Ancient Roman bread oven

Items found in ancient Greek and Roman kitchens included vessels for storing olive oil; bowls for mixing wine and water; bronze strainers for removing grape skins and seeds; and small bowls for salt and snacks. There were also ladles and large bowls for eating and serving food; mortars and pestles for grinding up food; and saucepans, baking pans and frying pans, all made out of bronze, for cooking food. Women and slaves both did the cooking. Women normally didn't fetch water, but when they did they sometimes carried the vessels sideways on their head to the well and upright on the way home. [Source: “Greek and Roman Life” by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum]

Glass vessels found in Pompeii included bowls, saucepan-like vessels perhaps used to serve dinner and bottles and small jar probably used as storage vessels. Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “Glass vessels were relatively rare in antiquity, becoming more readily available with the development of glass blowing towards the end of the first century B.C. From that time, the increased speed of production greatly increased the number of glass vessels in circulation. A large number of glass vessels have been found at Pompeii, probably manufactured locally. Glass would have been popular because it was cheap, resistant to heat and did not contaminate its contents with bad tastes or smells. Its smooth, impermeable surface meant it could be cleaned easily, allowing it to be re-used (which was not always possible with unglazed ceramic vessels).” [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

In 2010, Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov announced that he had found an ancient Roman cooking stove in the ancient Thracian city of Perperikon in modern Greece. cut right into the stones of the rock city in the A.D. 3rd-4th century. According to “The stove consists of a lower part, a hearth, whose ceiling has two holes that let through some fire; the ceramic cooking vessels would be placed on top of the holes. The stove was found while archaeologists were excavating 100 meters of the fortress wall of Perperikon. The stronghold protected what is believed to have been a palace-sanctuary harboring the ancient temple of Dionysus. Other artifacts found at the site included a lamp with the image of a naked dancer, bronze and silver ornaments, lead seals used by of local rulers. [Source:, May 2010]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Romans Used Non-stick Cookware 2,000 Years Ago

in 2016, archaeologist said that had found evidence that the Romans used non-stick pans — fragments of pots with a thick, red, slippery coating — to cook meaty stews some 2,000 years ago at a Roman pottery dump near Naples. It was first the first hard evidence of non-stick suggested in a first-century cookbook entitled De Re Coquinaria. Discovery News reported that the fragments of cookware, known as Cumanae testae or Cumanae patellae – meaning pans from the city of Cumae – were found 19 kilometers west of Naples and were dated between 27 B.C. and A.D. 37. [Source: Sarah Griffiths,, May 18, 2016 +++]

food crockery

De Re Coquinaria said the easy-care cookware was particularly good for making chicken stews and was likely exported across the Mediterranean to North Africa, France and Britain. Professor of Greek and Roman art, Giuseppe Pucci hypothesized that Cumanae testae evolved into what’s known as Pompeian Red Ware – pottery with a thick red-slip coating on the inside. Analysis has shown the composition of the pottery is different to ‘Red Ware’ found in Pompeii, which had a lesser quality shiny, or non-stick coating. Modern-day, non-stick pots and pans use substanced called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), of which Teflon is one kind. Generally the more layers of PTFE sprayed or rolled on, the higher the quality of non-stick coating. +++

Cumae was one of the first Greek colonies in Italy, founded in the eight century B.C., with Roman soldiers conquering the city in 228 B.C. In Roman mythology, there is an entrance to the underworld located at Avernus, a crater lake near Cumae, and was the route Aeneas used to descend to the Underworld. The Romans were not the first to use non-stick technology. Researchers from Dartmouth college found that Mycenaean Greeks used non-stick pans to make bread more than 3,000 years ago. Mycenaean ceramic griddles had one smooth side and one side covered with tiny holes. The bread was likely placed on the side with the holes, since the dough tended to stick when cooked on the smooth side of the pan. These holes seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology, ensuring that oil spread evenly over the griddle. +++

Archaeologists Search Through Roman Excrement and Drains

Duncan Kennedy BBC, Archaeologists excavating Herculaneum near Pompeii “have been discovering how Romans lived 2,000 years ago, by studying what they left behind in their sewers. A team of experts has been sifting through hundreds of sacks of human excrement. They found a variety of details about their diet and their illnesses. In a tunnel 86 meters long, they unearthed what is believed to be the largest deposit of human excrement ever found in the Roman world. Seven hundred and fifty sacks of it to be exact, containing a wealth of information. [Source: Duncan Kennedy, BBC, July 1, 2011]

“The scientists have been able to study what foods people ate and what jobs they did, by matching the material to the buildings above, like shops and homes. This unprecedented insight into the diet and health of ancient Romans showed that they ate a lot of vegetables. One sample also contained a high white blood cell count, indicating, say researchers, the presence of a bacterial infection. The sewer also offered up items of pottery, a lamp, 60 coins, necklace beads and even a gold ring with a decorative gemstone.”

A study of objects lost down the drains in the bathhouses from the Roman Empire reveals that people did all kinds of things there. They bathed, of course, but they also adorned themselves with trinkets, snacked on finger foods and even did needlework. "For the Romans, the baths weren't just a place to get clean, but this larger social center where a variety of activities were taking place," said study researcher Alissa Whitmore, a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Iowa, who reported her findings at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle. [Source:, January 18, 2013]

Roman garbage

Livescience reported: “Whitmore examined drain finds from 11 public and military baths in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany and Britain, all dating between the first and fourth centuries. Unsurprisingly, she found strong evidence of objects related to bathing, such as perfume vials, nail cleaners, tweezers and flasks for holding oils and other pampering products. On the less-relaxing side of things, evidence shows medical procedures may have occasionally occurred in the baths, Whitmore found. Researchers found a scalpel lodged in one drain. And in the Caerleon baths in what is now Wales, archaeologists uncovered three adolescent and two adult teeth, suggesting bathhouse visitors may have undergone some dentistry, too.

“Visitors also took their meals in the baths, judging by the fragments of plates, bowls and cups found swept into drains. At Caerleon, bathers snacked on mussels and shellfish, Whitmore said, while baths in Silchester, in the United Kingdom, showed traces of poppy seeds. Bones left behind reveal that Roman bathers enjoyed small cuts of beef, mutton, goat, pork, fowl and wild deer. "Ancient texts talk about finger food and sweets, but don't really talk about animals," Whitmore said. "That was interesting to see."

“Archaeologists have also found signs of gaming and gambling, including dice and coins, in various bathhouses. Perhaps most surprising, Whitmore said, researchers found bone and bronze needles and portions of spindles, suggesting that people did textile work in the baths. “This work likely wouldn't have happened in the water, she said, but in dressing rooms or common areas that had seating. The needles may have belonged to bathers who brought needlework to pass the time, or employees may have brought the sewing equipment, offering tailoring or other services at the sites while bathers relaxed, Whitmore said.

“Among the sparkliest finds in the drains were pieces of jewelry. Archaeologists have found hairpins, beads, brooches, pendants and intaglios, or engraved gems, in bathhouse drains. A number of these finds definitely come from pool areas, Whitmore said. "It does seem that there's a fair amount of evidence for people actually wearing things into the water," she said. “Bathers may have held onto their jewelry in the pools to prevent the valuables from being stolen, Whitmore said. Or perhaps vanity inspired them. "It's really a place to see and be seen," Whitmore said. "It makes sense that even if you had to take off your fancy clothes, you would still show off your status through your fancy jewelry." Unfortunately, dips into hot and cold water would have loosened jewelry adhesives and caused metal settings to expand and contract. As a result, a number of unlucky Romans emerged from the baths considerably less bedecked than when they entered....One constant she's already found, she said, is the presence of women, even at baths on military bases. "It adds further evidence that Roman military forts aren't entirely these really masculine areas, but a much wider social atmosphere than we tend to give them credit for," Whitmore said.”

Ancient Roman Food

carbonized bread from Boscoreale near Pompeii

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “The diet of the inhabitants of Vindolanda [in Britain] was pretty varied. Within the Vindolanda tablets, 46 different types of foodstuff are mentioned. Whilst the more exotic of these, such as roe deer, venison, spices, olives, wine and honey, appear in the letters and accounts of the slaves attached to the commander's house; it is clear that the soldiers and ordinary people around the fort did not eat badly. We have already seen the grain accounts of the brothers Octavius and Candidus, demonstrating that a wide variety of people in and around the fort were supplied with wheat. Added to that are a couple of interesting accounts and letters which show that the ordinary soldiers could get hold of such luxuries as pepper and oysters, and that the local butcher was doing a roaring trade in bacon. [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 ]

Carbonized eggs and bread have been found in excavations in Pompeii. Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “ Such finds are very rare, since organic materials generally have not survived. There is only limited evidence of goods such as food, wooden furniture and cloth (for clothes, or drapery) that were essential to everyday life, yet were made of perishable materials. It does appear from the available evidence, however, that the inhabitants of Pompeii had a varied diet. Other preserved foods that have been discovered include bread, walnuts, almonds, dates, figs and olives. Many animal bones (sheep, pig, cattle), fish bones and shells (scallop, cockle, sea urchin, cuttlefish) also have been uncovered.” [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011]

Joel N. Shurkin wrote in insidescience: “Archaeologists studying the eating habits of ancient Etruscans and Romans have found that pork was the staple of Italian cuisine before and during the Roman Empire. Both the poor and the rich ate pig as the meat of choice, although the rich got better cuts, ate meat more often and likely in larger quantities. They had pork chops and a form of bacon. They even served sausages and prosciutto.... Besides the meat, there would be vegetables that looked little different from what we eat, said Angela Trentacoste of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Except for grain, which was imported in huge quantities from places like North Africa, everything was locally grown.... Pizza had yet not been invented.” [Source: Joel N. Shurkin, insidescience, February 3, 2015 +/]

Most Romans Ate No Better Than Their Livestock Animals

Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science: “Ancient Romans are known for eating well, with mosaics from the empire portraying sumptuous displays of fruits, vegetables, cakes — and, of course, wine. But the 98 percent of Romans who were non-elite and whose feasts weren’t preserved in art may have been stuck eating birdseed. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, March 1, 2013 ^^]

“Common people in ancient Rome ate millet, a grain looked down upon by the wealthy as fit only for livestock, according to a new study published in the March issue of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. And consumption of millet may have been linked to overall social status, with relatively poorer suburbanites eating more of the grain than did wealthier city dwellers. The results come from an analysis of anonymous skeletons in the ancient city’s cemeteries. “We don’t know anything about their lives, which is why we’re trying to use biochemical analysis to study them,” said study leader Kristina Killgrove, an anthropologist at the University of West Florida. ^^

Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science: ““Historical texts dismiss millet as animal feed or a famine food, Killgrove said, but the researcher’s findings suggest that plenty of ordinary Romans depended on the easy-to-grow grain. One man, whose isotope ratios showed him to be a major millet consumer, was likely an immigrant, later research revealed. He may have been a recent arrival to Rome when he died, carrying the signs of his country diet with him. Or perhaps he kept eating the food he was used to, even after arriving in the city.” ^^

