Robert I. Curtis
Department of Classics
University of Georgia

Felix illa Campania, "that fruitful Campania," as Pliny the Elder describes the area of Italy from Sinuessa and the Mons Massicus in the south of Latium to Nuceria, the Monti Lattari, and the Sorrentine Peninsula, was famous for the richness of its soil.1 Farmers maintained crops in the fields year round. Campania owed its fertility then, as now, to the volcanic minerals distributed over the surface of the plain by Mt. Vesuvius, which also, except for its summit, supported numerous vineyards on its slopes.2

The varieties of plants growing in the area were wide and are reflected in the wall paintings of ancient homes and gardens.3 Better still archaeological finds offer opportunities for precise identifications. So, for example, carbonized seeds, shoots, and nuts have come to light in the houses, shops, and temple areas of Pompeii and Herculaneum and in surrounding villas, such as at Boscoreale, and recently in the villa of L. Crassus Tertius at Oplontis. The use of Scanning Electron Microscopy on carbonized materials and pollen analysis have identified upwards of 100 different taxa, including many foods, for example the basic grains, such as 6-rowed barley, emmer wheat, and millet, such nuts as filberts, walnuts, and almonds, the seeds of bitter vetch, such fruits as fig, grape, pear, and pomegranate, and a variety of vegetables, like peas, lentils, broad beans.4 Meat animals have been verified by finds of pig bones, while fish bones and fishing gear bear witness to sea foods consumed by ancient Pompeians.5 Clearly, foods of all kinds were abundantly available to people of every social level.

Many of these foods were eaten raw or with a minimum of preparation and cooking. These would include meat animals which were butchered with sharp knives and cleavers and then roasted, boiled, or cooked in a stew; fresh fish were scaled, gutted, perhaps filleted, and then similarly prepared. Fruits could be consumed raw. Beans, perhaps after a short period of soaking, and leafy vegetables were cooked or boiled, while nuts, following removal of the shell, could be eaten immediately or added to other dishes. Some foods, however, could be¬indeed, had to be¬processed further before eating. The most obvious example is the grape, which could be eaten in its natural state or added to cooked dishes, but most often underwent treading, pressing, fermentation, and aging to produce wine.

Ancient food technology embodies a number of different processes, including, grinding, pounding, crushing, pressing, fermenting, salting, drying, smoking, cooking, storing, and transporting, evidence for most of which can be found in Campania. I will restrict myself to only four processes known to Romans of the first century A.D.¬crushing, pressing, salting, and grinding¬and to what extent these were practised within the home in the city, in other words, food processing in the urban setting. To do this, I will look briefly at olive oil production, fish preservation, and bread-making.

Olives were often soaked in brine for a specified period and eaten by themselves or added to other dishes. The greatest value of the olive, however, came from its oil. Olive oil found many uses, including anointment as part of the bath, fuel for lamps, an ingredient in medicinal unguents, and as the base for perfumes. As a food it was used in cooking or as an ingredient in various simple and complex recipes.6 The oil had, however, first to be extracted from the fruit.

Olive processing involved a three-step process: crushing to separate the pulp from the pit, pressing to extract the juice, and sedimentation to separate the oil from the watery amurca. The first step, crushing, involved the use of the trapetum, or roller-mill (Fig. 1), Figure 1consisting of a lava trough (mortarium) with a central pillar (milliarium) to support a horizontal axle (cupa) which had a plano-convex stone (orb) at each end. Turned by hand the stones could also be raised or lowered to the desired height to insure that the olive pit was not damaged and so ruin the oil.7

A few trapeta have been recovered from Pompeii but one wonders to what extent oil processing occurred in town. So, for example, when one comes to the second step, pressing, the evidence is not great. Four paintings, one of which comes from the House of the Vettii (Reg. VI.xv.1), depict a wedge press being used to extract oil from the olive pulp, but in each instance the context is that of the flower industry. A recent study of these paintings and the scarce archaeological evidence for wedge presses in Pompeii and Herculaneum concludes that the wedge press was used strictly to extract high quality, low viscosity oil, from green olives to make perfumes, while lower quality oil went for other uses, such as food.8 Processing of this latter type oil seems concentrated in rural areas where large quantities could be extracted using the lever and windlass type press commonly used for pressing grapes, such as has been found in the Villa of the Mysteries just outside Pompeii's Herculanean Gate. These presses were expensive and so were probably reserved for high volume production on villas and not for household use in the city.9 Following separation from the amurca, the oil was placed in amphorae and then taken into town to be distributed or sold in the market.

