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Emperor Septimius Severus' Place in the History of Wine

Aureus depicting the emperor
Septimius Severus
Reigned, A.D. 193-211

"And when he arrived at Rome, he ordered the guard to meet him clad only in their undergarments and without arms." (Aelius Spartianus, Augustan Histories: Severus. vi)

Each of Rome's importation of wine from the provinces resulted in the accumulation of dozens of empty amphorae near the Emporium on the Tiber's waterfront. Some of them may have been used as ballast for the return boat trip to Ostia, there to join the amphorae emptied in Ostia itself for the sea voyage back to the provincial vintners. But huge numbers of them also were trashed over an area just south of the Horrea Galbana, year-in and year-out for almost a century and a half, from the early years of the 2nd century A.D. onward, until they formed a mound (Monte Testaccio) that today stands some 150 feet high and half a mile around.

This mountain of waste is a fascinating time capsule of Roman history, particularly for the decades around the early 3rd century A.D. In its deeper levels, Spanish amphorae are dominant. In its upper levels, however, north African amphorae first are mixed in with, then heavily outnumber, Spanish ones. The beginnings of the changeover coincides with the coming to power of Septimius Severus in A.D. 193. Among his first actions as emperor was to take revenge upon those who had resisted him in his rise to power. He executed dozens of politicians in Rome and turned his face away from the merchants of the Spanish provinces that had supported his rival, Albius Clodius. The emperor turned his face towards the north African town where he was born, Lepcis Magna (in modern Tripoli), and encouraged a great deal of investment in the fertile farmlands which lay beyond it.

Septimius Severus, and Caracalla who succeeded him, both imposed an imperial monopoly over what remained of the Spanish wine trade, requiring that amphorae be stamped with various codes that always would include the mark AVG as an abbreviation for the royal title of Augustus.


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