Our brief history of casks continues in the latter days of the Roman Empire, where the use of casks was clearly widespread. The Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, describes how Julius Caesar found himself facing an army of Gauls at Uxellodenum, in what is now south-west France, using casks as primitive incendiary bombs. Cornered and desperate, the Gauls filled them with pitch, tallow and firewood and lit them before rolling them downhill at the Romans. Unfortunately for the Gauls, these burning casks were insufficient to deter the legionnaires and many of the battle-survivors had their hands cut off as a punishment for their diablerie.
In 238 CE the Roman Emperor Maximus was marching on Rome with an army to assert his emperorship but found his progress stymied by a swollen river on the far side of a town called Aquilea, near present day Udine in north-east Italy. His ingenious engineers managed to create a floating pontoon-bridge out of discarded wine casks, and Aquilea was reached. However, Aquilea’s defenses proved impervious to the assaults of Maximus’s men. Maximus foolishly berated them for this and, in a state of extreme hunger and vexation, they cut off his head and that of his son.
The use of amphorae petered out only very slowly around The Mediterranean. They were cheaper and simpler to make than wooden casks, and less vulnerable to drying out and compromising their contents in the scorching summers. But in his book, The Cooper and His Trade, Kenneth Kilby notes that, “By the time of The Crusades [starting in 1095] wooden casks were the standard means of transporting all manner of liquids and provisions, and the cooper was coming into his own as one of the foremost tradesmen, particularly in coastal and riverside towns.”
At this time the cask was still unknown in Africa and the new world but was just starting to appear in China and Japan, where straight-sided casks called ‘Taru’ with minimal tapering and rope handles were introduced for the ageing and transportation of rice-wine.
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