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Southern Italy: Amalfi Coast, Mt Vesuvius and Pliny the Elder

The Greeks landed in southern Italy in the 8th century B.C. and in typical Greek fashion they began planting and tending vines. To the far north in Tuscany, the Etruscans had been tending vines since at least the 6th century. Sandwiched in between these two wine loving, growing and trading groups was this incredibly stern group who was slowing extending their empire outwards from the center of Italy. It is easy to forget that Rome was founded on milk, not wine, and these people were far too serious to get blitzed, especially with Hannibal and his elephants marching over the Alps to break down the gates. We see a huge change in domestic consumption once Hannibal was defeated, Carthage destroyed and the entire Mediterranean safe under the empire. In the 2nd century B.C. Romans began investing serious capital in for-profit farming enterprises and began amassing fortunes making wine in Campania and selling it in Rome. The southern Amalfi Coast and the Bay of Naples became the most fashionable place to build your villa overlooking the sea surrounded by lush gardens and vines. Pompeii was the Bordeaux of Rome with a sheltered port perfectly situated to ship wine all over the empire. Grand estates popped up all around Pompeii as the wine trade flourished, foreshadowing merchants buying wine-growing chateaus in the Medoc 1,700 years later. Of the 31 villas unearthed around Pompeii, 29 were involved in the wine trade. Pompeii itself was blessed with mild winters and attracted retirees from all around the empire, including Pliny the Elder. Pliny settled here across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii at 55 years old on an easy post as naval commander to finish writing his life’s work Naturalis Historia. Pliny’s “Natural History” is one of the only surviving complete works from antiquity and was the main encyclopedia used all over Medieval Europe for over 1,700 years. It is also our main source of information about vine growing and wine making techniques of the ancient world, not to mention observations on wine drinking in Pompeii. The town itself had over 200 wine bars and was infamous for its level of inebriation. Pliny describes the typical behavior of his countrymen getting so boiled in the baths that they would pass out, only to be carried to the bar naked and “snatch up huge vessels and drain its contents in a single draught as if to show off their strength, as if they were born for the purpose of wasting wine and believing it impossible for wine to be poured away without using the human body as a funnel”.

The actual eruption of Pompeii needs not to be retold, except that our best source of information about the wines of early Imperial Rome perished with the city. The endless curiosity of Pliny, unfortunately led him to an early death before he could complete his life’s work. In August 79 A.D., Pliny was at work on his book, when he noticed a “cloud of extraordinary dimension appear, like an umbrella pine”. So amazing was this spectacle that Pliny, as commander of the Navy, ordered a light galley to be made and set off toward the eruption. “What he had begun as a scientist, keeping so calm and cool that he noted and dictated his observations and the changing shapes of the phenomenon to his secretary, he carried on as a hero”. They landed near Pompeii and attempted a rescue. Soon the doors of the homes started to be blocked with ashes, more than 16 feet of ash would soon cover the city. It was midday but darker than night. The heat of the explosion and the burning of the forests caused all the air to be sucked up across the bay and directly into shore as the volcano rained down molten lava making an escape by sea impossible. Pliny was overcome by the sulfurous fumes and died on the beach. Those who were young and strong tied pillows with strips of linen to their heads to protect themselves from falling embers and escaped overland. Most it seemed escaped Pompeii, as few bodies have been found, but to the north in Herculaneum most of the population was buried under 65 feet of ash and perished.

The explosion ejected ash and molten rock at 1,500,000 tons second, 21 miles into the air.

Mt. Vesuvius not only destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum but also Rome’s principle source of wine. The response was a mad dash to plant vines everywhere. Corn and grain were uprooted to plant the vines and almost immediately the food supply to the capital was disrupted and riots erupted. Within a few years the wine drought became a glut as all the new vines started producing and the situation got so out of hand that in 92 A.D. Emperor Domitian banned the planting of any new vines in Italy and ordered half of all vines in Roman territories to be uprooted in order to stabilize the market, a law that stayed on the books for over 200 years.

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