I Came, I Saw, I Ate:

Dining in the Roman Republic

and the Roman Empire

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Ancient Rome Notes

In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares things you didn’t know you didn’t know about the daily dining habits of the citizens of one of the ancient world’s greatest civilizations, Ancient Rome. We might think of the meals of ancient Rome being indulgent affairs filled with the finest delicacies from around the known world. And, while that may have been the case for some, it was certainly not the case for all. So, if you want to know what dinner time looked like to a Roman senator, a plebeian, a soldier, a gladiator or a slave, come and join us on this episode of Eat My Globe.

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TRANSCRIPT

I CAME, I SAW, I ATE: DINING IN THE ROMAN REPUBLIC AND THE ROMAN EMPIRE

 

 

SIMON:

So, April.

 

APRIL:

Yes, Simon.

 

SIMON:

Did you hear about the Roman legionnaire who went into a bar and held up two fingers?

 

He was ordering five beers.

 

[Laughter]

 

SYBIL:

[Laughter]

 

It’s so stupid.

 

APRIL:

I don’t get it.

 

SIMON:

It’s the Roman [indicates “V” with 2 fingers] for 5.

 

APRIL:

Oh.

 

SYBIL:

[Laughter]

 

It’s so, so stupid.

 

[Laughter]

 

SIMON:

[Laughter]

 

That’s a great joke.

 

APRIL:

Oh.

 

SIMON:

Ah.

 

APRIL:

[Laughter]

 

SIMON:

I knew. . . I knew I had a great joke in there somewhere.

 

 

INTRO MUSIC

 

SIMON:

Hi everybody, and welcome to a brand new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food. And, on today’s episode, we have set ourselves a major, you could say, “Herculean” task – get it? – as we’re going to attempt to look at what it was like to dine during the period of one of the greatest civilizations of all time. A civilization that, at its peak, lasted for over a thousand years and a civilization that not only conquered a good chunk of the known world but also had a unique hierarchy and customs that would define the social status of its inhabitants, and therefore how they ate.

 

However, if you have been listening to the podcast for a while, you will know that I am never afraid of a challenge and so, today, we are going to follow that Latin command to the disciplined Legions and “Cursu Mina” or “Attack” today’s episode of Eat My Globe on “Dining in The Roman Republic and The Roman Empire.”

 

BREAK MUSIC

 

SIMON:

Well, then. Where indeed to begin with such a gargantuan task? I think, in this case, it is worth beginning at the very start of the history of Rome. Now, of course, there have been hundreds, possibly thousands of books written on this subject. So, I don’t intend to go into a full history of this civilization, as there are far too many people who can do that far, far better than I can.

However, I do think it’s a useful starting point.

 

Rome’s origins are shrouded in myth, with the belief that the city was founded by Romulus and Remus – the twin sons of the god of war, Mars – and raised by a she-wolf after being abandoned to drown by an enemy king. From there, they grew to avenge themselves on the king and founded their own city. That city was named Rome, after Romulus, who became its first king after he killed his own twin. The city was ruled under a number of subsequent monarchs until 509 B.C.E., when after the overthrow of a particular king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus – what a great name – it became a republic. A term that originated from the Latin word, Res Publica or “Property of the People.”

 

By the way, do you think I should change my name to Simoninius Majumdarius Superbus? Because my wife always says I’m superb. Awwww. I think she put that in there.

 

APRIL:

[Laughter]

 

SIMON:

Anyway. Rome remained a republic for the next 450 years, until the fateful day when triumphant warrior and savvy politician, Julius Caesar, emerged successfully from a civil war in 45 B.C.E. and was declared Dictator for Life.

 

That’s what I should be called – Dictator for Life.

 

This ushered in the beginning of the Roman Empire, which began brightly under Augustus, who took the name Caesar. Many Roman Emperors and their successors later adopted the name, “Caesar,” which became synonymous with the phrase,

 

Quote

“prince of blood.”

End quote.

