Gladiators, chariot races, epic battle reenactments… the ancient Romans had an insatiable appetite for live entertainment. Apparently, that included watching people produce wine.
Dr. Emlyn Dodd, based at the British School at Rome, along with two fellow archaeologists, Giuliana Galli and Riccardo Frontoni, has published a paper in Antiquity magazine (April 2023) that details recent discoveries at the Villa of the Quintilii, just a few miles from Rome.
Dodd and his team began excavations at Quintilii in 2017. Their work revealed a large winemaking facility dating back to about the 3rd century CE: a grape-treading area, two presses, a vat for the settling of grape must, and a system of channels linking these features to a wine cellar with dolia defossa (sunken storage jars).
None of that is unusual; wine had been a staple of Roman life from the beginning of the empire. What distinguishes Quintilii is the level of ornamentation and the series of lavishly decorated rooms designed for spectators. According to the paper, the “decoration and arrangement are almost unparalleled for a production context in the Roman, and perhaps entire ancient, world.”
Only one other comparable site is known to exist, at Villa Magna, about 30 miles southeast of Quintilii. It was in use by Emperor Marcus Aurelius about 100 years earlier than the Quintilii facility, but according to Dodd, Quintilii took the spectacle to a whole new level. I interviewed him over Zoom in February 2023 to learn more about his team’s discovery.
How important was wine in the Roman empire?
Wine as a product stretches further back than the Romans, to at least 8,000 years ago, even before the Greeks. By the time we get to the earliest phases of Roman culture, wine is already an integral part of life. Especially in the Republican and Imperial periods, it’s being drunk at home and in taverns every day. It was an important part of commerce and trade with other parts of the Mediterranean, and people were making huge amounts of money as a result. It permeated every level of society, from wealthy people drinking expensive, fancy wine to slaves drinking very poor-quality wine.
How does the Quintilii site differ from the earlier site at Villa Magna?
Villa Magna was discovered around 20 years ago, the first site ever discovered that had this kind of luxurious production. There are ancient accounts of Marcus Aurelius being at the villa around the 2nd century CE, watching workers making wine. When we discovered the Quintilii winery and looked at the timing of when the Villa Magna facility went out of use, it raised fascinating questions about whether the kind of elite rituals around winemaking transferred from Villa Magna to Quintilii—how emperors were using these facilities 100 years apart. Villa Magna has some decorative marble, but not to the same level as Villa Quintilii, which seems to have taken this aspect of theater and spectacle to a whole new level.
Who built the winery at Quintilii?
Emperor Commodus took over Quintilii around the late 2nd century, and we know the winery dates after his reign because it’s on top of a horseracing area that he built. We’ve discovered a stamp from Emperor Gordian that dates to around 240. We don’t know if the winemaking facility was built by him, but it was active by that time and he did some work on the winery. Gordian reigned only four years, a ridiculously short period of time before he was killed by his troops.
How was the winery used?
The current thinking is that each year, in the area around Rome, a harvest ritual would have taken place, a huge festival to open the vintage and kick off the harvesting of the grapes. I’m sure it was a big party, but it would have had religious aspects. The whole thing would have been geared toward the gods blessing another vintage, with sacrifices and other rituals. The winemaking facility is part of a massive complex, so there may have been large numbers of the public taking part in the festival. But the rooms above the winemaking facility are not large, probably accommodating no more than ten or fifteen people each, so that would have been a more private audience, probably limited to the emperor, his family and a few friends or members of the imperial court.
From an American’s perspective, it sounds a little like the Super Bowl where the crowds are outside at a big tailgating party while the VIPs are ensconced in their luxury boxes to watch the real action.
That’s probably a reasonable modern analogy. The emperor and his party would have been in these viewing rooms that were elaborately decorated in marble, with beautiful geometric patterns on the floors and walls. They would be talking, reclining and eating while they watched grapes being dumped into large vats and trodden by workers to the accompaniment of music. There were two huge lever wine presses on either side of the treading vat with people pushing the levers to press the grapes. The juice flowed through three fountains coming out of a façade that was clad in multicolored marble, and this is really unique. Visually, it would have been absolutely stunning.
Your paper posits that there may have been two types of wine made at Quintilii: higher-quality wine, made with free-run juice from foot-trodden grapes, and lower-quality wine made through pressing. Are you able to determine anything else about the wine that would have been made there?
Not in this case. It’s really difficult to know what the wine itself was like. And the two quality levels are somewhat speculation. We know that the ancient Romans believed you could make better wine by foot treading, whereas the big presses squeezed harder on the skins and seeds, producing a rougher wine. This is all based on ancient Roman texts, which talk about the elite drinking the quality foot-trodden [free-run] wine, the common people drinking the press wine, and the slaves drinking an even worse version made with the leftover skins and seeds pressed again and mixed with water.
How unique is this archaeological site?
What is most remarkable to me is that there is no evidence that this phenomenon of winemaking spectacle anywhere else in the ancient Mediterranean world, other than at Villa Magna. It has implications for agriculture and winemaking in antiquity and raises questions about whether we are missing evidence of other sites where this might have happened.
For more on ancient wine, see the article on ancient Crete from the W&S Summer 2022 issue. For further reading on ancient wine production, check out Roman and Late Antique Wine Production in the Eastern Mediterranean (2020, Archaeopress Archaeology) by Emlyn Dodd.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.