The Food of the Late Roman Legion

The Food of the Late Roman Legion

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This was my entry for Avacal/Tir Righ War, which is a war between neighboring principalities.  I was thankful to get to use a friends full camping kitchen to prepare these dishes instead of ours.  The dishes aren’t very complicated, but with four dishes that all had to be ready about the same time it was tough.  The judges loved the taste of all of the dishes, which I was surprised about, I wasn’t expecting them all to taste as good as they did.  I lost some points by not using period cooking vessles or heat source, though I did use period cooking methods.  But I gained points by making my own liquamen and using spelt instead of a more modern grain.

I’ll be doing more research into period grains in the future.  It was something that I did at the last minute for this entry, but I can’t imagine how bad the biscuts would have been had they been made with bread flour instead of cracked and lightly ground spelt.

Summary

Roman legionary food from the fourth century.  The recipes I have created are adapted from recipes in The Roman Cookery Book: a Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicus. Which is a translation of a fourth century Roman cookbook.  The originals of the recipes I’ve adapted are later in the documentation.


Recipes

Liquamen

  • 1-2 L water
  • kosher salt
  • One tin sardines[1]
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp caroenum[2]
  1. In a medium size pot add water and enough salt until a raw egg floats in the water
  2. Add fish and oregano
  3. Bring to a boil
  4. Add caroenum
  5. Boil for 10 minutes
  6. Remove from heat and cover
  7. Once cool strain through cheese cloth

Isicia de Pullo

  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 1 cup liquamen
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 4 tsp ground black pepper
  1. Debone and dice chicken finely
  2. In a bowl mix chicken with 2 tsp pepper
  3. Add enough liquamen to hold it together and mix till it becomes more of a paste
  4. Form into small patties and cook in oiled frying pan till done
  5. Mix ¼ cup liquamen with ¼ cup oil and 2 tsp pepper
  6. Serve Isicia with the sauce drizzled overtop

Porros Maturos Fieri

  • 1 head of leeks
  • water
  • ¼ cup kosher salt
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp liquamen
  1. Separate leaves of leeks
  2. Bring a pot of water to boil
  3. Add salt, and 1 tbsp of oil
  4. Add leeks
  5. Boil till soft and deep green
  6. Remove from water and drizzle 2 tbsp oil and liquamen

Pultes Lardum

  • 1 cup ground grain
  • 2 cups Water
  • 1 tbsp Olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 strips bacon, diced
  1. Soak grain and water together ½ hour
  2. Put grain mixture onto heat, bring to boil
  3. When it boils add oil
  4. Simmer, stirring frequently
  5. Cook bacon in a frying pan until starting to brown
  6. Once pottage is creamy add bacon and stir together

Biscuits

  • 3 strips bacon
  • 1 cup ground grain
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  1. Mix together grain, water, and oil
  2. Allow to rest
  3. Flatten dough
  4. Cook bacon in a frying pan
  5. Remove bacon
  6. Add thin biscuits to the pan
  7. Cook till golden brown, flipping once

Introduction

Nothing is so important in war as the source of your soldiers’ next meal.  This is a truth that seems to have been ignored for most of the medieval time period, but was well known by the Romans.  In the Roman Legion every soldier was given a ration of food per day, and emergency rations for when they were not being housed in a fort.  This allowed them to be more self sufficient than other armies which relied on forage to feed their troops.  To demonstrate the theme of “War” I have chosen to recreate food that a Roman legionary in the fourth century would have eaten.

The Roman legionary had a variety of food depending on whether they were on campaign or at a fort.  While at one of the permanent camps or forts (castra stativa) the legionaries would have a combination of beer or wine, meat (beef, pork, poultry, and mutton), fish (and shellfish), fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, eggs, oil, Liquamen (more on this later) and salt depending on the fort’s location (Adkins 1994, 78) (Birkbeck 1998, 401).  While on the move each legionary carried fifteen days worth of emergency rations (Adkins 1994, 78), and their diet consisted of wheat (likely spelt), bacon or other preserved meats, cheese, and sour wine (Adkins 1994, 78) I assume that many a legionary carried salt or oil with him as well.  By the third century the Romans had an entire bureaucracy for the organization, storage, collection, and distribution of food for the army including granaries and warehouse throughout the empire.

The cooking apparatuses of the legion were varied as well.  A number of cooking implements were discovered in excavations in Newstead Scotland of an ancient Roman fortress, including pots of varying sizes, frying pans, and a gridiron (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 32). While on march each group of eight legionaries carried their own cooking supplies which would have included the gridiron, frying pan, and pot (Birkbeck 1998, 401).

