Friday, 30 October 2020

#AncientRoman Army Diet - Western Empire #Frontier

Roman Army diet at forts along what became the Hadrian’s Wall area.

I have a tendency to scribble on sheets of A4 paper as I do research, or if I need to clarify some particular aspect when I'm creating my novels. It's a really bad habit because I end up with loads of bits of paper which have to be cleared out. What follows are from research scribbles all bundled together. 

Vindolanda Fort(s), and other excavated Roman fort sites have provided some evidence for what may have been included in the general diet of the Roman soldier who served on the western frontier. What is more difficult to establish is close dating, so finds of food consumption tend to be related to a fort duration on a particular site, which may cover a number of years before a subsequent fort was rebuilt on the same site. The multi-layered sites like Vindolanda and Trimontium (Newstead), which have had a better exploration, have divulged some really interesting items. The products below are only a few of what has been uncovered in Britannic sites. Where I have found the associated Roman name, I have included it, the main sources coming from the Vindolanda tablets information. 

Olium- oil (olive). This provided some fat content and was able to be transported in clay amphorae. 

Olivae- olives. Now considered to be a mono-unsaturated fat source and good for you - like nuts - olives would have been low-calorie anti-oxidants which, taken in reasonable quantities, would have helped to keep the soldiers healthy.

The image here is a suggestion of how clay amphorae (oil and other liquids) may have been transported in ships like the liburnae of the Roman Navy (Classis Britannica) as they sailed from the shores of Gaul (France) to Britannia (Britain). 

Wikimedia Commons 
Vinum- vintage wine. This was probably drunk by officers but less likely for he lower ranks. 

Posca-/acetum vinegared wine/vinegar The vinegared wine was (apparently) easier to ‘keep drinkable’ during the long transport across the Roman Empire from its source. As vinegar, it was used in cooking but could also be used to disinfect wounds. 

Mediterranean wine growing-
source from 123rf dot com
Garum- fish paste The stinky/well matured fish paste travelled well and was used to add some taste and variety to what was a fairly standard and repetitive diet.

Fabea- beans (dried). Being a naturally gluten-free food, these would have been a source of protein, vitamins and minerals – including thiamin, riboflavin, folate, iron and would have provided much needed fibre.

Frumentum- wheat.  This was transported across the Roman Empire to feed the soldiers and would have come to the ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ area from more southerly climes. It wasn’t easy to grow wheat in northern Britannia (though a spelt variety was possible) so it’s thought that filling the granaries at forts and fortresses would have meant any local supplies were supplemented from grain from either southern Britain, or from sources across the wider Roman Empire. Emmer was a popular variety. 

Halica- durum wheat (semolina) flour also seems to have been transported to northern Britannia. This has gluten and may have 'risen' more than other (panis) breads that were slow baked. A twisted loaf is mentioned (turta). This was also good as a pudding-type meal. 

Oats. Much easier to grow in Britannia and this grain would have been a staple diet for many soldiers barracking in a permanent fort, as well as while on military campaigns in the north. It could be eaten as a porridge; a thinner brose (which would have made the quantity of grain last longer, or spread further); and baked as biscuits or bread. 

Hordeum- Barley. There’s some evidence that this was not a particularly liked grain which is unfortunate since it's the easiest of all three kinds to grow in northern climates. There are references to barely being a ‘punishment’ grain. Whether this was because of what it did to the soldiers’ digestions, or whether it was regarded as an inferior supply given for poor performance, is an interesting question! Like oats it could be milled and made into bread and biscuits; used as thin or thick porridge or added to soups and stews. 

**Horreum was the name given to a granary, grain store/ supplies store in the Roman fort. (horrea pl.)

Bucellatum- Hard Tack biscuits (much harder than oatcakes) would have carried better than fragile cakes/biscuits. If oil or wine was available the milled ‘flour’ may have been cooked like a pancake or a flat unleavened bread. (early pizza).

I'm cheating below since the image is of an incredibly old ship-biscuit from c. 1852 (Kronborg Castle, Denmark) but it is similar to what typical bucellatum may have been like. 

Bucellatum look-alike Wikimedia Commons

A clibanus was used to cook some of the above meals. This was a covered vessel, generally ceramic/ clay, and was akin to the tagine of north African cooking of today.

Whichever way the grains were cooked additions of nuts; herbs; dried fruits; olives or other stored fruits would have given a little variation.

It’s estimated that in peace-time fort situations, a soldier might have a ration of some 2-3 pounds weight of grain per day. The amount issued to a marching soldier on campaign may have been less, or limited to the amount that could survive and be still edible over a particular ‘marching’ duration. I tend to make a comparison with my breakfast bowl of porridge that's about 4 ounces worth (113g/ 1/3 cup). If the grain ration was 3 lbs. per day, that would be equivalent to around 12 days-worth of my breakfast.

Meat. This seems to have been less commonly eaten by the rank and file soldiers but small amounts of the following products may have been supplementary to the ‘grain’ rations: roe deer (caprea); venison (cervina); goat (caro/hircina); chicken (pullus). Different pork uses have been identified - pork cutlets (offella); pigs trotter (ungella); young pig (porcellum) ; ham (perna); pork crackling (callum)/ pork fat (axungia). Lard (lardum) seems to have been produced from all animal consumption. Milk from goats, or the small cattle that was the norm of the era, produced butter (buturum) and probably cheese.

Fish. There’s evidence that oysters (ostria) and other small fish (apua) may have been imported to the Hadrian’s Wall forts though fish bones do not survive well. It was thought that the local ‘Iron Age tribes perhaps avoided eating fish or water ‘animals’ for religious reasons but this is up for debate.

Ova- Eggs. These may have been the main reason for having fowl around the fort though eggs may have also been collected from wild birds. 

Vindolanda has produced evidence for the consumption of garlic (alium) probably as stored garlic and as garlic paste (alliatum); plums (prunolum); beans and raddish (radices), though during the earliest fort occupation it's not known how much would have been delivered there. 

Celtic beer (cervesa) consumption would have been influenced by either accessibility via the local tribes, or as a preference of any of the garrison who originated from a Celtic  tribe. 

Local herbs may have been gathered for cooking when identified e.g. evidence for lovage (ligisticum) was found at Vindolanda. Salt (sel) was used. Pepper (piper) and some spices (condimenta) were imported though these were very expensive and no doubt used sparingly. 

Mel-Honey Local honey would have been used to sweeten foods but it was also added to wine to create mulsum which seems to have been a Roman version of mead. 

Local fruits and nuts would have been gathered to supplement the diet. when in season and from stores -  apples and local berries of types like blackberries, damsons, sloes which grow in harsher climates. Hazelnuts may have been locally sourced but chestnuts (sweet) were possibly only imported from continental sources during the era of my writing (AD 71-89) till the chestnut trees that the Romans planted in Britannia had matured. 

All this writing of food stuffs is making me hungry! 

Till next time and more information...

SlĂ inte!

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