By Patricia Gillespie - Volunteer Guide

Wheat and Barley

Wheat was the mainstay of the Roman Army, and soldiers were issued with a daily ration. A modius, a rare and fine object, discovered at Magna fort in 1915, is a Roman corn measure. It was most likely used to measure out grain and could have held a week’s ration of wheat for a soldier (ref. 1). 

There are frequent mentions of modii in the Vindolanda writing tablets, referring to measures of foodstuffs being ordered or delivered to Vindolanda. In an account of grain, Tab. Vindol. III 586, modii of soft wheat (siliginis) and gruel (halicae) are listed; and in an account of foodstuffs and textiles – modii 55 of beans and modii of honey are mentioned (Tab.Vindol II 192) (ref. 2).

Spelt wheat became the staple subsistence crop in the province of Britannia.  It superseded emmer wheat during the late Iron Age, having been introduced here by the Belgae (a large confederation of tribes in northern Gaul). However, in the east of northern England, emmer remained in cultivation for some centuries after the arrival of the Romans, especially north of the river Tyne (ref. 3).

Emmer was a robust crop, tolerant of wet and cold summers. It produced heavy bread, with enough gluten-forming proteins to make a pitta-like bread. It made good quality porridges and pottage and was used widely by the Roman army (ref. 4). Spelt wheat was a cross between emmer wheat and wild grasses and is closely related to modern wheat varieties (ref. 15).

Spelt was very hardy and suited to the damp British climate. This allowed both a winter and a spring sowing, thus increasing yield (ref. 5). Spelt bread rose more than emmer as it was higher in gluten-forming protein.  Bread wheat produced the lightest bread. Soft wheat, siligo, referred to in writing tablet 586 above, has a lower protein content, which is good for making pastry and cakes (ref. 4). So clearly at Vindolanda someone had their eye on flour types and the enjoyment to be had from pies and confectionary!

Environmental analysis by Jacqui Huntley during the Vindolanda granary excavations revealed that mostly spelt wheat was stored as fully processed grain in the granary in Stone Fort 2, with some barley, very little rye and possibly oats (ref. 6). Environmental samples taken by Jacqui Huntley at from the site revealed charred remains of seeds which demonstrated the use of hulled barley (most numerous), spelt wheat (Triticum spelta), bread wheat (Triticum aestivium) and possibly emmer. Vindolanda excavations of 2001 and 2002 (ref. 3). Charred plant remains analysed in the praetorium (commanding officer’s house), also indicate the use of spelt and bread wheats (ref. 7).

The forthcoming arrival of a load of grain in British carts, whose drivers would require payment on delivery is contained in Vindolanda writing tablet (649) and dates from AD 93 to 102 (ref. 8). Barley and spelt wheat are the most commonly recorded cereals for almost all Roman military sites in Northern England.  Bread wheat is more rarely found (ref. 7). In one of the Vindolanda letters to Cassius Saecularis, the writer refers to the purchase of barley (hordeum commercium), perhaps implying commercial relations with the native Britons. There are also records of deliveries of wagon-loads of barley (ref. 2).

Barley may have been eaten by the men themselves or their horses. Pliny commented that barley was normally fed to animals and slaves, and that there was a hint of poverty about it (ref. 4). As well as animal fodder, barley was also used in brewing. 

Barley featured in punishment rations. Vegetius reported that soldiers who did not fight efficiently during weapon training were given rations in barley not wheat, until they had demonstrated in front of their senior officers that they were proficient.  This was a degrading punishment. Barley contains very little protein and the bread had an earthy taste (ibid).

Barley and spelt could be roasted, pounded and cooked with water to make a gruel or thick pottage. Pottage was sometimes made of ground beans or peas and fortified with pieces of meat, such as salted pork, or fish – a real one-pot meal.  Emmer porridge was found to be tastier than spelt in an archaeological experiment at Bearsden (ibid).

The Daily Grind

Wheat was often ground into flour using a rotary stone quern, introduced to Britain in the first century BC.  This was usually set onto the ground, one grindstone on top of a second, with a handle on the top to turn it. Emplacements for querns have been found at Vindolanda. It was demanding, back-breaking work, and lives on in our phrase ‘the daily grind’. It was likely that grinding of wheat was done on a regular basis, as oils in the bran and germ oxidise after milling and turn rancid and could not be stored for long (ref. 9).

