Patricia Gillespie - Volunteer Guide

Look to the animals

Grazing animals in the landscape around Vindolanda would have been a familiar sight.  It is likely that hundreds of acres of land would be needed for grazing and fodder for the regiment’s stock. One of the Vindolanda writing tablets (Tab. 344) refers to Lucco in charge of the pigs and the oxherds in the woods. 

It was rare for animals to be raised exclusively for their meat. For example, cattle would only have been slaughtered at the end of their working life when they had ceased to produce good milk yields.

Living at Vindolanda, you would expect to see and smell decomposing animal parts in the fort ditch, used as an unofficial rubbish dump, and thousands of years later, the archaeologists have found huge quantities of their bones. In a 60m stretch of ditch from Stone Fort 2, 70 cattle skulls and 280 shoulder blades were found (ref. 8). Specialists have identified the animal bones and teeth, and we know that the people who lived here enjoyed eating a variety of meats, including beef, lamb, goat, and pork.  The cattle were almost all Celtic shorthorns.

Meat and fish could be salted or smoked to preserve it.   At Vindolanda many of the surviving scapula bones from cows have holes put into them, so that a joint could hang over a fire. It looks like the community had a penchant for eating smoked shoulder of beef!

Better breeding of cattle by the Romans resulted in improved meat carcasses.  By the third and fourth centuries meat was eaten in great quantities by both soldiers and civilians (ref. 4).

Flavius Cerialis, Commanding Officer of the 9th Cohort of Batavians, must have hunted deer here at Vindolanda; a detailed account (Tab. 191) of food and drink consumed by his household includes roe-deer (capreum) and venison (cervinam). This is confirmed by the bones found at Vindolanda, which indicate a far greater proportion of deer than at other Roman sites.  Another writing tablet lists hunting gear, categorised as ‘nets’ (retes), ‘that we have left behind’. One net was for catching thrushes (retum turdarem), one for duck (anatarem), also three snares for catching swans (laquii cicnares).  A fishing net (evericlum piscatorium) is also listed.  Fishing in the Chineley Burn below the fort, in the river South Tyne and in the loughs north of Vindolanda: Grindon, Crag Lough, Greenlee and Broomlee, probably produced salmon, trout and pike. A letter (Tab. 271) probably to Flavius Cerialis, appears to thank him for sending something, and mentions, apuas, a word meaning ‘small fish’. The idea of eating thrushes or fieldfares may be abhorrent to us now, but the Romans ate them with relish (ref. 10).

Pork and bacon and fat were used as part of the military diet. In the Vindolanda writing tablet 182, the centurion, Felicio, owed ‘eight denarii and two asses for 45 pounds of bacon and 15 pounds of lard’. He may have bought this large quantity on behalf of his century.  Another account (Tab. 193) shows him buying on credit (mutuo) spices, gruel and 160 eggs – perhaps two each for the 80 men under him. Atrectus the brewer is in debt for pork fat (ref. 10).

It seems from the writing tablets that many soldiers were involved in trading food, either officially on behalf of the army, or for themselves.     

Cheese was included in iron rations carried by soldiers as part of their regular diet.  The Emperor Hadrian made a point of following the life of an ordinary soldier when with his army, and in camp ate bacon and cheese, and drank sour wine.

A cheese press features among the recent finds at Vindolanda. This small round pottery vessel has raised rings within the sides of the pottery, with holes punched through. The cheese would be packed into the press and the whey would drain through holes. If a cheese were to be eaten soon, it was merely drained, dipped in salt and dried in the sun to produce a creamy cheese with a stiff rind, a bit like Camembert (ref. 4).

Individuals could make food purchases from shops in the vicus or from traders. Imagine mobile vendors selling pancakes, confectionary and sausages to passers-by in the main street.

A stone’s throw from the bath-house you might imagine the smells of meatballs in sauce and cuttlefish -- recipes specifically designed for eating after bathing, as described in Apicius (a collection of recipes from the early 1st century) (ref. 14).

The wide variety of diet, at least for some, is revealed in the Vindolanda writing tablets. One account from the commanding officer’s household (Tab.191) includes spices, roe deer, salt, young pig and red deer. One soldier required 2 denarii of pepper, an expensive item that had come all the way from southern India to the North West frontier of the Empire.

Writing tablet (302), addressed most likely to a slave of the commander Julius Verecundus, contains what appears to be a shopping list, perhaps for goods from the Roman town of Coria, Corbridge, to the east of Vindolanda along the Stanegate:

‘Two modii of bruised beans, 20 chickens, 100 apples – if you can find nice-looking ones – 100 or 200 eggs, if they are on sale there at a fair price….mulsum (honey flavoured wine)…eight sextarii (about 4 litres) of fish sauce (muria)…a modius of olives.’ (ref. 8).

This shopping list contains local produce and luxury items from across the empire, some comforts to remind the senior officers of familiar living – sweet wine, fish sauce and olives!

Vegetables and fruits

The Romans introduced a wider range of vegetables and fruits to Britannia.  They found that the soil and climate suited horticulture on a large scale. Many units of soldiers produced at least some of their own food.

One of the latest writing tablets excavated at Vindolanda refers to cabbages and turnips.  It was found in 2017, along with many others in the early wooden fort levels, several metres down, and is now on display in the museum. It is a letter from Julius Verecundus, the commanding officer of the 1st cohort of Tungrians - the first known garrison here at Vindoloanda, and is a very early record.  Julius Verecundus is asking his slave Audax to send part of a load of greens to Vindolanda, specifically the shoots both of cabbage and of turnip.