Fishing was an active occupation for many Campanians, as finds of fish nets, sinkers, and hooks attest.10 Fish frequently form the focus of still-life paintings and mosaics to decorate elegant homes, many peristyles sport fish pools where live fish playing in the water add an element of natural life to the garden setting, and along the Campanian coastline maritime villas possessed large piscinae for raising rare or expensive fish for pleasure or for food.11

Fisherman caught and ate fish or sold them in the town market. In either case consumption followed catching fairly closely because fish begin to spoil soon after removal from water and death. Many fish, however, were preserved by several processes which allowed for delayed consumption and long distance transportation. These processes include drying, smoking, and salting. The first two are difficult to document because they require no or minimal facilities. Large-scale salting of whole or parts of fish, on the other hand, often required facilities of substantial size, such as appear at numerous sites in Spain, Gaul, and Africa.12 Papyri from Egypt and a few literary sources, however, indicate that the fish sauces¬garum, liquamen, allec, and muria¬could be prepared by anyone, fisherman or not, from small fish and fish innards in most any size container to produce whatever quantity was required.13 The process was quite simple and involved the autolysis of fish material in the presence of a salt solution of varying salinity over a specified time. As the author of the cook book De re coquinaria¬attributed to the first century A. D. gourmet chef Apicius, though clearly of later date¬indicates, they were particularly popular as condiments to season numerous food dishes, in much the same way as the ubiquitious fish sauces of Southeast Asia are used today.14

No fish salting installation typical of Spain and elsewhere has been found in Campania¬in fact, nowhere in Italy¬ even though it possessed the necessary fish, salt, and fresh water. Literary sources, however, indicate that Pompeii operated a saltery and was especially noted for its fish sauce.15 One can only assume that its industrial facilities remain to be discovered somewhere along the Campanian coast. Nevertheless, archaeological and epigraphical evidence for Pompeian fish sauce has come to light in the city.

Over 200 one-handled terracotta vessels, called urcei, found scattered throughout the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, bear inscriptions indentifying their contents as one of the four fish sauces, many of which were associated with A. Umbricius Scaurus who delighted in advertizing his products in the atrium of his home near the Porta Marina (Ins. Occ. 12-15).16 Only one house (Reg. I.xii.8), however, contains identifiable facilities for making fish sauce.17 This Garum Shop, a renovated private house, contained several dolia, which, when excavated, held the desiccated remains of the sauce, identified as such by fish bones, primarily of anchovies (Fig. 2). Figure 2Although it remains possible that the entire salting process was conducted in this peristyle, it seems more likely that the sauce had been produced in facilities located along the shore and then brought here to be processed further, probably according to a particular recipe, and then distributed or sold. What is certain is that no other evidence of fish sauce preparation has been identified in Pompeii or any other Campanian city.

Campania was an active grain-producing area and the bread and pastries made from it formed a staple food in the daily life of its inhabitants.18 The Latin term pistor originally meant "one who pounds or crushes," that is, a miller, and presumably reflected the early practice of milling grain into flour, probably in a mortar, on the farm for transport to the city for baking into bread. By the first century A. D. the pistor was both miller and baker, who performed all the steps in making bread in the city. In Pompeii over 30 commercial bread-making establishments (pistrina) have been identified.19 They are easily recognized by the presence of large rotary mills and one or more ovens. Early excavators in Pompeii found several loaves of baked bread in a sealed oven, and in Herculaneum one pastry shop yielded twenty-four baking pans of various sizes.20

(Fig. 3) The large mills (Fig. 3) come in two parts: the bell-shaped bottom part, or meta, and the hour-shaped upper stone, or catillus, both made of lava.21 How they functioned is no mystery since relief sculptures, such as appear in Rome on the Tomb of the Baker Eurysaces or on a relief found outside the Porta Giovanni in Rome and now in the Vatican Museum (Fig. 4), Figure 4show functioning mills of the same type.22 Turned by animal power, the upper stone moved around crushing the grain fed through a hopper into the small space separating the two stones. The flour fell onto the ledge below the stone. This could be further ground and sifted to produce various grades of flour and then kneaded into dough by hand or by mechanical kneading machines.23 A few private houses, such as the House of the Labyrinth (Reg. VI.xi.9-10), had large mills while others had smaller ones, scaled-down versions powered by human, probably slave, labor.24 The former facilities served the commercial establishments; the latter, the homes of the wealthy. But what of the common man?

