Home - Wine Production and Climate Change in Arid Environments around the Roman Mediterranean

While environmental approaches to history are fast developing, scientific archaeology is able to isolate and analyze – ever more accurately – a growing number of indicators related to ancient climate and environment. Environmental proxies generate significant explanative power in the study of crucial processes in antiquity, including the rise and fall of societies, economies, and empires, and are therefore harnessed ever more frequently to relevant researches and debates. The process, however, demands extreme caution, as it often involves the intricate synthesis of several demanding fields, in all of which single scholars can hardly specialize on their own.

In the conclusion to their review articles on Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome, John Haldon and his group write: “We finish by emphasizing the need to develop more nuanced causal explanations for complex historical processes and suggest that future attempts to bring together such wide‐ranging material be done within interdisciplinary research teams” (Haldon et al. 2018). It is exactly such an interdisciplinary research team that this proposal offers to put together, for the purpose of obtaining more nuanced knowledge of the heritage of viniculture through following the interaction of the ancient wine industry with environmental conditions in the Mediterranean basin in all its complexity.

Connecting to a wide and elaborate tradition of scholarly work on viniculture in antiquity, this research group plans: (1) to investigate the adaptability of ancient wine industries to changing cultural circumstances and economic demand, (2) to define the nature of the balance in marginal areas between a sustainable industry and potential environmental and climatic stressors, (3) to identify and analyse the means employed by vine-farmers and wine-makers in order to cope with such challenges as aridity, drought, floods, plant disease, and general market risks. Aiming to produce a holistic picture of the problem,and potential methodologies to tackle it, textual and material sources will be represented by historians and archaeologists, whereas proxies will also be presented and discussed from an environmental historical perspective, with scholars representing such fields as plant sciences, paleo-genetics and bio-archaeology, as well as the social spheres of demography and economy. This will allow the group to present a synthetic historical approach, that would ultimately seek to characterize the speculative way in which one of the most important industries in antiquity functioned.

The study of wine in history has a long-established tradition, and main perspectives in the current study of ancient viniculture include production, commerce, culture, ritual, and identity. Research disciplines involved in the study of the topic include traditional archaeology, as well as bio-archaeology, archaeobotany, residue analysis, and palynology, among others. Textual sources prove to be more and more useful, not only in telling the cultural story of consumption but also in relating, for example through papyri, the economic minutiae of the industry, from resource management to speculative investment in wine futures. Archaeology further contributes by providing ample information on the type of wine containers, and their production and distribution over time and space. Finally, landscape archaeology enables us to reconstruct the size and density of the ancient vineyards with their typical adjacent installations.

Our basic assumption is that wine production and consumption habits would have been affected by environmental circumstances – stable and changing, local and regional. Arid conditions could be coped with through various means, such as the channeling or accumulation of run-off water. Temporary compensation for occasional annual climatic challenges, such as drought, could be achieved by means of surplus exchange and enhanced connectivity. Significant environmental challenges – constant or occasional – would have demanded adaptive measures in the wine market, that may be visible in the historical and archaeological record.

The aim of this group would be to produce a correlative approach to viniculture and arid environments in antiquity. Such a methodology bears crucial implications for present-day concerns of historians, with rising interest in the past development of climate-conscious sustainable agriculture, which would have aspired to introduce all modifications necessary for its survival. In this, we aim to contribute, not only to established aspects of environmental humanities, but also to the developing field of food humanities.

The questions we wish to ask are:
What were the restrictions and limitations imposed upon the Roman wine industry?
What motivations presented themselves for deviating from standard wine production?
What means allowed for wine production in less than ideal circumstances?
What environmental features, stable and fluctuating, explain choices made in the Roman wine industry?
The methodology we intend to employ in answering these questions will identify, initially, the general modus operandi of the ancient wine industry, available, to a large extent, in literature produced by focused researches, dedicated to particular elements of the system. It is in relation to this broad picture of the wine economy that members of the group will highlight the challenges and break-points of the system from their respective disciplinary perspectives and through particular examples from the Roman Mediterranean. The Byzantine-Negev – currently under close scrutiny by the project Crisis on the Margins of the Byzantine Empire, funded by the European Research Council and directed by group leader Guy Bar-Oz – will serve as our basis of departure and main point of reference. Additional case-studies, textually- and materially-based, will be examined on thematical, geographical, and temporal basis, aiming to identify environmental stressors generating deviations from standard viniculture routine.

Of particular interest would be wine-production centers in Spain, Southern Gaul, Italy, North Africa, and Egypt, where focused work is already underway insofar as regards particular aspects of viniculture and its case-specific challenges. Annalisa Marzano is looking these days at horticulture and the variety of vine species in Southern Gaul and Northern Italy; Andrew Wilson has asked questions about aquaria, landscape and climate in Tunisia; and Ido Israelowich is looking at aspects of wine futures, speculation and insurance as they are represented in Egyptian papyri. Such and similar foci, represented by the list of researchers we propose below, may join the case of the Negev for a wide comparative discussion, which is certain to expand the horizons of the field.
This research group is organized and led by Dr. Gil Gambash and Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa. The group is supported through a generous grant from the Haifa Center for Mediterranean History (HCMH).

For more information, contact us:
Dr. Gil Gambash, ggambash@univ.haifa.ac.il
Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, gbaroz@univ.haifa.ac.il