 

The western Roman empire collapsed in 476 B.C.E., which is really the end point for the purposes of this episode.

 

During this period, Rome grew from a small city built on seven hills adjacent to the Tiber river, to become one of the greatest civilizations in human history, and a civilization that not only had dominance over the known world during its day, but had a lasting impact on the world today – and particularly on the European world where its languages and culture linger from the period of its occupation.

 

Although, this is, admittedly, a frighteningly potted history of Rome, it does, as I say, give us a starting point.

 

Many cultures and ingredients influenced the ancient Roman table. This included some of the Roman’s relationships with its near neighbors – such as the Etruscans and the ancient Greeks – who had a profound impact on Roman culture and consequently, influenced not only the food they grew but also how Romans ate across their social strata. It also included other cultures who came under Roman expansion.

 

The Etruscans, an early civilization that preceded Rome and which lasted from around 800 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E., provided some of Rome’s earliest monarchs. Many scholars recognize the Etruscans as having a huge influence on the earliest development of Rome. In fact, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,

 

Quote

“The Etruscans formed the most powerful nation in pre-Roman Italy. They created the first great civilization on the peninsula, whose influence on the Romans as well as on present-day culture is increasingly recognized. Evidence suggests that it was the Etruscans who taught the Romans the alphabet and numerals, along with many elements of architecture, art, religion, and dress.”

End Quote.

 

The Etruscans were noted for their love of food, and particularly, banqueting, an event that, in their culture, signified pleasure as well as the equal status of Etruscan women, who attended these banquets while their contemporaries in ancient Greece could not. In these banquets, Etruscans shared a meal during which they reclined on one armed couches while eating food laid before them by slaves. They also enjoyed drinking parties, where they would sit on mats on the floor where they consumed wine.

 

The land of the Etruscans – now the area of Tuscany and parts of Lazio and Umbria in Italy – was extremely fertile and they were also proficient traders who were able to bring ingredients from all of their neighboring cultures. In an article on the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the author, Mark Cartwright, says,

 

Quote

“Consequently, for those who could afford such things, the banquet tables would have been piled high with all manner of exotic foodstuffs alongside home-grown staples. Meat included beef, lamb, pork, deer, boar, hare, and game birds. There was fish (especially tuna) and seafood aplenty, enormous rounds of sheep's cheese, olives, porridge, bread pancakes, vegetables, fruit, eggs, raisins and nuts. Flavours were enhanced by the addition of herbs, mint, honey, vinegar, pepper, and other spices. The Etruscans were great exporters of wine, too, so there would have been no shortage in that department either.”

End Quote.

 

Some of their Mediterranean neighbors disapproved of the indulgences of the Etruscans. Ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculous, says of the Etruscans,

 

Quote

“As they inhabit a land fertile in fruits of all kinds and cultivate it assiduously, they enjoy an abundance of agricultural produce which not only is sufficient for themselves but by its excess leads them to unbridled luxury and indolence. For twice a day they have tables sumptuously dressed and laid with everything that can contribute towards delicate living; they have coverings embroidered with flowers and are served wine in quantities of silver bowls, and they have at their call a considerable number of slaves.”

End Quote.

 

As well as the Etruscans, the ancient Greeks also had a profound impact on Rome, but not just at its beginnings, but through its history. The ancient Greeks influenced how Romans created buildings, created art and literature, informed how they were educated, and influenced not only what they ate – in terms of ingredients – but also how they prepared the food. It is also likely that the ancient Romans learned the practice of serving desserts from the ancient Greeks. Thank you, ancient Greeks!

 

So that’s a good beginning point, I think, at which to dive into how and what people ate in ancient Rome and how we go about searching for that information.

 

What we know about how the Romans ate comes from a number of different sources. The primary one, I would argue, is archaeology. This would be the search of sites of Roman antiquity that could offer up finds of such things like equipment, art, food residue and human waste for study. A major example being at the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, where complete sewers were preserved after the destruction of the cities by the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. These remains were full of evidence of what was eaten and discarded.

