Friday, October 9, 2009

In Vino Veritas.

Was it that unusual for a Roman transport ship, in the 1st or 2nd century A.D, to be carrying French wine? I think probably not.

Despite that, there has been a fair bit of news coverage recently regarding the fact that a Roman shipwreck found off the Cypriot coast was carrying some wine amphorae from the South of France.

Many of the news stories (samples here and here) have "French Wine Found in Roman Shipwreck" blazoned across their tops, but then there is very little comment on the wine at all after that. It seems a bit curious to me. My immediate thoughts are that it sounds a bit newsworthy, as in: "Romans drinking FRENCH wine!?!? are you kiddin'!?", while in actual fact it is not especially extraordinary at all.

Following the explosion of Roman viticulture after her pacification of the Italian peninsula, wine was widely available in Rome, and following the establishment of trade routes through Gaul it became one of the hottest exports (Diodorus has the story of Gauls selling their own people into slavery in exchange for wine and then drinking it undiluted like true barbarians).

As Roman culture made it's influence known, the provinces started to produce their own wine, and this was often imported to Rome (economics made it cheaper to export desirable Roman wine and demand ensured that French or Spanish vintages would be imported - especially following Domitian's edict of 92 C.E which curbed the planting of new vineyards in Italy). The upshot of this is that by the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D, it would not be all that unusual for Roman trade vessels to be transporting French wine.

Why these news reports are treating Roman importation of French wine as a new discovery is confusing, although one suspects it's because it'll make a newsworthy article for many freelance writers in need of a submission (maybe I'm being cynical).

There is maybe an element of wishful thinking that French (or Gaulish) culture had conquered Rome (echoing Horace's famous line about Captive Greece taking her rude captor captive), but that's not especially true and quite misleading.

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