The Romans in general had two major focuses in their food.  First was that nothing stays in its original flavour; all dishes need to be altered at least slightly (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 19).  Second meats are cooked primarily by boiling, braising, or frying rather than by roasting.  I suspect this was done to further the first rule, as it is easier to change the flavour of something which has been boiled or braised rather than roasted.  Also although houses would have a cooking fire in a hearth of some sort, large ovens seem to have been rare except for in the houses of the more wealthy.  The less well off would be lucky to have a small portable oven which could be placed on the hearth for baking, but it seems that a lot of the baking was done in public ovens (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 29-31).  Translating this to military cooking I assume that most of the cooking would have been done in pots and frying pans, with baked bread being provided from the fort’s oven.  Most meat or fish would likely have then been boiled, stewed, cooked in a makeshift bain-marie, or cooked in a frying pan.  Vegetables and fruit would have been cooked (to change the flavour of both meat and fruits/vegetables), rather than eaten raw.  While in fort bread would have been provided from the oven, but when one was not available or they not at their fort it would likely have been pan fried as thin biscuts.

As grain was the main staple of the legionaries they must have had many ways of cooking it.  In my research the ways I found were as pasta, bread, biscuits, and porridge (Birkbeck 1998, 401) (Adkins 1994, 78).  Pasta requires space to make, and a way to roll or flatten it.  It also requires elasticity, which can be done by using eggs, or different types of grain, or several other methods, all of which are difficult without at least a basic kitchen.  Bread I have broken down into two categories: bread and biscuits.  I’ve done this because of one important addition to what would have been available in a fort but not while marching: Leaven.  I won’t go into the history of leaven, but of course our modern leavening agents dried yeast,  baking soda & powder, etc were not available.  Instead you had to use a living culture to leaven your bread.  Beer barm would work well, but I suspect that the roman legions used a form of sourdough starter.  Unlike today’s mostly liquid starter they would have used one that had a higher flour content, as that makes it more stable.  The starter would be mixed into the bread and left over night, the next morning a chunk of the dough would be removed to make the next day’s starter.  This process was used for centuries, and was even referred to by Jesus in the bible[3].  Though the process would be more effective in a bake house which had a higher ambient yeast content this method could be used anywhere.  However, because it required the bread to sit overnight it would not likely have been used while on the march.  Biscuts were likely used while on the march as they can be made with very few ingredients, as few as two if needed.  Flour and water would be easy to come by, as the troops were given grain as a ration every day.  Salt or oil could be added to give flavour easily.  A grain porridge seems to have also been eaten by the soldiers (Adkins 1994) as well.  Again, with the pots that the soldiers carried with them it would have been an easy way of making a quick meal.

In order to move beyond the research I’ve found on what the roman soldiers probably ate I decided to delve into the Roman cookery book known as Apicus.  Apicus is a compilation of recipes from the end of the fourth century, and although it contains many recipes from Apicus (a first century author) the editor is not also named Apicus, instead the editor is using the famous authors name for some name recognition (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958).  I will be examining the recipes in the book which include recipes for both the wealthy and the plebs for ones which could have been done with what the legionaries had access to.

Castra Stativa

While in fort the legionaries would have had a varied menu consisting of a combination of local food and food brought in from the legion store houses.  Food brought in from the store houses would have included grain, as a major staple of the legionary diet, easily farmable meat (probably varying by province) and mass produced foodstuffs such as olive oil, salt, liquamen and caroenum.

With this in mind I have worked on finding recipes which included only ingredients which could be easily had in a fort, or which could be prepared without some of the extraneous ingredients without letting the true flavour of the original food through too much.  I did find a number of recipes such as Boiled Hare (Aliter Leporem Elixum) where you simply boil the animal, then serve it covered in oil, liquamen, vinegar and some herbs, or Fried Mussles (Sphondyli Fricti) which are pan fried and served in a simple sauce.  But I wanted to make something a little more complex, and something where the adaption of flavour which is so prevalent in Roman cuisine takes place earlier on in the preparation.

Liquamen and Caroenum were sauces that were favoured by the Romans.  They were mass produced in factories and were used to add certain flavours to dishes (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 21-22).  Caroenum is made by reducing grape must before fermentation can begin.  The resulting sauce is thick and sweet and is a good and long lasting sweetener which can be added to pretty much any food.  Liquamen is made from salted fish parts and was used instead of salt in many dishes.  I believe that due to its ease of transport that salt would have been carried by the average legionary to add flavour to food while on the march, but while in fort liquamen would have been used instead.

