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Part VIII –  ‘To ensure that the grain kept flowing in‘

How did the city of Rome support it's million or so inhabitants? What did the ancient Romans eat? Watch this video to find out more.
So far in this course we’ve been looking mostly at the grander buildings of Rome. The ones you see on the picture postcards– forums, arches, temples, monuments, and so on. These have survived best, they were built most solidly, and they’re the ones that have been of interest to most archaeologists through the ages until quite recently. So we know most about them, but what about Rome as a working city, a living city full of ordinary people?
When we’re thinking about life in the city of Rome, one really important topic, of course, is food. What did people eat? And how did they get hold of it? And to discuss that I’m here with my colleague Professor Annalisa Marzano, an ancient historian who’s a specialist in food, and villas, and agriculture in the Roman world, to ask her some questions about that. So Annalisa, what did the Romans eat– thinking both about their staples and maybe some treats for the table? Well, first of all, let me say that when we think about the city of Rome per se, we need to think about really a metropolis. I mean Rome by the early first century AD, we counted about one million inhabitants.
And this is truly impressive, not only by ancient standards, but even modern ones, if you think that it took London to be well into the Industrial Revolution to reach that population size. So this means that there was a huge variation in the diet between the city. If we think about staples, in any ancient diet really, the important staples were cereals, wine, and olive oil. And wine was quite important in the diet. It provided a good part of the caloric intake. Very often it was consumed diluted with water, so not pure, and was given also to children to drink. So it was really quite an important element, in terms of caloric intake.
But, on top of this, we had other types of food. Pulses– so all range of legumes, broad beans, chickpeas, lentils– were all very important part of the diet across the social strata. As were a whole range of vegetables– leeks, onions, cabbage, particulary, Cato is very fond of cabbage. He wrote a treatise on agriculture and extolled the properties of cabbage– also in terms of curative properties, not simply as a food. And then we hear of some more exotic and strange things. We know that mostly from the literary sources. Of course, they address the wealthy, the rich, the upper strata of society.
But from that and from some recipes– because we do have a collection of Roman recipes, the book, De Re Coquinaria. It’s attributed to a certain Apicius. And we know Apicius was a gourmand who lived in the first century AD. But actually, this collection of recipes has been dated later on, to the fourth century AD. So we know quite a bit about the rich. And we find some strange things in there. So for instance, they’re quite fond of flamingos or eating peacocks. And you know, the stranger and more exotic, the better because after all that, was just a display.
It was a way of showing off at the banquet rather than really thinking about specific taste perhaps, or a kind of food. So from the daily bread at the bottom end up to flamingos and peacocks, these extraordinary dinner parties at the rich end, there’s a huge spectrum of food coming into Rome. Yes.
Rich housing in and around Rome could be as rich and lavish as you could possibly imagine. Acres of marble and glass mosaic. Luxury gardens with fruit and birds raised for the table and fish in the ponds. Amazing great villas. In the gardens around Rome and within Rome on the hilltops especially, are where these rich villas liked to be located– up in the clear air with commanding views. The Palatine Hill, from where we get the word ‘palace’, in the middle of Rome, is where the emperor’s own great complex was. The first emperor, Augustus, actually had a deliberately modest, simple house– albeit one he attached to a great temple of his patron god, Apollo.
And this proved that he was was he liked to think of himself, just first among equals. But later emperors got more and more megalomaniac with their palace building, Nero infamously so. Eventually terracing out and occupying the entire Palatine Hill, the sprawling complex of palaces and audience halls, bathhouses, and porticoes– an immense expanse of imperial accommodation.
A bit further down the scale are the habitations of the ordinary folk of Rome. A lot of people in Rome live not in the classic atrium villa house that you think of in places like Pompeii but actually, in apartment blocks. Brick and concrete multi-storey apartment blocks that we sometimes call insulae. And these would be built and then let out at different grades of customer. And as far as we can tell, they followed a fairly standard sort of pattern.
Not many survive in Rome itself but to get a glimpse of them, what we can do is look at this wonderful resource– a marble map of Rome, the Forma Urbis. Based on a tax survey conducted in the late second or early third century probably, it shows the whole of the ancient city. And looking at the detail of it, we see winding streets and city districts and street after street of these apartment blocks with stairs leading up to upper floors and shops along the streets. And these apartment blocks line the big arterial roads of Rome. They cluster in the valley bottoms, they climb up the sides of the hills in great tiers and terraces and multi-storey blocks.
And they constitute a very dense form of habitation for packing lots of people in. Of course, to pack people in like that, you need a good infrastructure roads, sewers, aqueducts. You can’t collect enough rainwater from the roofs or get unpolluted water from the ground table via wells, so really, the aqueduct system and the sewer system enables this very dense apartment block living in the centre of Rome. That’s why you can pack up to a million people into this ancient city. These folks are densely packed in and they need to eat. They need a food supply. There are no fridges. There’s no mechanised transport. So the logistics of feeding a city of this size and complexity are actually pretty straining.
And some emperors almost falled foul of the mob when the grain supply runs short and prices start to spike.
One of the things that makes a city of a million people possible is not just the city itself– and we’ve been talking about its roads, its aqueducts, and sewers– but the countryside around it– that the machine for producing all of this is food. What are the challenges of getting it into Rome? Where does it come from? How do they get all this food into this huge city? Well, first of all, in order to feed that kind of population, you couldn’t simply rely on the immediate hinterland or even the regions all around Rome. Many types of foods– particularly fresh food– so think about fresh vegetables and fresh fruit, fresh fish– would come, of course, from the surroundings.
