Bread and bakers in ancient Rome

Nutrition: Bread and bakers in ancient Rome

Among the foods of ancient Rome bread is one of the most documented in the literary sources, with frescoes and bas-reliefs which represent the stages of preparation and sale; even the carbonized loaves found in the ruins of Pompeii analyzed revealed their secrets. By Plinio the Elder we know that bread was known relatively late by the Romans, accustomed to eating unleavened bread and Polta, a thick soup made of wild grains, legumes and, when available, meat. The most appreciated grain was spelled, while rye and oats were not much esteemed, and barley indeed was considered fit only for slaves and soldiers. The first type of wheat used for making bread was therefore spelled from whose seeds, lightly toasted and grounded to liberate them from the chaff, Romans obtained the farrina (hence the term “flour” went on to state the product of the milling of any grain). Around the late fifth century BC appeared new hard and soft grains, probably originating in Sicily and Africa, of higher quality and more readily releasable from the chaff, which allowed a rapid improvement of bread making softer and less acids buns and bread. The use of mills facilitated the grinding and the advances in screening techniques allowed to differentiate the quality of flour and semolina. Generally the Roman bread was known for its hardness, due both to poor quality flour (which absorb less water than the best), as to poor quantity and quality of the yeast used (prepared once a year at harvest time with grape juice and dough of bread). There were, however, numerous types and sizes of bread, according to different uses, mixtures and methods of cooking. With flour of superior quality (siliga) was produced the panis siligineus. Starting from the way in which flour was sifted there were the panis cibarius, secundarius, plebeius, rusticus. A kind of biscuits that had long kept was the panis militaris castrensis (reserved for soldiers), then the panis Nauticus (for sailors); also pretty tough was the panis autopyrus (full), and not to mention was the panis furfureus, for dogs! A type softer but not widespread was the panis parthicus, also called aquaticus as a spongy and able to absorb a greater quantity of water. Among the different types of mixtures, those in use in rural areas included legumes, acorns, chestnuts and other “poor”, while there were others more expensive and refined based on spices, milk, eggs, honey, oil; a luxury bread was the artolaganus, with honey, wine, milk, oil, pepper and candied fruit. The various methods of cooking gave rise to the panis furnaceus (baked), to artopticus (home-baked in a vacuum), or to subcinerinus fucacius (baked under the ashes) and clibanicus, a cake baked on the outer wall of a red-hot pot. There were loaves of elongated shape and round loaves, with incisions to facilitate cross for the division into four parts (quadrae, from which the panis quadratus). As the techniques of grinding and sifting the flour and the preparation and baking of bread were becoming more sophisticated, the production moved from the family to the “industrial”, thank to the work of skilled artisans (according to Plinio, starting from 171 BC). The name pistores, originally reserved to slaves used for grinding the grains of spelled in the mortar, came to designate the actual bakers, who at first were mostly freedmen and citizens of low social status. The bakers then obtained privileges and immunities from the public authorities and even a contribution by the state to start their business. They created their own corporation the collegium pistorum and came to conclude profitable contracts to supply bread to the authorities, for the free distribution to the people. A baker then, could also make a fortune, as happened for example to the freedman Marcus Virgilio Eurisace, whose tomb in Porta Maggiore tell us in the reliefs of the frieze the different stages of bread making, from grinding and sifting flour, to the mixture and the manufacture of baking bread. A special monument to celebrate one of the oldest and most popular professions.
(Letizia Staccioli Archeoclub of Italy, Rome office – Cerealia Festival Artistic Director)

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