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Strange tales: the emperor who loved vineyards and drove his troops to fury

The Roman emperor Probus does not receive much attention in the annals of the Roman Empire but he should be a more recognised figure for those interested in wine because of his dedication to the spread of viticulture.

A bust of the emperor Probus

Viticulture and winemaking had always followed in the wake of Rome’s legions as the empire expanded, especially in the west where its practice was more limited among the Celtic and Iberian tribes of the late Iron Age.

Where previously viticulture had only existed in pockets around the Greek and Carthaginian colonies of southern Iberia, Gaul and North Africa; Rome spread or improved the culture and industry on its conquests, needing wine to sustain its soldiers, provide a home comfort to its colonists and assist in the Romanisation of the barbarians. And the industry flourished.

Although the Romans did not know it, they were continuing the legacy of viti- and viniculture’s march westwards that had been set in motion ever since winemaking had begun percolating out of its Caucasian cradle to neighbouring civilisations during the Chalcolithic era in c. 5,000 BC.

On the other hand, the Romans did not plant vineyards absolutely everywhere. Iberia and North Africa became important wine producing areas, as did southern Gaul in the provinces of Aquitania and Narbonensis – in the modern wine regions of Bordeaux, the Languedoc, Roussillon, the Rhône and Provence.

Despite suggestions of Celtic winemaking in places like Burgundy and localised winemaking at certain villas once the Romans had settled, northern Gaul, Britain and the Rhine territories do not appear to have supported much in the way of viticulture (on any large, commercial scale) either during the 1st centuries BC and AD when those areas were being conquered nor even during the 2nd century AD when the process of Romanisation was well underway; perhaps the Romans considered their distance from the Mediterranean basin less than ideal for the production of strong, good quality wine?

Meanwhile, although Illyria was a winemaking province due to earlier Greek influence, more inland areas such as parts of Pannonia and Dacia were likewise not widely planted with vineyards during the heyday of the Roman Empire.

Not only was wine a pleasurable and necessary element of the classical diet, viticulture and winemaking could be very profitable too.

The statesman Cato put it first in his list of crops when arranged in order of profit – provided volume was plentiful and the quality high. The writers Pliny and Columella also stress the potential profits to be had from wine, although Pliny offset his exhortation with the difficulties as well, noting how the great fortune of one wine family was lost in a single generation due to a bad investment in vineyards in Picenum (what is now Marche).

Nonetheless, the Roman Empire heralded a viticultural boom in the west that went quite unchecked with predictable results. Viticulture was so intense in some areas that successive large crops eventually led to a glut and the inevitable depression of prices. So much so in fact that the poet Martial once noted that in Ravenna wine had become cheaper than water.

Finally, in 92 AD the emperor Domitian passed an edict limiting vine-growing. No new vineyards were to be planted in the empire and indeed he called for half of the vineyards in the provinces to be grubbed up. This measure was not designed to favour Italian viticulture as the statutes of limitation applied to Italy as well and it is unlikely Domitian was trying to save the imperial wine industry from the dangers of over-production either.

Suetonius relates that the passing of the edict occurred at a time when there was a glut of wine but also a famine caused by a grain shortage. It would seem, therefore, that Domitian was concerned that viticulture had proliferated rather too far at the expense of honest cereal farming and cheap grain had always been the Roman politician’s best means of keeping the plebs content.

Not that it appears Domitian’s edict was enforced with any vigour. The emperor himself was murdered four years later and we have no hard evidence that the vineyards in the provinces outside of Italy were substantially decreased in any way.

The westward march of viticulture had certainly stalled however and it was not until Probus overturned Domitian’s decree in 280 AD that it was resumed once again.

Probus – or Marcus Aurelius Probus to give him his full name – became emperor in 276 AD after overthrowing the emperor Florianus[1]. A native of the city of Sirmium in what is now Serbia, he was one of the ‘Illyrian Emperors’ who reigned towards the end of what is known as the crisis of the third century. Raised to prominence by the emperor Valerian, in both his pre-imperial military career and as emperor Probus proved himself a capable commander and administrator.

In 277 AD he defeated the Goths on the lower Danube and rid Gaul of the Alamanni and Longiones the following year, while his generals likewise drove back the encroaching Franks and Burgundians.

With the frontier stabilised he turned his energies to rebuilding the shattered infrastructure and economies of key provinces that had crumbled under a succession of some 26 emperors who had ruled during the 50 years of the military anarchy.

Only too aware of the role the army had played in both deposing and raising up this veritable legion of short-lived rulers, Probus determined that the best way to keep his soldiers out of trouble was to keep them busy. He therefore set his men to work on various projects; building roads, bridges and fortifications along the Rhine and Danube, draining marshes, digging canals and, most notably, planting extensive vineyards. New plantations sprang up across northern Gaul, Moesia (Serbia) and Pannonia in the first widespread programme of vine planting to occur in the Roman Empire for over 180 years.

