Tuesday, October 09, 2018

History of wheat in Roman Empire

Wheat was immensely important in the Roman Empire, partly because it was almost the only staple. Barley, which had been important in earlier centuries was going out of fashion, although it still provided food for the poor.

Rome’s conquests brought changes in agriculture. One change was in the size and purpose of farms. Most Romans had been small farmers who believed in hard work and service to Rome. Now, the small farms were replaced by large estates called latifundias. The small farms had grown wheat for food.

Emmer (Triticum dicoccum L.) was the most widely cultivated husked wheat in Roman Italy for over 300 years, into the Imperial period, until at least the 5thand 4thcentury AD.

The bulk of the Roman basic citizens would eat wheat or barley every day in the form of a gruel called puls or as a coarse home-baked flatbread. The citizen who could afford to do so would take their cereal to a local bakery to have it made into loaves of leavened bread, which was ideal for dipping into olive oil, milk, wine, or the sauces from cooked dishes.

Feeding the city also had an important political dimension: since the Republic, a dole of wheat was given to each adult man which began in 58B.C.

By the time of Augustus, this dole was providing free food for some 200,000 Romans. The emperor paid the cost of this dole out of his own pocket.

Roman Empire in 117 AD
It has been calculated that the dole would have been enough to provide a man with about 3,000- 3,500 calories a day, although in practice he would have shared it with his family and, of course, eaten other things.

In 2 BC Augustus cut back the number of recipients of the wheat dole to 200,000, which implied importing somewhere in the order of 80,000 tons of wheat per annum for this purpose alone. In 146 B.C., the Roman legions sacked Carthage and took over its wheat fields. Less than 25 years later, Rome was able to begin issuing grain to its citizens at subsidized prices, and later free of charge.

To make this possible, there had to be food ships leaving for Italy every day, weather permitting. They sailed the sea in large convoys. The crossing from Alexandria, Egypt took 13 days, and from Carthage four days or less.

According to Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, writing in the 1st century BC, Sardinia, Sicily and Africa were the main sources of wheat-growing, but this gradually changed. In the Bellum Judaicum, Roman-Jewish scholar Josephus, writing about the time of the destruction of Pompeii, maintained that Africa fed Rome for two-thirds of the year and Egypt for the remaining third.
History of wheat in Roman Empire