Monday, November 08, 2010

No Toga Party: What did poor people eat in ancient Rome

The Roman banquet is as familiar in American popular culture as the toga party -- though the popular conception of a toga party probably is more rooted in John Belushi than in echoes of classical studies from university life of old.

Say "Roman Banquet" and what comes to mind? Eggs to apples. Exotic delicacies like roasted hedgehogs and flamingo tongues. Honey-sweetened wine, perhaps deliciously flavored with lead from the glaze of the drinking vessels. Spices brought from all over the Roman Empire and traded from the East. Olive oil. White bread made from the best flour. Produce from the host's country estates, perhaps nearby, perhaps farther off in Sicily or other areas. Slaves to cook, serve, and entertain the guests (all men).

Most of the people in ancient Rome were very poor. Everyone knows that they had bread and circuses. Archaeology provides a glimpse of the circus, but what about the bread? What did the really poor Romans eat?

Indeed, the Romans, both rich and poor, ate bread. In the later centuries of the Roman Empire, distribution of grain -- wheat and barley -- to the large poverty-stricken population provided an important part of the diet, at least to the lucky poor who were eligible for free food. Wheat was higher-status than barley -- so poor people were more likely to afford barley when they had to buy their own food. They sometimes made their grain rations into bread, and sometimes into porridge.

Porridge was lower-status than bread for many reasons, especially because it could be made from the coarser and less desired barley. Because the process of making bread with yeast results in a more nutritious product (the fermentation process makes some nutrients more accessible) those who ate bread were on the whole healthier, as well as richer.

"Apart from cereals," we learn, "dry legumes, in particular lentils, chickpeas and broad beans, were the main source of protein as of calories in the Mediterranean basin as a whole.... Dry legumes also supplied the amino acids in which wheat and barley were low, and the missing vitamin A. The flour of legumes was commonly blended with wheat flour to make bread." *

Artisans and other non-upper-class Romans thus ate beans. Street vendors sold a "kind of pudding" made of chickpeas -- I wonder if it was like hummus. Imports from the fertile agricultural regions of Egypt included lentils and chickpeas, as well as the high-quality wheat for which the Nile valley was widely known. Sometimes rich or official benefactors gave out free food at festivals, but this was unusual. One Roman politician spent a fortune showering the crowd at the Circus with chickpeas, beans, and lentils. (I'm thinking of Meg Whitman spending $141.5 million -- except I don't know if the Roman won or lost his election.)

Garden produce was sometimes affordable to the lower or maybe middle classes, according to literary sources -- cabbage, leeks, beets, onions, garlic. It was a commonplace that poor people drank only water, while those who could afford it, drank wine. High-quality fish and the famous garum fish sauces were food for rich people, but poorer people could sometimes manage to buy or catch some not-so-nice fish from the even-then-polluted Tiber River. Even salt cost money -- spices were only for the rich.

By late antiquity (3rd-4th centuries) Emperor Aurelian introduced distribution of free pork -- up to 25 kilos per person -- to as many as 120,000 people per year. Like the grain distributions, though, the recipients were often the representatives of larger families, who had to share their portions. Many poor people weren't eligible for any free food, with the result that malnutrition, especially among children, was common.

The people of ancient Rome included the upper class rulers, slaves, freedmen (former slaves), artisans, soldiers, small farmers, and a vast number of urban poor. The banquets and refined cuisine that one most often hears about included participants from only a tiny fraction of the large Roman population.

*Information comes from Peter Garnsey, Cities Peasants and Food in Classical Antiquity, 1998, p. 242-245; Jeremy Paterson, "Trade and traders in the Roman world" in Trade, Traders and the Ancient City, ed. Parkins and Smith; and Neville Morley, Trade in Classical Antiquity. Photo shows Roman Emperor's villa at Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

I need to revisit -- This looks really good but my head is still spinning contemplating Cleopatra. The free pork distribution thing sounds really interesting, though.