22nd October 2014
What did the Romans ever cook for us?
By Trevor Locke
If you really want to understand a community, look at the food it eats. What people eat, how they eat and where they eat will tell you a lot about their culture and style of life. In order to eat, people had to produce food and that involves farming. The methods that people used to organise farms (or any kind of agriculture) tells us a lot about the social and economic organisation of the community, as well as the kind of lifestyle lived by common people (as opposed to high status individuals and soldiers.) How they cooked, the utensils and pots they used give us real insights to what life was like in the past.
Pottery is one of the key indicators to dating in many archaeological digs. Interesting though the accounts of the Roman invasion may be, we must not loose site of the fact that several thousand men would have had to eat whilst marching or manning forts. When they were camped awaiting a battle, the armies still had to attend to the basic need for food and as we know, well-fed soldiers make better fighters than half-starving ones.
Food and farming in the Iron age
What did the Roman do for us? Well, for one thing they introduced many new varieties of fruit, vegetables and grain crops and some new animals, such as the rabbit. They gave us wine to drink. They gave us roads so that supplies could be moved more easily and quickly. The invading legions needed a constant supply of food and were very good at organising supply chains and depots. The way that food production was organised in Britain changed during the time that the Romans were here but before they arrived farming was already well established.
Farming in the Iron age
When the Romans invaded, in the first century, they already knew that Britain was good at farming. In the early years of the invasion, the armies were dependent on fresh local meat and vegetables. As the Romans established themselves here, and more and civilians came over from mainland Europe, they started to grow the kind of vegetables they were used to. The vegetables introduced to Britain included garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. In the early years of Roman occupation, however, we have to understand Iron age food and farming to appreciate what the conquering soldiers initially had to sustain them.
During the pre-Roman period, food production was organised into many small farmsteads. Life in what we now call England revolved around farming and agriculture. These small communities were able to produce enough for their own subsistence and some for trade and exchange in good years. Crops such as barley, rye, oats and Emmer wheat (a variety that was common in the ancient world) would have been grown. Sheep and cattle were kept as well as pigs that had been domesticated from wild boar. Cattle were used to pull ploughs and provided manure and hide. Horses were also kept and used to pull wagons and carts and domesticated dogs were used to help herd animals. Cows could also provide milk at the time of calving. Cattle were not eaten until they had served their life as working farm animals.
Iron age houses often had garden plots in which vegetables were grown. These dwelling houses were largely round in shape and had conical roofs made of thatch. Inside the round house a fire would have burnt continuously providing heat for cooking and warmth for the occupants. Sometimes food was cooked in a cauldron suspended over the fire. Pots were made from clay or sometimes traded if people visited from communities where pot making was a specialist craft. Bread was made from wheat and barley and baked in an oven. Barley would have been made into a kind of porridge. It could also be fermented to make beer. In addition to vegetables grown in the round house garden, people would have gathered wild berries, nuts and roots.
In communities near to the sea or fresh water lakes or rivers, fish would be caught to add to the diet. Occasionally wild birds might have been caught for food. People at this time would have obtained honey from the nests of bees and they also used the wax for a variety of purposes. Beeswax was used in bronze casting. The archaeological evidence suggests that the Iron Age countryside was well stocked with animals, the rivers provided a plentiful supply of fish and, if the weather was good, the farmsteads and gardens produced more than enough for the local community. This abundance of food allowed people to build houses and other structures, such as barrows and hill forts.
Being well fed allowed the development of rituals and ceremonies. Having a sufficient and reliable source of food allowed people to engage in religious activities and hone their hunting or building skills. Some individuals became specialists in the working of wood or metal and could do this only if there was enough surplus food to sustain them. The ability to produce surplus food was an essential prerequisite to large-scale construction and the development of specialist crafts. How food is grown, manufactured sold, prepared and consumed tells us a lot about the social organisation, economy and culture of any community of people. If we want to get inside the life of the iron ages, then we have to find out what people ate and drank. It was the Romans who introduced many new food stuffs into the British Isles.
