History of viticulture, the ancient Greeks and Romans

In any assessment of the history of viticulture, the ancient Greeks and Romans played a crucial role in the spread of wine drinking in the Mediterranean world. They associated wine with socializing and religion in ways that significantly affected subsequent European culture. These practices have affected attitudes towards wine globally in the modern age. They discovered some of the most basic methods of cultivating grapes for fermentation and establishing vineyards, passing their knowledge through the generations. But it is a lesser-known fact that the Romans and the Greeks were indebted to a people who played an enormous role in the Mediterranean world between 1100 BC and 400 BC: the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians

The Phoenicians were Semitic-speaking people dwelling in the Levant as early as 3000 BC. However, their civilization only emerged in a coherent form from approximately 1500 BC onwards. In particular, they held control over the region to modern-day Lebanon and extended further down the coast into Canaan. They established several coastal cities that became the center of their civilization, notably Tripoli, Beirut, Byblos, Sidon, and Acre. The Phoenicians did not live in a centralized kingdom or empire with a capital and a ruler or core government. Instead, they were a thalassocracy operating as a maritime empire with individual trading centers independent of each other, like Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy.

Viticulture, Viticulture in the First Dark Ages

Image Source (National Geographic)

Consequently, they were not militarily powerful people and often faced foreign conquest of their cities by the Pharaohs of Egypt or the Hittites. They ruled the region around modern-day Turkey. However, despite these difficulties, the Phoenicians developed a highly sophisticated culture in their coastal cities of the Levant, creating one of the most sophisticated alphabets the world had seen. They built up an important trading empire around the Eastern Mediterranean, which focused on crucial goods such as cedarwood, linen, and other textiles and wine.[1]

The Phoenicians were avid growers of both vines and olives along the Levantine coastal region they dominated in the Eastern Mediterranean, notably in the Beqáa or Bekaa Valley. An archaeological excavation in the Levant in 2020 uncovered extensive details of a Phoenician wine factory dating to around 600 BC.

The discovery pointed to the systematic way the Phoenicians produced wine for commercial purposes. They also played a substantial role in transmitting several prominent grape varietals to the Mediterranean world, giving rise to some European grape varietals. Among them was the transmission of the vinifera pontica from the Caucasus region to the Levant by the Phoenicians and its subsequent transmission throughout the Mediterranean through their trading networks.

In addition, much of the Phoenicians’ trading success was built around what we might call ‘wine diplomacy.’ When their merchants entered an area, they would import several specific goods like wine, cedarwood, and linen, which were in high demand, and they would then establish the right to settle their communities of settlers and traders in a region. Thus, the wine trade was critical to the success of the Phoenicians.[2]

Early in their emergence as a power in the Levant, the Phoenicians did not manage to widely influence the culture of the Mediterranean, and their impact on the wine culture of the world might have remained relatively minimal had it not been for the events of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries BC.

By about 1400 BC, Bronze Age society had reached a new height throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, with several empires, such as those of the Egyptian New Kingdom, the Hittite Empire, Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, and the Old Assyrian Empire, reaching new heights of political power and cultural and material development around this time. But then, in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC, it all came crashing down.

Environmental catastrophes and cataclysmic invasions by mysterious people from the north and west, such as the Hyksos or Sea People, destroyed much of Late Bronze Age society. As a result, the civilized world of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean went into a period of sharp decline, sometimes called the Greek Dark Ages or the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

As their neighbors weakened and declined, the Phoenicians were no longer threatened and dominated by them. The small-scale nature of Phoenician government and society was able to prosper in this new world. The Phoenicians and their trading cities became one of the major powers of the early Dark Ages.[3]

In this new dispensation, as the Greek city-states, the Pharaohs of Egypt, and the Assyrians of Mesopotamia struggled to rebuild their societies, the Phoenicians rebuilt quickly and came to dominate the economy of the Mediterranean, trading their cedarwood, linen, wine, and other goods far and wide. As they did, they began planting colonies elsewhere around the Mediterranean. For instance, on the island of Sicily, they planted the town of Ortygia on the site of what would later become the Greek colony of Syracuse.

In Cyprus, they established Kition, the forerunner of the city of Larnaca today. Further west, they founded colonies in the coastal regions of Spain, effectively acting as the founders of towns and cities such as Cadiz, Malaga, and Ibiza.

In contrast, across the Straits of Gibraltar, they founded Rabat in what is now Morocco. But the foremost colony established by the Phoenicians was the city of Carthage on the site of what is now Tunis in northern Tunisia in the ninth century BC. This city-state would create a substantial maritime and territorial empire throughout the Western Mediterranean, sending its traders throughout the region and even exploring far down the Atlantic coast of Africa as far as the Gulf of Guinea.[4]

The significance of all of this was that as Phoenician culture spread across the Mediterranean, their wine and other products did as well. For instance, the Phoenicians first began storing wine in giant pots, which would become more widely known as amphorae after the Greeks adopted their use. The practice of doing so was first popularized across the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians. Moreover, they introduced extensive grape cultivation.

Wherever the Phoenicians founded colonies across the Mediterranean, vineyards followed. In the fourth century BC, Greco-Roman historian, Diodorus Siculus, described Carthage in North Africa as being full of vineyards, notably the Bagradas Valley in what is now southern Tunisia. A near-contemporary of Siculus, the Carthaginian author, Mago, composed a treatise on agriculture that provided extensive instructions and information on viticulture. It was significant enough that it was one of the few Carthaginian texts the Romans later translated into Latin.

