Friday, December 5, 2008

Food in Roman Britain, by Joan Alcock

I'm not especially interested in reproducing recipes from the Roman era, but I am fascinated by ancient food culture. Food in Roman Britain is an excellent way to discover the foods, drinks, trade, cooking methods, and customs that surrounded Romano-British meals.

The book is well written, and a comfortable read. One can be confident that Alcock's assertions are backed up with good research, there is a bibliography, yet it is not easy to check her specific references. At the time the publisher's unfortunate policy was to do without citations. I can only assume that the marketing people at Tempus Publishing were concerned that casual readers would be scared off by any scholarly looking footnotes.

I was especially interested in the author's chapter on the Roman military diet. Decades ago history books stated that Roman soldiers survived on a vegetarian diet. Alcock easily toasts that myth. We learn about the great variety of food available to the troops, how it was acquired, how it was transported on the march, and stored in camp. The Romans knack for organization expressed itself in the food supply. Alcock explains arious officers' duties in food management, and goes on to describe how individual soldiers prepared and ate their meals.

1. Background evidence
2. Cereal products
3. Meat, game and poultry
4. Fish, shellfish and other crustaceans
5. Dairy products
6. Vegetables, fruits and nuts
7. Herbs, spices, salt and honey
8. Olive oil and liquamen
9. Wine, beer and water
10. The kitchen
11. The dining room
12. Shops and markets
13. Army diet
14. Diet and nutrition

A good companion to Alcock's book is Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain, by H.E.M. Cool. This title is also a good read, but has the academic benefit of being well-cited. I always like to read books by at least two different authors. It's interesting to see the contrasting approaches and conclusions on the same subject.


marcie b. said...

Hello Andrew. I actually hadn't seen this blog of yours before. It looks great. Any way, I wonder why author's formerly asserted that Roman soldiers were vegetarian. What was their reasoning?

Andrew said...

Hi Marcie,

Thanks! I don't remember exactly, but I think the idea was based on limited information from classical literature—before archaeology proved the men ate indeed meat. For instance, Caesar wrote of shipments of grain from Egypt, but I don't think he bothered to make any mention of meat. This is a good example of the phrase, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!"