Skeletons Say Roman Diet Nutritionally Poor Because of Lack of Milk

skeletons from Herucaneum

An Oxford study of the remains of almost 20,000 people dating from the 8th century B.C. to the A.D. 18th century found that the Roman period was a time of poor nutrition and low average height levels. Why?: A lack of milk and dairy products. This trend was reversed in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. [Source:Jamie Doward, The Guardian, April 2010]

Jamie Doward wrote in The Guardian: “The key factor in determining average height over the centuries – an indicator of nutritional status and wellbeing – has been an increase in milk consumption due to improved farming. Higher population densities and the need to feed the army during Roman times may have worked against this.*\

“The “anthropometric” approach pursued by Nikola Koepke of Oxford University, which combines biology and archaeology, suggests longer bone length is indicative of improved diet. Koepke’s study, presented at the Economic History Society’s 2010 annual conference, also challenges assumptions about the effect of the industrial revolution. Urbanisation did not improve wellbeing, she argues, at least as measured by height.

“Rather, Koepke says, the key factor in determining average height growth over the past 2,500 years has been the increased consumption of milk as a result of the spread of, and improvements in, farming. She found that overall European living conditions improved slightly in the past 2,500 years even in the centuries prior to the industrial revolution. *\

“Her study is based on data compiled from analysing the skeletal remains of more than 18,500 individuals of both genders from all social classes, from 484 European archaeological dig sites. “Higher milk consumption as indicated by cattle share had a positive impact on mean height,” Koepke writes. “Correspondingly, this determinant is the key factor in causing significant European regional differences in mean height.”“ *\

Determining What Romans Ate From Their Skeletons, Garbage and Feces

Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science: ““To find out, she and her colleagues analyzed portions of bones from the femurs of 36 individuals from two Roman cemeteries. One cemetery, Casal Bertone, was located right outside the city walls. The other, Castellaccio Europarco, was farther out, in a more suburban area. The skeletons date to the Imperial Period, which ran from the first to the third century A.D., during the height of the Roman Empire. At the time, Killgrove told LiveScience, between 1 million and 2 million people lived in Rome and its suburbs. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, March 1, 2013 ^^]

“To determine diets from the Roman skeletons, the researchers analyzed the bones for isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. Isotopes are atoms of an element with different numbers of neutrons, and are incorporated into the body from food. Such isotopes of carbon can tell researchers which types of plants people consumed. Grasses such as wheat and barley are called C3 plants; they photosynthesize differently than mostly fibrous C4 plants, such as millet and sorghum. The differences in photosynthesis create different ratios of carbon isotopes preserved in the bones of the people who ate the plants. ^^

“Nitrogen isotopes, on the other hand, give insight into the kinds of protein sources people ate. “We found that people were eating very different things,” Killgrove said. Notably, ancient Italians were locavores. Compared with people living on the coasts, for example, the Romans ate less fish.” ^^

Zooarchaeologists, scientists study the remains of animals found in archaeological sites. Joel N. Shurkin wrote in insidescience: “They rummaged through ancient garbage dumps or middens, and occasionally even ancient latrines looking for the bones of animals and fish people ate. People would sometimes dump the garbage in the latrine instead of walk to the neighborhood dump, MacKinnon said. They can deduce a great deal from the bones about what life was like. They also can often piece together a typical diet based on recovered porcelain shards. “They can look at bones in a dump and can tell what the animal was, sometimes how it was slaughtered, where it came from, and how the food supply worked. “For instance, if one site had nothing but feet bones, “It tells us that things were marketed and better cuts went elsewhere,” he said. [Source: Joel N. Shurkin, insidescience, February 3, 2015 +/]

Evidence of Romans Dining on Giraffe and Sea Urchins

Roman-era toilet in Ephesus

Excavations in Pompeii have provided hard evidence that ancient Romans dined on giraffes, pink flamingos and exotic spices from as far away as Indonesia, according to a study of food waste examined by researchers from the University of Cincinnati led by archaeologist Steven Ellis. AFP reported: “The most used foods found in drains and dumps were grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and eggs, but there was also more exotic fare like salted fish from Spain, or imported shellfish and sea urchins. [Source: AFP, January 8, 2014 /*/]

“A joint of giraffe was found in the drain of one home. “This is thought to be the only giraffe ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” Ellis said. “Ellis’s team has been working on two neighbourhoods of Pompeii for over 10 years. The area had around 20 shops, most of which served food and drink, and the archaeologists analyzed their waste drains as well as nearby latrines and cesspits. The remains go back as far as the 4th century B.C. Ellis said that Pompeii urbanites had “a higher fare and standard of living” than previously thought and the university said the research was “wiping out the historic perceptions of how the Romans dined.” Ellis’s discoveries were presented at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and American Philological Association (APA) in Chicago. /*/

According to a University of Cincinnati press release: “Ellis says the excavation is producing a complete archaeological analysis of homes, shops and businesses at a forgotten area inside one of the busiest gates of Pompeii, the Porta Stabia. The area covers 10 separate building plots and a total of 20 shop fronts, most of which served food and drink. The waste that was examined included collections from drains as well as 10 latrines and cesspits, which yielded mineralized and charred food waste coming from kitchens and excrement. Ellis says among the discoveries in the drains was an abundance of the remains of fully-processed foods, especially grains. “The material from the drains revealed a range and quantity of materials to suggest a rather clear socio-economic distinction between the activities and consumption habits of each property, which were otherwise indistinguishable hospitality businesses,” says Ellis. Findings revealed foods that would have been inexpensive and widely available, such as grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs, as well as minimal cuts of more expensive meat and salted fish from Spain. Waste from neighboring drains would also turn up less of a variety of foods, revealing a socioeconomic distinction between neighbors. [Source: University of “A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe. “That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” says Ellis. “How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”

“Deposits also included exotic and imported spices, some from as far away as Indonesia. Ellis adds that one of the deposits dates as far back as the 4th century B.C., which he says is a particularly valuable discovery, since few other ritual deposits survived from that early stage in the development of Pompeii. “The ultimate aim of our research is to reveal the structural and social relationships over time between working-class Pompeian households, as well as to determine the role that sub-elites played in the shaping of the city, and to register their response to city-and Mediterranean-wide historical, political and economic developments. However, one of the larger datasets and themes of our research has been diet and the infrastructure of food consumption and food ways,” says Ellis. “He adds that as a result of the discoveries, “The traditional vision of some mass of hapless lemmings – scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel – needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii.”

