April 23 – The Vinalia Priora: The Ancient Roman Spring Wine Festival

I feel the coming of the flowery Spring,
Wakening tree and vine;
A bowl capacious quickly bring
And mix the honeyed wine.
Weave for my throat a garland of fresh dill,
And crown my head with flowers,
And o’er my breast sweet perfumes spill
In aromatic showers.

– Alcaeus of Mytilene

April 23 was the date of the Vinalia Priora, literally “the Festival of Wine from Last Year”, which was dedicated to the gods Jupiter and Venus. This festival was also referred to as the Vinalia Urbana, “the City Wine Festival”. On this day was held the ceremonial first-tasting of the wine that had been bottled and casked during the previous Autumn and which had been fermenting over the Winter. On this day, an offering of the first wine to be opened was made to the god Jupiter. Afterwards, the rest of the wine could be tasted (William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: Taylor and Walton, 1842. Page 1041; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 86).

According to ancient Roman lore, this festival had its origins in a war between Prince Aeneas and the Etruscan leader Mezentius, in which Aeneas pledged to the god Jupiter that he would offer up a sacrifice if wine to him if he would grant Aeneas victory in battle. In the words of the ancient Roman poet Ovid…

“Why does this day belong to Jupiter? There was a war to decide whether Turnus or Aeneas should be Latin Amata’s son-in-law: Turnus begged help from Etruscan Mezentius, a famous and proud fighter, mighty on horseback and mightier still on foot: Turnus and the Rutuli tried to win him to their side. The Tuscan leader replied to their suit: ‘My courage costs me not a little: witness my wounds, and my weapons that have often been dyed with blood. If you seek my help you must divide with me the next wine from your vats, no great prize. No delay is needed: yours is to give, mine to conquer. How Aeneas will wish you’d refused me!’ The Rutulians agreed. Mezentius donned his armour, and so did Aeneas, and addressed Jove: ‘The enemy’s pledged his vine-crop to the Tyrrhenian king: Jupiter, you shall have the wine from the Latin vines!’ The nobler prayer succeeded: huge Mezentius died, and struck the ground, heart filled with indignation. Autumn came, dyed with the trodden grapes: The wine, justly owed to Jupiter, was paid. So the day is called the Vinalia: Jupiter claims it, and loves to be present at his feast” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 23)

“The Vintage Festival”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1871)

In addition to offering libations of wine to Jupiter, a similar ritual was dedicated to Venus, although the ancient Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro states that the wine festival of April 23 was dedicated solely to Jupiter and not to Venus (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 16. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 189). However, other Roman writers say that it was, largely because April 23 was the date that a temple was dedicated to her known as the Temple of Venus Erycina (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 85).

Venus was the patron goddess of prostitutes, for reasons that I think are self-evident. On this day, the “ladies of the evening” would gather at her temple, burn incense, and give offerings of myrtle, mint, rushes, and roses. Libations of wine would also be liberally poured out at the entrance to Venus’ temple ( Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 23; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #45).

Ovid: “You prostitutes, celebrate the divine power of Venus: Venus suits those who earn by your profession. Offer incense and pray for beauty and men’s favour, pray to be charming, and blessed with witty words, give the Mistress myrtle, and the mint she loves, and sheaves of rushes, wound in clustered roses. Now’s the time to crowd her temple near the Colline Gate” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 23)

Plutarch: “Why on the festival of the Veneralia do they pour out a great quantity of wine from the temple of Venus? Is it true, as most authorities affirm, that Mezentius, general of the Etruscans, sent to Aeneas and offered peace on condition of his receiving the year’s vintage? But when Aeneas refused, Mezentius promised his Etruscans that when he had prevailed in battle, he would give them the wine. Aeneas learned of his promise and consecrated the wine to the gods, and after his victory he collected all the vintage and poured it out in front of the temple of Venus. Or is this also symbolic, indicating that men should be sober and not drunken on festival days, since the gods take more pleasure in those who spill much strong drink than in those who imbibe it?” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #45)


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