The image of the ancient Roman soldier calls to mind bronze and iron helmets with bright red plumage; body armor of metal strips knitted together; heavy iron shields and imposing swords; and (for officers) flowing cloaks. What about the bodies beneath those vestments? How were they maintained? Training intensively for hand-to-hand and close quarter combat, these men buffeted their bodies into fierce war-fighting machines, enduring long marches with full gear to build endurance...those that lagged behind were beaten. This begs an important question. How did these rough and rugged men get their nutritional fuel? What did the Roman Army eat?
Mission of the Roman LegionaryIn short, the typical Roman legionary ate large quantities of food. A high-calorie regimen was essential to the Roman soldier diet. Yet dietary requirements were not static. From the beginnings of the Roman Republic (approximately 509 BCE) to the fall of the Roman Empire (dates vary, but its final demise is estimated between the 4th-5th century), the demands on soldiers varied, as did the quality of personnel. For accuracy's sake, the time around 117 CE will be the focus since that was when the empire was at its political and cultural zenith.
At its most powerful, Rome possessed political and military control over much of Europe and the Balkans, with considerable inroads into the Middle East and North Africa. These conquests were largely to provide tax monies and raw materials for Rome itself. Accordingly, the Empire was almost always at war somewhere in the world. Authoritative estimates put the total number of Roman warriors, i.e. legionaries and auxiliaries (non-citizens) at 380,000 during this golden age. Because they were so far-flung, Rome army food was bound to vary from place to place. That said, the Roman soldier diet tended toward certain staples in the field and at home.
Foodstuffs Common to Roman SoldiersAlthough modern principles of nutritional science were yet to be discovered, ancient warriors--and their commanders--could figure out what edibles made them feel healthy and strong. Eventually, a standard Roman military diet evolved, based on the following elements:
1. Grains: In an age of sedentary jobs and widespread obesity, contemporary observers implicate the high-carbohydrate diet as the root of poor health and excess weight. Yet for first-century Roman legions, grains were the primary component of their sustenance. The quick energy provided by cereal grains was absolutely necessary for battlefield hardships and for training stamina. Wheat was consumed in bread, soups, stews and pasta.
Millet, emmer and spelt were the varieties of wheat in regions surrounding the city of Rome. To the north--Gaul, as one example--grains that were hardier in cold weather like rye and barley were more available and doubtless consumed as Rome army food. Bulgur and freekeh varieties of wheat were common in the Middle East and North Africa, respectively. The bottom line is that the average Roman legionary or auxiliary ate about a third of a ton of grain on an annual basis.
2. Meats: To be sure, these intrepid fighting men did not skimp on animal protein and fat.The daily allotment to a soldier in the field was often a pound of bacon. This ration could be complemented by whatever livestock was nearby and available -- cattle, swine, sheep or deer. In leaner environments, like Corbridge in present-day Britain, the soldiers were content with rabbits, moles. foxes and ducks. Either boiled or roasted, the animal flesh conveyed protein and iron necessary for muscular strength and physiological immunity.
Worth noting is that, after 20 years of loyal service, many soldiers received land grants on which to raise their own livestock. Great generals like Marcus Porcius Cato (during the Republican era) later wrote extensively on raising the very best livestock for both breeding and for slaughter. Despite meat accounting for less than a quarter of the calories in a Roman soldier diet, it was nonetheless an essential part of the nutritional regimen.
3. Cheese: Few can visit Italy today without sampling its famous cheeses. The truth is, cheese has always maintained a central place in the Roman diet, military men included. The fat from cheese contributed to disease resistance and longevity. Since many soldiers owned livestock, they would make their own cheese from the milk of their animals.
Soldiers fighting in northern Europe would make their cheese from the milk of cows they impounded. In the Mediterranean regions, sheep and goats were more often the source of milk. Roman conquerors educated their new subjects in the art of cheese-making. Using rennet to separate curds from whey, the Romans created cheese that actually got better with age. French and other nationalities to the north had known only soft cheese that required hasty eating to avoid rotting.
4. Salt: Since meat was prone to infection and decay, each legionary carried a salt ration. In desert climates, particularly, illnesses from food were common. Salt was essential because ill soldiers weakened the entire legion. So crucial was this condiment to their survival that they established military salt works where seawater was far off.
5. Wine: Wine was omnipresent in the diet of the Roman warriors. It was hardly the wine drunk by the emperor or senators or other nobles of the city. It was more chemically akin to vinegar in some ways (though wounded or sick men would sometimes merit a better grade of vino). Given the unexplored terrain that soldiers were sent to take, wine was much safer than water to drink. Its medicinal counter-agents against bacteria and pathogens made it a most suitable beverage.
Modern soldiers benefit from asking, "What did the Roman army eat?" With science and technology now available to those responsible for feeding the men and women who fight the wars, they should nevertheless remember the simple folk wisdom, and trial and error methods, adopted by combatants of old. After all, 2,000 years is a short time in the lengthy evolution of the human body.