At Vindolanda, from the barracks inside the fort, we have excavated the quern stone of the soldier Africanus, and another fragment of quern marked ‘property of Victor’ or Victorinus.

Different grades of flour were produced, according to how many times the grain was ground and sieved, and how much bran was removed, which could make up to 23% of the grain. Poor people used most of the grain, retaining the course bran to give more bulk to the flour, which was much darker than wholemeal. In wealthy houses, the finest flour (only 25% of the original grain weight) would be separated out to make soft white bread for the owners, while the remainder would be used by the rest of the household. (ibid)

Alexander Croom has established that it would take four hours every day to produce flour for the whole contubernium (a unit of eight soldiers). It is likely that the soldiers took it in turns to grind flour and bake bread for the group, depending on who was on duty, rather than each soldier grinding his own (ibid)

Set into the earth embankments behind the fort walls, alongside the intervallum road that ran inside the perimeter of the fort, were large ovens for baking bread. This area would have been a hub for cooking and social activity. Ovens were constructed in a semi-circular dome shape and set on a raised hearth.  A fire was lit inside and allowed to burn until the chamber was hot. Once the ashes were raked out the bread dough was inserted, the door was sealed and the bread left to cook in the dry heat.  In one of the Vindolanda writing tablets, turtas or twisted loaves are referred to.

When debris from Vindolanda ovens was analysed by Jacqui Huntley at Durham University, it was discovered that heather had been the principal fuel, rather than charcoal. Dried roots would burn very fiercely, although large quantities would be needed for an efficient baking session.

 In recent excavations, in one of the early wooden forts, a cookhouse with huge ovens of Hadrianic date was discovered and may be related to provisioning the soldiers engaged in the building of Hadrian’s Wall.


The Vindolanda evidence – bones, environmental analysis, writing tablets, pottery, wood and more – helps to illustrate the wide variety of foods available for the military community.  Some foods were grown and obtained in the local area and others like olive oil and wine travelled many hundreds of miles on the trade networks to satisfy the tastes of people who had come from all over the Roman Empire, tastes which some of the native population also acquired.

A nourishing diet could not have been achieved by everyone in Roman Britain. Evidence from skeletons shows how under-nourishment and a life of unremitting hard labour took its toll, both on the body and life expectancy.  To a great extent your health reflected your wealth and station in life.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.


1 Birley, Robin (1998) The Fort at the Rock on Hadrian’s Wall, Magna and Carvoran (Roman Army Museum Publications)

2 Bowman Alan K. (1994, 2003) Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its people (The British Museum Press)

3 Birley Andrew et al (2003) Vindolanda Report Volume 1: The Excavation of 2001 and 2002 Environmental samples by JP Huntley, Durham University, Department of Archaeology.

4 Alcock Joan P. (2010) Food in Roman Britain (The History Press)

5 Roman Britain

6 Birley Andrew (2013) The Vindolanda Granary Excavations (Roman Army Museum Publications)

7 Birley Robin, Blake Justin, Birley Andrew (2002) The 1997 Excavations at Vindolanda Praetorium site (Roman Army Publications).

8 Birley Robin (2009) Vindolanda: A Roman Frontier Fort on Hadrian’s Wall (Amberley Publishing)

9 Croom, Alexandra (2011) Running the Roman Home (The History Press)

10 Birley, Anthony (2007) Garrison Life at Vindolanda: A Band of Brothers (Tempus Publishing)

11 Bowman A.k., J.D. Thomas and A. Meyer with a contribution by Birley A. and Meyer A. The Vindolanda Writing Tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses IV, Part 3): New Letters of Iulius Verecundus (Britannia 2019 doi: 10.1017/S0068113X19000321)

 12 Birley, Anthony Barrels and amphorae at Vindolanda

13 Hobbs Richard, Jackson Ralph (2010) Roman Britain (The British Museum Press)

14 Grainger Sally (2019) Cooking Apicius (Prospect Books)

15    Doves Farm, Organic flour specialist

 Vindolanda Tablets online: