onto life in Roman Italy in the first century AD. The ruins of Pompeii have forever preserved how wine was produced and consumed here and, indeed, how central it was to the town’s culture in the early imperial period.

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 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 to the north of 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]

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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.

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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 upwards 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 Dionysius, the Greek 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 led 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]

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).

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