Food and cooking in Roman times


22nd October 2014

Food, cooking and farming in Roman occupied Britain

Today we publish our article on food in the time of Roman Britain. This accompanies the main article on the history of Leicester (part 2) on the Romans in Leicester.

Knowing what people ate, how they cooked and how they distributed food is important to our understanding of people in the past. Food in Roman Britain is an interesting topic because it saw substantial changes in what people ate and how food was produced.  England always was a good place for growing crops and for farming animals.  The natural landscape was rich in wild animals and native fauna offered many varieties of plants, herbs, fruit and berries. The creation of earthworks, stone monuments (including Stone Henge) and the development of religion and ritual was made possible by the abundance of food.

In the stone age, bronze and iron ages, food was in such plentiful supply that communities could devote labour to building and construction rather than solely to agriculture. A surplus of food is essential if large numbers of people are to be fed when engaging in building work. People had the time to develop rituals to do with the burial of the dead and the worship of their ancestors, as well as studying the stars, which would not have been possible if everyone spent all day engaged in subsistence farming.

The Roman empire saw Britain as a wild and untamed country but one that was rich in natural resources and that enjoyed a plentiful supply of food. Many Romans saw Britain as being the edge of the known world and myths surrounded it. This did not stop them from invading England and desiring it as part of their growing empire in the first and second centuries, AD.

We can work out what people in the early town of Leicester (then called Ratae) would have eaten from the evidence of food being supplied and consumed in the country as a whole. When 40,000 Roman soldiers landed here in 43 AD they would have brought food supplies with them. As they conquered the regions of England, they gradually organised their own systems of food supply.  They began to import food and wine from mainland Europe and, as they developed their own farms (or colonised those already established by the native communities),  they introduced new plants and animals to supply the tables of the occupying armies and the growing population of European civilians.

A lot of evidence from archaeology gives us a fairly detailed picture of what people ate, how food was produced and supplied and how food distribution was organised, over four centuries of Roman domination of Britain. This area of study gives us a lot of valuable insights into the way of life of both the aristocracy and of the common people in both military and civilian settings.

See also:

The history of Leicester part 2 – The Romans in Leicester

Food and cooking in Roman times

University of Leicester Exotic Food in Roman Leicester (requires PDF reader.)