Individuals might use small mortars or hand querns as in times before the appearance of mills, but bread and gruels made from grains so processed were probably rather coarse. A very few small cylindrical mills (45-64 cm in diameter and formed of a lower stone and an upper one which was turned by hand) have been found in only five houses, not identified as bakeries, and in villas outside of town.25 Their size seems to preclude their commercial use. Their appearance in villas and their shape and apparent function recall the poem, Moretum, or "Vegetable Salad," by an anonymous author, though traditionally ascribed to Vergil, who describes a poor farmer grinding grain to make his bread:

...the left hand is stretched out for assistance; the right for work. The latter continually rotates and quickly moves the disk in circles (the ground grain runs down the stone from the swift blow), occasionally the left hand takes over from her tired sister and alternates by turns (25-29).

He goes on to describe how the ploughman sieved the flour, kneaded the dough, scored each loaf, and then baked them (lines 29-50). The author, by describing the poor farmer in mock-heroic terms and by glorifying his self sufficiency while showing his poverty, evokes a realistic picture probably meant to be seen in opposition to the city dweller.26

The presence of small Pompeian mills certainly implies that some people did grind their own grain, perhaps purchased in the market, to make their bread. Hand mills are rarely encountered, however, and evidence for private baking is scarce. One could also surmise that some individuals purchased flour from the miller and baked it at home, but houses with ovens are not in large supply either. Commercial bakeries, on the other hand, are numerous and are found distributed throughout the city to such an extent that no one would be more than a couple of blocks from a source of ready-baked bread.27 It would seem then that most Pompeians¬only the wealthiest, perhaps, excluded¬bought their bread and took it home for consumpion.

What, then, can we conclude from this brief look at these three foods about the state of food technology during the first century A. D. in Campania? Any conclusion, based on a preliminary investigation of a small number of processed foods, must, of necessity, be tentative, but one inference begins to appear, at least in outline. Roman knowledge of various technological processes is clearly established, but the actual application of that knowledge was not necessarily widespread among the urban populace. Most Pompeians purchased their oil already pressed on the farm or villa in the countryside and acquired fish sauce produced earlier in installations operating along the coast. Their bread came already baked from flour constituted from grain ground in large mills in commercial bakeries operating throughout the city. Like most city dwellers of the late 20th century, the ancient urbanites of Campania concerned themselves more with consumption of the finished product than with the technological processes employed to produce them.

