Wine and oil

Although not everybody today eats olive oil and drinks wine, they were very important in Roman life. Water was dirty, so it was mixed with wine to avoid illness, even for children (Romans didn’t know why, but in fact alcohol kills germs and viruses). Romans drank about one-third of a glass of wine watered down with boiled water, either warm or cold. Pure wine was given as offerings to the gods. Olive oil was used in lamps for most lighting, and for skin care when bathing, as well as for cooking. Olive oil and wine, or the by-products of making them, were also used for human and animal medicines, to preserve food, to keep away pests, to burn as fuel, and as plant fertilizers.

Roman oil lamp, with an image of an eagle, like the one “shaped like a squashed teapot” which Perry sees in Maximus’s bedroom in chapter 5. Image The J. Paul Getty Museum, via Creative Commons

Making wine

As today, grapes were grown on vines in a “vineyard”, and when they were ripe they had to be picked quickly, by as many people as possible, or the juice would spoil. Roman vineyards usually had grapes growing up high on wooden posts.

4th century mosaic of a grape harvest, Tunisia. The men are reaching up to the vines and putting the picked grapes into big baskets, like in chapter 11. Photo JPS68 via Wikimedia Commons

Although nowadays wine is usually made with machines, in Roman times workers would tread on the grapes to squash the juice out of them. If they wanted to get more juice (called “must”), the squashed grapes would then be put into soft baskets, and squeezed even more by a machine called a “press”. Then the juice was left for a few months in huge terracotta pots in the cellar to ferment and turn into wine. The pots were half-buried so they would not get hot, which would spoil the wine.

Roman wine made in Gaul was probably mostly white wine, made from red grapes (red and white wine are made from the same grapes, but for red the grape skins are left in the juice to add colour and flavour). Click here to view a video of a Roman wine harvest reenactment, with grape treading and wine pressing, in southern France.

Amphorae – large clay pots often about 1 metre high – were used to carry wine and oil in ships, to be sold all around the Roman Empire. Click here to see amphorae in a reconstruction video of the recently-excavated food shop at Pompeii which we used as the model for the shop in chapter 36.

Making olive oil

Olives are grown on trees, and can be picked either when they are still green (around October, in southern France) or left until they ripen to brown in winter. Once they are picked, olives are milled – Romans used big stone wheels – to get oil. More oil can be squeezed out if the olives are then put into a press, just like grapes. 

Click here to read about Roman food (Getty Museum).

Presses were used to make oil and wine right up till modern times. Many used huge stone weights to help squash out the juice. These stones were so big that they weighed as much as a small car! The press could be operated by a winch, which was a device to lift something heavy by winding a rope around a wooden roller. Another system was to lift up a stone by using a big hand-carved wooden screw, as described in chapter 18.

Screw press illustration by Anna Ciddor from THE BOY WHO STEPPED THROUGH TIME, based on press weight stone found at the villa of Taradeau, Roman images and archaeological reconstructions.

Around 300 CE, at the time of the story, screw presses were used to make wine near the emperor’s court at Augusta Treverorum (modern-day Trier, in Germany), so we imagined Father bringing the idea home with him, along with carpenters to carve the screw. 

At the villa of Taradeau, used as the model for Villa Rubia, the oil press stone was changed to use a screw instead of a winch, and the stone workers really did make a mistake and drill an extra hole in the wrong place! To make the holes, Oxittus would have used a drill turned by a strap.

Click here to see a reproduction of a strap drill like Oxittus would have used.

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