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Lecture: Dimitri Van Limbergen (Ghent)

Lecture title: "Old wine in new bottles: Towards a new history of Roman viticulture in Late Republican and Early/High Imperial Italy"


There is still a widespread view that Rome’s expanding economic influence over the Mediterranean in the Late Republic (ca. 250-30 BC) triggered a dramatic change in Italy’s wine industry. This bouleversement allegedly entailed a shift from 1) extensive mixed vine plantations to more profitable intensive vineyards, 2) subsistence farms to commercial ‘villa’ estates equipped with presses, 3) and free peasants to imported slaves in the agricultural workforce. The massive shipment of these wines to external markets could be traced through the widespread occurrence of Italian amphorae across the Mediterranean. When from Augustus onwards (27 BC-AD 14), Italy’s speculative vineyards lost their monopoly to the emancipating provinces, the country’s proto-capitalist villa-and-slave viticulture gradually fell into decline in the course of the 1st-2nd century AD, thus propelling Italian agriculture into a deep crisis.

Over the years, many of the textual and archaeological data used in the construction of this metanarrative have proven to be discordant, or at least inconclusive, and this orthodox view has rightfully been criticized for its overly schematic approach (boom vs. bust), its one-sided focus on external markets, and its application of too unsophisticated ‘substitution’ or ‘entspezialisierung’ scenarios. In spite of all this, it has proven resilient in recent scholarship, perhaps because of its convenient simplicity, or because of its resemblance to modern-day economic systems. But above all, this shows the current lack of a sound alternative explanatory framework.

In this talk, I discuss how we can use the ancient source material (amphorae, presses, villas) to draft a new biography of Roman viticulture in Late Republican and Early/High Imperial Italy. To this purpose, I focus on the role of domestic urban market developments, population trends, environment and climate, and the much-neglected survival of traditional vine agroforestry systems (arbustum) in Italy. In the end, these building blocks should stimulate us to start thinking differently about what happened to Rome’s wine business between the mid-third century BC and the end of the second century AD.