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Emperor Domitian's Place in the History of Wine

Aureus depicting
the emperor Domitian
Reigned, A.D. 81-96

"At the beginning of his reign, he used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly sharpened stylus. Consequently when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Caesar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: 'Not even a fly'." (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars VIII: Domitian.iii)

"Once, upon the occasion of a plentiful wine crop, attended with a scarcity of grain, thinking that the fields were neglected through too much attention to the vineyards, he [emperor Domitian] made an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy, and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or but half of them at most be left standing; but he did not persist in carrying out this measure." (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars VIII: Domitian. vii)

Politicking was everywhere in the manipulation of the business activities surrounding the Roman staples of grain, wine, and olive oil. In A.D. 90, when Domitian’s edict was issued, Asia Minor certainly was in the grips of a famine crisis, so its purpose appears to have been to increase grain production throughout the Empire. But Domitian may have had two ulterior motives as well; first, of simply reducing pressure on vine-growers on the Italian peninsula, and second, of limiting the availability of wine in Asia Minor where it might enflame some revolutionary minds among the starving (see Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 520)

The edict might have gone through, but for a suprisingly personal poem that circulated like wildfire through the city immediately after it was proclaimed. "Gnaw at my root as you will; even then shall I have juice in plenty To pour upon thee, O goat, when at the altar you stand."


  1. Scarre, C., 1995: Chronicle of the Roman Emperors, 50-73 (New York, Thames & Hudson).