Tag Archives: archaeology

Roman Recipes and the Senses

By Erica Rowan

We do not have many recipes from the ancient world and certainly none presented in the user-friendly format found in today’s cookbooks with precise measurements, cooking times and images of the finished product. Some ancient recipes are found at the end of agrarian handbooks, like those produced by Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) (for more see Catherine Draycott’s post https://recipes.hypotheses.org/5005), while others are described as part of a philosophical dinner party (Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae). The most famous recipe book, and the one which most reconstructed Roman recipes are based, is Apicius’ De re coquinaria or On the subject of cooking. Compiled sometime during the 4th century AD and named after an infamous 1st century AD cook, it contains recipes for vegetables, pulses, meat, seafood and game. Ingredients are listed in the text along with rough instructions for the preparation and cooking of the dish (think instructions for the technical challenge in The Great British Bake Off). The lack of ingredient quantities suggests that it functioned as part coffee table book and part chef’s manual, whereby the cook already had a good understanding of ingredient combinations and quantities. In other words, it was not for the beginner home cook.

Despite a lack of precision and clarity in these surviving recipes, it is possible to gain a detailed understanding of the sensory experience involved in the preparation and consumption of these dishes. This is due to the survival of several pieces of Roman kitchen equipment and at times, the food remains themselves. At sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum (Italy), which were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, we not only have cooking pots, plates and serving dishes, but also the remains of the kitchens and dining rooms where the food was prepared and eaten.

So what was it like to make and eat Roman food? Let’s look at one of Apicius’ recipes in detail.

Lentils with mussels: take a clean pan, (put the lentils in and cook them). Put in a mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, rue, pennyroyal, and pound them. Pour on vinegar, add honey, liquamen, and defrutum, flavour with vinegar. Empty the mortar into the pan. Pound cooked mussels, put them in and bring to heat; when it is simmering well, thicken. Pour green oil over it in the serving dish.

[Apicius, On the subject of cooking, 5.2.1, from Grocock and Grainger 2006: 209]

The first thing you may notice about this dish is the vast number of flavours and seasonings involved. In addition to the various herbs, the recipe also calls for liquamen, a fermented fish sauce similar to the Thai fish sauce Nam Pla, and defrutum, concentrated grape syrup made from boiled down grape juice. Roman dishes are notorious for their seemingly strange and startling mix of flavours. However, before we get to the taste, let’s start with sensory experience of preparing this dish.

Firstly, let’s assume that this dish is being prepared for a dinner party in a wealthy Roman household. If you were the one making the food you would have been a slave, working in a hot, small, smoky kitchen. Roman kitchens are readily identifiable by their large ceramic hearths. Cooking took place on the hearth; the space beneath is just for the storage of fuel, usually charcoal or wood. The lack of chimneys in Roman kitchens means that there was poor ventilation and the smell of the cooking food would have been quite strong. The small size of most kitchens, even in larger houses, meant that the room would have been hot, even in the winter.

At least two pieces of cooking equipment are required to make this recipe, a pan and a mortar. The mortar would have been a mortarium (image), a large shallow ceramic bowl with stone inclusions in the bottom to provide a rough grating surface. All the seasonings would have been ground by hand using a mortarium and wooden pestle. The pan (perhaps made of bronze) would have been placed on a metal or ceramic tripod with charcoal underneath. The varying materials of the mortarium, pestle and pan would have made the tactile experience quite dynamic. Once the dish was finished, depending upon the wealth of your owners, you would have poured the finished product onto a ceramic, bronze or silver platter. You’d then promptly move on to preparing another dish as Roman dinners usually consisted of several courses.

Now let’s shift gears and say you’re a guest at the dinner party and you have the opportunity to taste and smell this dish. The combination of flavours in this recipe, and particularly the mixture of the liquamen, defrutum, honey and vinegar would have given it a sweet and salty taste. In my experience, having made several Roman dishes, the flavour combination is strange but not jarring or unpleasant. Roman food tasted much more like modern Thai or Chinese cuisine than modern Italian with its frequent combination of sweet, sour, and salty. The black pepper in the dish, imported from India, would have provided a hint of wealth and exoticism as it was by far one of the most expensive and foreign seasonings you could use at this time. If you had grown up consuming a Roman diet then this dish would have smelled and tasted very normal to you. The herbs, in addition to appearing in numerous other Apician recipes, are also frequently mentioned by other ancient authors, suggesting that they formed an important part of the Roman diet. This importance is confirmed by the recovery of many of the herbs, and in particular coriander, at sites throughout the Roman Empire.

