A soldier must be well fed in order to carry out long marches, night watches and fight against enemy. Neglect this rule and a war might end without even starting. Vegetius, foremost Roman military expert, wrote: “Starvation consumes an army more often than battle, and hunger is more savage than the sword”. So, what Roman legionaries were eating during marches and while billeting?
Cereal crops, such as einkorn wheat, spelt, barley, oat and millet, were the foundation of nutrition in Classical Antiquity. Protein content of these crops is around 8-14%, therefore it’s deficiency should have been compensated by pulse crops (lentils, peas, kidney beans, chickpeas, legumes, broad beans), which contain about 25% of proteins. Vegetables (cabbages, beets, turnips, carrots, pumpkins) and fresh greens (leek, garlic, celery, lettuce, rue, coriander) had a prominent role in Roman nutrition besides wheats and pulses. Even small homesteads grew grapes and made house wine for themselves. Olives are one of other universally common crops, which were dried, marinated or processed into low quality oil. Also, Romans cultivated fruits, such as apples, pears, plums, cherries, figs.
The short poem “Moretum”, which is usually ascribed as Virgil’s work, gives a perfectly fine picture of a morning breakfast. It is centered on a poor farmer Simylus that wakes up, grinds grain and starts baking bread: “And covers it with tiles and heaps the fire”. All he has in addition to bread is a small piece of cheese, because he is a poor man: “No frame for smoking meat was hung above the hearth, and backs and sides of bacon cured with salt were lacking”. He picks garlic, celery, rue and coriander in his garden, adds olive oil, then grinds everything in a mortar with a pestle into a dense mass. Along with a warm bread and cheese this pesto (moretum) is his breakfast.
Cato the Elder provided recipes that he learned from farmers. They included barley and wheat cereal, goat cheese, milk and honey. Grain was used for a stew, porridge, bread or hardtack. Looking at these recipes they rarely had meat, however as soon as they became wealthier it appeared on the menu.
Military bread (panis militaris)
Basic diet of Romans’ and Greeks’ included bread (panis militaris). Bread was easy to get, transport or store in large amounts despite the weather or climat, and it did not spoil in the heat unlike meat, fish, vegetables or fruits. At the time of Polybius, a Roman infantry was getting 26kg of bread per month as a military allowance. Sometimes bread was replaced by a hardtack which was baked twice in a certain way. At the times of the Late Roman Empire hardtack was called bucellatum. However, much more often the soldiers were provided with grain, which they had to mill and bake in coals by themselves. Resulting coarse bread was more nourishing and easily digested than white sourdough bread.
Daily calory intake for an adult of between 18 and 30 years old weighing 65kg should be about 2990-3530 kilocalories depending on a physical activity level. 1kg of wheat contains roughly 3340kcal, 1kg of barley – 3240kcal, 1kg of millet – 3780kcal. Therefore, in order to meet the minimal daily calory intake, a warrior should have had about 1,2kg of bread. It is a bit more than Polybius said, however we should bear in mind that soldiers weren’t eating bread alone. Their diet also consisted of beans, vegetables, greens, cheese, butter and so on. But the amount of these food items could vary with time.
Bread was the base of a soldier’s diet even in army of the Roman Empire era. Ulpius Marcellus, tyrant governor of the Roman Britain from year 180 to 184, was eating the same hardtack as his soldiers. Emperor Caracalla has often shared burden of a military campaign with his warriors to gain their sympathy. Greek historian Herodian told that the emperor was grinding grain and baking bread while the army rested in a field camp:
“He set a frugal table and even went so far as to use wooden dishes at his meals. He ate the bread that was available; grinding with his own hands his personal ration of grain, he made a loaf, baked it in the ashes, and ate it”.
Did Roman soldiers eat meat?