The age of new food
The Romans brought many new herbs into Britain such rosemary, thyme, bay, basil, savoury and mint for cooking and some that were used in brewing or for medicinal purposes. Bear in mind however that native people who were poor and not Romanised would have seen comparatively little change to their eating habits – compared to the wealthier, more high-status individuals who would have mixed with the Romans and would have been invited to their dinner parties held at villas. The Romano-Britains would have eaten some of the new foodstuffs that had been introduced from Europe.
These were the people who would have drank imported wine. In the earlier part of the Roman period, most wine would have come from Spain but later on it was imported from France and the Moselle valley. There is evidence that vines were established in Britain, though we do not know for sure if they produced wine or if they did, in what quantities. We know that medieval monasteries had vines and were engaged in the production of wine. The Romans restricted the production of wine in this country until 277 when these restrictions were lifted. There is evidence of a villa vineyard at Boxmoor in Hertfordshire and grape pips have been found at a number of sites elsewhere. ‘Vines then were certainly grown in Britain, and there is no reason why wine should not have been produced from them’, writes Frere (1987.) Beer was also produced in Roman Britain and the size of some of the drinking vessels found in at some military sites suggests that it was consumed by the army. ‘This beer was priced at 4 denarii a pint in Diocletion’s price-edict’ (Frere, 1987.)
The Romans introduced many vegetables into Britain including garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. They also brought over new varieties of apples and better strains of wheat. Feeding the Roman armies required the supply of large amounts of food. Grain was an important commodity and bread was part of the staple diet of soldiers.
Cutlery, dishes and table manners
People ate with knives (the fork was not widely used in this country until much later on, in the 18th century.) Having said that, knives were not a normal part of Roman tableware. They preferred skewers for picking up small morsels or used spoons that had pointed handles. The Romans did have forks, they were used as cooking utensils rather than for eating. Spoons were widely used and a large collection of 4th century spoons were found in Thetford, with another group being found at Hoxne – in a hoard that also included pepper pots and spice containers. The Romans spiced their food with black pepper, coriander, poppy, celery, dill, summer savoury, mustard and fennel. They had recipe books, although the most famous of these did not arrive until after the fourth century. The Romans ate, at formal meals, lying on couches arranged on three sides of a square, the fourth side being open to allow slaves to serve dishes on to a low table in the middle. Villas had their own dining rooms.
Wealthy Romans organised elaborate banquets at which many courses of food were served. People were expected to dress correctly at dinner. A wide variety of foods were eaten in pre-Roman Britain but both farming and cooking would have remained much the same, after the first century, for the poorer peoples who had less access to Roman wealth. If we can accept that the people who lived in Britain prior to the coming of the Romans were Celts, then the process of Romanisation would have affected such people in different ways, according to geography and to social and economic status. High-status individuals would have become roundly Romanised, adopting the manners and dress of the culture into which they were drawn.
The common people, on the other hand, would have clung on to their culture and would have had less access to the opportunities offered by the Romano-British economy. Most of what we know about the process of Romanisation comes from the archaeological evidence rather than from written records, certainly for the first four centuries of Roman occupation. The Romans had an early influence on dining and cooking, as we can see from the variety of plates, dishes, bowls and cooking vessels which have been found and a lot of these were being made by local craftsmen (Frere, 1987.) The Britons had developed a taste for Roman food even before the Claudian invasion. Kitchen pots were being made here in the first century. The quantity of amphorae found around the country indicates that large quantities of wine and olive oil were being imported, suggesting that its consumption was not limited to the aristocracy.
In the countryside the peasants were using Roman coins to buy pots and some of them were working on farms established by the Romans. Some peasants began building rectangular houses to replace their traditional round houses. The Romans ate from clay vessels – bowls mainly – but the wealthy also had glass goblets and wine jugs. Pottery-making centres flourished in places where there was a supply of suitable clay. ‘The more utilitarian domestic vessels were produced in a great number of local potteries, both large and small, all over the lowland zone and father north where clay and fuel were available’ (Frere, 1987). As the Roman army did not normally make their own pottery, they awarded contracts to local pot-makers, particularly those in the Midlands. Kilns in certain regions were producing pottery on a large-scale for both the military and civilian markets, from the time of Hadrian onwards. Finds at digs have used shards from such pottery to date the layers in which they were found. Replicas of such vessels have been constructed in order to show archaeological students how to identify such fragments.
