The Organization of Rome’s Wine Trade
By Alexander Conison
PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2012
Abstract: The ancient city of Rome was a remarkable consumer of wine: its annual consumption totalled hundred of millions of liters per year. Commerce of wine had a Mediterranean-wide scope. In addition to locally produced wine, Romans drank wine from modern day France, Spain, North Africa, the Greek Islands, and the Levant. Yet, for most of its history, Rome’s government did not actively participate in supplying the city with wine, as it did for grain and olive oil. This dissertation attempts to explain how Romans achieved the remarkable feat of furnishing Rome with wine from the 1st century BCE until the late 3rd century CE. This thesis relies heavily on the tools of transaction cost economics and economics of law to show how Romans applied considerable creativity in solving the problems associated with the commerce of this important, free-market commodity. This study advances three main points. First, it argues that Roman wine-production never became an autonomous sector of agricultural industry and argues that the changing provenance of wine imports at Rome largely derived from unrelated changes in capital distribution. Unlike the wine industry in the Early-Modern period, Rome’s wine production never became an independent magnet for investment. Second, this study shows that Roman organization law significantly constrained the possibility of creating multiply-owned, vertically integrated firms capable of significant capital pooling. But it also demonstrates that Roman jurists paid considerable attention to the specificities of wine commerce and actively attempted to promote efficiency in the wine trade by lowering the transactions costs of trading in wine. Third, Roman wine traders were not rigidly hidebound but took advantage of changes in Rome’s institutional structure: by examining methods of commercial wine storage at Rome, this dissertation shows that law, technology, and commercial practice could reciprocally influence one another. This dissertation concludes that Rome’s wine trade successfully functioned without state intervention because of its participants’ creativity at lowering transaction costs arising from long-distance trade and their ability to take advantage of Rome’s unique institutional environment.
Roman authors cared little about the drinking habits of Rome’s general population. There was no Roman Charles Buxton, who in an 1868 jeremiad against drunkenness, argued that, “the best thing…for the improvement of the morals of the working classes…was the closing of the public houses on the Saturday night” and that “undoubtedly the State can do much to lessen the temptation to drunkenness.” The upper-class Romans declaimed through their silence a rousing “who cares” when responding to the habits (drinking and otherwise) of the lower social orders. Nevertheless, glimmers of light emerge from that general obscurity and make clear that, as in later societies, drinking in quantity was commonplace among Rome’s population by the high Classical age.
This silence on lower-class drinking initially seems especially surprising because Roman authors certainly observed and at times criticized alcohol’s effects on their peers. As early as the mid-2nd century BCE, a certain Gaius Titius argued for the passage of the Lex Fannia, a sumptuary law, because so many men were carrying out business in the Forum while drunk. Cicero likewise inveighed against his opponents by accusing them of drunkenness and identified such drunkenness as a form of insanity. Such aspersions were not uncommon: Seneca criticized one of Caesar’s assasins, Tillius Cimber, for being a violent drunkard, and the young Octavian used Antony’s association with Dionysus as an excuse to accuse him of orgiastic drunkenness. The vast majority of references to drunkenness was in reference to upper-class behavior and is usually indistinguishable from broader, moralizing observation and criticism.