Recent studies have argued that the Mourvedre grape varietal was first introduced to Western Europe by the Phoenicians. Thus, the people who inhabited cities like Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon three millennia ago not only colonized the Mediterranean world, they spread wine culture all around it during the Iron Age.[5]

However, the Phoenicians were doomed to be replaced by other cultures, which are far better remembered today. After the Dark Ages, new powers such as the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and the Achaemenid Persian Empire came to successfully dominate Lebanon’s Phoenician cities Canaan between the eighth and fourth centuries BC. Phonecian cities, however, retained their own identities and culture through these centuries.

It was not until the late fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great conquered the greatest of the Phoenician cities, Tyre, that their civilization began to decline dramatically. Alexander and his successors implemented a policy of Hellenization in the regions he had conquered. As a result, many Phoenicians fled across the Mediterranean to its most successful colony, Carthage. But just as the Phoenician cities had fallen to the Greeks, Carthage fell to Rome in the second and first century BC, engaging in three wars with the Eternal City for control over the Western Mediterranean. It was a clash from which Rome emerged completely victorious, destroying the city of Carthage in 146 BC.[6]

Yet while Phoenician civilization largely died out with Carthage’s demise to the Roman legions, the wine culture it had spread across the Mediterranean endured for many centuries. Indeed, it was one of the Phoenicians’ most enduring legacies. Vineyards have remained an uninterrupted presence in most of the regions in which the Phoenicians established their colonies throughout the Mediterranean down to the present day.

So revered were the Phoenicians in this respect that the Romans referred to the wine of outstanding quality as ‘Bybline,’ a name derived from the Phoenician city of Byblos, which had been exceptionally esteemed for the wine traded out of its ports. Thus, many centuries after the fall of their civilization, the Phoenicians were still being acknowledged by the Romans for their role in spreading wine culture around the Mediterranean world of antiquity.[7]

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Further Reading:

Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies, and Trade (Second Edition, Cambridge, 2008).

Bridey Heing, Phoenician Trade Routes (London, 2017).

Adriano Orsingher, Silvia Amicone, Jens Kamlah, Hélène Sader and Christoph Berthold, ‘Phoenician lime for Phoenician wine: Iron Age plaster from a wine press at Tell el-Burak, Lebanon,’ in Antiquity, Vol. 94, No. 377 (2020), pp. 1224–1244.

Josephine Quinn, In Search of the Phoenicians (Princeton, 2018).        

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On this Day

September 12, 2010 – On this day in 2010, the Cypriot-born maritime archaeologist Honor Frost died. In 1971, Frost had led an archaeological investigation of the underwater remains of the so-called Marsala Ship, a Carthaginian warship of the kind developed by the mother colony of Carthage, Phoenicia, between the eleventh and fourth centuries BC. During these centuries, Phoenicia developed a maritime empire based on an extensive trade in goods such as wine. Phoenicia’s impact on the wine culture of the Ancient Mediterranean was immense. For instance, it was the Phoenicians who spread wine culture to the Western Mediterranean, and it was them who began the practice of trading wine in large jars called amphorae throughout the Mediterranean. Thus, they were massively influential in the wine culture of the Mediterranean world down to the end of the Roman Empire.[8]

September 15, 2020 – On this day in 2020, details were released to National Geographic and other publications of the recent discovery of a 2,600-year-old wine factory unearthed in Lebanon used by the Phoenicians to manufacture wine over two and a half millennia ago. This was evidently a significant center of wine production in the Levant at the time and highlighted how central viticulture was to one of the most important trading and colonial civilizations of the world in the centuries between the collapse of Late Bronze Age society in the thirteenth century BC and the advent of the Classical period of Greek history in the sixth century BC.[9]

Keywords: Phoenicians, Mediterranean, viticulture, Ancient Greece, Bronze Age, Dark Ages

[1] Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade (Second Edition, Cambridge, 2008); Bridey Heing, Phoenician Trade Routes (London, 2017).

[2] ‘Phoenicia’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); H. Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (London, 1989), pp. 18–43; Adriano Orsingher, Silvia Amicone, Jens Kamlah, Hélène Sader and Christoph Berthold, ‘Phoenician lime for Phoenician wine: Iron Age plaster from a wine press at Tell el-Burak, Lebanon’, in Antiquity, Vol. 94, No. 377 (2020), pp. 1224–1244; Tom Metcalfe, ‘2,600 Year Old Wine ‘Factory’ Unearthed in Lebanon’, National Geographic, 15 September 2020; Robert Secrist, Planet of the Grapes: A Geography of Wine (London, 2017).

[3] Eric H. Cline, 1177 BC: The Year that Civilization Collapsed (Princeton, 2014).

[4] https://phoenician.org/phoenician_colonies/ [accessed 3/4/22]; R. Law, ‘North Africa in the Period of Phoenician and Greek Colonization, c. 800 to 325 BC’, in John Donnelly Fage and Roland Anthony Oliver (eds.), The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 2 (Cambridge, 1978), pp. 87–147.

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

[6] Fergus Millar, Hannah M. Cotton and Guy M. Rogers, Rome, the Greek World and the East, Volume 3 (Charleston, 2009), pp. 32–50; Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 265–146 BC (London, 2007).

[7] H. Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (London, 1989), pp. 18–43.

[8] John Carswell, ‘Honor Frost Obituary’, The Guardian, 26 October 2010; ‘Obituary: Honor Frost’, The Telegraph, 29 October 2010; Honor Frost, ‘The Discovery of a Punic Ship’, in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1972), pp. 113–117.

[9] Tom Metcalfe, ‘2,600 Year Old Wine ‘Factory’ Unearthed in Lebanon’, National Geographic, 15 September 2020.

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