 

As well as archeology, there would also be Latin texts – both contemporary, or of a later date –which specialized on history, agriculture, and food. The major work, De re Coquinaria – attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius and contains around 500 recipes – is one of them.  Plus, there would be contemporary letters and theatrical satires of the day, such as in Petronius’ “Cena Trimalchionis” or “Trimalchio’s Dinner,” where he portrays a lavish banquet that may be an exaggeration but still allows us to get an insight on the basics of an ancient Roman meal. And, as well as all these sources, we could also look to works of art such as paintings for a view.

 

What these many sources tell us is that meals the Romans ate changed during history. It also gives us great evidence to what ingredients were going to be on the menu for a Roman daily diet.

These ingredients included, cereals – primarily barley and wheat – but also oats, rye and millet. As we shall see later, these were eaten in the form of porridge, or even more importantly, baked into bread.

 

Olives were found everywhere prepared as both fruits and oils. Fruits were plentiful and they were served both fresh and dried. These included apples, figs, grapes, pears, dates, cherries and peaches. The ancient Romans also ate carob, which is part of the pea family and that we now know today as a substitute for chocolate – it’s rather nasty stuff, if I’m allowed to add a comment.

 

There were also huge numbers of different vegetables, such as asparagus, turnips, and cabbages – which the ancient Greeks considered good for those ailing from a hangover, I am told – artichokes, onions, leeks and cucumbers as well as legumes, such as peas and beans. But it is, of course, worth noting, at this point, although garlic – nowadays considered to be so much a part of Italian cuisine – may have been mentioned in Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria, due to its availability via trade, it was then used sparingly by the ancient Romans. And, of course, the tomato, now ubiquitous in Italian cuisine, originated in Mesoamerica, and did not become popular in Europe until the late 19th century.

 

Cheese or Caseus was not only readily available in Rome, but it was a dish considered of high value, particularly those that were imported from abroad. I talk about this in more depth in the Eat My Globe episode on The History of Cheese in season 2 –  so go and check it out if you have not yet listened to it – but, by the time of the Roman period, cheese making was already a relatively mature form of food production.

 

In his work De Re Rustica or “On Agriculture” Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella gives not only a wide ranging overview of how to raise animals, another great tool in understanding how Romans farmed the food they needed to feed the population, but in Book VII, section 8, he tells us the best methods of making cheese, methods that are very similar to those that are in place today.

 

Likewise, in his work, Natural History, Pliny the Elder gives his opinion as to which cheeses are

 

Quote

“… most esteemed at Rome, where the various good things of all nations are to be judged of by comparison.”

End Quote.

 

The list includes cheeses from around what is now Italy, but had particular reverence for cheeses from what is now France. Things don’t change much, do they?

 

As for meats, these were expensive and tended to be cured, smoked, pickled, preserved, made into sausages or used sparingly. They also tended to be of the game variety, like boar, deer and rabbit. The farmed meats were available, and included pork, goat and mutton. Beef was available but as Harold Whetstone Johnston puts it in his book, The Private Life of The Romans,

 

Quote

“Beef had been eaten by the Romans since the earliest times, but its use was a mark of luxury until very late in the Empire. Under the Republic the ordinary citizen ate beef only on great occasions when he had offered a steer or cow to the gods in sacrifice.”

End Quote.

 

The ancient Romans also loved to eat birds, such as quail, grouse, duck, woodcocks, chickens, peacocks, thrushes and pheasants. Even stretching to birds that we might now not think of as a food source such as ostrich, blackbirds and flamingos. Other animals that we might consider on the odd side for the dinner table would also include dormice – apparently, an ancient Roman favorite and which Apicius includes in his cookbook for a recipe called “Stuffed Dormouse” – and giraffe. As well as being broiled or boiled from fresh, meats were also preserved by salting, drying, smoking and pickling.

