A Massic Headache

Decadent and consoling by turns, Massic was the poet Horace's aide-mémoire


“Nunc est bibendum,” says Horace — “Now is the time for drinking.” Horace’s devotion to wine is clear from his poetry, where he presents the drinking of wine as part of a good life of moderate indulgence in the pleasures the world affords. Particularly so, if you are a poet; for according to Horace (Epistles I.19) there has never been a good poet who was not also a wine-drinker.

The 21st ode of the third book is Horace’s most extensive poetic tribute to wine. His friend, Corvinus, is visiting him, and he has asked Horace for “languidiora vina” — a more mellow wine. No matter that Corvinus is a follower of the Socratic school rather than being an Epicurean like his host, and so is likely (Horace thinks) to be not much of a connoisseur of wine. No matter, either, that Horace has no wine of his own making to give. He tells us in Ep. I.14 that the Sabine farm given to him by Maecenas does not grow vines. If his farmhouse indeed occupied the site of the building in Tivoli, just opposite where the Anio bursts from the rock, and where a small monastery and papal retreat was constructed in the eighth century on manifestly pre-Christian foundations, there are no vines grown on that land today, either — blessed spot though it is in almost every other respect.

Undeterred by expense, Horace obliges his guest with a jar of Massic, which he says comes from his birth year, when Manlius was consul (“nata mecum consule Manlio“) — that is to say, 65 BC. Massic was one of the most prized wines of ancient Rome. It was grown on the slopes of Monte Massico, in the region some 20 miles to the north-west of Naples which also produced the most celebrated of all Roman wines, Falernian. The wines had the most distinguished pedigree, at least according to legend. The god Bacchus disguised himself as a tramp, and called on Falernus, the peasant who farmed the land of Monte Massico. Falernus was not put off by the sordid appearance of his unexpected guest, and offered him the plentiful and simple produce of his farm — milk, honey and fruit. In appreciation of this genuine hospitality, Bacchus turned the milk to wine, which sent Falernus to sleep. When he awoke, he found the slopes of his farm turned into vineyards. The legend records not only that wine was a gift of the gods, but that it was given to men in recognition of our better qualities of generosity and a willingness to welcome the stranger.

The modern descendant, Falerno del Massico, comes in both red and white. The fundamentals are there to produce excellent wine: the soil is rich and volcanic, the climate allows the fruit to ripen fully, and the elevation above sea level gives rise to an evening coolness which keeps the grapes healthy. Nevertheless, quality has been uneven. Today’s Falernians are only the spindly descendants of the formidable wines of antiquity. Bacchus needs to return to the site of his miracle.

The Massic that Horace served Corvinus would have been at least originally a white wine, as were all the most valuable wines in ancient Rome. But long ageing would have given it a brown colour and a maderised taste. We don’t know precisely when Corvinus visited Horace, but it is quite possible that the jar of Massic Horace opened that evening would have been maturing for some 40 years. There are few white wines made today which could withstand such a period of ageing even with modern methods of closure, so given that the amphora in which it was stored probably suffered from an imperfect seal, Horace’s Massic might have looked like old sherry or even brandy.  

It would also have been incredibly strong. Pliny says that the distinguishing characteristic of Falernian is that when brought close to a naked flame it would ignite — something it is hard to achieve reliably even with spirits, unless they are warmed. Horace and Corvinus are likely to have had sore heads the following morning, particularly if they drank their wine undiluted. At one point in the poem Horace recalls that even old Cato, the most severe moralist of the Roman republic, liked to warm himself with “merum“, or unmixed wine.

In the second half of the poem Horace moves on from the circumstances in which he opened this special wine to think about the effects of wine. On the one hand, he ascribes to it a pleasing mischievousness. It stimulates the wits of the dull (Horace has an interesting phrase for this — “lene tormentum“, or mild torture), and it makes the secretive become candid. The power to bring the hidden to the surface is one of wine’s disturbing gifts. 

But Horace also pays tribute to wine’s ability to give solace. It restores hope, he says, to those whose minds are troubled (“mentibus anxiis“). More daringly, he says also that it gives strength and courage to the poor man, who after drinking wine trembles at neither the furious crowns of monarchs, nor the weapons of soldiers:

Viresque et addis cornua pauperi,

post te neque iratos trementi

regum apices neque militum arma.

This is not, I think, praise of Dutch courage. Horace suggests rather that the intrepidity sometimes conferred by wine can impel men down the path of genuine virtue — virtue which here is of an unmistakably republican complexion.

It was audacious of Horace to include in his poem even so glancing an allusion to Rome’s own recent civil wars, during which many poor men — Horace included — had trembled at the arms of the soldiery, and during which the better qualities of men, which wine was given to commemorate, had been so smothered. After the death of Caesar, Horace had enlisted under the tyrannicide Brutus, and had served him as a staff officer (“tribunus militum“). But he survived the battle of Philippi only by discarding his shield and running away. Under the principate of Augustus he was given a comfortable job in the treasury as a scribe, which allowed him time to pursue poetry. He was protected and pampered under the new regime. Maecenas, Augustus’s favourite and chief counsellor, gave Horace the Sabine farm he commemorates in his poetry. 

Even so, it is interesting to speculate on how Augustus — himself no king,  of course — might have responded to these republican touches. Would he have been nettled by Horace’s attachment to the old political dispensation? Or, given his political subtlety, would he have been gratified that his principate had fastened its grip on Rome so stealthily that even such potentially seditious memories might be expressed?

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