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Glitzy ancient winery hosted ‘spectacles’ for Roman imperial elite

Marble floors and wine fountains formed a 'theatrical' production space at a luxury villa outside Rome, which may have helped society’s uppermost elites to celebrate the latest vintage in style, according to new research.

Excavation of the Villa of the Quintilii near Rome unearthed ruins of the ornate ancient winery, which may once have turned the annual grape harvest into a ‘vinicultural spectacle’ for a select imperial entourage, says a study that draws on evidence about Roman wine culture and the villa’s features.

Grape treading floors partially clad in red breccia marble suggest opulence was prioritised over pragmatism, said researchers, writing in the Antiquity journal.

A nymphaeum-like design also appears to have enabled fountains to display newly made wine in full flow at the villa.

It’s already known that agricultural production and wine harvests specifically were romanticised, but this marks a particularly rare find – as well as a possible glimpse of life inside ancient Rome’s imperial court.

‘It’s really astonishing and almost completely unique,’ said Dr Emlyn Dodd, co-author of the study and assistant director of archaeology at the British School at Rome.

It’s not clear when the winery opened, although at least one section dates to around the mid-third century AD, based on [emperor] Gordian-era construction stamps, said the study’s authors.

ancient winery with dining rooms outside Rome

(Fig. 8) View of the winery from the excavated western dining room with its wide doorway and perspective. Photo by E. Dodd, from Dodd, Galli, Frontoni 2023.

Only ‘Villa Magna’, another lavish winery lying around 50km to the south-east, is comparable as a venue, the study said.

‘The fountains are really remarkable,’ Dodd told Decanter. ‘This is the only place across the whole ancient Roman world certainly, and probably ancient world as a whole, that we’ve got this evidence of a fountain system for wine production.’

It’s unclear whether guests would have interacted with the fountains, such as by filling their cups, or whether the flow of wine merely provided a backdrop to festivities.

‘It’s all really speculative and conjectural, but you get an interesting twist to the usual tale of production,’ said Dodd, an expert in ancient wine who joined excavation project to help examine and interpret the winery.

The villa was once owned by emperor Commodus, who seized the property after killing previous owners the Quintilii brothers, said the study. Yet evidence suggests the winery post-dates Commodus’ reign, from around 177 to 192 AD, because part of it erased a construction from his era.

ancient roman winery wall

Fig. 9: The opus sectile pavement found in the excavated western dining room—misalignment clearly attests two phases of construction. Photo by S. Castellani, from Dodd, Galli, Frontoni 2023.

Roman wines

Guests were almost certainly drinking while enjoying the villa’s harvest showpiece, but there is so far little evidence about the style of wine being made or consumed. Dodd said he hoped to secure more funding to excavate the remaining half of the cellar.

Researchers and archaeologists do already have evidence about Roman wines and winemaking in general in this era. ‘We obviously know a lot about ancient Roman wine in terms of flavours and additives, adding things like herbs and spices, honey, salt water and all that kind of stuff,’ said Dodd. ‘So there would have been a range of possible wines that they were drinking.’

There’s also evidence that wine quality was something of a status symbol. ‘We know the Romans had an almost infinite spectrum of wine qualities,’ Dodd said.

‘The rich and elite would have gone out and bought expensive wines to show that off,’ he said. He cited literature from the period, through which ‘we hear about Julius Caesar and people like this being able to afford wines that were aged for 100 years, because they were so rare’.

Such stories are not considered to be true, but they ‘play on this idea of them having access to the highest qualities, and emphasising the social hierarchy in that way’.

At the same time, Dodd said that there is possibly ‘a little bit of a sense of’ emperors and elites demonstrating interest in wine and winemaking to help them appear relatable to ordinary people.

Read the full study in Antiquity.

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