August 19 – The Vinalia Rustica: The Ancient Roman Country Wine Festival

Vinyard in Perchtoldsdorf, Austria. Photograph by Dimitry Anikin (September 9, 2009). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vinyard_in_Perchtoldsdorf.jpg.

It’s no secret that Italians love their wine, and justifiably so, for Italy produces some of the best wine in the world. The ancient Romans, too, were great admirers of the fruits of the vine, and they held several wine festivals throughout the year. In ancient Rome, August 19 was the date of the Vinalia Rustica, “the Country Wine Festival”, which was celebrated throughout the entire region of Latium, and it marked the official beginning of the grape harvest season in central Italy. The 19th Century writer Edward Gresswell states that the Vinalia Rustica lasted for three days, from August 19 to 21 (all of the ancient Roman authors claim that it only lasted for one day), although, since Gresswell based his claim on ancient calendars found in some Italian towns and cities, this 3-day period might have been the case only in certain municipalities who wanted to indulge in the celebrations rather than be the standard date-frame throughout the whole of central Italy (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 18, chapter 69; Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 20. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 193; William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: Taylor and Walton, 1842. Page 1041; Edward Gresswell, Origines Kalendariae Italicae, Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854. Page 292).

The Vinalia Rustica was jointly dedicated to the god Jupiter and the goddess Venus. The goddess of love was also venerated on April 23, which was the date of the Spring Wine Festival. In ancient Rome, all of the wine festivals were held in honor of Jupiter, but the Vinalia Rustica was also held in honor of Venus because it was on this date that a temple and gardens were set up dedicated to her (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 18, chapter 69; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Pages 86, 204). The ancient Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro writes, “I beseech Minerva and Venus, of whom the one protects the oliveyard and the other the garden; and in her honour the Rustic Vinalia has been established” (Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 1, chapter 1). Varro also interestingly states that since Venus was regarded as a protector of gardens, and since August 19 was dedicated to her veneration, gardeners were traditionally given this day off from work (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 20. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 193).

The ancient Roman writer Festus states that it was on this date that the first batch of wine was brought from the countryside into the city of Rome (Edward Gresswell, Origines Kalendariae Italicae, Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854. Page 293).

Marcus Terentius Varro explains that the festivities were begun by flamen dialis, the chief priest of the god Jupiter. The priest invoked the god’s name and sacrificed a lamb to him. Then, the priest himself pulled the first bunch of grapes from the vine with his own hand, and thus ceremoniously began the year’s grape harvest. The act of Jupiter’s chief priest plucking the very first bunch of grapes from the vine was known as either the vindemiam auspicari or the auspicatio vindemiae, “the auspices of the vine”. Then, the vitals of the sacrificed lamb together with the first grapes of that year’s harvest were offered up together upon the altar, and the priest prayed to Jupiter for the safety of the grape harvest for that year, protecting the vines against any and all threats that may be leveled against them including excessive heat, excessive cold, storms, floods, diseases, pests, and the ravages of war (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. Pages 204, 206).

In the words of Varro himself…

“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).

Bibliography



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3 replies

  1. I feel like the plucking of the first cluster of grapes by the Flamen Dialis must have entailed a certain amount of anxiety behind the scenes because agriculture has always been so precarious. What if the weather had been too wet, or too dry, or too cold? What if birds or insects spoiled the harvest? Were messengers then sent out across the region to obtain a cluster of grapes to ensure this religious drama took place? Or was the Vinalia cancelled, official acknowledgement of the crop failure and the misery to follow?

    Ancient Roman religion is frequently described as one of orthopraxis over orthodoxy, but imagining the relief everyone – farmers, religious specialists, vintners, and consumers – must have felt, seeing there would *be* a harvest, persuades me that belief in and gratitude to the gods was both real and prevalent.

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  1. honor the gods

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