Patricia Gillespie - Volunteer Guide

Cooking

In the extra-mural settlement

In a typical village house in the extramural settlement next to the fort, you might find a cooking platform, where a fire would be set using wood or charcoal. Cooking pots made of clay, olla, would be nestled into the fire, perhaps to make a tempting stew. The Vindolanda museum contains numerous examples of cooking pots used by the community, for example Grey wares and Black Burnished Wares.

In rural areas

In pre-Roman and rural Roman Britain, the native Britons lived in round houses with wooden walls and thatched roofs. From the rafters you would find hams and bacon hanging to cure them in the smoke which swirled up from the fire. There would be a central hearth, a fire blazing with iron firedogs to hold spits to cook joints of meat.

According to Diodorus, Celtic diners sat cross-legged on the floor on animal skins round the fire eating from wooden platters passed round the guests.   Posidonius says ‘They also scatter hay on the ground when they serve their meals, which they take on wooden tables raised only slightly above the ground’.

Posidonius says of the Celts that ‘their food consists of a small number of loaves of bread, together with a large amount of meat, either boiled or roasted on charcoal or on spits. Those who live beside rivers or near the Mediterranean or the Atlantic eat fish in addition, baked fish, that is, with the addition of salt, vinegar and cumin’.

The main cooking implements both in Iron Age and Roman Britain were cauldrons. In the Iron Age they had a symbolic role - they indicated a plentiful life and eating together round the central hearth formed a bond between them (ref. 4)

The Soldiers

Essential elements of a soldier’s diet were wheat and bread, meat, cheese, vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil (or lard), beer and wine. 

Soldiers used basic culinary equipment, including cooking pots, and cooked for themselves in their barrack rooms, where, at Vindolanda, there is evidence for hearths. Paterae (iron pans) had thick rings on their bases to stop the contents burning during cooking. The handles had a looped end, so that soldiers could hang them from their marching kits. Many patera used on Hadrian’s Wall were from Campania in Italy.

The sartago or frying pan was used for cooking meat and fish, and sometimes had a handle that folded over making it easy to transport - in true camping style, a design used in mess tins today.

On the march, soldiers usually carried their equipment on a furca, forked stick. The kit included a pan for cooking and eating, a billy can, a string bag in which to put a drinks container and a leather bag in which to store three days grain or any foraged food (ref. 4).

On manoeuvres and during battle campaigns, hard tack called bucellatum was supplied. Hardtack was a simple biscuit made of flour, water and salt.  It was baked slowly, twice, at low temperatures until completely hard, with no moisture left. Consequently it was slow to go off and perfect for campaigns, when grain and bread would have started to deteriorate. It may have been eaten dry or softened in posca or a stew.

The Commanding Officer’s household

Many of the commanding officers, including Flavius Cerialis, lived at Vindoldana with their families.  The household occupied a substantial self-contained house, the praetorium, with slaves, a cook and kitchen staff.

The commanding officers of forts had to be prepared to entertain fellow officers visiting from other forts, administrators and officials.  An account of poultry consumed for a period over more than two years, April 102 to July 104, revealed that the commanding officer, Flavius Cerialis, had entertained a legate, several visiting officers and the Governor of Britain.   So, the Governor of Britain had chicken for lunch on 1st May at Vindolanda! And then Flavius Cerialis accompanied the Governor to Coria (Corbridge) after their business lunch! (ref. 10).

The Romans were very partial to chicken and Apicius recorded 15 different ways of cooking it with sweet and sour sauces.

Correct dinner dress was required in the dining room. Tab. 196 records a long list of different types of clothing including cloaks and tunics, some of which are specifically identified as appropriate for dining.  Life in the army, especially for the garrison commander, could be as much a matter of manners as of military tactics (ref. 10)

The commanding officer’s house would have more elevated cuisine than the average soldier, hopefully no burnt pots of pottage!  The kitchen would be in the modernised Roman style, and there would be a separate dining room with underfloor heating.

A Roman kitchen usually had a raised hearth set against a wall and edged with a curb to hold in the hot charcoal. This would reach waist height, so that cooking could be done while standing. A gridiron, a large iron stand, supported the pots and pans (ref. 4).

There were slaves in the commanding officer’s household to help with heavy tasks, such as lifting heavy storage vessels, collecting wood for fires for cooking, grinding wheat for bread making, preparing food and achieving the washing up, using abrasive sand and other substances.

Some of the praetorium buildings in the early wooden forts at Vindolanda had a water supply piped to them through wooden water pipes.  Kitchens were not necessarily clean places. Martial mentioned a steamy, sooty kitchen. Horace moaned about smoke making his eyes water. And the toilet was often situated in the kitchen! (ref. 4).

Lepidina’s kitchen

An insight into the kitchen in the praetorium of Flavius Cerialis and his wife Lepidina is given by two fragments of writing tablets of what looks like an inventory (194) of its contents. The first reads:

Shallow dishes (scutulas) 2

Side-plates (paropsides) 5

Vinegar-bowls (acetabula) 3

Egg cups or egg containers (ovaria) 3

On the cross-beam:

A platter (lancem) a shallow dish

 

The second tablet fragment lists:

‘a container (compendiarium) and

A bronze lamp (lucernam)

Bread-baskets (panaria) 4

Cups (calices) 2

In a box, bowls or ladles (trullas) 2

Fragments of what looks like a recipe (Tab. 208) survive: it speaks of something made ‘in the Batavian fashion’, and included garlic paste (alliatum) and conditum.

