THE LOW PRICE OF CRETAN WINE IN ROME

In the second century ad, one of the pieces of advice that Fronto gave to one of his illustrious pupils in rhetoric (either Lucius Verus or Marcus Aurelius) was that striving to use elegant vocabulary is not nice, though neither should one eschew a refinement of language if it comes to one spontaneously:

It would be as if, when you were received by a host who offers you Falernian wine because he produces it on his own estate and it is abundant at home, you asked for wine from Crete or Saguntum, which he had to go elsewhere to buy—a curse upon it—and for which he had to pay.

(Ad M. Antonium imp. de eloquentia, I. 4, Van de Hout, 132-3 = Naber 115, trans. C. R. Haines, adapted)

This text makes it plain that, unlike Falernian wine, Cretan wines (some varieties, at any rate; though passum, a well-known raisin wine from Crete, cannot be included in that category) and wines from Saguntum were seen as cheap, available at any local taberna. This contradicts the principle that, until the Industrial Revolution, imported wines were expensive. The reason for this was, first and foremost, that such a principle could not apply to the huge population of Rome: local areas could not produce enough wine to keep the city supplied, so it was necessary to draw on coastal wine-growing regions overseas. For Cretan wine, archaeology supports Fronto: in Giorgio Rizzo’s recently published quantification of amphorae in Rome, wine from Crete accounted for 20 per cent of the wine shipped in amphorae in the Antonine

30

Jakab (2000).

period.31 In the first and second centuries, except under Trajan, it was present in greater quantities than wine from Gaul, despite having to be brought from much farther away in more difficult conditions. It was also plentiful in Puteoli and Pompeii, where the amphorae that contained it are outnumbered only by the Dr. 2-4s.32

Publications by Fausto Zevi and Stefano De Caro establish an initial explanation.33 Capua, as compensation for having a colony of veterans settled on its territory, had been granted by Octavian extensive lands in the territory of Knossos. They belonged to the city, and the rent they brought in, according to Velleius Paterculus (II. 81,2), was 1,200,000 sesterces a year. The discovery, in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, of an amphora with the Greek inscription inirwxdvovros [sic] (тшу) Ka^navwv (‘intended for the Campanians’) enabled Stefano De Caro to demonstrate that part of this vectigal was paid in kind. Cretan wine imported in this way to Campania was sold in Capua by the municipality.

From here, we can go on to ask about ways of conveying these amphorae, as well as the much-better-attested ones that were brought in by traders whose names, inscribed on their sides, have been discovered at Pompeii. Once the Etesian winds started to blow, about the end of June, ships bound for Italy from Alexandria could no longer follow a direct course. They had to go on a long detour via Cyprus, or even along the coasts of the Levant and southern Anatolia, before sighting Rhodes and then, depending on circumstances, heading for either Cape Malea or Crete. The journey of St Paul (Acts 27:1-12, 28: 1-14) is an example of this last leg, with the stop in Crete that it entailed, in his case on the south coast, though presumably ships would often put in along the north coast as well.34

Ships used by the annona were not owned by the state, but were freighted by the state. Obviously, there would have been times when they were not fully laden; and ship operators could, quite legally, take on extra cargo, either at the outset or at a port along the way. The Digest35 refers to a situation that was slightly comparable or even more advantageous: Hadrian had to make the point to governors of provinces that, if they sent someone to procure something from a distant place and he brought back other goods on the same trip, he must pay the customs duties (id munificum sit).36 This text, if my reading is accurate, says nothing about the cost of the transport itself. This cost presumably depended on the relations between the legate’s envoy and the owner of the extra goods. On a ship serving the annona, the situation could vary depending on whether its capacity had been freighted as a whole (aversione:

  • 31 Rizzo (2003: 203-20); see Fig. 19.3 [and now Casaramona et al. 2010 for the 139,896 sherds of Cretan amphorae discovered in the excavations of the Nuovo mercato di Testaccio].
  • 32 Marangou-Lerat (1995: 159). 33 Zevi (1989); De Caro (1998); cf. Pagano (2004).
  • 34 Arnaud (2005: 13-14, 212-13, 222). 35 Dig. XXXIX. 4, 4, 1. 36 See p. 103.

Dig. XIV. 2, 10, 2) or according to specified amounts loaded. If this freighting had to be paid, it would certainly have been at advantageous rates. As in the Digest text, anyone who had connections among the staff of the administration could benefit more than others from these conditions. Ship operators negotiated with the state, particularly over the grain route from Alexandria, and they had to be careful to maintain good relations with the authorities in the provinces where they put in. On this point, Andrzej Los has recently shown how many imperial freedmen and participants in the administration of Crete there were among the traders who exported wine grown there. His examination of their names on amphorae at Pompeii shows there were 82 citizens in a sample of 110 inscriptions. More than half of the legible cognomina either are Latin, or are Greek cognomina of freedmen that were used much more in Italy than in Greece, and especially more than on Crete. There are a fair number of Ti. Claudii, imperial freedmen. Some of these characters can be identified—for example, two freedmen of P. Licinius Secundus, of the equestrian order, a procurator of Crete under Nero. After his initials, LRS, one of the traders has even noted his function: procurator XX libertatis, a procurator who was responsible for collecting the vicesima manumission tax.[1]

The series of traders’ names written on amphorae of other types (essentially Baetican amphorae) do not lend themselves to this type of identification. No one exercising any responsibilities in the administration of the province, and no dependants of such men, have been discovered. The peculiarities of the prosopography of the inscriptions on Cretan amphorae support the idea that they were cargo on ships serving the annona. Any man who had easy access to available space on these ships took advantage of it to engage in trade, this activity being supplementary to his official functions. Under such circumstances, wine from Crete was able to be delivered to Italy without being encumbered with transport costs, which, in the generality of cases, would have prevented it from being sold quite cheaply in the tabernae of Rome.

CONCLUSION

If we bear in mind transport conditions, market laws do not of themselves explain the sale of Egyptian chickpeas in Puteoli, Baetican oil in Athens and Alexandria, or the fact that Cretan wines were among those most commonly drunk in Rome. Circulation of these goods was a side effect of the huge trade in grain from Alexandria and the shipping it generated between Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. Once the circuit created by Rome’s requirements in grain and its public distribution existed, they were carried along by it. They were derivatives, by-products of what was the greatest and longest-lasting undertaking in the realm of civil transport in the pre-industrial era. We can classify them as marginal but far from negligible economic activities, brought into being by the need to organize supply for the immense and unnatural mega-city that was Rome.

  • [1] Los (1997; 2005: 91-4).
 
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