The military and merchants carried and imported these herbs to all the corners of the Empire, perhaps to evoke a taste of home. Some individuals native to the northern provinces, such as Gaul and Britain, adopted these seasonings into their local cuisines. In addition to probably enjoying the taste, they used them to display their wealth or allegiance to Rome.

In sum, there is much sensory information that can be gleaned from Roman recipes and the archaeological remains of food preparation and consumption. What is perhaps most striking is the vastly different interactions and experiences of those in the kitchen compared to those in the dining room!

Select bibliography

Grocock, C. W. and Grainger, S. 2006. Apicius: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text Apicius. Totnes: Prospect.

Livarda, A. 2011. ‘Spicing up life in northwestern Europe: exotic food plant imports in the Roman and medieval world.’ Veg Hist Archaeobot, 20(2): 143-164.

Livarda, A., 2018. Tastes in the Roman provinces: an archaeobotanical approach to socio-cultural change. In: K.C. Rudolph, ed. Taste and the Ancient Senses. London: Routledge. pp. 179-196.

Rowan, E., 2017. Bioarchaeological preservation and non-elite diet in the Bay of Naples: An analysis of the food remains from the Cardo V sewer at the Roman site of Herculaneum. Environmental Archaeology, 22(3), pp.318-336.


Erica Rowan is a lecturer in Classical Archaeology at Royal Holloway, University of London. As a Roman archaeologist with a specialization in archaeobotany, her research focuses on Roman diet and consumption practices. She uses literary, archaeological, and archaeobotanical evidence to explore the way cultural tensions within Roman society were expressed, embedded, and resolved through the prevailing food culture.


Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade: experimenting with woad and its history

Jodi Reeves Eyre, PhD, RPA

Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
We are, apparently, living during a ‘post-truth’ time when alternative facts have just as much impact on some people’s decisions and beliefs as, well, fact facts. The concept of the “alternative fact,” which refers to promoting emotional or biased assertions over facts, has historic precedent. Julius Caesar, when documenting his campaigns in Gaul, noted that:

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade, which setteth a blewish color vppon them: and it maketh the more terryble to beholde in battell.[1]

Surely if woad were so widely available, there would be decent archaeological evidence for its application. There is one early find at the Iron Age site of Dragonby. The site revealed woad remains, in the form of seeds and pods, as part of a waterlogged assemblage from a late Iron Age pit. The exact purpose of the pit has not been identified.[2] The seeds and pods can be considered circumstantial evidence when it comes to claiming that the plant was introduced for its dye because the material needed for dyeing, the leaves, may not survive nearly as well. The difficulty of finding woad leaves archaeologically means that we can only rely on the indirect evidence of the plant as a possible dye from Dragonby.

As a conqueror displaying his military strength and emphasizing the legitimacy of his triumph, Caesar may have called on Romans’ traditional concepts of fierce barbarians. Blue had negative connotations within Greco-Roman culture, being associated with ghosts, death, and, perhaps worst of all, barbarians.[3] By including such a charged description of ‘blue’ Britons, Caesar set down more than an ethnographic account. He used existing preconceptions for his political advantage. It is doubtful, however, that Caesar conceptualized the lasting legacy his charged description would have on social memory and identity. Even today, it is common to see depictions of ancient Britons painted blue, despite limited botanical-archaeological evidence and possible evidence to the contrary. The image of bluely decorated warriors can be found everywhere from the early 20th century, one example being the National Anthem of the Ancient Britons and another the anachronic depiction in the movie, BraveHeart.[4]

But, why?

