The Vinalia Rustica: A Roman Celebration of Wine

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Wine was a Roman essential. It was medicine and tonic as well as favourite everyday beverage. So it is no surprise that the Romans celebrated this daily staple with not one, but two yearly festivals.

The word Vinalia takes its name from the Latin for wine: ‘vinum.’ The first Vinalia of the year, the Vinalia Urbana,was held on the 23rd April. The second, the Vinalia Rustica, was held on the 19th August.

On one level, the Romans regarded the Vinalia Rustica as a commemoration of the beneficence of Jupiter to the Roman state. But it was more complex than that, pre-empting the grape harvest and celebrating the general Roman love of wine.

The Roman Love of Wine

Romans of all classes adored wine. But it was not always a widely available commodity.

The Laws of Romulus forbade it to all but free men over the age of 35, possibly because of its limited availability and concerns over its intoxicating properties. It was strictly prohibited to everyone else. During this archaic period, any woman who imbibed even a sip could be put to death for its consumption.

But by the time of the republic, these ancient prohibitions had fallen by the wayside. The Roman state had expanded, with more land for farming and a corresponding increase in knowledge of viticulture, which increased production. The amount of wine available had increased.

Numerous varieties of wine now existed, served warm or cold, generally watered and often delicately spiced. Wine was both a beverage, a medicine, and a culinary ingredient. Everyone, including women, now enjoyed wine as part of everyday life.

Cato even recommended a weekly ration of wine for slaves – for the good of their health and to help keep their strength up rather than for recreational use!

In A Short History of Wine, Rodney Philips estimated that during the high point of Roman wine consumption in the imperial period, Rome consumed 180 million litres annually– the equivalent of a bottle of wine a day for every citizen.

The Myth of the Vinalia Rustica

The Vinalia Rustica has its roots in the archaic Roman period. Mythology dates the festival to the time of Aeneas, when the Trojan hero struggled to establish a foothold for his people in ancient Latium. In an attempt to secure victory over the Etruscan tyrant Mezentius, Aeneas decided to pledge all of the wine of the next vintage to the god Jupiter– if only he would favour Aeneas with victory.

It seems Jupiter accepted the deal– particularly as greedy Mezentius preferred to keep all his wine to himself. And so, out of gratitude, the Romans established the Vinalia Rustica.

The Rites of the August Vinalia

The later Romans never forgot the significance of this myth in their own celebrations of the Vinalia Rustica. ‘This is a day sacred to Jupiter,’ states Varro in On the Latin Language.

In Rome, Jupiter’s chief priest oversaw the rites; the Romans called the priests the Flamen Dialis in a ceremony known as the auspicatio vindemiae. Varro describes how the flamen:

‘Sacrifices a lamb to Jupiter, and between the cutting out of the victim’s vitals and the offering of them to the god he himself first plucks a bunch of grapes.’

This suggests that the festival marked the beginnings of the vintage-the grape harvest. Indeed, it seems that not only Rome celebrated the festival, but the whole of surrounding Latium did so.On the gates of Tusculum,’ says Varro, ‘there is the inscription:

“The new wine shall not be carried into the city until the Vinalia has been proclaimed.”‘

But Jupiter is not the only god linked to the Vinalia.

Venus and the Vinalia

Both the myth and the formal sacrifices of the festival suggest that the Vinalia rustica was solely dedicated to Jupiter. However, Venus is also associated with the festival.

Although Varro staunchly defends the day as sacred to Jupiter and ‘not to Venus,’ he also admits in On the Latin Language that:

The nineteenth of August was called the Country Vinalia … because at that time a temple was dedicated to Venus and gardens were set apart for her, and then the kitchen-gardeners went on holiday.’

And, in On Agriculture, that:

‘Venus…who…protects the garden…. in her honour the rustic vinalia has been established.’

Other Roman writers comment on how popular festivals occurred on the day of the Vinalia Rustica around the temples of Venus in Rome. Here, the ordinary citizens marked the day with wine and revelry.

The temple of Venus Obsequens even opened on the day of the Vinalia in 295 BC. Was this the sole reason for Venus’s association with the Vinalia?

A Two-Tier Festival?

It could be that what we have in the Vinalia Rustica was a two-tier festival. On one level, the state was honouring their highest god in an ancient state ceremony. But on another level, the people were celebrating a more popular form of the festival dedicated to a different deity.

Perhaps this reflects the change in the roman attitude to wine. The celebrations for Jupiter could reflect the time when the people faced limits on much wine they drank due to its rarity and sacred nature– when a donation of the grapes no matter how small constituted a true sacrifice. But the more popular celebrations of the people could be a later addition to celebrate the bounty of the harvest.

But the grape harvest occurred in September. This makes the Vinalia Rustica too early for a harvest festival. And why Venus as the deity for the popular festivities?

A Bounty of Grapes

‘This festival is to alleviate weather,’ declared Pliny the Elder in his Natural History when discussing the Vinalia Rustica.The grapes are ripe and Jupiter is feared,’ echoed Vergil of the Vinalia in his Georgics.

In the light of the quotes, the dedication of the festival makes sense. Aeneas made an offering of the vintage to secure Jupiter’s help against a military enemy. The descendants of his people continued the tradition to ensure protection against a different enemy: the weather.

The Romans picked the first bunch of grapes early and offered them to Jupiter as a conciliatory gesture, in the hope that he would hold off any damaging storms that threatened the delicate grapes just before they were ready to harvest. This makes the state Vinalia Rustica an Auspicatio, a ceremony to avert the perils of storm or disease from the unripe vintage.

And Venus? Well before she was a goddess of love, Venus was just a simple garden goddess, a protectoress of all growing plants– including vines. The fact that she joined Jupiter, if only at a popular level, in a festival dedicated to the protection of the grape harvest illustrates just how important wine was to the Romans.

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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