The Mythic Origin of a Famous Wine: The Ballad of Old Falernus

Mike Fontaine |

*****Update April 30, 2020: In honor of National Poetry Month, professional voice actor Laura Richcreek decided to read the translation below. Her rendition is gorgeous and it brings the story to life in new and arresting ways. Click here to listen.*****




 A bottle of Villa Matilde Falerno del Massico swimming in Licenza, summer 2016
A bottle of Villa Matilde Falerno del Massico swimming in Licenza, summer 2016

The most famous wine of the ancient world is Falernian. Horace celebrated it endlessly. But where does it come from? The Latin poet Silius Italicus (26–102 AD) interrupts his epic poem The Second Punic War to tell us.

Of course Silius doesn’t really have any idea about the origins of this prestigious wine, so he invents a charming epyllion, or ballad, to give it a fabled past. He pauses his account of Hannibal Barca’s invasion of Campania in the 3rd century BCE to tell us the story of Falernus, an elderly pauper living on Monte Massico many centuries before, during Rome’s legendary Golden Age.

I started the translation below in Rome, June 4–6, 2016, while enjoying more than a little Falerno del Massico. I returned to it on a pilgrimage in September 2017 to Villa Matilde winery (which produces an excellent Falerno del Massico), and revised the whole thing in January 2018. The meter is dactylic hexameter, the same as the original (Punica 7.157–211).

All you need to know is (1) that Bacchus (another name for Dionysus), the god in the story, is also called Iacchus, Liber, and Lyaeus, and (2) that Hannibal and his invading army are the subject of the first few sentences.

The Ballad of Old Falernus

He’s changing his course! He’s leaving the land of Daunus behind them,

And coming back, with his menacing face, to the coasts of Campania.

Here, though, after he’s entered the plowlands of fertile Falernum

(It’s a rich land, and one that has never lied to its farmers),

They’re setting fire, as enemies do, to its crop-bearing branches.


Already an elder, Falernus was plowing Mount Massicus’ ridges

Once, long ago, in that better age before weapons were on us.

Not yet did the grape-green tendril weave its shadows on bare fields,

Nor was it known how to sweeten a cup with the juice of Lyaeus.

People normally slaked their thirst with pure, flowing water.

Coincidence brought Lyaeus, while heading to the shores of Gibraltar

And, seeking respite, to Falernus’ home. Nor did He refuse to —

God upon high though He was — go on into that poor, lowly dwelling.

Gladly He entered through soot-stained doors and sat down at the kitchen

Table (a typical custom of that impoverished era).

Happy, His host had no idea that a god had come calling.

Like his fathers before him, he bustled, enthusiastically playing

Waiter, despite his old age, fetching dainties, such as apples in baskets

And then, from his garden, a vegetable feast, still shimmering withdewdrops.

Next came dessert, made of milk and of honeycombs, after the savory

Courses. Chastely (as he’d slaughtered no animals) he next brought to the table

Cereal grains, and from each dish he first picked out a portion

Honoring Vesta, and tossed them as offerings into the fire.

Pleased at the sight of this elderly diligence, you forbid, Iacchus,

Your liquors not to show up; and then suddenly (the sight was amazing!) —

Wooden wine cups began frothing and foaming with tendril-leaf juices!

He thanks the pauper for his hospitality, while in his cheap milk pail

Pure red wine began sloshing, while inside his oaken faux-krater,

Sweet-smelling clustering grapes began sweating their perfumy moisture.

“Here,” says Bacchus, “take these things. You’ve never seen them, but someday,

They’re destined to make the name of Falernus famed for winegrowing.



 Dionysus holding a kantharos
Dionysus holding a kantharos

They’re my gift,” said the god — for it’s obvious: clustering berries

Suddenly shadow His face, which is gleaming, and dappled with purply

Flush. His hair’s spilling over his neck, and his fingers are dangling

A kantharos, and now a vine, creeping down the stalk of his thyrsus

Entangles the dishes, festooning them all with vine-shoots of Nysa.



 Michelangelo, Bacchus
   Michelangelo, Bacchus

And you, Falernus! You couldn’t compete with the gladdening liquid.

Now that you’ve had a few drinks, we’re laughing, first at your stumbling,

Then at your speech, since it’s slurring around — do you have a concussion?

You’re trying to thank, as best you can, our Father Lyaeus;

But no one can understand your words; they’re gibberish, nonsense.

At long last your struggling eyelids are closed, given respite

By Sleep (Your constant companion, Lord Bacchus); but when, the next morning,

Phaethon’s horses’ hoofbeats scattered the dewdrops with sunlight,

Massicus mountain was totally covered with grape-bearing plowlands,

Preening in leaves and in many grape clusters, all gleaming in sunlight.

The mountain’s now covered in glory! And so, from that one day onward,

Fertile Tmolus, and the wine juice of Chios, though it tastes like ambrosia,

And killer Methymna — they’ve all stepped back, they all bow to Falernum.

And there you have it, dear reader: the legendary origins of Falernian wine. Next time you’re in Rome or its environs, be sure to lift a glass in honor of Silius and old Falernus.


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Mike Fontaine

Cornell University professor of classics; former LLiR professor; author of Funny Words in Plautine Comedy; Advisory Board member


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