Discover how the rich, the poor and even the Roman Army ate
Foods introduced by the Romans to Britain
The Roman invaders contributed to the long-term improvement of the British diet by introducing proper vegetables to the island. The list of vegetables introduced to Britain includes garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. The leeks' importance as a part of the staple diet of the British population is illustrated by its later adoption as the national emblem of Wales. Amongst the many herbs that they introduced to Britain were rosemary, thyme, bay, basil and savoury mint. They also introduced herbs that were used in brewing and for medicinal purposes.
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.
Roman Food - The Rich
This tombstone shows how this Romano-British lady wanted to be remembered; as an important person who could to afford to dine in luxury.
DM, short for dis manibus – ‘To the spirits of the departed’.
Roman Lady Dining
Image courtesy © 'Grosvenor Museum, Chester City Council'
There is archaeological evidence that British chiefs and warriors drank imported wine, even in remote or anti-Roman tribal areas. The consumption of Roman wine and other Roman products had actually become popular, amongst the British elite in Southern and Central Britain, even before the Roman invasion. This familiarity with Roman produce and traders was a factor that greatly contributed to the rapid Romanisation of the elite, following the Claudian invasion.(2) One way for the new Romano-British elite to demonstrate their high status was to invite their aristocratic neighbours to dine lavishly on food imported from around the Roman Empire.
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.
Roman Food - The Poor
This mosaic, from Chedworth Villa, Gloucestershire, illustrates how the British and Roman cultures integrated. The character is depicted as Winter wearing a typically British hooded cloak (birrus) and carrying a brown hare introduced to Britain by the Romans. The bare tree is a symbol of Winter
Winter - holding a brown hare
© The National Trust
The Celtic peasantry, who formed the mass of the population, would have seen the least change to their diet. They would not have dined on fine Roman cuisine but even they did benefit from the introduction of some of the new vegetables and herbs. They would have added these to the stews and broths that they cooked above the fire, in the traditional Celtic manner. Some natives were re-settled into new Roman towns, such as Caerwent, and amongst them was a new class of urban poor. Some of those who lived in town apartments would have been without proper cooking facilities. Instead of cooking for themselves they would have eaten, the ancient equivalent of 'fast food', at Roman taverns and snack bars. This included beer and probably kebabs!
Roman Food - The Roman Army
A tablet, found at Vindolanda, contained a 'shopping list'; of the food that was probably intended to feed the garrison:
... 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 Vindolanda tablets provide a good source of information about the dietary requirements of the Roman Army stationed at Hadrian's Wall. It is especially informative about the food ordered for the Commanding Officer who like other rich Romans enjoyed meats such as venison and wild Boar.
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