But other foods– foods– that had a longer shelf life– wine and oil, or salted meat or salted fish or any kind of preserved stuff– would come to Rome from further afield. From the rest of Italy, from overseas, as well– from the provinces. Until Emperor Claudius– and then later, Trajan in the early second century AD– developed the harbour of Portus near Ostia, really, Rome didn’t have a large proper commercial harbour. So it relied on Puteoli on the Bay of Naples, which meant that the foodstuffs will come in on large shipments in Puteoli needed to be transported to smaller vessels, sent along the coast to Ostia, put on barges that will be towed along the Tiber and reach Rome.
So there are a lot of logistics implied in this.
Rome’s food supply was a big political issue. People rioted if they were hungry. And so the emperors took great pains to ensure the grain kept flowing in from all over the empire. In fact, one of the reasons Rome had an empire was to supply it with a ready stream of foodstuffs. So it’s not surprising that emperors built ports and warehouses and wharves and canals and all the infrastructure needed to get the grain into the great seaports on the coast of Italy and then up the Tiber River to Rome itself. And when they did that, of course they wanted to boast about it and advertise it to their people.
So as has become familiar to us, they put it on the coins. Here is a coin of the emperor Nero. His stocky visage on the coin tells us who issued it. You see his name there lower left– Nero Claudius. But what interests us on this coin is on the back here. He’s given us a picture of the harbour of Rome at Portus– built, in fact, by his predecessor, Claudius. But he continued its use. And wants us to see here that part of the emperor’s role is guarding the fleet of ships that brought the vital grain supplies into the city. So the bottom of this coin is a reclining figure of a sea god.
Above him, you can see a number of ships riding safely at anchor. And then around the edges of the coin, you can just about see the colonnades or arcades of that great harbour basin surrounding it on all sides of warehouses and loading bays to take the grain off and get it processed and take it up into the city of Rome. So by putting this scene on the coin, Nero is reminding us that he has one eye at least on the safe feeding and supply of his city.
How is this trade and commerce organised? Well, food supplies and supplies of all sorts came up the river from Rome’s harbour at Ostia. River barges moored near a warehouse district down behind the Aventine Hill. Full of granaries, storerooms, warehouses, and places for sorting and taxing and buying and selling. All the infrastructure you need for trade. There were some spaces in the city organised around trade and commerce. The Forum Boarium, where we saw those Republican temples is, in its origins, a cattle market. It’s at a bend at the river in Rome– a natural river harbour long associated with Greeks and incomers and immigrants and foreigners and trade and businesses connecting city to the outside world.
A little bit further up the street is the Forum Holitorium or vegetable market, where we imagine fresh fruit and vegetable produce being sold, much like the lovely street markets you see in Rome today. And there are other specialised bits of the city for trade. We knew that somewhere, there’s a wine forum. There are key sites from loading stone and marble. Many bits of the city dedicated to the important business of trade and commerce.
Here’s a coin that shows a building now lost to us. It’s the great market or Macellum Magnum– another construction of the Emperor Nero. Here is Nero wearing a rather sporty radiate crown on the front of this coin– that great bull neck signifying this is the emperor late in his reign. And on the back of this coin– on the reverse is a picture of the Macellum Magnum, helpfully captioned for us as Mac Aug at the top, the Macellum or market of the emperor. Showing us a picture of this two-story market complex with a central domed tholos or central booth. Now this is totally lost to us. We don’t even know where in the city it was exactly.
So this coin is a precious image for us of the market. And it shows us, again, how seriously Nero took the provisioning of the city of Rome– not only with the infrastructure needed to keep the food flowing in but in Rome itself this magnificent market building celebrating the goods pouring into Rome from every quarter of the empire to be bought and sold here.
As well as the Macellum Magnum, this semi-circular structure terracing back the hillside above Trajan’s forum is sometimes described as a sort of shopping centre– Trajan’s markets. Well, I’m not sure that’s quite right but it does seem to contain lots of accommodation, for commercial and administrative functions. So perhaps we could think of it, sort of, as a proto shopping mall. So all over the city– from grand port infrastructure through to specialised buying and selling zones down to the level of the individual family store ran out of the ground floor of one of those many apartment blocks– there were great facilities everywhere for buying and selling.

Welcome back. In previous weeks we’ve explored some of the ‘superstars’ of Rome – including the Forum and the Pantheon – but what about the lesser-known buildings? How did the city support its million or so inhabitants? Where did they all live? How were they all fed?

In this video I discuss everyday life in Rome and introduce the different types of housing that sprawled across the slopes of Rome’s hills, and down into the depths of the city’s valleys. I’ll also return to the University of Reading to meet with my colleague, Professor Annalisa Marzano, to discuss the types of food which may have been prepared, cooked, and consumed by the people who populated these thriving neighbourhoods.

Whilst you watch the video, you may like to think about the following questions and discuss your throughts in the comment area:

  • Were you surprised at any of the staples Professor Annalisa Marzano lists within the Roman diet?

  • Why did Rome develop high-rise apartment blocks?

Later this week, I’ll provide some recipes for you to recreate your own Roman dishes to try at home; don’t worry – there’s no flamingo involved!

Course facilitation

A reminder that you’ll see comments from myself and Bunny and we’ll aim to answer your queries in the course discussion between 12 Oct to 13 Nov, but we can’t respond to everyone. To view our comments, you can can follow our profiles.

Don’t forget you can view or download the course supplement and A-Z glossary as you go through the week.

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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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