Cereals in Rome: A Vignette

Picture: A Modern Rendition of the Retiarus (I have not been able to find the owner/creator of the picture; if you are the owner, please email yann@yannideology.com with proof)

Corn (maize, not the corn of the Mediterranean, which was wheat) is everywhere, and in this age, makes up much of us. It is as good a starting point as any, giving rise to the first question, so suggestive of a long journey - how did our relationship to agriculture arise? - a journey which leads, in the end, to our questioning the politics of food, which today is played by fitness influencers, states and scientists. But that is getting ahead of oneself, for this article is only about '[c]ereals, vines and olives' (Peter Garnsey, Food and Society in Classical Antiquity, pg 13, citing Braudel).

Why mass agriculture? The problem of starvation...

And is it so bad, if the alternative is starvation? So whoever (or whatever) first penned the Odyssey under the name 'Homer' realised (Book Seven of the Odyssey, Homer, transl. Robert Fitzgerald):

... There's no part
of man more like a dog than brazen Belly,
crying to be remembered - and it must be -
when we are mortal weary and sick at heart;
and that is my condition. ...

To escape the contemporary attitude toward food is unnatural, but seems as difficult as subjecting our received socialisations to a merciless analysis. Writes Peter Garnsey in Food and Society in Classical Antiquity [Garnsey]:

For most of us in our affluent society food is part of the routine of life. It comes to us almost automatically; we have to do little to secure it. We are aware of hunger, but as something that exists somewhere else. Unlike the Old Testament prophets, we do not need to dream of paradise, because we have no personal experience of the meaning of hunger.

Too much is made of the supposed healthy diets of the ancients, as often informs the vapid health articles found so often on the Internet. Garnsey puts it best when he says that "[i]t cannot be assumed that food was evenly distributed in the societies in question. One might equally propose, and with greater plausibility, that food distribution was anything but even. Let us at least recognise that the question, whether the ordinary people of the Mediterranean were well-nourished, is a fair one, which needs to be asked."

Garnsey goes on to state in Chapter 8 of Food and Society that "[i]n Graeco-Roman society, there was a large gulf between the haute cuisine of the few and the frugal menus of the mass of the population, rural and urban." When food was eaten by one of the anonymous masses, then, whatever it may have been, one must plausibly consider that this repast was not planned out of some special insight, but because this was the practice and necessity - socialisation (which includes the attitudes / socio-politics of society) and competition (which includes notions of scarcity), nothing more, nothing less.

This then, must be the assumed rationale and impetus for mass agriculture.

Cereals in Rome

So, cereals, vines and olives, and for our purposes the most interesting item is, by far, cereals. 'Cereals' include a whole group of seed-crops.

First stop, barley and wheat. These were of many kinds, for example the two naked wheats, Triticum durum wheat (hard - ancestor of today's pasta wheat), and Triticum aestivum, (soft and used for bread). Garnsey states at pg 120:

Soft wheat made the best bread, but preferred a wetter climate than the Mediterranean could offer, and was mainly grown in the transitional climates of South Russia, the Northern Balkans, North Italy, Gaul and Britain. Being not readily available, it had to be imported or specially purchased, and so was sought after by the rich from the classical period in Greek history on.

There is an idea that barley had a low status, (Garnsey, pg 119), but this may have been occasioned by an erroneous view of barley's low status as fodder for animals in classical Greece (but this does not seem to have been a view explicitly held by Garnsey, pg 119). Nevertheless, it seems Barley had by the second and early third centuries AD declined to the status of fodder for animals.

Interestingly, some accounts of gladiators (see this and this) refer to them as hordearii, or barley eaters (for example, Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis historia). An article by  Losch et. al. (Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) - Implications for Differences in Diet) states that:

Contemporary Roman texts mention that gladiators consumed a specific diet called ‘‘gladiatoriam saginam’’, which included barley and bell beans (vicia faba). Their consumption of barley led to the derogatory nickname ‘‘hordearii’’ (barley eaters).

Not so surprising, given that gladiators as a group mainly consisted of prisoners of war, slaves and condemned offenders. The article by Losch concludes that all individuals (samples from the archaeological record) tested consumed plants such as wheat and barley as staple food.

The second stop in our journey is the transition from hulled grains to naked grains, principally wheats. Naked grains lend themselves better to breadmaking, and Garnsey mentions that the rich presided over this transition, which would also have involved the introduction of bakers into private households. The ancient far, or emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum), which is hulled (Pliny, Naturalis historia 18.10.7) retained only its role in sacrifice and cult, but gradually diminished in importance as porridge (puls), to which far was amenable to be made into, gave ground to bread (panis) (Garnsey, pg 120). Garnsey suggests that bread and wine were given a central place in Christian ritual practice as a reflection of the consumer preference for bread, and the "predominantly urban environment of early Christianity" (Garnsey, pg 121). 

Finally, consider that bread, and its varieties (72 are named by Athenaeus!) became the mark of social distinction. It reflected social divisions, with poor man's bread being black, and 'rich man's bread' being white. 

A brief word about politics. Food, being as it were so important to the Old World, became a prime means of social stratification, and even became important as an political tactic. 

Juvenal, writing at the end of the first century CE, turned his scorn on the 'mob of Remus', which - he claimed - wanted just two things: 'bread and circuses' (Mary Beard, SPQR) ...

In the late 2nd century BCE (during the subsistence Roman Republic), Gaius Sempronius Gracchus successfully proposed a law to the Plebeian assembly, with the object of subsidising the price of a certain quantity of grain each month. 

The distribution of cheap grain was Gaius' most influential reform. Though it was amended and occasionally suspended over the decades that followed, its basic principle lasted for centuries: Rome was the only place in the ancient Mediterranean where the state took responsibility for the regular basic food supplies of its citizens. (Mary Beard, SPQR

Finale: Vergil's Georgics; socialisation into agriculture

Some years before Caesar Augustus "restored" the Roman Republic, in effect signaling its end, Publius Vergilius Maro wrote his Georgics, his paeans to the wonders of agriculture, to "Bacchus and fostering Ceres" (I refer, in this piece, to the 1912 translation by Arthur S. Way), by whose largesse it is the earth gives us corn, grapes, and what have you. Perhaps it is fitting that the Romans, masters of mass agriculture, should give thanks so, and here starts our fascination with the fruits of agriculture (mythical, but no less significant for being so).

In the "birth-tide of spring", as the wintry weather sloughs away, so the peasants may benefit by hard work, who by their efforts make their "barns ever burst with their measureless golden store". There are many technical passages here, useful to scholars, and important to give a poet his credentials.

And yet, all is not well! Caesar is killed, and man is nothing against the terror of the elements:

A Titan battalion of waters oft sweeps from the welkin down,
And the huddled clouds roll up on the storm's malignant frown
Black deluge of rain: the firmament crashes to earth from the height,
And floods with its measureless downpour the crops late smiling bright,
And the toil of the steers: brim trenches, the swelling rivers roar
In their gorges; the sea is boiling o'er leagues of steaming shore.

In Georgics II, Something very much like Tolstoy and Mao Zedong is evoked by setting the bucolic idyll of the country against the corruption of the city.

Agriculture, the culture of the soil, the culture of the land, is no longer just that, but life itself, naturalness itself. So is our interest in it turned from mere utility, to truth itself. Where are these pretensions clearer, than in the epic of Orpheus and Eurydice as retold in Virgil's Georgics IV? There, by the bugonia, is the grasping for aetiology never clearer, the grasping for the cause which makes one powerful over the effects.



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