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'Feeding the Empire: Tales of food from Rome and Pompei' on view at Ara Pacis Museum
Bowls in sealed African ceramic, plates in sealed African ceramic and spoons in bronze are displayed during the exhibition "Feeding the Empire: Tales of food from Rome and Pompei'' at Ara Pacis Museum in Rome on July 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI.

ROME.- What and how did the ancient Romans use to eat? How did they use to carry hundreds of tons of supplies from the world’s most remote corners? How could they make them go back from the Tiber to the heart of the city? And how could they keep them during all the year? The answer is given by the exhibition “Nutrire l’Impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma a Pompei” which gives us an image on how the Romans used to eat by the finding of the rare and prestigious archeological finds, the models, the multimedia devices as well as the reconstructions.

After the Pax Romana, around the Mediterranean basin began the “globalization of consumptions” with the “delocalization of production” of raw materials. During the Imperial age the Romans used to drink a lot of wine made in Gallia, Crete and Cyprus. The rich people used to drink the expensive wines made in Campania; they used the oil coming by the sea from Andalusia; they loved the greek honey and especially the garum, a dressing coming from Africa, from the eastern mediterranean area, from the remote Portugal, but also by the near Pompei. But especially the bread they used to eat every day was a product imported, made with the grain coming on big boats form Africa and Egypt.

The exhibition shows us all the different solutions adopted by the Romans for the food suppliesand distribution by using land transports but especially the sea transport. In addition to these subjects the exhibition faces the “massive distribution” and the food consumption among the different social classes in two symobolic places: Rome, the largest and most overcrowded ancient town, and the Vesuvius area, with particular attention to Pompei, Ercolanum and Oplontis, All reach places of Campania.

In the period between the reign of Augustus and that of Constantine (27 BC - 337 AD) Rome was a city of around 1 million inhabitants, heading an empire which, according to current estimates, numbered 50 to 60 million. No city was ever to reach this size until the start of the industrial revolution.

Feeding Rome, i.e. feeding such a large population, above all with wheat, was an undertaking for which the emperors were directly responsible. By taking charge of Rome’s annona, its food requirement, the princeps established a direct and personal relationship with his people. Above all with the adult male residents of Rome, the plebs frumentaria, who each month received from the state, free of charge, 5 modii of wheat per person, approximately 35 kg of corn, a quantity which, turned into bread, was more than enough to sustain one individual.

This was a right/privilege, according to the points of view, of the “dominant people”, granted to a maximum of 200,000 beneficiaries, a limit set by Augustus. Translated into figures, we can see that the free handouts of wheat alone, the frumentationes, involved the importing of quantities of corn ranging between 9 and 12 million modii a year, that is to say up to 84,000 tonnes (Virlouvet 2000). If we then consider the food supply necessary for the whole city, the quantity of wheat imported rises to figures which historians, in disagreement due to lack of sources, estimate at between 50 million modii, i.e. 350,000 tonnes (Tchernia 2000) and 60 million modii, i.e. 420,000 tonnes per year (De Romaniis 2009).

At the end of the Republic the wheat eaten in Rome came from Africa, Sicily and Sardinia, as recalled by Cicero (De imperio Cn. Pompeii, 34). Things changed with the conquering of Egypt and Rome’s policy of agricultural expansion in Africa: during the high empire most of the consumption in Rome was covered for two thirds by the African provinces (corresponding to Tunisia and Algeria) and the remaining third by Egypt (Flavio Giuseppe, Bell.Iud., II, 383 and 386).

The result was “outsourced” production and extensive single specialty crops. As well as forms of consumption which, possibly for the first time in history, we can consider “globalised”.

All this was achieved thanks to the efficiency of the state administration machine which on the one hand encouraged free trade and on the other collected wheat as a tax in kind (and also wine, oil and other foodstuffs), ensured its transport on large merchant ships which crossed the Mediterranean and followed the journey as far as the monumental warehouses (the horrea) of the great emporium romano in today’s Testaccio district.

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July 28, 2015

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