 

These preservation methods were also used to satisfy the Romans’ particular passion for fish and seafood. As well of course of fish being a great source of fresh protein when stocks were available. They were particularly fond of fish such as sardines – which Apicius highlighted with its own section – and anchovies. They also enjoyed seafood and oysters; clams, mussels and scallops were often found on the dining table of ancient Roman households.

 

In a very different manner, fish too found its way into the majority of Roman food in the form of Garum, a fish sauce that was almost ubiquitous in Roman cuisine. This fish sauce could be made with whole small fish layered with salt until it fermented or a cheaper version which could be made with the entrails of fish. It was also known as Liquamen and the two words were used interchangeably, although there are some historians who believe that the two were different sauces. For a modern day equivalent of how they may have tasted, I would suggest trying either Worcestershire Sauce from Great Britain – which contains anchovies – or to the pungent fish sauces so prevalent in many Southeast Asian cuisines. Once produced, the Garum could be used on its own to add flavor to dishes or combined with olive oil, wine, vinegar and herbs to create the dips and sauces that were such a vital part of Roman cuisine.

 

And what about drink? After water and milk, all ancient Romans favored wine above all other beverages. And the Romans already had classifications for wines from many regions of Italy and across the Roman empire. Although, it should be noted that the wine they drank was nearly always considerably diluted with water and to not do so was considered a sign of barbarism.

 

For those too poor to drink even the most base of wines, there was Posca, made with vinegar or wine that had vinegared – that is, spoiled – and then watered down and mixed with herbs and spices. It was a drink popular with the Plebian classes and also with the soldiers of the legion. With hindsight, it was actually a potentially healthy drink filled with Vitamin C and anti-bacterial properties because of the vinegar.

 

And, I can hear some of you ask what about beer? Well, the Romans did brew beer, which they called, Cerevisia. However, its popularity lagged far behind that of wine, and beer was often considered a barbarian beverage. Oh, and as an added one of those “facts you can bore your friends with at dinner parties” that we like to give you here on Eat My Globe, the term, “Barbarian,” comes from the onomatopoeic ancient Greek word, “Bárbaros,” which described the unintelligible sound of foreigners – that is, the language of non-Greek speakers. To Greeks, foreigners sounded like they were saying “Bar Bar Bar Bar.” It was the Romans – literally, “Barbarians” themselves under the Greek definition of the word, i.e., referring to non-Greek speaking people – who changed its meaning to refer to all those who lacked Roman and Greek traditions. There you go.

 

Where, I hear you ask, did the Romans go to buy all of this food? Well, by the late 1st century B.C.E., over one million people lived in the city of Rome – a number of people that was not to be matched again until the city of London reached that point in 1800. Wow.

 

To supply goods – be it food or otherwise – to that many people, Rome developed into a city of retailers. The retailers, inevitably, tended to be found around temples, bath houses and the Forum. They ranged in size from people who hawked their wares on their persons as they walked around, to stalls with simple tables displaying various items, to sellers at luxury markets, known as the Macellum, where items such as a large whole fish could be sold to the wealthy at a great price. The Macellum of Pompeii is an example of the scale and grandeur of this market; it included paintings that have been argued to have had the purpose of providing guidance on how people should behave properly. If you were one of the lower classes, you would have to fight your way around the busy streets to do your food shopping. However, if you were one of the wealthy of Roman society, you may visit the luxurious Macellum, or you may have vendors of meat, fish and vegetables pay you a visit to your house with their daily offerings, so you didn’t even have to go to the markets at all.

 

In the records we have, we find that the ancient Romans generally ate about three meals a day. The first snack of the day, for many, was known as Ientaculum, meaning “a bit while fasting.” We talked about this first meal of the day on our episode on The History of Breakfast Cereals, so, again, make sure you check that out. As a recap, however, Ientaculum was a lighter meal that was taken early in the day – just after the sun had broken – and consisted of bread which was dipped in wine. It might also have included some cheese and fruit and maybe some meat. This tended to be a “snack” eaten by those who were at the beginning of a long day’s labor.