Gum Disease and Tooth Decay in Roman-Era British Skulls

copy of a Roman denture

Contrary to what you might think, Roman-era Britons had less gum disease than their 21st-century conterparts Tom Whipple wrote in the Sunday Times: “An analysis of the skulls of more than 300 Roman Britons has found a significantly lower rate of periodontitis, a common form of gum disease, than exists in today’s population. Among those examined – who were originally buried in a site in Poundbury, Dorset – between 5 per cent and 10 per cent had the disease, compared with 15 per cent to 30 per cent today. [Source: Tom Whipple, Sunday Times, October 2014 -]

“However, they also had considerably more evidence of abrasion on their teeth, probably a result of the diet of coarse grains that was common. The work involved looking at the sockets holding the teeth into the jaw. “Because gum disease causes disruption of the bone around the teeth, we are able to measure it,” said Francis Hughes, professor of periodontology at King’s college London. “He and his colleagues learnt that the Natural History Museum had a large collection of skeletons from the Poundbury burial site, and asked to analyse them. “To a lot of people’s surprise they had quite a lot less periodontitis than the modern human population. It was about a third as common as today,” Professor Hughes said. Some of the explanation for this does not exactly provide cause for envy: the Ancient Britons managed to contract even more serious diseases first, and died of those instead of suffering through old age with bad teeth. -

“The most common age at death appeared to be in the 40’s. The reason for the modern mouth to be unhealthier than it was centuries ago is probably a result of two things – diabetes and smoking. “Those two change the risk enormously,” Professor Hughes said. Periodontitis starts as gingivitis, a consequence of poor brushing that often manifests as bleeding and inflamed gums. This response is actually a protective mechanism. “It’s the body trying to fight the bacteria off. In smoking and diabetes that protective mechanism is decreased – the body is less able to fight,” Professor Hughes said. Starting with bleeding, the disease progresses through receding gums, looseness of teeth and eventually total tooth loss. With a life free not just from smoking and diabetes but also from refined sugar, the Poundbury teeth were similarly less affected by cavities. -

“Nevertheless, the research, published in the British Dental Journal, did not find that the oral hygiene of Ancient Britons was entirely something to be aspired to. “Decay was not widespread like it might be today,” Professor Hughes said. “But it was still there, probably a consequence of the starchy cereals they ate. Over the years that increased bacterial growth” Where decay did exist, it went unchecked. Some teeth had decayed to the point where they had infected the nerve, while others caused holes down to the jaw itself. “The amount of chronic infection must have caused a lot of misery,” Professor Hughes said. His profession would have been in demand even in that day and age, he added. “It’s still a rather good advert for dentists.” -

Ancient Mosaics Reveal Changing Fish Size

Rossella Lorenzi wrote in “The dusky grouper, one of the major predators in the Mediterranean sea, used to be so large in antiquity that it was portrayed as a “sea monster,” a new study into ancient depictions of the endangered fish has revealed. “Amazingly, ancient mosaic art has provided important information to reconstruct this fish’s historical baseline,” Paolo Guidetti of the University of Salento in Italy, told Discovery News. [Source: Rossella Lorenzi,, September 13, 2011 -]

“Considered one of the most flavorful species among the Mediterranean fish, the dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) is a large, long-lived, slow-growing, protogynous hermaphrodite fish (with sex reversal from female to male). It can be found mainly in the Mediterranean, the African west coast and the coast of Brazil. Having faced harvesting for millennia — grouper bones have been found in human settlements dating back more than 100,000 years — this species has been decimated in recent decades by commercial and recreational fishing. It is now categorized as endangered.-

“To look farther back into the grouper’s history, the researchers examined hundreds of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman paintings and mosaics depicting fishing scenes and fish. At the end, they focused on 23 mosaics which represented groupers. In 10 of the 23 mosaics, dating from the 1st to 5th centuries, groupers were portrayed as being very large. Indeed, the ancient Romans might have considered groupers some sort of “sea monsters” able to eat a fisherman whole, as shown in a 2nd century mosaic from the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. -

“The mosaics also indicated that groupers lived in shallow waters much closer to shore, and were caught by fishermen using poles or harpoons from boats at the water’s surface. It’s a technique that would surely yield no grouper catch today,” said the researchers. Although there are no known instances of dusky groupers attacking human swimmers, the art depictions are very “informative,” said the researchers. These representations suggest that groupers were, in ancient times, so large as to be portrayed as sea monsters and that their habitat use and depth distribution have shifted in historical times,” Guidetti and Micheli wrote. -

“Ancient Roman authors such Ovid (43 B.C. – 18 A.D.) and Pliny the Elder ((23 A.D. – 79 A.D.) reported that groupers were fished by anglers in shallow waters, where they are now rare if not completely absent. According to their accounts, fish were so strong they could break fishing lines. Ancient art provides a link between prehistorical and modern evidence and suggests that shallow near shore Mediterranean ecosystems have lost large, top predators and their corresponding ecological roles,” the researchers concluded.” -

3,000 Jars of Roman Fermented Fish Sauces

Romans were especially fond of garum – a sauce made by fermenting salted fish intestines. A a mainstay of banqueting tables and street food stands across the Roman empire, the sauce was highly prized for its nutritional qualities and was also a rich source of monosodium glutamate – a compound widely used in the food industry today as a flavour enhancer.Liquamen, a similar sauce, was made from rotting fish guts, vinegar, oil, and pepper. Variants of the sauce were used on fish and fowl as far back as 300 B.C. It was said to be an aphrodisiac. Among the recipes discovered at Pompeii were mushrooms with honey-and-liquamen sauce, soft-boiled eggs with pine kernels and liquamen sauce, and venison with caraway seeds, honey and liquamen sauce.

