By William Harms
Photo courtesy of the University of California Press

Prof. Michael Dietler discovered his interest in wine sitting under the shade of plane trees at the cafés that line the broad Cours Mirabeau, the backbone of the Roman colonial city of Aix-en-Provence in southern France. It was the perfect place to launch an academic career that explores the growth of colonialism in ancient times — an economic development powered by wine.

He was in Aix-en-Provence as a graduate student, studying the Celts and other peoples who lived in France in pre-Roman times. “I grew to enjoy the wines of the Rhône valley in particular,” says Dietler, professor in anthropology, recalling the taste of full-bodied vintages such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Dietler supported his graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed his PhD in 1990, by selling wines at shops in the community and by writing a wine newsletter.

Wine has continued to be an important part of Dietler’s research at UChicago on a bigger topic — colonialism in ancient times and how that experience relates to more modern colonialism by Europeans in particular.

“What intrigued me about wine in France was that it was so much a part of the country’s culture. It is a part of the economy, the way of life, much as it became when the ancient Greeks and Etruscans came to southern France as colonists and traders,” says Dietler, who recently returned from his yearly summer fieldwork in the South of France. “The people they encountered weren’t interested in Greek or Etruscan architecture, their religion or anything else they had to offer — only in their wine.”

Wine whets traders’ appetites

The first taste of wine in the seventh century B.C. forever changed the region of Europe that became France. Locals quickly took a liking to the drink and incorporated it into their customs, Dietler says.

Although wine became important to the local economy, it was not obvious for merchants, who often found other goods were of little interest to indigenous people, Dietler writes in his new book, Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France. His research sheds new light not only on ancient consumption habits, but also on patterns of colonialism from ancient times through the period of European colonial expansion.

The merchants who first seduced the French with wine were Etruscans, who brought wine from Tuscany. Within a short time, Phocaean Greeks from Turkey arrived in southern France and founded the colony of Massalia, which eventually grew into the modern port of Marseilles. Looking for things to trade for grain, Massalians began to produce and sell their own wine, following the Etruscans’ example.

“It was stronger than the beer and mead the local people were drinking and had the additional advantage of being able to be stored and traded over long distances,” explains Dietler. “Greeks, Etruscans, and later Romans tended to drink their wine mixed with water, but the people living near Massalia drank it straight.”

Wine did not become a daily drink, however, and was reserved as part of feasting rituals and festivals. For centuries, wine remained an import item for indigenous peoples of the region, supplementing traditional beer and mead. Outside of Massalia, local wine production was extremely limited until after the Roman conquest in the second century B.C.

War leads to cultural transformation

Archaeologies of Colonialism also explores how such ancient colonial encounters led modern European powers to fashion their concept of a “civilizing mission.” The European powers envisioned themselves as the inheritors of Greek and Roman culture and contended that, like their purported ancestors, they were making a better world through their conquests.

“The Europeans imagined they were providing the people they colonized with the products of a superior civilization that they would naturally want,” Dietler says.

Dietler shows that narrative was true neither in ancient times, nor in the period of European expansion. Most of the indigenous peoples were happy living as they were at the time of contact, with interest in trade items from colonial agents limited to things that had some value within the cultural logic their own societies.

“Historical accounts of early colonial encounters in various parts of the world during the period of European expansion demonstrate that, to the general surprise of European merchants, their goods were not inherently irresistible to indigenous societies,” Dietler writes. Traders in China were amazed that the Chinese were not interested in exchanging their goods for the guns and gadgets they brought, he points out. In the case of ancient southern France, wine and drinking vessels made sense to local peoples, where most other exotic items did not.

It was violence, it turns out, that really made the difference in rapid, large-scale cultural transformation.

“Julius Caesar was able to expand Roman military colonization though Gaul through a war of conquest that lasted about eight years and during which perhaps a million Gauls were killed and another million taken prisoner and made into slaves,” Dietler says. Massalia, although it engaged in periodic violence with its neighbors, never had anything like that kind of power — nor did it have a comparable cultural influence.

Excavation helps reconstruct history

Trade, however, plays a role in entangling colonists and local peoples in complex webs of economic and political relations that can lead to other forms of colonialism if, as in the case of Massalia, the colonists hit on a product like wine that the locals really want.

It is in understanding trade and consumption that the work of an archaeologist is particularly important. Dietler’s excavation work has been especially concentrated at Lattes, an indigenous settlement that developed in the late sixth century B.C. as a significant port that had resident Etruscan merchants.

The vessels found in the excavated houses of these merchants are largely Etruscan ceramics. Some of the pots had graffiti in the Etruscan script. Several large rooms were filled with Etruscan amphorae — large shipping vessels that contained the wine traded in the region.

This evidence from the digs at Lattes and other sites, along with historical texts from the period, help Dietler reconstruct the period. And his ethnographic research in Africa and comparative research on alcohol, feasting, colonialism, and material culture have enabled him to develop a new theoretical framework to rewrite the popular narrative of what it all means.

“Even the apparently benign act of developing a taste for an alcoholic beverage or importing a staple grain can entangle whole societies in complex webs of economic dependencies, political alliances, and violence that can have far reaching ramifications for the transformation of culture, identity, and sovereignty,” he writes.

Originally published on August 22, 2011.