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date: 03 December 2022

wine, Greek and Romanfree

wine, Greek and Romanfree

  • Jeremy Paterson


  • Ancient Economy

The grape vine, which grows naturally in the highlands between the 10° C and 20° C annual isotherms (approximately between 30° and 50° north), had appeared in a cultivated form (vitis vinifera sativa) in the Caucasus at least by the neolithic period. Viticulture had become fully established in the Greek world by Mycenaean times, as it had even earlier in its near eastern neighbours. By the earliest historical period wine had already become a fundamental component of classical culture. This is not simply the result of ecological determinism; viticulture represented an important cultural and social choice. Contemporaries were aware that the considerable geographical expansion of vine-growing which happened throughout classical history (in the Black Sea region (see euxine) in the Hellenistic period and, most notably, in southern Spain and France after the Roman conquest) was closely associated with the dissemination of classical culture. So the Phocaean settlers of Massalia (Marseilles; see phocaea; colonization, greek) are represented by Justin (43. 4) as teaching the Gauls not just the pleasures of urban life and constitutional government, but also viticulture.

The evidence, particularly the literary sources, for viticulture in Classical Greece is inadequate; not even Theophrastus offers much detail. On the other hand, the techniques of wine-production figure prominently in the Roman agricultural writers and Pliny(1) (HN 14 and 17), whose information is derived not just from personal experience, but also the numerous handbooks produced in the Hellenistic period. Yet, even in Classical Greece it was already acknowledged that the particular character of a wine depended primarily on a combination of the type of vine, the soil, and the climate. Most of the modern methods of training and pruning vines were already known, from the free-standing bush, propped vines, to trellising, and most notably the growing of vines up trees. This last was such a distinctive feature of some of the most prized vineyards of Roman Italy (e.g. Caecuban and Falernian) that Pliny (HN 17. 199) could claim that ‘classic wines can only be produced from vines grown on trees’. Cited yields varied enormously; but these depended on grape type and the density of planting. The choices here depended on which market the producer was aiming at: young wines for mass consumption or fine wines for the élite.

The descriptive lists of wines which can be found in authors, such as Pliny and Athenaeus(1), must be used with caution, because many of them are not the judgements of connoisseurs, but are derived from the accounts of medical writers, who assessed wines for their effects as remedies. Athenaeus (1. 27d) has the most useful account of Greek wines with a wide selection of citations from ancient authors. Among the most noted Greek wines were those of Cos, Chios, Thasos, Lesbos, and Rhodes. A distinctive feature of several of these wines, particularly Coan, was the practice of cutting the must with quantities of sea water ‘to enliven a wine's smoothness’ (Plin. HN 14. 120) (presumably to increase its acidity). So many of Greece's most prominent wines and the ones which were exported on a large scale down to the Roman imperial period came from the islands. Viticulture probably played a greater role in their economy than that of mainland areas such as Attica. Two fragmentary inscriptions from 5th-cent. Thasos, an important producer and exporter, contain elaborate regulations about the sale of wine. Sometimes interpreted as trade protection, they are more likely a cumbersome attempt to assure the consumer of the genuineness and quality of their purchase.

In Roman Italy there was a close link between prestige vineyards and the favoured locations of the Roman élite's country estates, most particularly the Alban hills or Albanus mons (Alban, Velletri, Setian wine), further south in Latium (Caec-uban), the northern borders of Campania (Massic, Falernian), and round the bay of Naples (Gauranum, Surrentinum). In the reign of Augustus there was a great interest in the wines of NE Italy. Most of the prized wines were sweet whites. Characteristically they were aged for a considerable number of years, with a resultant darkening of colour as a result of madderization. This process of ageing was often accelerated by exposing the wine to heat by storing it in lofts above hearths. While it was accepted that wine ideally should be unadulterated, the long lists of additives in Pliny and Columella suggest that producers were frequently forced to disguise a deteriorating product.

The widespread finds of Italian amphorae are testimony to the success of Italian wines in the growing markets of the city of Rome itself, in Spain and Gaul, and even in the Greek east. But Italian dominance of this trade lasted for only a fairly short time, from the late 2nd cent. bce to the mid-1st cent. ce. By then the wines of south Spain and southern Gaul were competing successfully in these markets, so much so that Columella (Rust. 3. 3) was forced to produce a detailed argument for the continued profitability of viticulture to counter growing scepticism in Italy.

Wine was the everyday drink of all classes in Greece and Rome. It was also a key component of one of the central social institutions of the élite, the dinner and drinking party (see convivium; symposium). On such occasions large quantities of wine were drunk, but it was invariably heavily diluted with water. It was considered a mark of uncivilized peoples, untouched by classical culture, that they drank wine neat with supposed disastrous effects on their mental and physical health (Ammianus Marcellinus, 15. 12). See agriculture; alcoholism; dionysus.


  • For the Thasian wine laws: J. Pouilloux, Recherches sur l'histoire et les cultes de Thasos 1 (1954).
  • R. Billiard, La Vigne dans l'antiquité (1913).
  • R. Dion, Histoire de la vigne et du vin en France des origines au XIXe siècle (1959).
  • W. Younger, Gods, Men and Wine (1966).
  • M. Lambert-Gocs, The Wines of Greece (1990).
  • A. Tchernia, Le Vin de l'Italie romaine (1986).
  • A. Tchernia, Le vin romain antique (1999).
  • D. Rathbone, Economic Rationalism and Rural Society in Third-Century A.D. Egypt (1991).
  • P. Scarpi (ed.), Storie del vino (1991).
  • J. Brun, Archéologie du vin et de l'huile (2007).