Viti-viniculture in the ancient world

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In many cultures, wine has always been considered a fundamental element for social life, nutrition and economy.
Ever since man understood what role wine could have and what sociological, religious and symbolic implications its use entailed, he has not been able to do without it.

In fact, in every society known to us, wine appears as a fundamental element in sustaining the agricultural economy. It has an unavoidable presence in symposia, banquets and social relationships. It is a symbol of life and rebirth not only in the pagan world, but also the Christian (it is cited numerous times in the Gospels).

Naturally, ever since the beginning of wine’s use, man knew of the danger that its abuse entailed. The pleasant and nutritious beverage is, like everything that man uses, dangerous in excessive amounts. Therefore, the beverage’s moderate use has always been reiterated.

According to the Bible, one of the first sources to mention wine, wine-making had remote origins and began on top of Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark landed after the Universal Flood.

Paleobotanical and paleontological studies permit us to date the vine as far back as the Tertiary period (60 million years ago), but the vitis vinifera, a vine used for wine-pressing, is only attestable to the Quaternary period (about one million years ago).

Remnants of the vitis vinifera and of signs of its utilization survive from the Neolithic Period (sixth millennium BC) in central Asia. In Iran in particular, receptacles used to contain wine have been found (testified by the presence of tartaric acid and of a vegetal resin obtained by terebinth, which was used to guarantee the wine’s conservation and is a technique still used in Greece for some “resinated” wines).

Attestations of a common viticulture practice become more and more frequent beginning in the fourth millennium BC, but are most notable in the third millennium BC. These are found in Greece and in central and northern European countries (Italy, Germany, Hungary, France), as well as in Egypt, Cyprus, Crete, Syria, Palestine, and Libya.

Recent studies attest that while table grapes were grown in Central Asia, wine grapes prevailed in Mediterranean Europe.

In northern and central Italy, vine seeds (probably of vitis sylvestris and not yet vinifera) have been found in Neolithic (6000-35000 BC) and Bronze Age (13th century BC) sites. The cultivated vine is attested all along the peninsula.

Literary sources give us information about wine-making in the Historic Age.

We know from Plutarch and from Pliny the Elder that in the second half of the eighth century BC, Numa Pompilius (whose reign lasted from 715 to 672 BC) introduced wine-making to Rome and Lazio.

In Etruria (Cerveteri, Tarquinia) and in Lazio (the Alban Hills, Palestrina) the tombs of the “aristocrats” never lacked wine-drinking vessels: from kraters, in which the beverage was diluted with water, to oinochoai, used to pour it, to kilykes (cups), chalices and pails, used to drink it.

The use of wine in Italic areas and particularly in Magna Graecia coincided with the Orientalizing Period. The wine was used in ceremonies and banquets -funerary or simply convivial- as a time for socializing. The presence of ceramic, bronze and goldsmith materials from the Orient were found in aristocratic or princely tombs.

Alongside these prestigious objects, the aristocratic classes also imported Oriental and Greek ways of life, as Homer notes in his poems.

Authors of the Roman Age like Cato the Elder, Varro, Pliny the Elder and Columella provide us with useful information not only about wine-making in antiquity, but also about vine cultivation in the Mediterranean basin.

Giuseppina Ghini

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