In 2015, archaeologists announced that they had discovered a 25-meter-long ancient Roman vessel laden with 3000 jars garum – on the seabed off the coast of Alassio, in the northeastern Liguria region of Italy. “It’s an exceptional find that dates to the first or second century AD,” Dr. Simon Luca Trigona, who led the team, told The Local. “It’s one of just five ‘deep sea’ Roman vessels ever to be found in the Mediterranean and the first one to be found off the coast of Liguria. We know it was carrying a large cargo of garum when it sank.” [Source: AFP, December 11, 2015]


“In spite of the mystery that usually surrounds ancient shipwrecks, it is almost certain that the ship was sailing a route between Italy, Spain and Portugal in order to transport a precious cargo of Roman garum. The clue lies in the shape of the clay jars, as the sauce itself has all since seeped into the sea. “After we filmed the wreck and analyzed an amphora [clay jar] and some fragments that a robotic craft brought back to the surface, we realized the ship was carrying a huge quantity of fish sauce when it sank,” said Trigona. “The amphora are almost all of a certain type, which was used exclusively for garum.”

“In addition to the fish sauce, archaeologists also identified two types of jar which were only manufactured in the area around the river Tiber in Rome. It is thought they were probably being used to transport some of the area’s excellent regional wines to the Iberian peninsular. “It’s a nice find because it means we are almost sure about the route this ship was on,” Trugona said. “She most likely sailed out of Rome along the Tiber and sank a couple of weeks later while making the return journey, weighed down by all that fish sauce.”

Sally Grainger, a British chef and an experimental archeologist, has attempted to recreate Roman-style fish sauce. Peter Smith wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Using various studies “and a recipe from Geoponica, a 10th century collection of agricultural lore, as a guide, Grainger added salted sardines (Pilchardus sardines) and sprats (Sprattus sprattus) to barrels, put the barrels in a greenhouse, and covered the tops with cardboard. Then she waited two months. What’s surprising, Grainger found, was that the recreated ancient fish sauce appeared to be a lot less salty than its modern Southeast Asian counterparts, with just as much protein. Salt slows down the enzymatic process, so industrial-scale fish sauces today—what you might otherwise think of cheaply made “fast” food—actually take longer to make than the ancient brews. In other words, this old, “slow food” fermented faster.” [Source: Peter Smith, Smithsonian magazine, March 1,2012]

Archaeologists Make Wine As the Romans Did

In the 1990s, group of archaeologists spent $20,000 to reopen the largest winery in Gaul — in Mas des Tourelles near the Provence town of Beaucair in southern France — a after 1,800 years, selling the wine for about $12 a bottle. In Caesar's time the facility produced the equivalent of 100,000 modern-size bottles of wine a day and each bottle sold for about 1 sesterce (about $1.60). The entire region produced about 27 million liters a year, enough to fill 2 million clay amphorae for shipment by oxen throughout the Mediterranean. The Mas des Tourelles wine is brownish red and sweet with a taste of preach and caramel candy but it leaves a nasty hangover. Those who tried it described it as a “curiosity” and said “eat a lot of goat cheese and nuts when you drink it.”“ [Source: Craig Copetas, Bloomberg News, December 2002]

Tom Kington wrote in The Guardian: “Archeologists in Italy have set about making red wine exactly as the ancient Romans did, to see what it tastes like. Based at the University of Catania in Sicily and supported by Italy’s national research centre, a team has planted a vineyard near Catania using techniques copied from ancient texts and expects its first vintage within four years. “We are more used to archeological digs but wanted to make society more aware of our work, otherwise we risk being seen as extraterrestrials,” said archaeologist Daniele Malfitana. [Source: Tom Kington,, August 22, 2013]

ruins of a garum fish sauce factory

“At the group’s vineyard, which should produce 70 litres at the first harvest, modern chemicals will be banned and vines will be planted using wooden Roman tools and will be fastened with canes and broom, as the Romans did. Instead of fermenting in barrels, the wine will be placed in large terracotta pots – traditionally big enough to hold a man – which are buried to the neck in the ground, lined inside with beeswax to make them impermeable and left open during fermentation before being sealed shut with clay or resin. “We will not use fermenting agents, but rely on the fermentation of the grapes themselves, which will make it as hit and miss as it was then – you can call this experimental archaeology,” said researcher Mario Indelicato, who is managing the programme.

“The team has faithfully followed tips on wine growing given by Virgil in the Georgics, his poem about agriculture, as well as by Columella, a first century A.D. grower, whose detailed guide to winemaking was relied on until the 17th century. “We have found that Roman techniques were more or less in use in Sicily up until a few decades ago, showing how advanced the Romans were,” said Indelicato. “I discovered a two-pointed hoe at my family house on Mount Etna recently that was identical to one we found during a Roman excavation.” What has changed are the types of grape varieties, which have intermingled over the centuries. “Columella mentions 50 types but we can only speculate on the modern-day equivalents,” said Indelicato, who is planting a local variety, Nerello Mascalese.

Pompeii Wine Brought Back to Life

In 2016, The Local reported: “Made from ancient grape varieties grown in Pompeii, ‘Villa dei Misteri’ has to be one of the world’s most exclusive wines. The grapes are planted in exactly the same position, grown using identical techniques and grow from the same soil the city’s wine-makers exploited until Vesuvius buried the city and its inhabitants in A.D. 79. [Source: the, February 2016 ]

“In the late 1800s, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli first excavated some of the city’s vineyards from beneath three metres of solid ash. The digs turned up an almost perfect snapshot of ancient wine-growing – and thirteen petrified corpses, huddled against a wall. Casts were made of the bodies, as well as the vines and the surviving segments of trellises on which they were growing. But archaeologists didn’t think to restore the vineyards of ancient Pompeii until the late 1980s.

“When they did, they realized they didn’t have a clue about wine-making, so they called in local winemaker Piero Mastrobeardino. Together they set out to discover how the ancient Romans made wine, and which grapes and farming methods they used. “The team looked at casts of vine roots made two centuries ago and consulted the surviving fragments of ancient farming texts,” Mastrobeardino told The Local. “We even looked at ancient frescoes to try to identify which grapes grew from Pompeii’s soil.” The team discovered that the type of grapes their ancestors were growing, called Piederosso Sciacinoso and Aglianico, were the same varieties still being grown on the slopes of Vesuvius by local farmers. Aglianico is a variety which Piero’s father is credited for saving from extinction after the Second World War.

“Although the grape varieties were still the same, farming techniques had changed significantly since the time of the Romans. “We use a number of methods to grow the fruit and carry out all of the work manually. One thing all our farming techniques have in common is that the grapes are grown at an extremely high density,” Mastrobeardino explained. At first, experts doubted whether the grapes would grow at all at yields almost twice as high as those used today. However, once placed back in Pompeii’s fertile soil, they flourished. Enologists discovered that the Romans’ high-density growth technique is actually beneficial – the technique, now rediscovered, is spreading to the modern wine-making.

“But not everything about ancient wine-making was better. Mastrobeardino ferments the wine according to modern techniques and says Roman wine tasted foul. Pompeii wines were fermented in open-topped terracotta pots, called dolia. These were lined with pine resin filled with wine and buried deep into the earth. Asking a modern wine-lover to drink ancient wine would be foolish. The Romans knew their system was far from perfect but didn’t have the technology to change it.”

“Pompeii wines were considered among the best in the Empire, but were fiercely alcoholic and often diluted with honey, spices and even seawater to mask their rancid flavour. Some 1,500 bottles of Villa dei Misteri are made each year and can be found on the tables of exclusive restaurants in Tokyo, London and New York, Mastrobeardino said. “It’s more of a research project than a commercial enterprise, but it has come a long way. We have now replanted 15 of the city’s ancient vineyards and are experimenting with diverse ancient farming techniques and grape blends.” It might not be a profitable enterprise, but it doesn’t come cheap either – a bottle will set you back around €77.”

Roman-Era Tavern Found in France

Roman-era tavern

In 2016, a Roman-ere tavern, still littered with animal bones and the bowls used by patrons, was discovered in Lattara, an important historical site in France,. The tavern was most likely used during 175–75 B.C., around the time the Roman army conquered the area. The tavern served drinks as well as flatbreads, fish, and choice cuts of meat from sheep and cows. In the kitchen, there were three large ovens on one end and millstones for making flour on the other. In the serving area was a large fireplace and reclining seats.

Laura Geggel wrote in LiveScience: “An excavation uncovered dozens of other artifacts, including plates and bowls, three ovens, and the base of a millstone that was likely used for grinding flour, the researchers said. The finding is a valuable one, said study co-researcher Benjamin Luley, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology and classics at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Before the Romans invaded the south of France, in 125 B.C., a culture speaking the Celtic language lived there and practiced its own customs. The new findings suggest that some people under the Romans stopped preparing their own meals and began eating at communal places, such as taverns. “Rome had a big impact on southern France,” Luley told Live Science. “We don’t see taverns before the Romans arrive.”[Source: Laura Geggel, LiveScience, March 10, 2016]

“The excavated area includes a courtyard and two large rooms; one was dedicated to cooking and making flour, and the other was likely reserved for serving patrons, the researchers said. There are three large bread ovens on one end of the kitchen, which indicates that “this isn’t just for one family,” but likely an establishment for serving many people, Luley said. On the other side of the kitchen, the researchers found a row of three stone piles, likely bases for a millstone that helped people grind flour, Luley said. “One side, they’re making flour. On the other side, they’re making flatbread,” Luley said. “And they’re also probably using the ovens for other things as well.” For example, the archaeologists found lots of fish bones and scales that someone had cut off during food preparation, Luley added.

“The other room was likely a dining room, the researchers said. The archaeologists uncovered a large fireplace and a bench along three of the walls that would have accommodated Romans, who reclined when they ate, Luley said. Moreover, the researchers found different kinds of animal bones, such as wishbones and fish vertebra, which people simply threw on the floor. (At that time, people didn’t have the same level of cleanliness as some do now, Luley noted.)

