The Staff of Life in Rome

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Two images of Demeter with torch and wheat." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1872 - 1887.
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Two images of Demeter with torch and wheat.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1872 – 1887.

“By the late seventh century BCE, Rome was emerging  as a city from a fusion of villages; by the first century CE, it had become the capital of the Roman Empire and the major population center of the ancient world. Draped over the famed “seven hills,” Rome was built around the basin of the Tiber, on land prone to waterlogging and subject to the intermittent flooding of the river. In antiquity, such low-altitude, warm, and well-watered sites were favored for city foundation; indeed, it was these very environmental conditions that made possible the intensive farming of staple crops—notably of grain, olives, and grapes among the Greco-Romans—on which the growth of urban populations was predicated….”

Deforestation, Mosquitoes, and Ancient Rome: Lessons for Today

Rome developed in an area suitable for agriculture, but there were limits. To start, the population of the city of Rome boomed, so agriculture moved elsewhere. How large the population was will continue to be debated. Some estimate that by the time of Augustus, it was about a million —

 [T]he main problem is how to reconcile the huge population< size implied by the recorded number of recipients of the grain dole with< the limited extent of residential areas within the city boundaries: a grand total of up to a million would imply extremely high – though perhaps not impossible – settlement density….
Ch. 13 Population and Demography, by Walter Scheidel

One million is a nice round figure for the turn of the millennia, to be taken with as much skepticism as many of Herodotus‘ reports of the numbers of thousands of unevenly matched battle formations.

Other limits, applying to the outlying regions as well as the city proper include environmental and physical factors, like hills/mountains, marsh, plains, soil composition including alkalinity vs acidity, weather, including temperature and rainfall, dry summers, wet winters, Tiber floods, and so on.

When we talk about ancient recipes, which is inherently an interesting topic for those who study history or participate in re-enactment groups, we make convenient assumptions about the ingredients. We assume that we can use our current market-supplied ingredients without significantly altering the dish.

We may not be aware that our bright orange carrots sometimes looked more like parsnips (or they were yellow or black) in antiquity, and so visually the dish we produce would have a different effect than if we used period domesticated or wild varieties. It would also provide less Vitamin A due to the missing carotene. Carrots played a relatively small role in the diet of an ancient Roman. Even the dietary mainstays were different. [For basics on Roman meals see  What Did the Romans Eat? and  Roman Meals.]

There is a reason bread and the cereal grains are called the staff of life and why hymns are written to dough-making deities:

From the  Hymn to Ninkasi
Ninkasi, Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud, Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
You are the one who handles the dough, [and] with a big shovel, Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics, Ninkasi, You are the one who handles the dough, [and] with a big shovel, Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.
You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven, Puts in order the piles of hulled grains, Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven, Puts in order the piles of hulled grains….
See  Ancient Brewing]

Today 8 main grains provide basic nutrition to the world’s population: wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn [as in maize — I mention this because you will find the term corn used for other grains, but if it’s the kind one normally eats on the cob during the summer, like tomatoes, it doesn’t belong in foodlists of the Mediterranean in antiquity], millet, sorghum, and rice. N. Jasny explains the Classical era Roman dependence on two specific types of grain. Even had the Romans known the new-world plant corn, corn’s temperature and moisture requirements would not have been met. Rye is winter hardy and a pretty tolerant plant, but Rome’s limestone soil was too alkaline for this grain’s acid-preference. Oats would have been suitable, but were not well known until late. Rice and sorghum required dedicated irrigation, which was not in place at the time. Millet had some trouble with Rome’s temperature, but was grown as a secondary crop. Barley and wheat were the dominant grains, and of these, the Romans preferred wheat. There were two types of wheat (Triticum), naked wheat (like the hard, pasta-suited durum or poulard) not good for bread and the less productive hulled, (einkorn (older than emmer), emmer (farro), and spelt). Wheat was more nutritious than faster-growing barley. (As an aside, ancient Roman wheat is currently believed to have been less damaging than modern varieties to people who should avoid gluten.) It also cost more than barley.

Regardless of such factors, the residents of Rome required food for survival. If it had to come from afar, it required transport (cheaper by sea than land) and storage in warehouses near the docks called horrea. By the time of the first emperor, Caesar Augustus, most of Rome lived on grain mainly shipped from north Africa and Egypt. Earlier, Sicily and Sardinia had supplied Rome (also, to a lesser extent, Spain); later, as the Empire grew to encompass grain-producing  provinces, elsewhere. Also earlier, there had been aediles to distribute grain in cases of emergency — like famine, but Augustus established the office of a permanent praefectus annonae, the prefect of the allotments, to handle the distributions. Lionel Casson estimates that in the time of Augustus, Rome annually consumed 60,000,000 modii of grain, one fifth of which was procured by the prefect and which was distributed on a 5 modii/month basis to 200,000 needy Roman families (Rickman says males, not families and adds that this is about 3,000 and 3,500 calories a day, and deficient in vitamins A (again), C, and D, even though it was the mainstay). Casson estimates this dole provided at most half of the families’ needs and since not everyone was eligible, there had to be other sources for grain. These were the grain merchants (mercatores frumentarii).

Main References

  •  The Role of the State in Rome’s Grain Trade   Lionel Casson   Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 36, The Seaborne Commerce of Ancient Rome: Studies in Archaeology and History (1980), pp. 21-33.
  •  The Grain Trade under the Roman Empire   G. E. Rickman   Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 36, The Seaborne Commerce of Ancient Rome: Studies in Archaeology and History (1980), pp. 261-275.
  •  Competition Among Grains in Classical Antiquity   N. Jasny   The American Historical Review, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Jul., 1942), pp. 747-764.
  •  Herodotus and His Descendants: Numbers in Ancient and Modern Narratives of Xerxes’ Campaign   Catherine Rubincam   Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 104, (2008), pp. 93-138.
  •  Deforestation, Mosquitoes, and Ancient Rome: Lessons for Today   Lara O’Sullivan, Andrew Jardine, Angus Cook, and Philip Weinstein   BioScience Vol. 58, No. 8 (September 2008), pp. 756-760.
  •  Ch. 13 Population and Demography, by Walter Scheidel; A Companion to Ancient History, edited by Andrew Erskine.  John Wiley & Sons. Nov 20, 2012.
  •  The Carrot as a Food in the Classical Era  Alfred C. Andrews  Classical Philology, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Jul., 1949), pp. 182-196.
  •   Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome  Gregory S. Aldrete  Johns Hopkins University Press: 2007

Cato De agricultura

Sow spelt preferably in soil that is chalky, or swampy, or red, or humid. Plant wheat in soil that is dry, free from weeds, and sunny. 35 Plant beans in strong soil which is protected from storms; vetch and fenugreek in places as clear of weeds as possible. Wheat and winter wheat should be sown on high, open ground, where the sun shines longest. Lentils should be planted in unfertile and reddish soil, free of weeds; 2 barley in new ground, or ground which does not need to lie fallow. Spring wheat should be planted in ground in which you cannot ripen the regular variety, or in ground which, because of its strength, does not need to lie fallow.

Pliny Natural History: some passages on grain:

LXXIII. A connected subject is the method of storing corn. Some people recommend building  elaborate granaries with brick walls a yard thick, and moreover filling them from above and not letting them admit draughts of air or have any windows; others say they should only have windows facing north-east or north, and that they should be built without lime, as lime is very injurious to corn: the recommendations made with regard to the dregs of olive-oil have been pointed out above. In other places, on the contrary, they build their granaries of wood and supported on pillars, preferring to let the air blow through them from all sides, and even from below. Others think the grain shrinks in bulk if laid on a floor entirely off the ground, and that if it lies under a tile roof it gets hot. Many moreover forbid turning over the grain to air it, as the weevil does not penetrate more than four inches down, and beyond that the grain is in no danger. Columella also advises a west wind when corn is harvested, at which I for my part am surprised, as generally it is a very dry wind. Some people tell us to hang up a toad by one of its longer legs at the threshold of the barn before carrying the corn into it. To us storing the corn at the proper time will seem most important, as if it is got in when insufficiently ripened and firm, or stored while hot, pests are certain to breed in it.

Pliny Book VIII


As the field is now prepared, we shall proceed to speak of the nature of the various kinds of grain; we must premise, however, that there are two principal classes of grain, the cereals,1 comprising wheat and barley, and the legumina, such as the bean and the chick-pea, for instance. The difference between these two classes is too well known to require any further description.


The cereals are divided again into the same number of varieties, according to the time of the year at which they are sown. The winter grains are those which are put in the ground about the setting of the Vergiliæ, 1 and there receive their nutriment throughout the winter, for instance, wheat,2 spelt, 3 and barley. 4 The summer grains are those which are sown in summer, before the rising of the Vergiliæ, 5 such as millet, 6 panic, 7 sesame, 8 horminum, 9 and irio, 10 in accordance, however, with the usage of Italy only; for in Greece and Asia all the grains are sown just after the setting of the Vergiliæ. There are some, again, that aræ sown at either season in Italy, and others at a third period, or, ill other words, in the spring. Some authors give the name of spring- grain to millet, panic, lentils, 11 chick-peas, 12 and alica, 13 while they call wheat, barely, beans, turnips, and rape, sementive or early sowing seeds. Certain species of wheat are only sown to make fodder for cattle, and are known by the name of “farrago,” 14 or mixed grain; the same, too, with the leguminous plants, the vetch, for instance. The lupine. 15 however, is grown in common as food for both cattle and men.

Perseus Project: The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.

Note: Recently, prehistoric oats and pestles have been in Facebook feeds I follow. I remembered that I had written about oats in the ancient world, but apparently in my transfer of articles from one blog system to another, I lost this one (Originally published October 14, 2014).


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