Robert I. Curtis
Department of Classics
University of Georgia

  1. Pliny HN 3.60; Polybius 3.91; Martin Frederickson, Campania. Nicholas Purcell, ed. (Rome: British School at Rome, 1984), pp. 1-30.
  2. Pliny HN 18.111; Strabo 5.4.8.
  3. Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius. 2 Vols. (New Rochelle, N. Y.: Aristide D. Caratzas, Publisher, 1979, 1993), passim.
  4. Frederick G. Meyer, "Food Plants Identified from Carbonized Remains at Pompeii and Other Vesuvian Sites," in Studia Pompeiana & Classica in Honor of Wilhelmina F. Jashemski. 2 Vols. (New Rochelle, N. Y.: Aristide D. Caratzas, Publisher, 1988-89), 1: 183-229, and Massimo Ricciardi and Giuseppa Grazia Aprile, "Identification of Some Carbonized Plant Remains from the Archaeological Area of Oplontis," in ibid., pp. 317-30.
  5. Jashemski, Gardens of Pompeii, 1: 95-96; Francesco Fienga, "Esplorazione del pago marittimo pompeiano," Atti dell'III congresso nazionale di studi romani 11 (1932-33): 172-76; Matteo Della Corte, "Pompei-Borgo Marinaro," Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità 6th ser. 4 (1928): 369-72.
  6. See, e. g., Apicius De re coquinaria, passim.
  7. The literature on olive pressing technology is extensive. See esp. A. G. Drachmann, Ancient Oil Mills and Presses (Copenhagen, 1932); Albert Neuburger, The Technical Arts and Sciences of the Ancients. Henry L. Brose, transl. (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1969 [1930]), pp. 1-15; J. J. Rossiter, "Wine and Oil Processing at Roman Farms in Italy," Phoenix 35 (1981): 345-61.
  8. D. J. Mattingly, "Paintings, Presses and Perfume Production at Pompeii," Oxford Journal of Archaeology 9, no. 1 (1990): 71-90.
  9. J. J. Rossiter, Roman Farm Buildings in Italy. B.A.R. International Series, 52 (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1978), pp. 49-56.
  10. Robert I. Curtis, "The Salted Fish Industry of Pompeii," Archaeology (Nov.-Dec. 1984): 59, 74.
  11. Jashemski, Gardens of Pompeii, 1: 108-12; James Higginbotham, Piscinae. Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
  12. Robert I. Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta. Production and Commerce in Material Medica (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991), pp. 46-79.
  13. Ibid., pp. 6-15, 131-41.
  14. Ibid., pp. 15-26; Apicius. De Re Coquinaria. M. E. Milham, ed. (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1969).
  15. Ibid., pp. 90-91; Pliny HN 31.94; Columella Rust. 10.135-36.
  16. Robert I. Curtis, "A Personalized Floor Mosaic from Pompeii," American Journal of Archaeology 88 (1984): 557-66.
  17. Robert I. Curtis, "The Garum Shop of Pompeii (I. 12. 8)," Cronache Pompeiane 5 (1979): 5-23.
  18. Cf. Pliny HN 18.71-100; Annamaria Ciarallo, "Il Frumento nell'Area Vesuviana," in Le ravitaillement en blé de Rome et des centres urbains des débuts de la République jusqu'au Haut Empire. Actes du colloque international de Naples (1991). Collection du Centre Jean Bérard, 11 (Naples and Rome: Centre Jean Bérard, 1994), pp. 137-39.
  19. For the baking industry in Pompeii, see Betty Jo Mayeske, "Bakeries, Bakers, and Bread at Pompeii. A Study in Social and Economic History" (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1972), and idem, "Bakers, Bakeshops, and Bread: A Social and Economic Study," in Pompeii and the Vesuvian Landscape (Washington, D. C.: Archaeological Institute of America, 1979), pp. 39-58; and idem, "A Pompeian Bakery on the Via dell'Abbondanza," in Studia Pompeiana, pp. 149-65. The number rises to 37 if patisseries are included. D. P. S. Peacock, "The Mills of Pompeii," Antiquity 63 (1989): 205.
  20. Mayeske, "Bakers, Bakeshops, and Bread," p. 39 and Fig. 1, p. 52; 39-40 and Fig. 1, p. 52 and Fig. 7, p. 55.
  21. L. A. Moritz, Grain Mills and Flour in Classical Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 74-90; Neuburger, Technical Arts, pp. 89-100; and Peacock, "Mills of Pompeii," pp. 205-14.
  22. Paola Ciancio Rossetto, Il Sepolcro del Fornaio Marco Virgilio Eurisace a Porta Maggiore. I Monumenti Romani, V (Rome: Istituto di Studi Romani, 1973).
  23. Mayeske, "Bakers, Bakeshops, and Bread," p. 40 and Fig. 5.
  24. Moritz, Grain-Mills and Flour, pp. 62-66, 97-102; Peacock, "Mills of Pompeii," p. 210.
  25. Peacock, "Mills of Pompeii," pp. 206-07; Moritz, Grain-Mills and Flour, pp. 103-21, and Plate 8 (opposite p. 82); Herbert F. De Cou, Antiquities from Boscoreale in Field Museum of Natural History. Field Museum of Natural History Publication 152 (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, January 1912), p. 208 and Plate CLXII.
  26. The Ploughman's Lunch. Moretum. A Poem Ascribed to Virgil. E. J. Kenny, ed. and transl. (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1984), pp. xlvii-lvii.
  27. Mayeske, "Bakers, Bakeshops, and Bread," p. 42.

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