Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy

Purcell, N.  1985.  “Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy.”  Journal of Roman Studies 75: 1-19.

Presenter: Mary Cathering Pflug


  • Amanda Curry
  • PC Peterson
  • Mallory Pigmon
  • Abby Rosenson

21 thoughts on “Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy

    • It seems like Purcell is, overall, trying to prove that we have more evidence about the nature of the wine market in Rome than is often acknowledged. I was a bit lost regarding his argument at the beginning, but by the end (and particularly in the last paragraph), he makes this point very clear. Do you think he presents the evidence in such a way as to suggest a second argument? I am not entirely sure what the second argument would be, but his outline seems very specific, so maybe he does have another goal throughout the article. I certainly may have missed it! However, I suppose most of his organization is dependent on the passage of time, since he traces variations in wine production throughout different periods. Thoughts?

      • What chronological changes in wine production seem to lie in the background of Purcell’s analysis? What are the standard assumptions that he is attempting to prove or disprove about the market?

  1. The second century wine market was busy and complex and agricultural writers at the time were optimistic in their writings about viniculture. Many interpreters to have a gloomy view of Italian vineyards in this period due to the very real difficulties of ancient viniculture (outlined in the article) yet much ancient evidence asserts their prosperity. How is this contradiction answered by Purcell? (hint: page 13!) What do you think of his answer?

    • I found this part a bit confusing, so correct me if I’m wrong. But it seems as if Purcell attributes this to the growth of consumption and its high demand, especially in urban areas. Urbanization led to greater distribution. Due to this demand, production increased. I think he is saying that though wine is cheaper, it still brings in profit because of the popularity of the item? Therefore, one can still be optimistic about its viniculture? I can’t really tell what he’s trying to say here.

      • Why don’t we have much evidence for Italian amphorae then during the period of rapid urban expansion? What happens to the containers when Italian wine production moves from an export to a local mode?

        • If I remember correctly, Purcell suggested that we don’t see many local amphorae because wine was only placed in amphorae when it was being shipped over seas. If wine was transported by land, it came in barrels. This is the same reason why he says that the large percentage of foreign vessels at Ostia is misleading – this doesn’t mean that Romans weren’t drinking local, Italian wines; it just means that Italian wines were being shipped in wooden barrels instead of ceramic vessels.

          • Excellent, but what has the traditional interpretation of a lack of amphorae in Rome been ascribed to? How does Purcell’s view counter this?

  2. Purcell uses supply and demand lingo to show the effect of price changes and changes in supply and demand of wine. To understand his argument completely, a basic understanding of economics is necessary. How do you suggest he could have made his argument more clear or more accessible? Graphs and diagrams, or perhaps there is another way of talking about it that you think would have been better?

    • I actually thought that he did a reasonable job of explaining these basic economic concepts. In some cases he certainly could have been more direct (For example, on page 15 he says, “Demand and consumption increase; production increases; prices fall and demand receives further encouragement” – I thought he could have said this in way that tied it more to wine), but the overall concept (high demand and low supply = high price) came up frequently enough for me to get the main idea. Even in the example I gave above, which does not tie the concept directly to the wine market, Purcell follows up by saying, “In other words, if wine was cheap enough, it would in all circumstances be saleable in Rome. There could be no competition at this end of the market,” which makes his point clear.

      Still, I completely agree that he could have simplified his points further by adding a simple supply and demand graph for wine in Italy. Perhaps the main reason he didn’t do this is because, despite the evidence we have, there is not necessarily enough evidence to provide exact and specific data (although, I would be somewhat surprised if this were the case).

      • I LOVE this question because I always struggle with economics, especially ancient economics when dealing with classics. I wish he had given a basic introduction into his terminology on supply and demand. I may have been able to easily find his argument if I had previous knowledge. A graph would have been fantastic as well! A piece of visual data could have allowed someone, like myself, to follow his argument easily. He does a pretty good job of summing it up though, with “Demand and consumption increase; production increases; prices fall and demand receives further encouragement”. Other than this statement, someone without previous knowledge can get really lost.

      • A significant branch of modern economics is based on quantitative analysis of behavior. How do we get at behavior in the absence of record keeping that allows for quantitative analysis of such things as supply and demand, or even tracks prices?

        • I was thinking about this later, and even though we don’t necessarily have specific numbers, we still might have enough. My understanding is that we do have rough records of population at least in the city of Rome (or even throughout the empire) because of tax records and such. While these may not be entirely accurate, we can probably extrapolate and get a rough idea of how many wine-drinkers were around at the time. Even if these numbers are not accurate, remains from amphorae and other wine vessels should provide hints. We also should be able to tell which areas were vineyards at the time by looking at the soil (or through other similar methods – I can’t quite remember what this science is called). If we know roughly how many grapes there were and roughly how many wine drinkers there were, then we should still be able to get a basic idea of the supply and demand. Are there other, more reliable pieces of evidence we can look at? I suspect there may be other archaeological remains that might help with this problem.

          • Playing devil’s advocate, I want to raise three issues with your suggestions: 1) amphora sherds and fields under cultivation, even when detected through modern scientific methods are necessarily incomplete assemblages representing a subset of the whole original universe of data; 2) if Purcell is right that there is a transition to barrels vs. amphoras, how do we detect quantities in the archaeological record?; 3) even if we knew how many acres were under grape cultivation, this would not take into account the mode of production (high quality with sparse quantity, or the converse). Can you see any ways around these difficulties?

          • The basis of economics is simple enough. I only had half a semester of it in high school, but all of the concepts are quantitative. Therefore, it only makes sense for supply and demand graphs to be shown. To someone who has a basic understanding of supply and demand the statement “high demand of wine, low supply of wine= high prices” makes more than enough sense, but can the author assume that everyone reading the article has even elementary experience with economics. In the end, economics are always best described with graphs and charts, because it is a quantitative field.

    • I think in general, the lower end vineyards aimed at a larger market were more profitable because the sale of the low-end wines was more reliable. There was always a market for low-end wine, but the same wasn’t necessarily true of high-end wine.

      I was actually a bit confused regarding this topic. Purcell does say on page 17 that “the rapid spread of vineyards aimed at a larger, poorer market took place,” but I don’t understand what caused that spread initially. Since there were some wines that were known for their high quality, clearly not all wine-growers were doing this, and this wasn’t necessarily always the primary strategy. Was the change due to an influx of imported wines, or maybe some other shift over time? Was something else going on that I just missed while reading?

      • Abby makes a good point about why the low-end vineyards succeed. Again, it can all be traced back to beginners economics. There will always be a basic demand for wine, even if it is low grade and bottom of the line. In the end everyone would rather have cheap wine than no wine at all, if you cannot afford the expensive wine, which obviously everyone can’t.

        • I’ll talk about this more in the discussion in class, but one of Purcell’s main points surrounding this is the fact that freely distributed wine was not (and could not, logistically) be distributed to the entire population, but enough was distributed to the lower classes that it whetted their appetite for wine, raising demand in a new sector of the economy.

  3. Purcell references our buddy Cato a lot in this article. Having read and discussed Cato in class, what do you think of his take on Cato’s writings and his use of them as evidence for his article? On page 5, he says: “Cato’s treatise is about farms of modest extent and value.” Does this fit in with our discussion of Cato’s ideal farm in On Agriculture?

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