One of the early and somewhat unexpected effects of Brexit in the UK was the threatened “Marmageddon,” the shortage and subsequent price rise of the much-loved–and much-hate–Marmite. Yet even when supermarket stocks of Marmite were running low, a variety of other yeast extract spreads were available. The shortage related to one particular brand. As I fall into the category of those who hate Marmite, I am not well placed to comment on the suitability of the substitute spreads, but clearly brand loyalty is strong among Marmite consumers. The development of such commodity branding and consumer loyalty is often seen as a relatively modern phenomenon, reflecting the rise of consumerism in Western Capitalist economies; the Museum of Brands in London, for example, only displays artefacts dating from the Victorian era onwards.
Brands were, however, also a part of much earlier economies. In ancient Rome, for instance, consumers placed their trust in a number of brand markers, which signified reputation and quality, and very often carried a certain prestige. This was particularly the case with food and drink, especially wine. A wide range of wine of all qualities was available in Rome, from that drunk in the taverns and street side bars, to the expensive vintages served at the most lavish of elite dinner parties. It was at this upper end that brands mattered most. The famous Falernian wine, for example, was prized by connoisseurs. This wine was produced from grapes grown in the ager Falernus in Northern Campania, and for Pliny, it was second only to Caecuban among Italian wines. By the mid first century CE, “Falernian” was such a popular brand that it had become a byword for good wine. A graffito from the entrance to a Pompeian bar told customers “With a single coin you can drink here; if you pay two coins, you will drink better; if you pay four coins, you will drink Falernian wine.”
Most Roman wines were best served young, but Falernian was unusual in that it improved with age. Trimalchio, the boorish fictional freedman of Petronius’ novel Satyricon, claimed to be serving aged Falernian wine to his guests, bottled in the consulship of Opimius in 121 BCE, a year that was renowned for its excellent vintages. Yet although small amounts of this vintage survived to the mid- first century CE, when both Pliny and Petronius were writing, it was so old that it had the consistency of honey and a rough flavour (only really suitable for adding to young wine for flavouring). Older was not necessarily better, and Falernian was best drunk after being left to mature for just fifteen to twenty years, not for nearly two hundred years! Trimalchio’s wine may have been rare, and for that reason, an impressive novelty, but if it were genuine, it would have been undrinkable.
It was, however, almost certainly fake; Trimalchio was either deliberately trying to deceive his guests, or he himself had been cheated by a crafty salesman. In fact, the Roman physician Galen questioned quite how much Falernian wine was actually genuine. Corinthian bronze statues too–much sought after by collectors–were sometimes faked, and Pliny the Younger was at great pains to emphasise that a Corinthian bronze of an old man that he donated to the Temple of Jupiter was a genuine antique. The problem of fake brands appears to be age old.
Falernian wine was stored and transported in clay amphorae, often marked with the brand name and sometimes a variety of other details, such as the name of the producer, the date, the shipper, and the intended recipient. Examples of such labels have been found as far afield as Roman Britain, where the shoulder of an amphora was marked with red painted letters reading FAL LOLL, abbreviations indicating that the vessel once contained Falernian wine produced from the vineyard of one Lollius. Such painted markers were originally found on most amphorae, although the majority are no longer visible today. They enabled producers to brand their products quickly and effectively. Umbricius Scaurus, a producer of fish sauce at Pompeii, even made a permanent record of such branding in a mosaic on the floor of his home (see image). The name Umbricius Scaurus – or that of another member of the Scauri family – appears on numerous fish sauce containers found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and must have been a trusted marker of quality. People in Roman Campania may have been as loyal to Umbricius Scaurus’ range of fish sauces as fans of yeast extract in the U.K. are to Marmite.
Featured image credit: “Trajan’s Market” by Zello. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.