During the early Roman period the food that was most used
was cereal grain in the form of a kind of porridge made from cooked cereals,
which overall may have accounted for as much as seventy percent of the
populations caloric needs. Early in the Roman period as well as in the
Greek world, barley was favored because it was plentiful and relatively
inexpensive. This barley porridge was often supplemented with dairy products,
olives, vegetables, and perhaps fresh fruit. Less often the
porridge would be served with meat or fish. This preference seemed, with
the Romans, to change to predominantly more wheat and less barley.
By the second century B.C.E. wheat was favored in Italy as a human foodstuff
and barley was used to feed livestock except in times of shortage. Originally
"far" (husked wheat) was prepared as the staple
"puls" (porridge) of the day. Later the development of "frumentum"
(a species of naked wheat) was made into bread. Bread was sometimes flavored
with other foods such as honey or cheese. This bread was eaten at most
meals and formed a staple food throughout the Republic, and later the
Empire, by those who were not wealthy and were the Roman working class,
unemployed or slaves. By the end of the first century B.C.E. grain stores
were being developed by Rome. Wheat was harvested in the Po River valley
and about thirty percent of the grain supply was brought in from the Nile
valley in Egypt and other areas of wheat producing farms in North Africa.
Some consumption figures on the quantities of grain needed to feed the
burgeoning population of Rome are quite interesting. From antiquity we
get the information that an average wheat yield was approximately between
seven and one-half to twenty-two and one-half bushels per acre (5 to 15
quintals per hectare), which ranks as about one-third of present-day grain
yield. Since each individual used nearly 440 pounds (200 kg) of grain
a year, and since population in the Roman Republic is estimated to have
been nearly 750,000 people by the first century B.C.E., this means that
the overall grain requirements for the Roman world was between 110,000
to 230,000 tons of wheat per year.
It is not surprising then that grain was brought in not
only from fairly close areas such as Etruria, Umbria, and Campania, but
from much farther afield as well, as from Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa,
This constant problem of providing large amounts of grain was finally
resolved by the development of a "grain dole" in which it is
estimated that by 46 B.C.E. in excess of 300,000 people in the city of
Rome alone may have been collecting free grain. These were the poor, the
unemployed, and the elderly. In following years oil and even wine were
added to this dole to extend this public assistance program. This munificence
then became a kind of welfare state, and was for the most part politically
motivated. During the Roman Republican period, those who stood for a magistracy
depended upon the people for their votes, and therefore it was wise to
keep the people happy. Providing food was a way
of ensuring that. Later on during the Empire when elections were not so
important, food was distributed to accumulate personal support among the
population, as well as to maintain the peace.
(to be continued)
- Atkins, L., and R. Atkins, "Handbook to Life in
- Fass, P., "Around the Roman Table"
- Bethel, Don R., "Foodstuffs, Cooking and Drugs,"
in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean - Greece and Rome,"
M. Grant and R. Kitzinger, Eds.