Amphoras stamped “SES” or “SEST,” the trademark of the Sestius family, have been found throughout the western Mediterranean. The Sestii, a prominent Roman family, are frequently mentioned in ancient sources. The Roman orator Cicero (106–43 B.C.) wrote that his friend Publius Sestius had an estate at Cosa—probably the factory that supplied much of the Roman world with wine amphoras and their contents.
Publius Sestius’s son, Lucius Sestius, was a friend of the poet Horace. Lucius and Horace fought with Brutus, Julius Caesar’s assassin, at the Battle of Philippi (42 B.C.), where Brutus was defeated, and put to death, by Mark Antony. Lucius and Horace were proscribed (their property confiscated) for choosing the wrong side in the civil war. The Cosa amphora factory, which the Sestii had been operating for more than a century, was probably destroyed at this time as punishment for Lucius’s “treason.”
In 39 B.C. Lucius Sestius was granted amnesty and the factory at Cosa went back in business. Lucius also started a brick factory near Rome, becoming one of the first commercial manufacturers of fired bricks. Despite his republican feelings (he kept a likeness of Brutus in his home), he was appointed consul suffectus in 23 B.C. by Augustus.
It was to Lucius Sestius that Horace dedicated his fourth ode (below). A meditation on change—the quickening of life after a long winter, the unpredictability of death—the poem recalls Lucius’s own reversals of fortune. Horace also makes veiled references to the Sestius business. He calls Vulcan’s workshop an officina (line 8), a word that appears as “OFF” in pottery trademarks. In line 18, Horace mentions regna vini, “realms of wine,” probably referring to the wine industry of the Sestii. Horace included such phrases to honor his friend; but he hid them in the poem so as not to remind Augustus of the Sestius family’s traitorous history.
Harsh winter is breaking up, with pleasant change
of spring and the west wind,
And machines are drawing dry keels to the sea,
And livestock no longer like stables nor the plowman
And meadows are no longer white with glistening frost.
Now Venus of Cythera leads her choruses, while
the moon looks down,
And lovely Graces hand in hand with Nymphs
Shake the earth with alternating step, while glowing Vulcan
Visits the mighty workshops of the Cyclopes.
Now is the time to bind your shining head with green myrtle
Or with the flowers which the softened earth brings forth;
Now is the time to sacrifice in shady groves to Faunus,
Whether he wants a lamb or prefers a kid.
Pale Death knocks impartially at the huts of the poor
And the towers of the rich. O wealthy Sestius,
Life’s shortness forbids us to harbor long hopes.
Soon night will press upon you, and the mythic shades,
And the drab house of Pluto. When you go there,
You will not win realms of wine with a lucky throw,
Nor eye young Lycidas, whom all the youths now want,
And soon the girls will feel the warmth of love.
(Translated by Elizabeth Lyding Will)
For more information, see Elizabeth Lyding Will, “Defining the Regna Vini of the Sestii,” in Norma Goldman, ed., New Light from Ancient Cosa: Studies in Honor of Cleo Rickman Fitch (New York: Peter Lang, forthcoming).