It is well known that the Romans were good at supplying water. Britain is always seen as being a wet country in whose countryside there is an abundance of water. In prehistoric times people tended to settle close to rivers and it is was no exception that Ratae (now called Leicester) was established on the banks of the river Soar. During the second century, the Romans built the famous baths in the centre of Ratae and these consumed considerable quantities of water which was supplied through leats – channels constructed and maintained to ensure was in constant supply. Running water was supplied to the baths and public lavatories. In Britain’s wet climate there was a plentiful supply of water through springs, streams and wells. People did not drink water as this would frequently be contaminated. Although water was required for cooking, washing and cleaning, people drank wine or beer, a practice that continued through to the middle ages. Wine was commonly mixed with water rather than being drunk ‘neat’.
The Romans also built canals such as the one we now call ‘Raw Dykes’, parts of which still exist here in Leicester. It was a channel that brought water into the town of Ratae and was constructed in the first century AD. It is not clear whether it was a canal or an aqueduct but it does seem to have played some part in bringing water into Ratae.
We now move on to looking at some of the food stuffs that would have been consumed in Britain between the Iron age and medieval times and during the Roman era.
The Roman menu
Milk was produced on farms and small-holdings. Cows had been domesticated for many centuries, as were goats. Those who kept milking cows also made butter, yogurt and cheese, as a way of preserving milk. Cows were rarely slaughtered for meat (they were primarily working animals) as they provided milk which was a valued foodstuff for making cheese or curds and whey. Cheese had been available in Roman times. Because milk could not be kept fresh, its production and distribution was localised. The production of butter, in some areas, was for use as a cosmetic rather than as a foodstuff.
Bread was made from flour that was milled either by wind or water power. In more ancient times grain was ground by hand using circular stones. Different qualities of bread were made, the coarser variety being consumed by poorer people and the finest white flour reserved for high-status individuals. White bread was made from wheat but only the wealthier farmers were able to grow the wheat need to make the finest quality of flour. Rye and barley were more commonly grown to make bread for the peasants, the farming people. If this was in short supply, beans, peas and acorns could be added to bulk it up.
It was common for small-holdings and farms to be situated outside of walled cities, such as Leicester, and the supply of food produced in the more remote rural areas depended on the quality of local roads and the speed with which perishable produce could be brought to the urban markets. Common vegetables included cabbage, root crops, some plants that grew wild in the countryside and some fungi, such as wild mushrooms. Potatoes did not arrive in Britain until after the discovery of the new world, several hundred years after the period being considered here. Beans and peas formed part of the staple diet of soldiers and peasants. In the towns, poorer people might well have bought the equivalent of ‘fast food’ and takeaways which were a feature of Roman life in urban areas. Pulses and root crops were common in the diets of the poorer classes. Peasants ate pottage – a kind of soup or stew made from oats or bran, to which beans or peas and other vegetables and herbs were sometimes added. In winter, turnips or parsnips would be added. Roman soldiers also ate a kind of porridge made from wheat, to which a variety of vegetables might have been added.
Apples would be in supply in season and were crushed and the juice was drunk or made into cider. There is evidence that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste. After the Roman occupation of Britain, many orchards were abandoned due to invasions by Jutes, Saxons and Danes. Fruit was often dried to increase its shelf life as a way of preserving fruit after its season had passed. Some dried fruit was imported from Europe, such as dates, figs and raisins. Most fruit was cooked, rather than eaten raw; people were discouraged from eating raw fruit and vegetables as these could carry pests and diseases.
Cattle were used to pull ploughs, carts or other movable objects. They would not be eaten until they died naturally or their useful working life had come to an end. Pigs could be killed and eaten for their meat. They were cheap because they lived in the woods and found their own food and, unlike cows, did not require to be fed with hay or straw. These were not domesticated pigs but wild boar. In some communities mutton would have been available. Meat was preserved by smoking it. In larger kitchens, joints of meat would have been hung in the chimney so that it would be smoked from the wood fire below. Horse meat would have been consumed in Roman times. Horses however were expensive animals to feed. The capture and slaughtering of animals for cookery and meat consumption depended heavily on the availability of wildlife. Birds, fresh water fish and four-legged wild animals (including Deer and Rabbits) formed a large part of the meat diet of upper-class people. Alongside wild animals, there was husbandry of deer and pigs in the forests. Only wealthy Romans would have eaten venison and wild boar. The solders ate things like chickens, eggs, apples and olives. Archaeologists have found records of food supplies being ordered for the army. Bread formed part of the staple diet of the Roman soldier. Ovens have been found when excavating forts. Salted bacon was something that soldiers could take with them when going on long marches. Butchered cattle and sheep bones were also found when excavating Roman forts.
