The Romans also brought new farming practices and crops. They introduced more productive grains and bread became a more important part of the British diet. Walnuts and sweet chestnuts were another Roman introduction. They also introduced a wider variety of fruit that was brought into cultivation rather than growing wild. This included apples (as opposed to crab apples), grapes, mulberries and cherries.(1) There was a period when the Romans prohibited the establishment of vineyards outside Italy, in order to safeguard its wine trade, but in the third century the emperor Probus granted permission to Britain, Spain and Gaul to re-establish them.
The Romans introduced new breeds of farm animals, such as the prized white cattle. Archaeological evidence suggests that guinea fowl, chickens and rabbits were probably introduced as farmyard animals. The rabbits, which they introduced, were a Spanish variety that would not have survived for long in the wild as the British winters were too cold. The Romans also brought new species of game into Britain including the brown hare and pheasants. Samian bowls, which were popular at the Romano-British dining table, often depicted scenes of dogs hunting hare or deer. Wild boar and oxen were native animals that were also hunted. Food finds from archaeological excavations confirm that a wide range of meats contributed to the diet of some Romano-British people.
However, the degree of difference, which the Romans made, to the diet as a whole, was dependant upon which social group you belonged to.
The tombstone, shown right, pictures a Romano-British lady from Chester, dining in typical Roman fashion. This was a seductive part of Roman culture and this lady was likely to have been a Romanised Briton who wanted to be remembered as a fashionable Roman. In life, she would have dined in the triclinium (dining room), which was usually furnished with a low table and surrounded on three sides by couches for the diners to recline on. The fourth side was left open for the slaves to bring food to the table. The décor of the dining rooms found, in Romano-British villas, was essentially like that found in other provinces of the Roman Empire. The mosaic shown top right, adorned the dining room of Chedworth Villa, in Gloucestershire.
Throughout the Roman Empire, banquets were elaborate affairs where numerous courses of food were served and wine was consumed to excess. 'Trimalchio's Feast' described in Petronius' novel 'Satyricon' is a fictional feast which epitomises this excess. According to the fictional character Trimalchio, it is acceptable to call for a slave with a chamber pot if your bladder's full, but vomiting (he seems to suggest) would occur outside the dining room. In the 'Moral Epistles' the author, Seneca, describes the etiquette observed by his guests whilst dining: When we recline at a banquet, one (slave) wipes up the spittle while another, situated beneath (the table), collects the leavings of the drunks.(3) Seneca also wrote They vomit so that they may eat and eat so that they may vomit
One of the dishes on offer at Trimalchio's Feast was roast whole wild boar with dates, suckled by piglets made of cake and stuffed with live thrushes! At the same feast Hors d'oeuvres included edible dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seeds. Roman cuisine also included wildfowl including swans, geese and duck which was sometimes boiled in a broth and served with boiled parsnips. Game was either roasted or boiled in seawater and served with highly flavoured sauces. Apicius who wrote a book on Sauces, recommended making a sweet, fruity sauce using Jericho dates, dried damsons or prunes.
The kitchen of a Romano-British country villa or its town counter-part would have included many foreign foods imported from the Roman Empire. Amphorae would have held imported wine, olive oil and garum. Garum was a fermented fish sauce that was used extensively in Roman recipes as described in Apicius'; book on Cooking. Other imports which significantly enhanced the taste of Romano-British food were Oriental spices such pepper, ginger and cinnamon.
... bruised beans, two modii, twenty chickens, a hundred apples, if you can find nice ones, a hundred or two hundred eggs, if they are for sale there at a fair price. ... 8 sextarii of fish-sauce ... a modius of olives ... To ... slave of Verecundus.
The Roman Army consumed a healthy combination of simple high-energy food. Bread was their staple food and grain production was increased throughout Britain to meet the demand from the army. Large 'beehive' bread-ovens were positioned all the way around the Legionary Fortress at Caerleon. A lead bread stamp, reading Century of Quintinius Aquila, found in the Fortress suggests that each Century of soldiers baked and consumed their own bread. Accounts from Vindolanda indicate that Roman soldiers also ate a lot of bacon. Every group of eight soldiers had a frying pan that folded away in their pack and enabled them to have a fry-up even on campaign.(4) They also ate porridge and stews would have included meat and vegetables. Soldiers snacking at the Fortress Baths in Caerleon certainly ate lots of chicken and bones discovered there had been boiled white. Wild boar was another favourite treat that the soldiers could have bought from the bathhouse vendors. Once the Roman occupation of the lands of the Silures was secure the soldiers would have been able to dine-out in the restaurants and towns that surrounded the fortress.
Article written by Nigel Cross with editorial assistance from Andrew Dalby, co-author of 'The Classical Cookbook'. Thanks also to Pertinax and other members of the UNRV Forum for their contribution.
© resourcesforhistory 2006
Some comments contributed by Andrew
Dalby and Pertinax
(1) "When listing new fruits, you might include cherries - interesting because it's the only case in which a Roman text (Pliny, Natural History) confirms that the Romans introduced it to Britain. In all other cases it's the archaeobotanists who say that particular plant species arrived under the Romans." Andrew Dalby
(2) "It can be emphasised that the pre-invasion infiltration of Roman goods (and latterly Roman traders) was an important part of acculturation to Roman products ie: the tribal elites 'buying into' quality goods even if profoundly anti-Roman in sentiment." Pertinax
(3) "I suspect that 'the leavings of the drunks' would rather be urine than vomit." Andrew Dalby (Andrew supported this view by referring to Trimalchio's comments summarised in the text above).
(4) "Rather a fried lunch than a fried breakfast for those troops. Romans ate little or nothing at breakfast time. And it's worth reminding people of the real point of bacon, which we nowadays tend to forget: fresh meat doesn't keep, and can't easily be supplied to troops on the march unless through stock-keeping country, but salt meat does keep, and a military column can easily take along a good supply of ham/bacon etc. So the bacon or ham was not a relish for breakfast, it was (often enough) the meat part of the main meal for those soldiers." Andrew Dalby
The Roman recipe for making garum involved mixing fish with aromatic herbs. It was salted and put in a vessel to lie in the sun. At this stage the mixture was pungent. The mixture was left to ferment for a month until it formed a liquid. Once the fermentation process was complete it was sieved and stored in an earthenware amphora. It remained pleasantly auromatic for its lifespan.
Roman Lady Dining
Courtesy 'Grosvenor Museum, Chester City Council'
Read Roman letters and accounts which detail the food consumed by the Roman garrison.
Spend your money at the Fortress Baths in Caerleon
Roman Cookery: Recipes and History (Cooking Through the Ages)
by Jane Margaret Renfrew
Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today
by Sally Grainger
Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens
by Mark Grant
Who Were the Romans (Starting Point History)
by Phil Roxbee Cox
I Wonder Why Romans Wore Togas and Other Questions About Ancient Rome
by Fiona MacDonald