Appians tale of the Lucius Lucullus unsuccessful winter campaign of 151-150 B.C. in the Central Spain has created misconception among historians that Roman soldiers did not eat meat at all:
“Their soldiers were sick from want of sleep, and because of the unaccustomed food which the country afforded. They had no wine, no salt, no vinegar, no oil, but lived on wheat and barley, and the flesh of deer and rabbits boiled without salt, which caused dysentery, from which many died”.
However, we should note an exceptional coincidence that have led to this situation. Soldiers of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo have experienced the same issue in year 59 B.C. during the march through the eastern part of the Minor Asia stony badland: under the water scarcity conditions all the food they had was meat that rapidly spoiled in the heat.
Generally, meat was part of a Roman army daily diet. Appian wrote that in year 133 B.C. Publius Scipio Aemilianus, while disciplining his army encamped beneath Numantian walls, forbade all the tableware except spit rods, copper pots and cups. Soldiers had to eat boiled or roasted meat. According to Plutarch other than meat soldiers were supposed to eat bread and stew. The same did Quintus Metellus Numidicus in 109 B.C. when prohibited his soldiers from eating any meat except for dry-grilled or boiled.
As an advocate of strict military discipline Emperor Hadrian, according to his biographer — Aelius Lampridius, acted as his predecessors:
“<…> actually led a soldier's life among the maniples, and, after the example of Scipio Aemilianus, Metellus, and his own adoptive father Trajan, cheerfully ate out of doors such camp-fare as bacon, cheese and vinegar”.
Roman military have venerated traditional cult of “ancestors’ discipline”. Advocates of this cult felt obliged to limit soldiers ration at least during marches. General Avidius Cassius was one of them, according to his biographer:
“He forbade the soldiers, moreover, to carry anything when on the march save lard and biscuit and vinegar, and if he discovered anything else he punished the breach of discipline with no light hand”.
Similar stories were told about Gaius Pescennius Niger:
“He gave orders, likewise, that in time of campaign the soldiers should not drink wine but should all content themselves with vinegar. He also forbade pastry-cooks to follow expeditions, ordering both soldiers and all others to content themselves with biscuit. For the theft of a single cock, furthermore, he gave an order that the ten comrades who had shared the bird which one of them had stolen, should all be beheaded; and he would have carried out the sentence, had not the entire army importuned him to such a degree that there was reason to fear a mutiny. And when he had spared them, he ordered that each of the ten who had feasted on the stolen bird should pay the provincial who owned it the price of ten cocks. At this same time, he ordered that no one during the period of the campaign should build a hearth in his company-quarters, and that they should never eat freshly-cooked food, but should live on bread and cold water. And he set spies to see that this was done.”
The book of Military Institutions of the Romans written by Vegetius instructs on how to prepare a city for a siege and how besieged should procure supplies:
“Against these calamities landowners, prompted by the least suspicion, should as thoroughly as possible collect all means of sustaining life within walls so that they may have an abundance of supplies for themselves, and shortages force the adversaries to withdraw. Not only pork, but every kind of animal which cannot be kept enclosed should be sent for curing, so as to eke out the grain with the aid of meat. Farmyard fowls, however, are fed without cost in cities and are needed for the sick. Fodder for horses above all should be stockpiled, and what cannot be carried in should be burned; stocks of wine, wine-vinegar, and other crops and fruits should be collected, and nothing which may be of use left for the enemy”.
In his other book he gives similar advise:
“In winter problems of firewood and fodder, in summer of water should be avoided. Shortages of grain, wine-vinegar, wine and salt should be prevented at all times”.
The list of food items requested for the billeted Roman army by Herod in 39 B.C. from Samaritan community gives us a good understanding of the food supply:
“and they brought in great quantities of wheat and wine and oil and meat and what was needed for the horses”.
Greens, vegetables, cheese, various meats, olive oil and good wine was an addition to the “marching diet” during garrison life. Most of the required food items were supplied by the local communities as government taxes. In case of supply shortage levied this way, government could buy necessary things at the market for a fixed price. Also, private charity was used extensively. 2nd century Bitolja Inscription from Macedonia tells about the man who donated 400 medimni (1 medimnos – about 50 litres) of bread, 100 medimni of barley, 60 medimni of beans and 100 for military needs.