A good deal of items had to be ordered from far afield.  A fragmentary account registers items ‘ordered (mandata) through Adiutor from London’. These included a contrullium cenatorium, which must be a ‘set of bowls for dining’ – costing 11 denari, mustard, anise, caraway and thyme.

In a very fragmentary account (Tab. 1467), only one word is clearly legible: opium. According to the Elder Pliny, dried poppy juice was used as a soporific and for a variety of medical purposes – but he warns that an overdose could be fatal!

Fish bones, which often don’t survive in the archaeology, were found in this praetorium, which attests to fish being eaten here (ref. 10).

The Dining Room

It is difficult to know how widely Roman dining habits were adopted in Britain due to lack of evidence. Celtic dining habits would have continued, especially in rural areas and less wealthy parts of towns.

Some Romans copied Greek habits, taking meals reclining on three couches, placed around a table.  Originally only men did this, although during the early empire women began to adopt this.  Squatting or crouching was to assume the demeanor of a barbarian or slave.

Meals

As cutlery consisted of knives and spoons, most of the food was in the form of a stew or porridge.

Food was cut into small portions so that people could eat with their fingers. Spoons were used to eat sauces or bread was used to mop up sauces.  A slave would go round the diners holding bowls of water into which they could dip their hands, offering a napkin for drying them (ref. 4).

Roman eating habits on the whole were sensible and abstemious. Most people ate frugally during the day. The daily diet between rich and poor varied considerably. Poorer people would be faced with a monotonous lack of variety, with little beyond coarse bread, gruel, and bean or pea pottage, with only the occasional addition of meat. Slivers of meat could be cut from bones with a knife, but the state of people’s teeth might dictate what they could eat and in what form. Many of Apicius’s recipes deal with pates, minced meat and omelette-style dishes.

Sauces were often highly flavoured with many spices, firstly to disguise the taste of rancid food. In ‘the careful housekeeper’ Apicius tells readers ‘How to make stale meat sweet – cook first in milk, then water’.  The complexity of dishes was designed to make the guest fully aware of the expense that the host had gone to. Cooks liked to contrast sweet with salty and sour foods, e.g. fish sauce with melon; or pancakes with pepper. Honey was the main source of sweetener and a preservative for meat and fruit. Salt was the main means of preservation, long before the days of refrigeration, and was so valuable that our modern word ‘salary’ is derived from it (ref. 13)

Due to the absence of sugar there was a lack of tooth decay.  A high fibre diet protects the teeth because it is more abrasive and scours the teeth more than does a highly refined diet. The drawback is that grit in stone-ground bread could wear teeth down.

Excavation in the 3rd century bath house toilet drain at Vindolanda in 2019 revealed the presence of common infestations such as tapeworm. Tapeworm could be present in the fish sauce, liquamen, which was exported all over the empire from the Mediterranean. As it was used in foods and for medicinal purposes, its effects on the population were very far reaching.  Also, lack of good hygiene with regard to food could lead to health problems from mild discomfort to chronic sickness.

In a Roman home there would be three meals a day.  Dinner was the main meal and breakfast and lunch were very light.

Breakfast (ientaculum), fruit, bread, water or wine.

Lunch (prandium) a snack meal of vegetables, fruit, bread, a drink, 10am to 2pm

Evening meal (cena) a time to socialise and relax, invite friends and have entertainment, between 4pm and 7pm.

Tableware

After the conquest and the spread of Roman ways by the army and administrators, large quantities of tableware became available to the population.  A typical example is Samian ware, much of which came from producers in Gaul, modern day France.  It is commonly found by archaeologists in forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Before this time, a fine set of this aspirational ware had arrived broken at Vindolanda, and was discarded into the fort ditch of the first wooden fort, soon after AD 85, with hundreds of unopened oysters! (ref. 8).

Oyster shells are found in vast quantities in Britain, which testifies to their popularity in Roman times.  A correspondent writing to Lucius, the Decurion, at Vindolanda says that a friend has sent him 50 oysters from Cordonovi, Tab. 299. Where is this?  We don’t know for sure, but it may have been on the Thames estuary (ref. 10). If the shells remained closed, oysters could be transported in tightly closed barrels filled with sea water and could survive being transported for almost two weeks.  After their coastal sea journey, they would be carried by land to the northern forts like Vindolanda. When eaten raw the Romans preferred oysters with a dressing. Apicius gives some recipes, one is a kind of mayonnaise:  with pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, liquamen (fish sauce), oil and wine with honey (ref. 4).

 

Unusual foods

Dormice featured in Roman banquets, with a taste similar to rabbit. Apicius suggests that they should be stuffed with minced pork, pine kernels and liquamen.  The garden dormouse may have been imported to Britain in the early 3rd century. Bones of the creature were found at Arbeia fort at South Shields on the mouth of the river Tyne and may have been accidentally imported in grain.

Snails were deliberately fattened on a diet of milk until they were too big to go back into their shells.  They were then poached and often eaten as hors d’oeuvres.

Summary

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.

 

References:

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 romanbritain.org

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 www.dovesfarm.co.uk    Doves Farm, Organic flour specialist

 Vindolanda Tablets online:         vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk