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

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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 was 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. An offering of the first wine to be opened was made to the god Jupiter. Afterwards, the rest of the wine could be tasted.

“The Vinalia ‘Festival of the Wine,’ from vinum ‘wine’; this is a day sacred to Jupiter, not to Venus. This feast receives no slight attention in Latium; for in some places the vintages were started by the priests, on behalf of the state, as at Rome they are even now: for the special priest of Jupiter makes an official commencement of the vintage, and when he has given orders to gather the grapes, he 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. On the gates of Tusculum there is an inscription: The new wine shall not be carried into the city until the Vinalia has been proclaimed” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 16. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 189).

In addition to offering libations of wine to Jupiter, a similar ritual was dedicated to Venus. 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.

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

“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, one that takes its name from a Sicilian hill: When Claudius took Arethusian Syracuse by force, and captured that hill of Eryx, too, in the war, Venus moved to Rome, according to the long-lived Sibyl’s prophecy, preferring to be worshipped in her children’s City. Why then, you ask, is the Vinalia Venus’ festival? And 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)

Sources:

  • Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 16. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 23. Translated by A. S. Kline, 2004. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
  • Alcaeus of Mytilene. “Spring”. In The Songs of Alcaeus, translated by James S. Easby-Smith. Washington: W. H. Lowdermilk & Co., 1901. Page 45.

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