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Food in Roman army

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Romans in Germania 1st century CE
Romans in Germania in the 1st century CE. The equipment of the legionnaire included a vessel in the form of a combined pan and pot, knives, spoons or eating utensils (bowls, cups). | Photo: Bronti

During the march, the Roman soldier had to have his own supplies that allowed him to feed himself for 2-3 days. Late Roman Codex Theodosianus, being a collection of Roman laws, mentions that a Roman soldier should be equipped with buccellatum ac panem, vinum quoque atque acetum, sed et laridum, carnem verbecinam, or “hardtack and bread, wine too and vinegar, but also bacon and mutton” (VII.4.6). The rusks, vinegar and mutton would last for two days, and then the soldier would enjoy bread, wine and bacon.

Food and drink in the Roman army

The meals of the Roman legionaries were mainly based on wheat, from which two types of food were made:

  • mash, called pulse. It was an easier-to-make food that required a mixture of cooked wheat grains, water, salt, fat, and olive oil or milk. Sometimes vegetables or spices were added.
  • flatbread (pane). It was the more popular use of grain. The soldiers threshed out the grain, ground it with a device or stone, mixed it with water, salt and spices, and then roasted it over the fire.

The above food was prepared as part of the contubernium – a squad of eight men, the smallest unit in the legion. Barley, in turn, was considered a grain suitable only for animals and barbarians; often, as punishment, soldiers received a ration of barley instead of wheat.

It is also worth noting the aforementioned biscuit (bucellatum), which was a simple biscuit made of flour, salt and water, with high hardness. It was baked twice at low temperature for a long time, so as to be sure that no moisture got inside. Such food was ideal in the military, where unfavourable weather conditions could be expected. What’s more, the biscuit could be quickly consumed and energized. This type of “snack” was prepared in larger quantities during, for example, a march. The name of the biscuit was even derived from the term used for mercenary soldiers of the Empire – bucellarii.

Olive oil, very popular in ancient Rome, was also imported for the needs of the army. The meat of cattle, sheep and goats was also eaten, and often confiscated from local residents or led with the army (frumentatio). Sometimes, in the absence of adequate food, foxes, deer, hares, badgers, wild oxen, moles, field mice, beavers and other wild animals were hunted. Poultry was also eaten: ducks, chickens, ravens, geese and others. Garlic was often eaten, which was especially praised by the Romans for its taste and health effects. During the peace, the diet was diversified with cheese and vegetables (legumes, cabbage).

In ancient times, salt was an extremely valuable commodity, which was used to preserve food. The English word “salary” (salary) is derived from the Latin word salarium (“pay”), which was used to describe the legionaries’ pay for which they could buy salt. Pliny the Elder believes that the word salarium comes from salarius, meaning salt. He also claims that in ancient Rome, soldiers received their wages in the form of valuable salt.

In the Roman army, they mainly drank diluted wine and the cheaper and more popular drink posca consisting of vinegar, water and herbs. The vinegar was mixed with water to such an extent that you could drink it. Posca was drunk mainly by soldiers and slaves because it was long-lived, easy to obtain and had a healing effect. Apparently, it also gave a lot of energy. Sheep’s and goat’s milk, popular nowadays, was considered uncivilized. It was used mainly for making cheese and for medical purposes.

In Roman times there was also beer, drunk willingly by barbarians. However, in the mind of the Romans, it was distasteful and dull, and above all uncivilized. This does not mean, however, that it was not eaten at all. Soldiers stationed in Gaul or Germania drank this drink, e.g. Caesar’s legionaries.

Food rations and getting food

Food served in the form of a ration was mostly paid for. The daily grain ration (wheat or barley)for one legionary was on average 830 grams and was in the form of unground grain; This was mainly due to the fact that grain spoiled slower than flour. The riders, who had to feed their horses, received a greater ration of grain. It is assumed that the legionary’s ration consisted of 75% grain and 25% other goods.

The reinforcements of the command staff and centurions, optio, ensigns were more abundant; generally, the higher in the military hierarchy, the greater the privileges one could count on. This situation was even reflected in the vocabulary: soldiers, for example, “took food” (cibum capere), and officers “ate dinner” (epulare). Even known for his economy and moderation, Cato the Younger took his best baker and cook to the war1.

The Roman army, which at the end of the republic numbered about 250,000 soldiers (25 legions of 5,000 soldiers each), required huge supplies of food2.

The food was distributed once in a while, on a fixed day and for the same number of days for the entire legion. In times of peace and when the legion was stationed in one place, the provisions were distributed for a dozen, twenty or even thirty days in advance. This was done in the following way: the centuries and cohorts were placed one after the other in the square and the soldiers were called by name, who left the ranks, took their food and went with it to their tents.

Legion leaders generally tried to be present at these ceremonies to emphasize their role as “breadwinners” for the legionaries, but officially taking care of the distribution of food to soldiers was the duty and duty of the legionary tribunes. Often in the legion, food management was entrusted to one of them, specially delegated to this task.

In the places where legions are stationed, archaeologists quite often discover weights with the symbol of the legion (for weighing food rations) and large seals with symbols of cohorts and even centuriae. It is believed that with their help, centuries and cohorts marked the food due to their soldiers, in order to avoid mistakes when dispensing food from the warehouse common to the entire legion.

Food was supplied thanks to the existence of its own warehouses – food bases, which were located in warehouses, in nearby towns. From the time of Julius Caesar, an independent permanent system of military food warehouses was established.

During the hostilities, as already mentioned, requisitions were used. However, they cannot be confused with looting. The military commander appealed to the civil authorities of the province/city with a demand to release a certain amount of food products from “civil” warehouses. In exchange for them, application slips were issued, on presentation of which the civil authorities were entitled to compensation for the seized food.

During the war, when the legion was operating far from the home bases, “crisis” food warehouses were organized in the rear, where food was confiscated or plundered in enemy territory. The same was the supply of legionaries with clothing and footwear.

1st-century mosaic showing poultry, fish, figs, asparagus and seafood. Roman legionaries could not try most of this food during the war.

They tried to provide food to the army, but soldiers were often forced to gather supplies on their own. And so, in the event of a supply shortage, soldiers were assigned various tasks. Some worked in the fields, planting the land and harvesting crops with private sickles, others grazed the animals and harvested fruit in the forests (frumentatores). The soldiers collected water (aquatores), collected fuel (lignatores), animal feed (pabulatores) or food. The lands that were just being used for food for the army were called prataor territorium. The herd of cattle was looked after by the so-called pecuarii. The meat was obtained by hunting in forests and taking domestic animals from the local population.

Naturally, the soldiers received food in the form of gifts from family and friends, which we know from the numerous correspondence found, which has survived to our times. Moreover, the army was followed by merchants who offered their products (including food) to soldiers in exchange for money.

  1. Plutarch, Cato the Younger, 12
  2. Tacyt, Roczniki, IV.5
  • Andrew Dalby, Food in the ancient world from A to Z, 2003
  • Stephen Dando-Collins, Legions of Rome
  • R. W. Davies, The Roman Military Diet, 1971
  • Paul Erdkamp, A Companion to the Roman Army
  • Everyday Moments in History - A Roman Soldier Prepares Dinner, "Invicta"
  • Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A taste of Ancient Rome, 1992
  • J. C. McKeown, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire, 2010
  • Jonathan P. Roth, Logistics of the Roman Army at War
  • Thames and Hudson, Legionary: The Roman Soldier's Manual
  • Lidia Winniczuk, Ludzie, zwyczaje i obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, PWN, Warszawa 1983
  • Wikipedia

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