 

In the early republic, the next meal was the Cena. Initially, this was a meal taken at around lunchtime. Over the history of the republic, this meal moved around from being taken at lunchtime, to one that was taken at night.

 

Finally, there was an evening meal known as Vesperna, another light meal taken because the Cena was so early in the day. Vesperna began to disappear from use as Cena moved from its lunchtime slot to become an evening meal.

 

Cena was replaced at the midday meal by another meal known as Prandium. This was another light repast that consisted of bread, fish, eggs, vegetables and maybe even some leftover cold meats from the night before.

 

The transplanted meal and time of Cena became a form of entertaining for the ancient Roman household and its lavishness depended on one’s financial means. Towards the end of the Roman Republic, and the beginning of Rome’s Imperial phase, Cena had become a lavish three course meal. It would begin with the Gustatio, derived from the Latin word for “to taste,” from which today we get the word, “Gustation.” This would be the equivalent of a modern day appetizer, and would include dishes such as olives, eggs or fish – and sometimes even the aforementioned dormice. It would be finished with a glass of Mulsum, a Roman wine with water and honey.

 

Following the appetizer, the wealthier Romans would have moved onto Mensae Primae or the main course of the meal. It often comprised of more than one dish or Fecula that ended with the star attraction: the Caput Cenae. The star dish that could be whole roasted pigs or, if the family were particularly wealthy and wanted to show off a bit, dishes such as roasted ostrich or peacocks.

 

The final course, the Mensae Secundae, would have been the equivalent of our dessert. However, while the Romans knew of cane sugar, they used honey for sweetening. And, although they did make butter, it was considered more of a poultice for wounds than it was as an ingredient, so their end of meal dishes might have been quite different from what we might eat at the end of a meal. This might include more seafood, fruit platters, and nuts, and even a form of cheesecake known as Savillum for which there’s a recipe from around 160 B.C.E. contained in the earliest book of Roman prose, known as De Agri Cultura, by politician Cato the Elder,

 

Quote

“Recipe for the savillum: Take ½ pound of flour, 2½ pounds of cheese, and mix together as for the libum; add ¼ pound of honey and 1 egg. Grease an earthenware dish with oil. When you have mixed thoroughly, pour into a dish and cover with a crock. See that you bake the centre thoroughly, for it is deepest there. When it is done, remove the dish, cover with honey, sprinkle with poppy-seed, place back under the crock for a while, then remove from the fire. Serve in the dish, with a spoon.”

End Quote.

 

Doesn’t that sound good?

 

[Deeply inhales.]

 

If you try this ancient recipe, again, always let me know how it turns out.

 

In any case, eating savillum seems like quite a way to end a meal that would have been more than satisfactory to wealthy Romans, particularly when added to the glasses of wine that would have inevitably passed their lips during the evening.

 

Wealthy hosts and guests at some lavish meals would have dined in a Triclinium or dining room, while reclining on three large couches set at a “U” shape around dining tables. The fourth side was left open, which I assume would allow servants access to the tables onto which the food would have been placed. It’s a practice which recent study shows reduces the pressure of overeating on the lower part of the stomach or the antrum. So, hmmm… next time I visit my in-laws, who feed me a lot of food, perhaps I should try reclining on a couch.

 

Interestingly enough, although their ancient Greek predecessors also reclined, their meals were exclusively male-only events. However, in ancient Rome, women were also allowed to join the gatherings and enjoy the meal, despite the protestations of some of the older diners.

 

But, if that was the way that the rich would eat, what about those classes who were lower down the social class structure? Although there was more sophistication to the class structure than I might have time to discuss here, the Roman system basically was initially divided between the upper class – or the Patricians – and the working class – or the Plebeians.