“The dining room also had “an overrepresentation of drinking bowls,” used for serving wine — more than would typically be seen in a regular house, he said. Next to the two rooms was a courtyard filled with more animal bones and an offering: a buried stone millstone, a drinking bowl and a plate that likely held cuts of meat. “Based upon the evidence presented here, it appears that the courtyard complex … functioned as a space for feeding large numbers of people, well beyond the needs of a single domestic unit or nuclear family,” the researchers wrote in the study. “This is unusual, as large, ‘public’ communal spaces for preparing large amounts of food and eating together are essentially nonexistent in Iron Age Mediterranean France.” Perhaps some of the people of Lattara needed places like the tavern to provide meals for them after the Romans arrived, Luley said. “If they might be, say, working in the fields, they might not be growing their own food themselves,” he said. And though the researchers haven’t found any coins at the tavern yet, “We think that this is a beginning of the monetary economy” at Lattera, Luley said. “The study was published in the journal Antiquity.

Romans and Caledonians Drank Together as a Pub in Northern Britain

In 2012, archaeologists surveying the world’s most northerly Roman fort announced they had found an ancient pub there. George Mair wrote in The Scotsman: “The discovery, outside the walls of the fort at Stracathro, near Brechin, Angus, could challenge the long-held assumption that Caledonian tribes would never have rubbed shoulders with the Roman invaders. Indeed, it lends support to the existence of a more complicated and convivial relationship than previously envisaged, akin to that enjoyed with his patrician masters by the wine-swilling slave Lurcio, played by comedy legend Frankie Howerd, in the classic late 1970s television show Up Pompeii!. [Source: George Mair,, September 8, 2012]

“Stracathro Fort was at the end of the Gask Ridge, a line of forts and watchtowers stretching from Doune, near Stirling. The system is thought to be the earliest Roman land frontier, built around AD70 – 50 years before Hadrian’s Wall. The fort was discovered from aerial photographs taken in 1957, which showed evidence of defensive towers and protective ditches. A bronze coin and a shard of pottery were found, but until now little more has been known about the site. The archaeologists discovered the settlement and pub using a combination of magnetometry and geophysics without disturbing the site and determined the perimeter of the fort, which faced north-south.

“Now archaeologists working on “The Roman Gask Project” have found a settlement outside the fort – including the pub or wine bar. The Roman hostelry had a large square room – the equivalent of a public bar – and fronted on to a paved area, akin to a modern beer garden. The archaeologists also found the spout of a wine jug. Dr Birgitta Hoffmann, co-director of the project, said: “Roman forts south of the Border have civilian settlements that provided everything they needed, from male and female companionship to shops, pubs and bath houses.

““It was a very handy service, but it was always taught that you didn’t have to look for settlements at forts in Scotland because it was too dangerous – civilians didn’t want to live too close.“But we found a structure we think could be identifiable as the Roman equivalent of a pub. It has a large square room which seems to be fronting on to an unpaved path, with a rectangular area of paving nearby. We found a piece of highquality, black, shiny pottery imported from the Rhineland, which was once the pouring part of a wine jug. It means someone there had a lot of money. They probably came from the Rhineland or somewhere around Gaul.” We hadn’t expected to find a pub. It shows the Romans and the local population got on better than we thought. People would have known that if you stole Roman cattle, the punishment would be severe, but if they stuck to their rules then people could become rich working with the Romans.”

Roman Gladiator Arena Concession Stands

In March 2017, archaeologists in Austria announced they found the remains of the bakeries, fast-food stands and shops that could have been the equivalent of concessions stands for a 13,000-seat amphitheater in the ancient Roman city of Carnuntum, on the southern bank of the Danube, which at its height was the fourth-largest city in the Roman Empire, and home to maybe 50,000 people, including, for a time, A.D. second century A.D. philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. [Source: Megan Gannon April 4, 2017 |~|]

In 2011, a team led by Wolfgang Neubauer, director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI ArchPro), identified a gladiator school at Carnuntum. In a later survey, using noninvasive methods, such as aerial photography, ground-penetrating radar systems and magnetometers, they found Carnuntum’s “entertainment district,” separate from the rest of the city and just outside the amphitheater. |~|

Megan Gannon wrote in “They identified a wide, shop-lined boulevard leading to the amphitheater. By comparing the structures to buildings found at other well-preserved Roman cities, such as Pompeii, Neubauer and his colleagues identified several types of ancient businesses along the street. “Oil lamps with depictions of gladiators were sold all around this area,” Neubauer said, so some of the shops likely sold souvenirs. The researchers found a series of taverns and “thermopolia” where people could buy food at a counter. “It was like a fast-food stand,”Neubauer told Live Science. “You can imagine a bar, where the cauldrons with the food were kept warm.” |~|

“They also discovered a granary with a massive oven, which was likely used for baking bread. Material that has been exposed to high temperatures has a distinct geophysical signature, so when Neubauer’s team found a big, rectangular structure with that signature, they thought, “This must be an oven for baking.” “It gives us now a very clear story of a day at the amphitheater,” Neubauer said. The survey also revealed that there was once another, older wooden amphitheater, just 1,300 feet from the main amphitheater, buried under the later city wall of the civilian city.” |~|

Gladiators Diet Determined by Examining Their Bones

“Roman historians sometimes called gladiators hordearii, which means "barley eaters" in Latin. Ancient texts by Roman scholars Pliny, Galen and Tacitus describe a special "gladiator diet" of barley and bell beans. Is this backed up by archaeological evidence?

Tia Ghose wrote in Livescience: ““In 1993, archaeologists surveying the holy procession path between the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the city of Ephesus, Turkey, uncovered a mass burial pit not far from an ancient gladiator stadium. The pit contained the battle-scarred bones of 68 people who had died between the second and third centuries. The cemetery also contained some gladiator gravestones depicting battles, and most of the skeletons belonged to men between the ages of 20 and 30, according to a 2006 article in the journal Forensic Science International. Gladiators — who were typically prisoners of war, condemned men or slaves — usually lost all right to a proper burial, but it's possible the owner of the local gladiator school had purchased or rented this plot for his students,” scholars have speculated. [Source: Tia Ghose, Livescience, October 27, 2014 ]

A team led by Fabian Kanz, a forensic anthropologist at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, decided to take a closer look at the bones from Ephesus. “The team analyzed the skeletal fragments' ratio of carbon, sulfur and nitrogen isotopes (atoms of the same element with a different number of neutrons). (Because different plants and animals contain different ratios of these isotopes, their ratios in bones can reveal the long-term dietary patterns of ancient people.)