It is believed that rabbits were introduced into Britain by the Romans. The remains of a two thousand year old rabbit were found at a dig in Norfolk. A mosaic was found at Chedworth in Gloucestershire that shows a man holding a hare and wearing a hooded cloak, typical of those worm by the native British. On the same site a stone carving shows a hunter with a dog and a stag. British hunting dogs were known to the Romans and prized by them. The Vindolanda Tablets give information about the kind of food eaten by Roman armies. We find references to bread, meat, wine and olive oil. The Romans believed in a well-fed army. Amphorae were imported to supply olive oil, wine and fish sauce (garum.) The Vindolanda soldiers also enjoyed beer. Beer was being brewed over here as the Romans became established. We know this from the archaeological evidence. The Vindolanda tablets, found in the excavations at Hadrians Wall, indicate that soldiers drank large quantities of beer. The bones of cows and sheep were found in the digs. They also needed pepper and salt and certainly the pepper would have been imported. Brown Samian pottery from France (then called Gaul) was also found, including bowls and cups, dishes and jars. Pottery was also made over here, including the black type that came from Dorset and fragments of this have been found in many parts of Britain. A wide variety of pottery fragments have been unearthed at Roman sites around Britain. Hunt cups have been found decorated with pictures of dogs chasing a hare. They had large cups for beer and small ones for wine. There is evidence that soldiers had to wear the right kind of dress when attending formal dinner parties.
Sausages were also available, particularly in the towns, where they were sold in the streets, either in shops or by street vendors. In the larger towns, many houses lacked facilities such as kitchens. Many of the urban inhabitants depended on food which they could buy at shops and bars which sold hot bread, pastries, pies and a product that resembled our modern day beefburger which was eaten with bread (Wilkinson, 2000.)
Game, birds and fish
The aristocracy – people of high status – would have dined on wild birds such as partridge or woodcock. Wild animals and game were hunted, as well a deer, and much of this atcivity was ritualised. Hawks were also used to hunt animals. Chickens have been domesticated since very early times and supplied eggs, alongside those collected from the nests of wildfowl. Records indicate that eggs were widely consumed. Pigeons and doves were domesticated and kept in cotes that were common in both monasteries and farms and sometimes in the larger halls (in the post-Roman period.) Both birds and their eggs were eaten in the middles ages. In settlements within reach of the sea, shell fish would have been eaten and it is thought that they were kept fresh, whilst being transported, by being placed in boxes containing water.
Inland, fish would be caught in rivers. Oyster shells have been found at numerous Roman sites. It has been suggested that live oysters were transported in tanks of water (Frere, 1987.) Excavations of villas, towns and forts reveals shells of oysters, whelks, cockles, mussels and limpets. Oyster shells were found at the excavations in Bath Lane in Leicester – which is not exactly close to the sea. Fish ponds were constructed where fish could be kept. These could be expensive to maintain. Eels were the most common fresh water fish that was consumed, although other wild fish could also be caught in rivers and lakes. Some smoked or salted fish, from seaside areas, and some shellfish, were sold in inland towns that had good connections to the coast. In Leicester, shellfish remains have been found that originated in the coasts of Essex.
Pots and utensils
From the bronze age right through to the middle ages, most cooking was done in pots made from clay. These were made in specific parts of the country and then distributed by traders. Pottery fragments, found in archaeological digs, help to date the layer being excavated. Most cooking was done over an open fire. Roasting large amounts of meat on a spit was found only in the kitchens of rich people. In towns, houses did not have kitchens; those that had fireplaces would have had some method of heating pots, placed near to the fire. People in towns would obtain food from a market; there was little or no land in the town or city for them to grow their own produce.