Because it’s tradition, apparently. The 1565 translation of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, above, translates the word vitrum as woade (woad, Isatis tinctoria). This translation, by Arthur Goulding, is the earliest I’ve identified. Gillian Carr and several others give other possible translations as being “dye themselves with glazes” or “infect themselves with glass.”[5] So why is vitrum so often translated as woad in this context?

Woad was an important crop for some English abbeys during the medieval period, and a key crop in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[6] What better way to form a defense against an encroaching foreign material than to highlight the cultural importance of its proud, “indigenous” counterpart?

Enter vitrum as woad. Caesar may not have a historical monopoly on shaping a narrative to support a cause. In fact, he may not even have a monopoly on shaping his own narrative to support a cause. Still, just as there is limited evidence regarding the use of woad in ancient Britain, there is limited evidence supporting the reasons behind the historical trend in translating vitrum as woad.

Despite the potential mistranslations and lack of archaeological, textual, and iconographic evidence, people are still interested in the question, “does it work?” Without a recipe or replicable evidence, experimentation depends primarily on how other pigments are made ethnographically or in the past under other conditions and contexts. We know woad is a dye, and we know that it can color the skin and that it can be added to a binder to make a pigment. Some experiments reveal that woad, when compared to our perceptions of its color and use, is a poor choice for corporal decoration in terms of dyeing, tattooing, or staining the body. Want to replicate the results of these studies or develop your own? Carr describes her experiments in her article, and a link to my initial methodology and experimental recipes can be found in the footnotes below. Find out for yourself whether it works by using woad and other pigments and dyes to paint or dye your skin blue.[7]

Sharing research and experimental results is one remedy to the promotion of potentially alternative facts (such as blue Britons) through critical engagement of evidence. The lack of recipes or physical remains is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to encourage the exploration of other materials, methods. The confusing, and possibly sordid, history of woad in Britain also provides an opportunity to explore not only the history of translations of Caesar’s works and how identity and social memory reflect our relationship with plants, but it is also an interesting context in which to explore the use (or misuse) of woad.

[1] Caesar, Julius. The Eyght Bookes of Caius Iulius Cæsar Conteyning His Martiall Exploytes in the Realme of Gallia and the Countries Bordering Vppon the Same Translated Oute of Latin into English by Arthur Goldinge G. (London: Willyam Seres, 1565), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A17521.0001.001?view=toc, Book V.

[2] Veen, M. Van Der, Hall, A.R. and May, J.  ‘Woad and the Britons painted blue,’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 12 (1993), 367-71.

[3] Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[4] Gibson, Mel. Braveheart (Warner Bros., 1995).

[5] Lewis, Charlton T.  and Charles Short. “Vī^trum,” A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper; Carr, Gillian. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early Roman Britain,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 24, no. 3 ( 2005): 273–92, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.2005.00236.x).

[6] Carr, “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Pyatt,F.B., et al. “Non Isatis Sed Vitrum Or, the Colour of Lindow Man,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10, no. 1 (1991): 61–73, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.1991.tb00006.x; Thirsk, Joan. “The Agricultural Landscape: Fads and Fashions,” in 1. S. R. J. Woodell, ed., The English Landscape: Past, Present, and Future, Wolfson College Lectures 1983. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

[7]  Carr. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Fish, Pat. Woad and it’s mis-association with Pictish BodyArt, available at: https://www.hippy.com/albion/woad.htm; Reeves Flores, Jodi. Woad is me: Woad as a corporal decoration in Iron Age Britain, (master’s thesis, University of Exeter, 2008), 31-53.


Jodi Reeves Eyre has a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Exeter and served as a CLIR/DLF Fellow on Data Curation in the Sciences and Social Sciences at Arizona State University (2013-2015). She is a member of the Secretariat for the group EXARC, an ICOM affiliated organisation representing archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeology, ancient technology, and interpretation. Jodi is also a co-founder of Eyre & Israel, LLC, which provides research, editing, and digital curation consulting. Her work promotes the preservation of cultural heritage and explores perceptions about the past and social memory. She has conducted ethnographic research among other archaeologists, woven on models of ancient Greek looms, and painted people blue.

Twitter: @thejodireeves