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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Heroes of Wine: Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE)

Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE)
Pliny the Elder has been mentioned more times on this blog than anybody else. I even made a meme about him. So when it was time for me to finally get back to writing monthly articles on the blog, it was a no-brainer that a biography on this guy would be the perfect return into the swing of things.

Pliny's entrance into this world is not well documented. Historians have pieced it together through fragments of secondary sources. He could have born Gaius Plinius Secundus, the son of equestrian Gaius Plinius Celer and his wife Marcella (Equestrians were the middle-ranking nobility in ancient Rome). He could have been born in Verona, Italy. The evidence is much more solid that he was born 140 miles away in Como, however. We can assume his birth year was 23 CE because his nephew, Pliny the Younger, mentioned his age when he died tragically in 79 CE. Do we all know our uncle's exact age? Hell no!
"The only certainty is that nothing is certain." - Pliny the Elder
Although nearly all of his works have been lost, Pliny still made sure that future generations would know about him. Sadly, no contemporary description, sculpture, or image of him survives, so we don't actually know anything about his appearance. He wasn't one of the most prolific of the great Roman authors, but he is a key part of our understanding for life as a Roman of his time. Also, the man loved wine and beer and wrote about the making and consumption of both.

Since we'll never know for sure his exact history, let's assume that the facts accepted by most historians are accurate. He is Gaius Plinius Secundus, son of an equestrian, from Como, Italy. Pliny was a rich-boy. An aristocrat of the second rank, and his class of the equestrian order demanded through tradition that he follow in his father's footsteps. Like all young men of his rank, Pliny's career was determined by his social and political status. He was born with a silver spoon...on a horse.

At ten years old his father took him to Rome to get a proper, rich-boy Roman education. Caligula was the Emperor then, so it wasn't all that great of a time to be in Rome. But this is when he met the poet Publius Pomponius Secundus, who taught him about literature and lit the path to his passion of writing and sharing of knowledge. He would take that passion with him through his experiences and travels in the military.

At 23 years old he entered the military, becoming an officer and then a commander in the Roman cavalry.  For young men of his rank, service in the Roman army was a prerequisite if you wanted to participate in public life in any way.  No one would vote for, or even listen to someone who hadn't proved they were capable of defending the empire!  Pliny served mostly in Germany, and possibly even went to Britain. At this time, the Rhine river was the border between Rome and central Europe. Romans considered it the border between civilization and barbarism, between order and chaos. Pliny would have been busy guarding the border against raids from Germanic tribes.

Throughout his military service he was also writing away. He wrote a huge-ass 20 volume collection about the Germanic wars called "Bella Germaniae".  It included detailed articles on how the Romans defeated the barbarian tribes they encountered, and a treatise on the German technique of throwing spears while riding a horse in a book he titled "De Jaculatione Equestri".
"It is ridiculous to suppose that the great head of things, whatever it be, pays any regard to human affairs." - Pliny the Elder
At 36 years old Pliny stepped away from the military and moved to Rome to become a lawyer. If you thought that being in Rome with Caligula as Emperor was scary, this is when Nero was in power; the guy who, legend has it, played his fiddle while Rome burned. That fiddle story is probably not actually true but Nero was a nightmare of an Emperor and a total dickwad, and Pliny wrote that he was "an enemy of the human race."

He definitely was right about that. Nero had a reputation for murderous instability and tyrannical rule. He reportedly had his own mother killed, kicked his pregnant wife to death, and demanded the execution of anyone he saw as a threat to him.  He also generally creeped out the population of Rome with his bizarre antics. He “participated” in the Olympic games, and to nobody's surprise, he won every event! He enjoyed acting in plays and playing the lyre on stage, which was scandalous because actors and musicians were consider little better than prostitutes by Roman society. Nero also “married” a man named Pythagoras in a public wedding ceremony, with Nero playing the role of the bride.  Interestingly, the public was more outraged that his “groom” was a freed slave than that he was a man.

Technically Pliny was still liable for in the military service, but he refused to take any positions. During this time he worked law cases, absorbed all the knowledge he could, and wrote. One of his writings from this time was a biography of Pomponius Secundus, a commander and mentor of his. Meanwhile Nero was spiraling out of control and became more and more unreasonable. Pliny wrote educational newsletters on rhetoric called "Studiosus" (the Student) to inform citizens how they were being manipulated with words and constant telling of untruths. Huh. Maybe he wouldn't feel out of place if he found himself in 2019 America.

From what I've read, historians believe it's likely that Pliny had some kind of respiratory condition like asthma. He didn't like to walk for too long because if he did then he'd have some serious problems breathing. Since Pliny was wealthy, he'd be carried around in a sedan chair or litter while he read, wrote, or observed his surroundings. It's also possible that he was just lazy.
"It has passed into a proverb, that wisdom is overshadowed by wine." - Pliny the Elder
So we know ABOUT most of his works. And he wrote A LOT. But we can only actually read one of them because it's the only one to survive. Well, it's actually a collection of 37 books and it's called "Historia Naturalis" (Natural History), and it was a huge hit that would be used in education and reference for centuries to come.

