Posted: Saturday, November 26, 2016 2:30 am
When you write historical fiction for a living, you never lose sight of the value of accurate research, or of the need for it.
I’m working right now on a new novel that is the prequel to the first book I ever published, and part of the story deals with events that took place in the third century AD, a hundred years prior to that first narrative. I’ve never really had to dig that far back into history before, and I found myself researching things I’ve never had to wonder about until now.
Hospitality, for example.
There’s an important scene in this book in which one character, the Legate commanding the 10,000-strong Second Legion, based in Cornwall, in South Britain, convenes a meeting of his most senior officers for a solemn occasion. Visualizing that gathering, and the formal, ceremonious regimental dinner that would certainly have been a part of it, I found myself needing to know what kind of drinks the Legate, as presiding host, might have chosen to serve to his officers.
Most people, thinking back to old forms of alcohol, would probably suggest that mead might be the thing, but the Romans didn’t drink mead; nor did they drink beer, since they had not yet discovered the secrets of yeast and fermentation .
I had always known, without ever really thinking much about it, that they drank wine, but when I checked, I was astounded at how much they drank. They drank wine everywhere, and all the time. They drank it religiously and even devotionally, and their reverence for it permeated their agrarian society, influencing it, and them, in ways we could not imagine today.
Accepting that, though, my mind leapt to the great, majestic Italian reds we know and love—those magnificent, expensive vintages of Barolo and Amarone that taunt us from the specialty shelves of high-end liquor stores.
A formal military banquet would serve the best of those, I thought, as they were grown and served 2,000 years ago.
I could not have been more wrong.
The Romans of 2,000 years ago drank white wine, not red, and they preferred sweet vintages to dry.
And it had social significance: the amount of wine and the range of varietals a host could provide for his guests was an important indicator of social status, as was the amount of expensive wine any individual could afford to drink at one time.
They had red wine, but it was crude form. They called it vinum, and they mixed it with water and served it to legionary soldiers on the march, but they apparently cared very little for “good” red wines, which were only then beginning to be produced in Gaul, in what are now the French wine districts, during the third century.
I found the idea of Roman soldiers drinking sweet white wine to be disconcertingly effete, so I went digging deeper, looking for more, and discovered something delightful that I want to share here — something that reminded me of a topic I dealt with in this column only a few weeks ago: that there is nothing new under the sun.
I had always known, vaguely, that the most famous Roman wine was called Falernian, but I had never really paid attention to it, simply assuming it must have been dark red and luscious.
I was wrong again, I soon discovered. Falernians ranged in colour from clear to amber, and all of them came from the southern slopes of Mount Falernus, in Campania, the region surrounding the coastal city of Naples.
Falernians were individually labelled, distinctively flavoured, and reportedly unique in being the only wine, anywhere, that would ignite when touched with an open flame, so we can infer that they were highly potent, as well as delicious.
The very finest vintages were called the Faustian Falernians, and they all came from the central belt of vineyards on the mountainside, which had been owned and established by Faustus, the son of the Roman dictator Sulla who died in 76 BC.
The Faustians were hugely expensive, and yet they were not the most sought-after wines Mount Falernus had to offer for discerning palates.
That distinction went to the very finest of the Faustian vintages, a honey-coloured nectar made from grapes left on the vine to await a sustained frost and to perfect, very rare conditions. When those occurred and the fruit was frozen solid, the grapes were harvested and processed, then aged in clay vessels called amphorae, for up to 20 years, at which point only the wealthiest of the wealthy could afford to buy them in bulk.
We call it icewine, and we make it here. But we drink it sparingly because it’s still prohibitively expensive by volume.
Nothing is new under the sun.