The Roman universal scholar, officer and administrative officer Gajus Plinius Secundus Major (23-79), better known as „Pliny the Elder", was among other things also a viticulture expert of his time. He studied philosophy and law in Rome, then embarked on a state military career and achieved high ranks under Emperor Titus (39-81). He was governor in several Roman provinces and finally commander of the Roman fleet in the Tyrrhenian Sea. From the age of 55 on, he lived near Pompeii and experienced the eruption of Vesuvius. He then died trying to save some of the people threatened by the Vesuvius eruption. His death is detailed in a letter from his nephew and stepson Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus (55-120).
He described the drinking pleasure of the Pompeians shortly before the destruction in a plastic customary picture (the drinking vessels were probably Kantharos with handles on both sides with which they were held with both hands): They can be boiled in a hot bath until they are carried out unconscious, while others cannot wait until they come to the table, not even putting on their clothes, but still sticking up naked and panting enormous drinking vessels, as if they wanted to show their strength and pour the whole contents into themselves, so that everything immediately comes back up to them and then they take a deep breath again. So they do it a second and third time, as if they were only born to waste wine, and as if there was no other way to get rid of the water than by going through the human body.
Pliny was a contemporary of Columella (1st half of the 1st century), who was also a wine expert; whether they knew each other is not known. Pliny devoted himself intensively to scientific studies. Of his extensive works the natural history "Naturalis Historia" dedicated to Emperor Titus has been preserved. In 37 books it contains an overview of the entire knowledge of the time, including geography, zoology, botany, mineralogy, metallurgy, pharmacology and cosmology. The 14th book is dedicated exclusively to the subject of wine, the 17th book contains descriptions of viticultural techniques and at the beginning of the 23rd book there are explanations of the healing powers of wine. Among these is the well-known story of Romilius Pollio, who is said to have lived for over 100 years by regularly drinking the honey wine Mulsum. Hardly any other specialist writer of antiquity treats winemaking so comprehensively.
It was his declared intention to create an encyclopedic work. When selecting his sources, he considered "only the best authors". In doing so he went back to the Carthaginian Mago (2nd century B.C.). His main sources, however, were Greeks, as well as the frequently quoted Roman author Varro (116-27 BC). Pliny proceeded according to a principle that is still common in the specialist literature today. He collected the published information and processed it on the basis of his own experience. Uncertain or unreliable sources were put into perspective with remarks such as "in Greece it is said", "as travellers tell" or "as they say". This was unusual for a time when everyone took texts from everyone else. The work appeared in ever new editions up to the Middle Ages. Today it is especially interesting from a historical perspective.
The most important ancient wines of Italy are ranked therein according to quality. Pliny describes Pucinum (Friuli), Caecubum, Caulinum, Falernum, Massicum, Surrentinum, Trebellicanum (Campania), Genoa (Liguria), Hadrianum, Praetutium (Marche), Haluntium, Irziola, Mamertinum (Sicily), Luna (Tuscany) and Raeticum (Veneto), as well as wines from the French regions Beaumes-de-Venise, Clairette de Die and (his alleged favourite wine) Gigondas. About the Vocontians (a tribe living between Marseille and Lyon) he reports that they mastered a special technique. They turned the grapes on their stems or cut the stalk into the pulp so that the grapes dried up. In this way, a raisin wine similar to Passito or Trockenbeerenauslese was produced, called Passum.
His description of a special grape harvest with the words "They are not harvested before it has frozen" points to the fact that ice wine was produced quite deliberately and not just by chance. Pliny mentions a total of 91 grape varieties, the most important being Aminea, as well as Apiana, Biturica (also Balisca or Cocolubis, from Spain), Capna (see Prunesta) and Nomentana. He comes to the interesting conclusion that it is above all the area and the soil that determine the quality of the wine. Pliny already mentioned the sulphur technique and gave the (fatal) advice to sweeten acidic vintages with lead. He described wooden barrels as wine vessels (still) unknown to his contemporaries. And he also dealt with the distillation (production of spirit of wine) purely theoretically. Parts of his works are included in the agricultural collection Geoponika.
His nephew and stepson Pliny Caecilius Secundus Minor (61-113) alias "Pliny the Younger" was a Roman civil servant, writer and an important orator. As already mentioned, he described the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. with the destruction of the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis, from where the geological term "Plinian eruption" (graphic on the right) comes from. The basic feature is the long lasting ash ejection, during which mighty blankets of pumice and ash fall to the ground. The picture on the left is by Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807) and shows Pliny the Younger with his mother during the eruption of Vesuvius at Misenum. In a letter, Pliny raves about the "bee wine" from the Muscat grape in what is now the French region of Roussillon. This was the predecessor of the Muscat de Rivesaltes, so to speak.
Picture top left: Por Geoffrey Cesare Cantù, Milan 1859, Enllaz
Picture right above: From Pliny the Elder - 2d copy, public domain, link
Painting: Angelika Kauffmann
Graphics From © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link