Energetic, capable and seemingly not cast in the same tyrannical mould that had produced so many weak and cruel emperors immediately before him, Probus returned to the imperial project

The emperor Domitian who introduced the ban on further vine planting in 92 AD

some measure of the dynamism and organisation that had been its hallmark in the days of the late Republic and early Caesars.

It is his affinity for planting vineyards though that is particularly marked. Quite why he was such an enthusiastic propagator of vineyards is hard to say. There were no doubt economic reasons, which drove his entire rebuilding programme and as a disciplinarian he may have thought that planting vineyards was a more labour intensive method of keeping his troops employed rather than simply sowing a field with grain or some other crop.

As Edward Gibbon suggests in his Decline and Fall, he may also have been seeking to win approval from those areas he allowed vines to be planted in, viticulture having strong connotations with civilisation in the Greco-Roman world.

Gibbon relates: “Probus exercised his legions in covering with rich vineyards the hills of Gaul and Pannonia, and two considerable spots are described which were entirely dug and planted by military labour.[2] One of these, known under the name of Mount Alma, was situated near Sirmium, the country where Probus was born, for which he ever retained a partial affection, and whose gratitude he endeavoured to secure, by converting into tillage a large and unhealthy tract of marshy ground.”

There is a mention in some sources of Probus authorising the planting of vines in Britain too but this is debated.

If Probus had been seeking to keep his soldiers’ minds occupied however his plan backfired. In the days of the Republic and early empire the army had been Rome’s great architect of public works, building its highways, digging its canals and bridging its rivers. Decades of political instability however had devolved ultimate power to the army and with it came falling standards of discipline, and a sense of entitlement.

Chafing at the long, hard work they considered beneath them, many grew resentful and so it was that outside his home city of Sirmium in September or October 282 AD, Probus met his end at the hands of his troops.

As well as the toil that embittered them so there were rumours Probus wished to reduce the size of the standing army – a sensible measure but unlikely to go down well with the men who thought their emperors owed them everything and held the ultimate sway in Roman politics.[3]

The exact circumstances surrounding Probus’s death are uncertain. Hugh Johnson in his History of Wine writes he was actually murdered in a vineyard but sadly it does not seem so clear cut.

The Byzantine historian, Joannes Zonaras, says that soldiers had proclaimed the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Carus, as emperor in Germania and other soldiers, once they heard the news, sensed an opportunity to be rid of the man who was humiliating them through such menial work.

Whatever the exact truth of it the soldiers that killed him are generally described as having been engaged on one of Probus’s projects. The most common consensus is that they were draining a marsh near the city and maybe the land was destined to be another vineyard afterwards. Probus is often described as being nearby or even overseeing them directly. It was a hot day, the ‘hottest day of summer’, wrote Gibbons, and the troops, fed-up with their lot and tired, downed tools and seized their swords. Probus fled to a nearby tower but was pursued, cornered and cut down.

Anyone who has laboured in a vineyard or field on a hot day might, perhaps, sympathise but it was a sad end for what was a wise, thoughtful and humane man.

Within two years his successor, Carus, also died; struck by lightning campaigning against the Parthians it is said. Diocletian acceded to the purple and with him the crisis of the third century came to a close.

Despite his unjust death, Probus can perhaps be justly recognised as an emperor who contributed to the revival and renewed stability of the Roman Empire. He was not as great as Caesar or Trajan but his military victories against the Germans restored the frontier, while his rebuilding work and vineyard scheme helped return the order and stability the empire so sorely needed and with it peace.

One might not be able to definitively link the origins of any one particular vineyard to Probus but his overturning of Domitian’s ban led to the renewed spread of viticulture in Europe, leading, eventually, to the creation of what are some of the most famous regions today. Our first really concrete evidence of large-scale, commercial winemaking in the Mosel and Burgundy for example date to the decades not long after Probus’ death and must be a direct consequence of his ending of Domitian’s ban.

It is perhaps too much to claim that Probus is the father of European viticulture – although he has supporters in this regard. On the other hand it might just be enough to say, in the words of one of his few ‘modern’ biographers[4], that: “His zeal for the culture of the vine is an instance of his regard for his subjects’ welfare….A high-souled hero, one of those devoted sons who ever responded to Rome’s call in such numbers, he deserved the gratitude of Rome and the remembrance of posterity.”

Read more Strange Tales: Bulgars, Poets and Emperors’ skulls


[1] Interestingly, a very old family of the Brandenburg nobility, the von Blumenthals, claim a line of descent to Florianus in a lively but fanciful myth that also claims Florianus’ sons survived his assassination and fled over the Alps and introduced viticulture to the north Germans.

[2] Alas, he does not name the second.

[3] ‘Half-blindly, with enthusiasm tempered by weakness, he trod the path of reaction, only to find the Senate a broken reed, and the army the real autocrat of all the world,’ as Richard Hopkins wrote in his history of the emperor Alexander Severus, another who tried to limit the military’s power and was murdered for it. (Hopkins, R; The life of Alexander Severus, 1907, p251).

[4] James H. E. Crees, The reign of the Emperor Probus, 1911, pp144-148

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