For my dishes for in fort cooking I am preparing Chicken Rissoles (Isicia de Pullo) and Boiled Leeks (Porros Maturos Fieri).  Both are simple dishes prepared with a minimum of cooking requirements and a minimum of ingredients, and would easily have been made at a fort.  The meal would have been served with beer or wine and leavened bread.  I have chosen not to serve this with the bread as I did not want to grow the starter, and I would not be able to make the bread on site.

Recipes

Liquamen

Liquamen, unlike caroenum, is no longer available for purchase.  But Flower and Rosenbaum have included several recipes for it in the introduction to their translation of Apicus.  The one I have chosen to use is the boiled version rather than the dried version.  It comes from The Geoponicia, a compilation of agricultural and some cookery works from the fourth to the tenth centuries.  Though it refers to Liquamen as Garum it is the same thing by another name.  In Book XX it says this as quoted in The Roman Cookery Book (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 22):

If you wish to use the garum at once—i.e., not expose it to the sun, but boil it—make it in the following manner: Take brine and test its strength by throwing an egg into it to try if it floats; if it sinks the brine does not contain enough salt.  Put the fish into the brine in a new earthenware pot, add origan, put it on a good fire until it boils—i.e., until it begins to reduce.  Some people also add defrutum[4].  Let it cool and strain it two and three times until it its clear.  Seal and store away (Owen 1805).

Here is my adaptation:

  • 1-2 L water
  • kosher salt
  • One tin sardines[5]
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp caroenum[6]
  1. In a medium size pot add water and enough salt until a raw egg floats in the water
  2. Add fish and oregano
  3. Bring to a boil
  4. Add caroenum
  5. Boil for 10 minutes
  6. Remove from heat and cover
  7. Once cool strain through cheese cloth

Isicia de Pullo

Isicia, or Rissoles, is a simple dish which has infinite variation.  The basic method is to dice or grind meat very fine, mix it with other ingredients and then pan fry it and serve it with a sauce.  There is no direct recipe for Isicia de Pullo, but there are several references to it.  I will be providing a basic Isicia recipe and then giving the additional information regarding Chicken.

Isicia de Lolligine: sublatis crinibus in fulmento tundes, sicuti adsolet.  pulpa et in mortario et in liquamine diligenter fricatur, et exinde isicia plassantur.

Rissoles of Squid.  Remove the tenticals and beat it on a board in the usual way.  The flesh is carefully pounded in a mortar with liquamen and then formed into rissoles. (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 60-61)

And the information regarding chicken:

In Isicia de Pullo: oli floris lib. I, liquaminis quartarium, piperis semunciam.

To serve with Chicken Rissoles.  1 lb. Of best oil, 1 gill liquamen, ½ oz. Pepper (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 64-65)

Isicia de pavo primum locum habent ita si fricta fuerint ut callum vincant.  Item secundum locum habent de fasianis, habent de pullis, item quantum locum habent de porcello tenero.

Rissoles.  The most prized are peacock rissoles if they are fried so as to make the hard skin tender.  Next in order for rissoles comes pheasant, after that rabbit, then chicken, then tender sucking-pig. (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 66-67)

With this information I have put together this recipe:

  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 1 cup liquamen
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 4 tsp ground black pepper
  1. Debone and dice chicken finely
  2. In a bowl mix chicken with 2 tsp pepper
  3. Add enough liquamen to hold it together and mix till it becomes more of a paste
  4. Form into small patties and cook in oiled frying pan till done
  5. Mix ¼ cup liquamen with ¼ cup oil and 2 tsp pepper
  6. Serve Isicia with the sauce drizzled overtop

Porros Maturos Fieri

Porros Maturos Fieri are a simple boiled leeks recipe which would have been easy to make, especially at a legion fort.  The change in taste comes with the liquamen and oil which is added after cooking.

Porros Maturos Fieri: pugnum salis, aquam et oleum: mixtum facies et ibi coques et eximes.  cum oleo, liquamine, mero [et] infers.