 

But by 445 B.C.E., ancient Rome’s social structure became divided into five classes: The Patricians – who were the aristocrats that included the senators; the Equites – who were the business people who owned horses; the Plebeians – who were working class Roman citizens that included architects, teachers, artists, farmers and others; the Freedmen – who were former slaves and granted citizenship with limited rights and who usually continued to work for their former masters but with pay; and finally, the Slaves – who had no legal rights and were entirely dependent upon their masters. Just about every aspect of life was impacted by this class structure, and this can be seen particularly in the way they ate and what they ate.

 

As I mentioned earlier, the poorer Romans would not have had easy access to the ingredients that were available to the more wealthy Romans, and if they did, they would not have been able to afford them. But to prevent them from rioting, the Emperors tended to provide them with free grain and food at subsidized prices.

 

Grains or Frumentum – a term given to the wide range of grains available – were an essential part of the Roman diet, and consisted mainly of barley, oats, rye and wheat. For the poorer classes, this daily meal would have probably taken the form of a porridge, and a form of rough bread. The porridge, also known as Puls, would have been made of millet and may have been mixed with a few vegetables.

 

Bread was a staple of Rome. And, given that Rome imported most of its grain, and was often subject to bad harvests and occasional civil wars, the failure to supply adequate amounts of grain and bread was a source of potential civil unrest. Until the second century B.C.E., the establishment of Rome dealt with such shortages. However, in 123 B.C.E., Roman Tribune Gaius Gracchus established a state subsidized grain law known as the Lex Frumentaria that would supply grain to each Roman citizen – such as the Plebeians – at a reduced price.

 

Later, in 58 B.C.E., Tribune Clodius made the allotment free thereby giving every Roman citizen the right to receive grain. This form of government “bribery” became a popular mainstay that by 100 C.E., it was being satirized by writers such as Juvenal who, in his work, Satire, Book X, declared it as,

 

Quote

“Panem et Circenses.”

End Quote.

 

Or, as we might know it today, “Bread and Circuses.” That is the notion that in order to keep the general populace in order and to prevent them from rioting, all one needed to do was to make sure they do not go hungry with the provision of free grain and that they are entertained with the provision of free entertainment like chariot races and gladiators.

 

It’s also worth noting that, while lower class Romans might purchase food that they could prepare in their dwelling, many did not have the space for cooking facilities. This lack of cooking facilities saw the development of what are considered to be the first of what might be called, “Thermopolia,” or what we could consider “fast food” establishments, to feed Romans with food that could be eaten on the run. At the Thermopolia, L-shaped counters would be set up containing deep stone bowls or Dolia, which contained the dishes of the day. These included cheese baked with honey, mulled wine, lentils, nuts, salty fish and breads. Some of these restaurants did have small seating areas, but traditionally the food was eaten at the counter, or on the go. The closest equivalent today might be your traditional Spanish tapas bar. It sounds like it could have been a fun tapas bar – except for the part where they were known for attracting a very rough crowd.

 

I think that there are some other elements of Roman society that are definitely worthy of examination too.

 

The legendary Roman Army underwent several developments before it became the well drilled killing machine we all might be familiar with from movies such as, “Gladiator.” Initially, during the Roman Republic, it would have operated as a militia, where Roman citizens were expected to leave their homes and fight when called upon to protect Rome. When it became an Empire, service became voluntary and their term of service required a minimum of 20 years.

 

When Emperor Augustus came to power, depending on the source we look at, the Roman army consisted of about 28 to 60 legions or about 134,400 men to about 288,000 men. They would likely have been stationed in Roman territories, and were either off fighting, training, building infrastructures and engaging in other military activities.

 

To keep these legions fed would have been an immense task both in terms of growing the food and its distribution to the soldiers and camps. It was the Romans’ success at these logistics that was a key part of their military dominance for hundreds of years. The development of roads and the building of bridges was a vital part of this strategy, plus the unrivalled building of naval supply vessels was also essential in getting food military rations in campaigns in far flung places. For the supply of armies in the field, Rome was the first to develop the notion of soldiers carrying packs of rations or Impedimenta. The Impedimenta would have included the hardtack biscuit called Bucellatum. The Roman soldier would also have received supplies from the home front, called the Commeatus.

