Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Prohibition, Roman Style: Domitian's Ban of Vineyards

The Triumph of Titus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Emperor Vespasian in the front, followed by Domitian
and his wife, then Titus at the back.
The Roman Empire dominated western civilization for centuries. At its height, during the period known as Pax Romana, its legions marched across the European continent to the reaches of modern day Spain in the west, Asia Minor and the Middle East in the East, to modern day Britain in the north, and crossing the Mediterranean Sea to the whole North Africa in the south. Its dominion controlled the whole Mediterranean basin for hundreds of years. With wealth and power, essentials became cheap and luxury goods became affordable. Among this luxury was wine.

As trade and wealth flowed to the major cities of the empire, wine became more affordable for Roman citizens. With money, aqueducts were constructed to supply fresh clean water to major cities across the Empire. It quench the thirst of many citizens of Rome. However, water was not the only choice for quenching dry throats in Rome. As money flowed to private coffers, Romans were capable to drink beverages other than water. Wine was a luxury good that became the common drink for Romans. From parties to just every simple meal, wine was consumed. Roman soldiers, officials, and common folks drank jars of wine.

A dilemma, however, accompanied the huge demand for wine. Wine came from grapes that could be cultivated in large tract of vineyards. In the Roman province of Gaul (modern day France) and the Italian Peninsula, vineyards flourished as demand for grapes and wine surged upwards. More and more farmers then choose to cultivate vineyards. The rise of vineyards, however, caused many farmers to convert grain fields into vineyards, causing a drop in basic food production. A luxury with basics as its cost.

The conversion of grain fields into vineyards became the eye of change for the Emperor Domitian. Emperor Domitian was the Roman Emperor from the year 81 CE to 96 CE. He was an Emperor determined to get out from the shadows of his two predecessors who happened to be his father and his brother. Domitian was the son of the founder of the Flavian dynasty of Rome, Emperor Vespasian. He was also the brother of the successor of Vespasian, Emperor Titus. The former was famous for constructing the classical wonder, the Coliseum. The latter was famous for opening the Coliseum and a great military general. With Titus becoming Emperor in 79 CE, it appeared that Domitian had no prospect of becoming Emperor. Destiny, however, proved it wrong. In 81 CE, Titus unexpectedly passed away. Domitian became suddenly the Emperor of the Roman Empire.

From the highest position in the land, he was determined to outdo his father and his brother. He wanted to become a good Emperor to the Roman people. His first order of business was to make grain production bountiful.  Besides, chronic conversion of grain fields to vineyards, natural disasters caused additional disruptions in grain production. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius caused the destruction of Pompei as well as damage to fields due to its ashes. Thus, production of grains dropped further.

Short grain production caused people to riot. Slight rise in prices could cause serious protests and damaging riots by the common people. And with excessive amounts of wine drinking, people became short tempered.

Thus in 81 CE, he made a decision that would curbed the problem. He ordered a prohibition against vineyards and wine itself. Under the coat of promoting temperance and reviving grain production, establishing of new vineyards in Italy was forbidden. In addition, vineyards in the provinces, especially in Gaul were reduced by 50%.

The result was a sluggish wine trade. Soldiers in Britain who relied on wine from France, had their supplies cut. Wine production faltered as vineyards were converted back into grain fields in the provinces. For more than a hundred years, the prohibition on vineyards lasted until 277 when Emperor Probus repealed the law and wine and vineyards flourished once more in the provinces of Gaul and Italy and allowed the spread of wine making to other provinces like Britain.

The act was a significant part of history of wine and alcohol. The act of Domitian hampered the growth of wine making and production for centuries. In history of wine books, it was always part of their timeline. It was similar act centuries before Prohibition began in the United States in 1920. But Domitian could be condemn for such an act. He was just concerned that wine was becoming a higher priority than the basic needs. Domitian’s ban was just re-prioritizing what their needs from their wants.  


Bibliography:
Estreicher, S. Wine: From Neolithic Times to The 21st Century. United States: Algora Publishing, 2006.

Hornsey, I. A History of Beer and Brewing. Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemist, 2003.

Southern, P. Domitian: Tragic Tyrant. Oxon: Routledge, 1997.

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