In his Natural History encyclopedia, Pliny attempted to collect everything we know about the natural world. Anthropology, botany, geography, magic, zoology... and even oenology. There are a lot of things that we know about the Roman wine culture of the time that we would not know without him. Here's some things that he said about wine in Natural History:

Pliny the Elder, Natural History

He makes the claim that the art of viticulure came from the Middle East and that the very first viticulturist in Europe was a Thracian in Bulgaria named Evmolp. You can learn about the Thracians and their impact on wine history in my article Bulgaria - Part 1: Three-Thousand Years of Wine History.

He wrote about a wine called Falernian, perhaps the most renowned and legendary wines of ancient Rome. It was made from Aglianico, and possibly Greco, on the slopes of Mt. Falernus in northeast Campania near the border of Latium. The wine was actually white, so there was no skin contact after the pressings. It was late-harvested after the first frosts of winter and left to maderize for up to 20 years in clay amphorae. By then, of course, the wine had turned a dark brown from oxidation. Pliny was all like "There is now no wine known that ranks higher than the Falernian; it is the only one, too, among all the wines that takes fire on the application of flame." So were the Romans doing flaming shots? I like to think so. To learn more about Aglianico read my article The Adventures of Aglianico - A Complete History of an Ancient Wine.
"Wine refreshes the stomach, sharpens the appetite, blunts care and sadness, and conduces to slumber." - Pliny the Elder
He mentions his love of wine from a place called Trieste. He called the wine Pucinem. In 1593 some English dude that traveled a lot, Fynes Moryso, wrote down the first mention of a certain name change: "Here growed the wine Pucinum, now called Prosecho, much celebrated by Pliny." From then on until recently both the wine and the grape would be called Prosecco, but now the grape is officially Glera. So Pliny was the first to record the existence of wine from Prosecco.

He also referred to wine from Franciacorta as Franzacurta. Franciacorta is within Lombardy, which is between Piedmont (Asti) and Veneto (Prosecco). Franciacorta now makes world class sparkling wine. To learn about the history of Prosecco, Franciacorta, and other Sparkling wines, read my article A Bubbly Biography - The Story of Sparkling Wine - Part 2: Italy and The New World.

He had some advice for winemakers and vineyard owners, as well. Pliny recommended growing grape vines on a pergola, a type of outdoor gazebo.  He wrote that if you were growing too high, you better climb up the ladder and harvest those grapes yourselves. Because your slaves are too valuable to risk being injured from such a fall. He even recommended hiring non-slaves to do the work, after making them sign contracts promising he'd pay their funeral expenses if they died.  He also was a believer in the curative properties of wine, and dedicated a large part of book 23 in Naturalis Historia to discussing what Pliny thought were the medicinal properties of wine.

Pliny also had some, uh, INTERESTING ideas about viticulture and winemaking. Such as "Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison." WHAT THE HELL???
"Always act in such a way as to secure the love of your neighbour." - Pliny the Elder
Soon Nero was assassinated and the Roman empire plunged into chaos. When his old army buddy Vespasian became emperor in 69 (nice) CE, Pliny returned to military service.  He held several positions during this second military career, including stints as a treasury officer in Africa and Spain. The portion of Natural History on mining appears to be from his time in Spain, as he spent a lot of time at the gold mines there.

In 79 CE, two years after the publication of Natural History, Pliny was in command a fleet of ships in the Bay of Naples and charged with hunting down the pirates that operated there. His task was interrupted when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Watching the eruption from the water and knowing his close friend Rectina was in Pompeii, Pliny then ordered the ships to evacuate the area while he took a smaller boat to land with some of his men. Later his men would report that when they got on shore the smoke was too much for him. Remember, the guy had severe asthma. They claimed that after they failed to find Rectina, they had to leave him behind so they could get back on the boat and save themselves. There's a lot of questions and holes in their story and foul play is not out of the question.

Mount Vesuvius
Ultimately the people of Pompeii suffered instant death, even those inside their homes, as an intense surge of 482°F filled the air. Fragments of the eruption called tephra rained down on the city for six hours, burying the dead. In the 1800's it was realized that pockets of air in the form of human beings were in the layers of ashes at Pompeii. This was where the fully decomposed and phantom bodies of the victims who had died. So they filled those pockets with plaster and cleared the ashes, and you can now see hundreds of eerie plaster moldings of ancient people in sheer terror, dying, in Pompeii.

Pliny the Elder was one of the 2,000 people to perish in Pompeii from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as he rushed into danger to help its people. Not only was he a hero of wine, but he died being an actual hero.

adjective GEOLOGY
relating to or denoting a type of volcanic eruption in which a narrow stream of gas and ash is violently ejected from a vent to a height of several miles.
"Hope is the pillar that holds up the world. Hope is the dream of a waking man." - Pliny the Elder
- Joey Casco CSW/CSS
Graham Richardson, co-author, editor, script-doctor, one of the best dudes I know
Pliny the Elder

Wikipedia - Pliny the Elder
Wikipedia - Natural History (Pliny)
Wikiquote - Pliny the Elder
LacusCurtius - Pliny the Elder's Natural History
The Illustrious Life of Pliny the Elder
YouTube - Who is Pliny the Elder?
Famous Scientists - Pliny the Elder
Macroevolution - Pliny the Elder
Britannica - Pliny the Elder
PBS - Pliny the Elder
Ancient History Encyclopedia - Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder (23-79)
Crysalinks - Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder wrote About Dragons
Ancient Rome’s Lasting Contribution to Wine Making
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