 

The Roman soldier’s rations were split into two distinct parts. The Fruentum – the word that we’ve seen before referring to their rations of grain; and the Cibaria, which covered meat and all other rations. Having meat in their rations meant that the soldiers ate well compared to the lower classes of Rome, who could barely afford it. Indeed, the Roman soldiers ate the equivalent of around 3,000 calories per person per day. Primarily, this would have been in the form of grains such as wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye. And, recent archaeological analysis of bones excavated at British and German military sites suggests that they ate far more meat than their civilian cousins.

 

While some of the meats we might expect to be on there – such as venison, pork, mutton and hare  – there were also some others on there that suggest that they killed and ate what they could find as they marched – such as beavers, badgers, foxes, wolves and voles. Nice. At these sites, they also found broken beef bones – indicating removal of marrow bones for soup – and also, portable cheese making kits. All of which goes to indicate that while the food of Roman soldiers was meant primarily to fuel their bodies rather than to provide culinary delight, it still made sure they were fed enough and fed regularly.

 

The slaves of Rome, by contrast, did not fare quite so well. The numbers of slaves in Rome and its territories varied, but it was essential to the economic system of ancient Rome, and in the cities itself the slave numbers are said to have been about 30% of the entire population. While some of the slaves in wealthier homes and in higher ranking positions would have fared better, much of the slaves’ diet would have been similar to the poorest Romans and enough to keep them functioning if little else. This would include grain, olives that have fallen from the trees, and maybe some salt fish.

 

Some slaves however fared better, and these were the gladiators. The movie Gladiator gave us a very definite perception of these slaves and others, who battled, often to the death, to entertain Romans on days of feasts and circuses. In reality, the gladiators drew their ranks from slaves, condemned offenders, captured prisoners of war and some volunteers who wanted fame and glory. They were highly prized and given access to great medical care and plentiful food.

 

Moreover, far from the tall, oiled men rippling with muscles that we have come to expect from movie depictions, their upper bodies were in fact covered in a layer of subcutaneous fat. This was a result of the fact that their diet was one that was very heavy in carbohydrates and very low in animal proteins.

 

We know this because a study by academics from the Medical University of Vienna, Austria and the University of Bern, Switzerland. They studied a find of bones from a burial place for, shall we say, the losers, in gladiatorial battles, located in what is now Ephesus in Turkey, it contained the remnants of over 60 gladiators. What the academics found was fascinating. The diet the bones revealed was not only carb heavy, primarily from legumes, but almost entirely meat free. In Book 18, Chapter 14 of his work called, Natural History, Pliny the Elder refers to gladiators as Hordearii, which roughly translates as “barley men.”

 

Also, the level of strontium and calcium within the bones showed that the gladiators also drank a tonic made from plant ash, which was believed to keep their bones strong and to help them recover from their training and, of course, their fights.

 

This low protein, high carb diet was no accident, the extra fat being a desirable quality to protect the nerve endings of the body and to allow the gladiators to continue battling despite cuts to the flesh.

It’s estimated that the average gladiator had a one in nine chance of surviving every time they went out to fight. Not odds that I would have liked, but at least before, they would have been well fed.

 

Now, while I might not have made a very good gladiator, I’m a decent cook. So this seems like a perfect point to go and grab my copy of Marcus Gavius Apicius’s book, De Re Coquinaria, and go and make something distinctly Roman.

 

As I’m sure one Roman must have said at one point, “Veni, Vidi, Edi.”

 

I came, I saw, I ate.

 

See you next week folks.

 

OUTRO MUSIC

 

SIMON:

Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.

 

And, if you like what you hear, please don’t forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends and give us a good rating on your favorite podcast provider.

 

Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.

 

CREDITS

The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions” . . .

 

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. . . and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the  research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.

Published Date: October 5, 2020

For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.

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© 2018-2020 by It's Not Much But It's Ours

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