Wine and Amphorae

“Adds its own seasoning to food, cutting the richness of fat, making meat seem more tender and washing down pulses and unleavened bread without distending the belly” Hugh Johnson – The Story of Wine.

Southern Italy picked up the wine growing tradition from Greece where wine was often diluted with water or even seawater! In Homer, Odysseus got the one-eyed Cyclops pissed on strong Maronean red wine. Poor ol’ Cyclops was only used to weak Sicilian wine made from unpruned wild grapes. Scythian wine was so hard that Ovid claimed an axe was needed to cut it! Greek wine wisdom warned that one bowl was good for health, two for pleasure and love, three for sleep, four for violence, five for uproar, six for drunken revel, seven for black eyes, eight for peace officers involvement, nine for biliousness and the tenth for madness and the hurling of furniture.

Throughout the first century BCE the best quality wine was the white and sweet Opinium vintage. The most famous grapes were grown between Rome and Sorrento at the vineyard of Falernum where the wine came in three varieties – dry, sweet and light. A strong wine, Falernian’s colour varied from amber to brown when matured in the amphorae. Following on in terms of quality was Caecuban, followed by the wines of Alba, just south of Rome, while Trebellian came from Naples.

An amphora was a slender clay vase with two handles and a long neck. The base was either pointed or formed into a knob, but never flat. Sizes varied. Greek amphorae averaged about 40 litres, Roman amphorae = 26 litres or so. Potters made the amphorae in several sections, and then the wet sections were moulded together and the base pared down to a point or a knob, making it easier to lift and tip with the point acting as a third handle. Stamp of origin pressed into the wet clay of their handles. The mouth of the jar was sealed with cork or wax and resin. Ships could carry 2000 – 3000 amphorae at a time, the pointed ends buried in a bed of sand and the handles tied together to keep them steady on the trip from Pompeii up to Rome

Bordeaux was a perfect port for wine distribution to Britain and Ireland. A ‘negotiator Britannicuus” was identified on the wharf in the 1st century BC. Both Britain and Ireland had long had an active maritime trade based on the tin wealth of Cornwall, and the gold and copper found in Ireland, Bronze Age requirements for the growth in metallurgy.

Wine routes to Britain, varied widely. A long sea journey around Spain, overland to Bordeaux and then by sea, via the rivers – the Loire, the Seine and the Rhine and finally via the Moselle which was much more expensive than the sea route around Spain. Britons possibly bought the surplus from the Roman garrisons or, more likely, the amphorae were emptied of their southern contents and refilled with inferior, local German wines.

The Celts, as a race, seemed inordinately fond of drinking and, according to Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BCE, “they sate themselves with the unmixed wines imported by the merchants; their desire makes them drink greedily and when they become drunk, they fall into a stupour or into a maniacal disposition.” Poseidonius, writing sometime between 135 and 51 BCE claimed, “the drink of the wealthy classes is wine imported from Italy or from the region around Massalia…”

The city, modern day Marseilles, thrived by acting as a link between inland Gaul, hungry for Roman goods and wine (which Massalia was steadily exporting by 500 BCE) and Rome’s insatiable need for new products and slaves.

The great bronze vase of Vix, found in the tomb of a Burgundian princess at Vix who died in about 600 BC could hold 1200 litres or approximately 45 amphorae with the going price of an amphora equal to one (female) slave!

Of course, not all wine was drunk, often it was often used as an antiseptic for wounds although Druids disapproved of wine!












Author: serkeen

I am Irish, currently living in West Australia. I have a degree in Old & Middle English, Lang & Lit and, despite having worked in Kuwait, Italy, Malaysia, USA, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong over the last 40 years, I have a strong interest in Ireland’s ancient pre-history and the heroes of its Celtic past as recorded in the 12th and late 14th century collection of manuscripts, collectively known as The Ulster Cycle. I enjoy writing historical novels, firmly grounded in a well-researched background, providing a fresh and exciting look into times long gone. I have an empathy with the historical period and I draw upon my experiences of that area and the original documents. I hope, by providing enough historical “realia” to hook you into a hitherto unknown – or barely glimpsed - historical period.

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