Food items, that locals had to supply soldiers with, are listed in the Egyptian papyrus from year 199. Among them are: wheat bread, lentils, ham, beef, pork, goat meat, wine, olive oil for cooking, barley and different kinds of fodder for horses and pack animals. IV century papyrus from Oxyrhynchus allows to calculate food ration for soldiers which included 0,35kg of bread, 0,9kg of meat, 1 liter of wine and 100g of olive oil per day.
Hunt was an important source of the soldier’s meat ration replenishment. Vegetius recommended to recruit deer and hog hunters. Inscriptions told us about military hunters (venatores) and military menagerie keepers (custos vivari). An unknown soldier, who served in a support squad somewhere in Egypt desert between Koptos and the Red Sea, wrote about military hunt in his letter:
“Antonius Proculus to Valerianus. Write the note to say that from the month of Agrippina until now we have been hunting all species of wild animals and birds for a year under the order of the prefects. We have given what we caught to Cerealis, and he sent them and all the equipment to you…”
Also, there is famous altar inscription made by Gaius Tetius Veturius Micianus, prefect of the Sebosian Ala from Weardale, Britannia, who dedicated altar to Silvanus, a woodland god:
“On fulfilment of his vow willingly set this up for taking a wild boar of remarkable fineness, which many of his predecessors had been unable to bag”.
Finally, during excavations of the Roman border fortifications archeologists often discover many different wild animal bones, fish bones and clam shells, also pits of olives, plums and grapes, which were sold to soldiers by merchants from the south.
In 1985 Marcus Junkelmann, accompanied by 11 reenactors, organized a 22-days long march from Verona to Augsburg about 540km long. After this trip he wrote the book “The legions of Augustus: the Roman soldier in archeological experiment” («Die Legionen des Augustus: der römische Soldat im archäeologischen Experiment»), in which he summed up all thу unique experience that he received. In this book you can find several Roman military cooking recipes, mostly taken from the Roman cookbook written by Apicius de re Coquinaria.
Dough for 1,5 pounds of bread is mixed from 500g of coarse wheat flour, 300g of hot water, 20g of salt and 20g of yeast. Also if possible dough is mixed with shredded onions and honey. After mixing dough rises for 20 minutes in a sealed jar near fire then extensively mixed again and baked in a closed pot or on a big flat stone, depending on the amount for 30-50 minutes.
To make a stew we need 2 liters of water, 500g of wheat flour, 1 tablespoon of salt, half the tablespoon of black pepper, 1 onion, 3 cloves of garlic, 50g of diced lard, 100g of beef cut in dice. Put everything into a bronze pot, mix and cook it over an open fire for about 45 minutes.
At last, the recipe for a drink (conditum paradoxum), which was served on a grand feast. In order to make it we need 2 liters of dry white wine, if possible spiced with mastic, Greek style, 500g of honey, 30g of blended black pepper, 10 laurel leaves, 10g of crocus, 5 figs soaked in wine. Half liter of wine and honey are mixed and boiled in a large pot, taking off the foam, then add pepper, laurel, crocus and boneless figs, after this take the pot off fire, pour all the wine that left and serve cold.
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- Gnabe G.S. Roman dinner. / Selected Works: Theory and History of Culture. — M. ROSSPEN, 2006 — p. 517-541.
- Watson J. Roman Warrior. / Per. from English M .: Tsentrpoligraf, 2010 — 189 p.
- Karkopino J. Everyday life of ancient Rome. The apogee of the empire. M .: Young Guard, 2008 — 420 p.
- Davies R. W. The Roman Military Diet // Britannia 1971, Vol. 2, p. 122–142
- Junkelmann M. Die Legionen des Augustus. Der romische Soldat im archaeologischen Experiment. Mainz am Rhein, 2003. – 342 S.