‘Iulius Verecundus to Audax, greetings. As soon as it will have been possible, send in

the morning(?) part of the load which I have today dispatched to you (plural) with two

loose horses . . . lest it be damaged by the conveyance in which the greens will be

brought, that is the shoots both of cabbage and of turnip, and send them.’ (ref. 11).

The variety of cabbage most readily adapted to Britain was similar to kale. The turnip was the swede and both the leaves and roots were eaten. The roots could be left in the ground for winter produce. A cabbage stalk was found during excavation of the well in the principia, headquarters building, in the 1930s, so we have further evidence of cabbage being eaten here (ref. 8). Romans were very fond of cabbages.  Columella described 15 varieties grown in Rome, while Cato praised its medicinal properties.  He advised eating raw cabbage seasoned with vinegar before and after dinner, which would enable you to drink as much as you wanted during the meal. Martial suggested that soda should be added to the cooking water to retain the green colour, a method still sometimes used in modern cookery (ref. 4)

Besides cabbages and turnips, other vegetable crops introduced by the Romans include onion, leek, cucumber, parsnip, radish, beet, endive, lettuce, broad bean, garlic and an improved type of carrot. These plants were probably tougher and more fibrous than those grown today, and wild carrots were white! One way of making tough vegetables edible was to rub them by hand in a large mortarium (ibid)

Mortaria were introduced to Britain by the Romans.  A mortarium is a large wide dish with a gritty rough base, and a pouring lip, and many examples have been found at Vindolanda. A mortarium is used to grind spices, herbs and to make sauces. A stone would be used to grind and pulverise tough vegetable fibres into the abrasive base, which acted like a grater. One mortarium from Vindolanda had been worn through by grinding and the base had been repaired with a lead plug, indicating how such vessels were valued and recycled. Today we carry on the mortaria tradition in our kitchens with the use of a mortar and pestle.  At first mortaria were imported from manufacturers in Gaul (France), but over time they were made in Britain. A well-known maker of mortaria was based at Corbridge to the east of Vindolanda.

Herbs were cultivated by the Romans both as a flavouring and for medicinal purposes. Many herbs native to the Mediterranean were brought to Britain. These included dill, fennel, marjoram, sage, rosemary, rue, thyme and the spearmint type of mint. The round leaved mint is native to Britain (ibid). Wild chives were also native to Britain and are still found growing around Hadrian’s Wall. Soldiers brought their culinary tastes with them, including the use of herbs and spices.

 ‘Put into a mortar savoury, mint, rue, coriander, parsley, chives, rocket leaves, green thyme or catmint, pennyroyal and salted cheese. Pound together and mix a little peppered vinegar with them. When you have put the mixture into a small earthenware vessel pour a little oil on top of it’.  This recipe is like a Roman pesto sauce from the Roman writer Columella (ibid).

The native Britons probably collected the leaves of wild plants such as mallow, plantain, docks, black bindweed, dandelion and Good King Henry. Later these would be cultivated by the Romans. The native Britons had cultivated certain crops such as the Celtic bean, a smaller version of the broad bean; vetch for both animal and human consumption; Fat Hen has leaves that taste like spinach and has been grown since the Neolithic period. Its nutritious ground up seeds can be used to make bread and pottage (ibid)

The Romans imported new fruits into Britain including the domesticated plum and the damson, which soon became established as cultivated crops.  Pliny remarks that Lucullus brought cherry trees from Pontus, south of the Black Sea, about 65BC, and that in the first century AD they were planted as far away as Britain. Fruits native to Britain include raspberries, bilberries, blackberries, elderberries, wood strawberries and crab apples (ibid).

 Long distance travellers

Many goods such as olive oil, fish sauce and wine travelled hundreds of miles to Vindolanda from other parts of the Roman Empire. They were contained in amphorae (large pottery jars) or wooden barrels.

Olive oil

The styles of amphora found at Vindolanda show that Spain was an important source of olive oil supplies to the fort. 82% of the Vindolanda finds of amphora were Dressel 20s, an olive oil amphora. These were produced in Spain in the province of Baetica in the Guadalquivir Valley between Seville and Cordova. They can be dated to the period from the late 1st to the late 3rd centuries. Dressel 20 amphorae contained 70 litres of olive oil and, empty, weighed 30kg.

A much smaller percentage of amphora, 7%, are from Gaul, all from Narbonensis (the area of present day Languedoc and Provence in the south of France). An almost complete example of an Augst 21 style amphora from the period IV fort, found in 2002 had contained ‘white’ olives conserved in defrutum, ‘boiled’ wine, as shown by the inscription (ref. 12)

Fish sauce

One amphora found at Vindolanda contained fish sauce, and this was being consumed at the fort at Vindolanda in period V, after AD 120. Fish sauce was made around the Mediterranean shores. The process involved fermenting fish and fish guts in salt with spices, often in open tanks, for 4 to 6 months. The brine called liquamen would be drained off and put into amphorae. It was a bit like fish stock, akin to Thai Nahm-pla today. It was used in many savoury and sweet dishes. Allec was the thick sediment left when most liquid was drawn off.  Garum was an expensive blackish blood sauce made mainly from mackerel. Muria was the term used for a pale fish brine made from the entrails of tunny fish.  Muria is mentioned in the shopping list writing tablet Tab. 302 quoted earlier and also as one of the supplies disbursed to the commanding officer’s household in June, sometime between AD97-103 (ref. 4). Although regarded as a delicacy, Fish sauce could be a source of intestinal illness.


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: