How did the Romans feed their poor

Agriculture and Food in Ancient Rome

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Introduction

3 Construction of an agricultural farm

4 cultivation
4.1. Devices and procedures
4.2. working conditions

5 harvest

6 Trading in the marketplace

7 Recycling and storage of the products

8 customs

9 Food preparation
9.1. Cooking, baking, roasting and using dishes
9.2. Spices and sweets
9.3. Recipes
9.3.1. Origin and tradition
9.3.2.Some frequently prepared dishes
9.3.3 Health food and medicine

10 Health Effects of Diet

11 Roman meals related to Germanic food

12 Diet in Italy Today

13 Trial report

14 Appendix

15 List of some of the terms used in Latin

16 List of sources and references

17 Epilogue

1 Introduction

In Latin lessons we have been dealing with life in Roman antiquity since grade 6 - from school, slavery, country life and entertainment such as gladiator fights to the gods and Caesar's campaigns.

However, in view of Sunday dinner, it occurred to me that I knew very little about the eating habits of the Romans. What filled the stomachs of the rich at their lavish banquets? What did a citizen's plate look like on an ordinary working day? What did people prepare for feast days? Which foods did the Romans already know and how did they grow them?

My interest was piqued. I decided to include agriculture so that one could get a glimpse of the path of eating from growing, selling, utilizing, and preparing to end up on a family's dining table.

2 Introduction

In this thesis I would like to shed light on the connection between the former agriculture and food. The focus is on growing grain and processing it into bread.

After the basic things of agriculture, something should be read about the trade in food and its storage before going into table manners and the preparation of certain dishes. Afterwards I looked at Roman food for health aspects and finally compared it with the food of the Germanic peoples and today's Italians.

In connection with the Roman habits at the table, it is often claimed out of ignorance that the Romans filled their stomachs with huge amounts of meat in long banquets, only to vomit again later. This creates a false image of the lazy, voracious Roman with a big belly, who apparently has no decency at the table.

In the course of this work I will therefore get to the bottom of the following question:

Did the Romans mainly eat meat and was their diet too one-sided?

3. Construction of an agricultural farm

"If you have a garden and a library, you will not be missing anything."[1] Marcus Tullius Cicero was of this opinion. The Romans had a very special relationship with country life, because originally all Romans were gardeners. They owned a country estate in the country and lived only temporarily in the city. At the beginning of the Roman era, a simple life with everyday work in the field was considered to be the greatest good. Many later gave up their country homes and moved to the city. From then on, the farming families took care of the rest of the population in and around Rome. After the Second Punic War, wealthy businessmen had large estates built and run by slaves.[2]

Usual Roman estates now known as villa rustica, at that time, however, as fundus or praedium were designated were surrounded by walls or hedges. In addition to the sheds, warehouses and stables, the main building immediately caught the eye, as it was mostly two-story and larger. In its center there was an inner courtyard. Fountains and ponds adorned the area. Wealthy Romans did not have to do without bathhouses and underfloor heating. The fields were right next to the courtyard (see figure 1).[3]

4. Cultivation

4.1. Devices and procedures

Before the mechanization of agriculture, one had to be satisfied with human and animal muscle power. A plow loosened the soil for sowing, was usually pulled by an ox and was made of wood, later of bronze or iron. A short point attached to the plow frame and the yoke connected to the cattle tore furrows in the ground, but did not turn the ground over.[4] In some cases, however, small farmers could not afford animals such as oxen, donkeys or horses, which would have helped them with their work in the fields. They used plows that they had to push themselves (see fig. 2). In some regions, the soil was too stony for the use of such devices, so that other means had to be used.

Various hoes have been used, such as the ligo, a heavy pick with a long style, or that sarculum for weeding, which was mainly used when the plow was out of the question because the ground was too bumpy (see fig. 3). In addition, one already knew spades, shovels and pitchforks, which essentially do not differ from our present day. It was very versatile dolabra, a combination of an ax and a pickaxe that was used for digging, chopping or cutting. The falx, a sickle, was a particularly often used agricultural tool of which twelve different types are known. With these you could cut trees, vines and grass and mow down grain.[5]

Grains were most commonly planted, as many Romans rarely ate meat and preferred bread and pastries instead. Later the demand increased so much that it had to be covered by supplies from the provinces. Durum wheat was first and foremost popular, along with barley and emmer, a type of wheat that is no longer cultivated today, and spelled, which also grows on poor soil due to its modesty. Broad beans and millet also grew in the fields.

Fruit and vegetables were not only grown in the country in the gardens provided for this purpose, but also directly in the residential areas in the city. Most of the fruits were apples, figs, quinces and olives. The latter were very popular, but also made into cooking and lamp oil as well as creams. Pears, mulberries and grapevines were also popular. Cabbage, beets, lettuce, fennel, cucumber, beans and asparagus were also eaten with preference. Care was taken to alternate vegetables, stems and legumes to improve the nutritional content of the soil.

In the tree gardens of the farmers there have been twines since 200 BC. Vines on the trunks of the olive and fig trees. But this type of cultivation was soon out of date, and as the consumption of wine increased, dedicated vineyards were set up. Wealthy people therefore built luxurious villas on the coasts and also took over vineyards once planted by Greeks. This resulted in various cultivation areas whose grape juices were already of outstanding quality.

4.2. working conditions

Poets and writers of antiquity really raved about the romantic idyll that life in the country brought with it according to their ideas. Wealthy Romans also used their stay in the country to relax. But everyday farming life didn’t look so pleasant. While craftsmen and merchants usually couldn't complain about their income, field work brought only very little income. In addition to the hard work, they also had to be plagued by food shortages and famine, because the soil around the city was mostly poor and it was not uncommon for the rain to fall out. In addition, the peasants were exploited by the taxes of the imperial government, so that many of them had to sell all or part of their land. Out of this need, workers, former farmers, moved through the country and helped with the harvest for a low wage. Just like the tenant farmers, who had to pay a large part of the harvest to the owners of the land they used, they hardly had a better life than slaves who had to cultivate their owner's fields.[6]

5. Harvest

The grain was harvested by cutting off the stalks with a sickle. Later there was also an ear plucking machine that was driven by an ox, donkey or horse and worked with the help of a toothed bar (see fig. 4). If you wanted to use the straw, you cut it off just above the ground, if not, under the ears.[7] Immediately after the strenuous harvest, the grain had to be threshed. To do this, an ox pulled the threshing sledge, which was provided with stones at the bottom, over the grain. Another option was the threshing car. This had rollers fitted with metal teeth and a winnowing shovel. After the rolls had threshed part of the harvest, it was thrown into the air with the shovel. This caused the chaff to be carried away by the wind while the grain fell to the ground.

About every two years after a harvest, a field had to lie fallow because there was no fertilization and the soil did not contain enough nutrients.[8] The dung from the cattle could not be used for this because the herds customarily did not graze near the farms. However, the land that was not used at this time was also used as pastureland in some cases. This increased the soil quality considerably.

6. Trading in the marketplace

Business life in Rome took place mainly from the Forum to the Tiber, as there were large port facilities and warehouses here. The goods were either stored in the store or resold.

In the market, fruit, vegetable and fish dealers as well as some butchers loudly advertised their products. Fresh fish was usually very expensive because it went bad quickly and couldn't be preserved. For example, gourmets under the Romans paid a higher price for a fish than for a beef that was still alive.

Bakers did the sales in their stores. Innkeepers also invited guests into their rooms, and innkeepers sold mixing mugs with a warm mixture of wine and water.

Already in ancient times there were certain means of making a business popular, for example a shop was identified by a company sign with the business symbol on it. For example, the butcher's sign was decorated with a row of hams. The activity of the respective company was painted on the wall of some of the house walls. While you were walking through the city, you saw the master baker baking bread on a wall and immediately got an appetite for a fresh roll. Some shops also put their goods on the street, so that one also became aware of them in passing, as is still often the case today.

A game dealer was immediately recognized by the animals hanging upside down.

Initially, Rome's food supply was only a modest, small business. With the construction of the Via Latina, an approximately 218 km long road, in 334 BC. as well as the Via Appia to the south, the Via Aurelia and the Via Flamina to the north, more and more barter deals developed with Greece, with the mountain population in Italy and with the Etruscans.[9] The location on the Tiber was particularly practical: large merchant ships departed daily, mostly loaded with agricultural and commercial products and cattle, and Greek, and later also Egyptian and oriental goods arrived. In the summer, Roman ships set out for Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily and brought pomegranates, dates and spices to Rome in addition to skins, wood, implements and ivory.

7. Recovery and storage of the goods

The wine that was to be sold abroad was kept in amphorae. These were clay jugs which, thanks to their slim shape, could be stacked to save space and thus stowed in ship's bellies (see fig. 5). Olive oil and fish sauce were also stored this way. Food was often filled in jugs, which were sealed with clay and kept in caves or in the cellar because of the cool temperatures.[10]

To preserve food, you put it in vinegar, rarely in wine or honey. Another way of preserving wine was sulphurisation. The wine barrels were smoked with burning sulfur. The butchers made meat pies and sausages.

The grain was further processed by grinding it into flour in stone mills.[11] This laborious work was only done by slaves or poor Romans who absolutely needed money and could not get any other job. They went in a circle around the mill, pulling the drawbar with them, which set the upper conical stone in motion. As soon as it turned, the grain that was in the hollowed stone below was ground up (see fig. 6). Sometimes a donkey did the job. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, water wheel mills were already known, which essentially did not differ from the German mills that appeared around 1870.[12] With the flour of the different types of grain produced in this way, a wide variety of breads could be baked.


[1] Cicero, ad Familiares IX, letter IV. To Varro

[2] see Pötschke, Gärtner Pötschke calendar “Der Grüne Wink”, 2011, Pötschke Verlag, Kaarst

[3] see Franssen, J .: "Novaesium alias Neuss". URL:, as of December 2nd, 2011

[4] see Franssen, J .: "Novaesium alias Neuss". URL:, as of December 2nd, 2011

[5] see Weeber, K., Everyday Life in Ancient Rome. Das Landleben, 2000, Artemis & Winkler Verlag, Düsseldorf, pp. 9-12

[6] see Christ, K., Die Römer. An Introduction to Their History and Civilization, 1994, C.H. Beck Studium, Munich, pp. 117-119

[7] see Breuss, E .: "Museum Online". URL:, as of February 18, 2012

[8] see Blümchen, K., “Sneaker”. URL:, status 04.12.2011

[9] see Liermann, B., “”. URL:, as of December 9, 2011

[10] see Piel, M., “Planet Wissen”. URL: kuechen / index.jsp, as of December 9th, 2011

[11] See Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, 1996, Verlagsgruppe Weltbild GmbH, Stuttgart, p.56

[12] see Hürbin, W., Römisches Brot. Milling and baking recipes, 1994, Römermuseum Augst, Liestal, p.12, 22-23

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