Full-size Leeks.  Make a mixture of a handful of salt, water, and oil, cook in this, and remove.  Serve with oil, liquamen, and wine. (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 80-81)

My version is the same:

  • 1 head of leeks
  • water
  • ¼ cup kosher salt
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp liquamen
  1. Separate leaves of leeks
  2. Bring a pot of water to boil
  3. Add salt, and 1 tbsp of oil
  4. Add leeks
  5. Boil till soft and deep green
  6. Remove from water and drizzle 2 tbsp oil and liquamen

On the March

While marching food was more limited.  As I mentioned previously the rations would have been simple: bacon and grain.  The grain would probably have been spelt.  Based on the recipes in Apicus I would say that these meals would be prepared in one of two manners: a bacon pottage (pultes), and biscuits and bacon.  The pottage is based on a recipe from Apicus, and the biscuits are based on conjecture and secondary sources.  I will be making both.

Recipes

Pultes Lardum

Pultes, or pottage, is a simple dish made of grain, water, oil, and meat.  Ordinarily this would also include some simple herbs and spices, but as this is a dish to be made while traveling my recipe will be omitting that.  Mine is adapted from the basic Julian Pottage recipe.

Pultes Iulianae sic Coquuntur: alicam purgatam infundis, coques, facies ut ferveat.  cum ferbuerit, oleum mittis, cum spissaverit, lias diligenter.  adicies cerebella duo cocta et selibram pulpae quasi ad isicia liatae, cum cerebellis teres et in caccabum mittis.  teres  piper, ligusticum, feniculi semen, suffundis liquamen et vinum modice, mittis in caccabum supra cerebella et pulpam.  ubi satis ferbuerit, cum iure misces.  ex hoc paulatim alicam condies, et ad trullam permisces et lias, ut quasi sucus videatur.

Julian Pottage is made in the following way.  Soak hulled spelt, cook, bring to the boil.  When boiling add oil.  When it thickens stir to a creamy consistency.  Take two brains previously cooked and half a pound of meat, minced as for rissoles, pound together with the brains and put into a saucepan.  Then pound pepper, lovage, fennel-seed, moisten with liquamen and a little wine, and put into the saucepan over the brains and the meat.  When this has cooked enough mix it with stock.  Add this mixture gradually to the spelt, mixing it in by the ladleful, and stir until smooth, to the consistency of thick soup. (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958, 122-123)

My recipe is adapted from this, replacing the meat and brains with diced cooked bacon.

  • 1 cup ground grain
  • 2 cups Water
  • 1 tbsp Olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 strips bacon, diced
  1. Soak grain and water together ½ hour
  2. Put grain mixture onto heat, bring to boil
  3. When it boils add oil
  4. Simmer, stirring frequently
  5. Cook bacon in a frying pan until starting to brown
  6. Once pottage is creamy add bacon and stir together

Biscuits

Believed to be the basic food of the roman legion on the march, the pan fried biscuits would have been a quick meal to make with very few ingredients.  This is also the only food item that isn’t reflected in Apicus.  Because of this I’ve had to extrapolate from other unleavened breads.  The only needed ingredients are oil, water and flour.  I can’t be sure that oil would be had while on the march, but as it is such a mainstay in all roman recipes, I assume that it would be included in daily rations.  To add flavour I will be using salt (another assumption), and will be cooking the biscuits in the grease from the bacon which was the other main staple.

  • 3 strips bacon
  • 1 cup ground grain
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  1. Mix together grain, water, and oil
  2. Allow to rest
  3. Flatten dough
  4. Cook bacon in a frying pan
  5. Remove bacon
  6. Add thin biscuits to the pan
  7. Cook till golden brown, flipping once

Conclusion

The Roman legionary would have been well fed on a balanced, if simple, diet.  This could be one of the reasons behind their military superiority—a well fed soldier fights better.  By recreating the food that could have been eaten by a Roman legionary I have shown how the Romans would eat while at war.

Extra evidence can be found in: Food and Drink in Antiquity by John F. Donahue

Bibliography

Adkins, Lesley & Adkins, Roy A. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1994.

Birkbeck, A.E. “The Human Factor in Applied Warfare.” Contemporary Ergonomics, 1998: 398-403.

Flower, Barbara, and Elisabeth Rosenbaum, . The Roman Cookery Book: a critical translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius. Peter Nevill Limited, 1958.

Owen, Thomas, trans. Geoponika: Agricultural Pursuits. London: J. White, Fleet-Street, 1805.


[1] Use the sardines in olive oil, not one of the ones with herbs or spices added

 

[2] Caroenum is now sold under the name Vincotto Originale and is available in many Greek or Italian grocery stores

[3] Luke 13:20-21

[4] Caroenum which hasn’t been reduced as much.

[5] Use the sardines in olive oil, not one of the ones with herbs or spices added

[6] Caroenum is now sold under the name Vincotto Originale and is available in many Greek or Italian grocery stores

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