Imagine eating every meal from a fast-food restaurant, but in addition to fried foods, you can order vegetables and stewed lentils.
This menu option was the reality for the working class living in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.
In her talk “Edible Roman Empire” at the Fox Tucson Theatre on Wednesday evening, University of Arizona archaeologist Emma Blake compared the empire’s food system with today’s global food system and offered lessons for the future. The talk was part of the Second Annual Downtown Lecture Series, this year on food, which is hosted by the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Blake looked at big-picture issues in the empire’s food system, such as food security, sustainability, social equity, distribution and cuisine. She based her talk on recent archaeological evidence.
“What these discoveries reveal is a world that was wrestling with many of the issues that we face in our world today,” she said.
The Roman Empire spread through what is now Western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The empire lasted several centuries, but the most productive agricultural period was from 100 B.C. to A.D. 200.
Like today, social class and geography affected what people ate in the empire.
The Roman elite were “foodies” who dined at elaborate dinner parties prepared by personal chefs, Blake said. Workers lived in apartment buildings without kitchens, so they ate out at snack bars — the equivalent of healthy fast-food restaurants. The poorest people relied on grain handouts from the emperor.
People near the heart of the empire often had a healthier diet and better nutrition than those in the far reaches, Blake said.
“But there was remarkable consistency in diet,” she said. “Those key ingredients — the olive oil, the wine, the garum (fish sauce) — those penetrate everywhere in the empire.” Carrots, beets, apples and other produce were introduced as far away as Great Britain.
The Romans created the first known industrial farming system. As the empire expanded, its population grew to 50 million to 60 million people.
Food production increased with the help of a warm, wet period .
Large farms replaced small farms, and local technologies, such as damming rivers for irrigation, helped arid farms produce more food.
This large-scale production came at a cost, Blake said.
Independent farmers moved into cities, where they often received handouts of grain grown on their former farms. The new owners wanted profit. They did not live on the land and rarely paid property taxes. Slaves ran the large farms.
Some pre-Roman food cultures were lost. In addition, environmental problems, such as soil erosion, became common.
“If you lived in the Roman Empire, it was no more possible for you to leave that empire than it is for us on planet Earth to leave this planet today,” Blake said.
Local efforts contributed to changing the food system in the empire, as they do today.
“Think globally, but act locally,” Blake said.
The Romans’ influence on food diminished in the conquered lands with the fall of the empire, although some foods they introduced, such as carrots, beets and apples in Great Britain, still remain.
Blake’s lecture tapped into her own research and that of other archaeologists, who study ancient documents, art and artifacts to form a picture of the past. Blake co-directs a field survey in Sicily, where her team searches for ancient pottery and other objects churned up by plows.
“How much information the (scientists) can get from those digs, that was astounding,” said Susie Adams, a retiree who moved to Tucson in July. “It’s just hard to comprehend.”
Contact UA journalism graduate student Ann Posegate at firstname.lastname@example.org