People whose houses had no cooking facilities were dependent on buying hot food from specialist shops. In larger Roman towns, many of the poorer people lived in apartment blocks in which there were no kitchens. They had to get their food from shops and street vendors – they were dependent on takeaways. In some of the wealthier houses bronze cooking pots would have been used. The cauldron was used as a cooking put since the Iron age. A group of iron cauldrons was found in the UK in 2004. They could have been used for boiling meat or for heating beer or mead to drink at feasts. They were in use from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age (1200 BC – 600 BC). Glazed earthenware was common for items such as jugs and jars. Vessels made of leather, waterproofed with pitch or beeswax were also used and a few examples have survived.
Spices, Herbs and Sauces
Roman cooking used Garum – a kind of fermented fish sauce that might have been imported from mainland Europe. Spices were brought over from Europe – such as pepper, cinnamon and dried ginger. The invading Romans were not all from Italy. Only the upper echelons of the army, high status civilians and high ranking offices would have come from Rome itself or from other parts of Italy. The Roman armies included people from France, Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the Roman Empire. The people of Roman Britain were a cosmopolitan lot. Like people today, these people would have yearned for the kind of food they were used to in their homelands. During the period of Roman occupation of Britain trade in spices developed. In barracks, soldiers cooked for themselves. This created a demand for spices and herbs and in some of the military bases the local people were allowed to come in and sell food and produce.
Foods that we eat today and when they came on to our tables
Almonds (Grown by the Romans and imported into England by them.)
Apples (The Romans introduced new, sweeter varieties into Britain)
Asparagus (Native to the Eastern Mediterranean, cultivated by the Romans, it did not become popular in Europe until the 16th century.)
Blackberries (Gathered from wild bushes since pre-historic times. Since ancient times they were used as a medicine)
Broad beans (flava) (Known to the Greeks and eaten in Europe since ancient times)
Cabbage (Grown by the Romans)
Celery (Used by the Romans but not used widely in Britain until the 16th century.)
Cherries (Introduced into Britain by the Romans.)
Chickpeas (Eaten by the Romans and by people throughout Europe)
Grapes (Used by the Romans to make wine which was imported into England from European vineyards, in large quantities, in Amphorae)
Hazelnuts (Wild nuts were gathered from Neolithic times, although they were native to Asia, they seemed to have spread across northern Europe)
Herbs (Plenty of wild plants grew in Britain and the Romans introduced some of their own that were not native species before they arrived)
Honey (Honey from wild hives would have been gathered in pre-historic times. In the middle ages monasteries had bee hives)
Leeks (Grown by the Romans who introduced them to England)
Lemons (Found in England from around 1494, they became popular in Europe and were used by the Romans)
Lentils (Eaten by the Romans)
Lettuce (Known since ancient times, it was eaten by the Romans)
Leeks (Eaten by the Romans)
Olives (Native to the Mediterranean, they were imported into England by the Romans and Olive oil would also have been imported in Amphorae)
Pears (Native to Europe, they were grown in the middles ages. Eaten by the Romans)
Plums (Grew wild in Europe and later cultivated by the Romans)
Raspberries (Cultivated by the Romans and grown in England from the middle ages)
Strawberries (A wild plant in Europe, used in Roman times as a medicine) Sugar (The Romans used sugar as a medicine)
Walnuts (First grown in Persia, they were cultivated by the Romans and spread throughout Europe, including Britain)
“A taste of history – 10,000 years of food in Britain” by Black.
“Overseas Trade” by H. S. Cobb
“English Trade” by L.F.Salzman “Agriculture and Prices, Vol 4. 1401-1582” by Thorold Rogers
“Eight recipes from Around the Roman Table – Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome” by Patrick Faas.
“Food and Cooking in Roman Britain: History and Recipes”, by Jane Renfrew, English Heritage, 1985
“Britannia – a history of Roman Britain (third edition), by Sheppard Frere, Routledge, 1987.
“What the Romans did for us”, by Philip Wilkinson, Boxtree, 2000.
History of Leicester Part 1 – The Romans in Leicester
Aethelflaed – queen of the Mercians
Find out more about the Story of Leicester