“The gladiator bones showed low levels of the isotope nitrogen-15, which is typical of a diet high in nitrogen-fixing plants, such as lentils and beans. Even so, the gladiators' diet probably wasn't all that different from the mostly vegetarian fare eaten by the Roman populace, Kanz said. Because the chemical signals of a diet can take years to appear in the bones, however, it's possible that the gladiators did eat a different diet — but simply didn't live long enough after entering the deadly profession for that chemical signature to show up in their bones, he said.

Roman Gladiators: Fat Vegetarians?

Robert Koch of AFP wrote: “Roman gladiators were overweight vegetarians and not the muscle-bound men portrayed by actors like Russell Crowe, anthropologists say. Austrian scientists analysed the skeletons of two different types of gladiators, the myrmillos and retiariae, found at the ancient site of Ephesus, near Selsuk in Turkey. "Tests performed on bits of bone taken from the skeletons of some 70 gladiators buried at Ephesus seem to prove that they ate mainly barley, beans and dried fruit," said Dr Karl Grossschmidt, who took part in the study by the Austrian Archaeological Institute "This diet, which has been mentioned in the oral history, is rather sad but it gave the gladiators a lot of strength even if it made them fat," said Grossschmidt who is a member of the University of Vienna's Institute of Histology and Embryology. [Source: Robert Koch, AFP, 5 April 2004 ]

“The Austrian palaeoanthropologists relied on a method known as elementary microanalysis that allows scientists to determine what a human being ate during his or her lifetime. With the help of a sonar, they could establish the chemical concentrations inside cells in the bone samples taken from the skeletons at Ephesus. From this, they could deduce how much meat, fish, grains and fruit made up the diet of the Roman fighting machines. A balanced diet of meat and vegetables leaves equal amounts of zinc and strontium in the cells, while a mainly vegetarian diet would leave high levels of strontium and little zinc, Grossschmidt said.

“Fabian Kanz, from the university's department of analytical chemistry, said the gladiators' bone density gave us clues to how they lived. "The bone density here was higher than usual, as is the case with modern athletes," he said. This line of testing allowed the scientists to debunk another myth, that gladiators wore strappy Sparticus sandals in the arena. "The bone density is particularly high in samples taken from the feet, which would suggest that the gladiators fought with their bare feet in sand," Kanz said. He believed that because some gladiators fought with little more than their bare hands, they could have "cultivated layers of fat to protect their vital organs from the cutting blows of their opponents. It seems that the gladiators tried to put on some weight before their battles. But this does not mean that they did not work hard to lose it again once they stepped out of the ring."

Mortality Rate Amongst Gladiators

Many gladiators who died in the arene presumably bled to death after their arteries were slashed by swords, as crowds cheered on their attackers.. So much blood was shed in gladiatorial combat that the arena floors were covered with sand to absorb it all. The English word “arena” comes from the Latin word for sand: “harena.” Yet, Austrian archaeologist Wolfgang Neubauer, told National Geographic, "They weren't killed very often, they were too valuable. Lots of other people were likely killed at the amphitheater, people not trained to fight. And there was lots of bloodshed. But the combat between gladiators was the point of them performing, not them killing each other." [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, February 25, 2014]

Natasha Sheldon wrote in “Graffiti is commonly found on tombs flanking the major routes into the city, detailing the outcome of gladiatorial combat. The equivalent of modern day sports reports, these accounts named the participants, how many bouts they had fought and how many of these fights they had won.Victors were indicated by the letter ‘v’. Losers could be marked as either ‘m’ for 'missus' indicating that they had lost but been reprieved or ‘p’ for ‘perrit’ indicating they had been killed. Far more gladiator’s names were marked with an m indicating that losers often survived. [Source: Natasha Sheldon,]

Nigel Spivey wrote The Guardian, “Complex calculations about gladiatorial death-rates similarly indicate a strong tendency to exaggerate, and not only by ancient writers. Christian martyrologists piously inflated the number of casualties among the faithful. (In an unsually candid reflection, one persecuted Christian witness, Origen, wondered if the total tally of Christian martyrs at Rome actually reached double figures.) There is, in fact, no firm evidence to prove that any Christian was ever torn apart by lions inside the Colosseum. [Source: Nigel Spivey, The Guardian, March 12, 2005 ^^]

Gladiator Graveyards?

Heather Ramsey of Listverse wrote: “In southwest France about 250 meters (820 ft) from the Saintes amphitheater used for gladiator battles, a large Roman-Gallo necropolis has been discovered with the remains of hundreds of people, including five shackled skeletons. Three adults had iron chains around their ankles, one adult had a neck shackle, and a child had a shackle on the wrist. Archaeologists believe these shackled skeletons may be the remains of slaves killed in the arena. [Source: Heather Ramsey, Listverse, March 4, 2015 ]

As a regional capital, Saintes was a bustling town with an amphitheater capable of holding 18,000 people during the first and second centuries, when these individuals are believed to have died. Some graves contained two people, often buried head-to-toe in trench-like pits. However, the necropolis yielded few artifacts. One man had some vases lying beside him, and one child had coins on his or her eyes. The coins were supposedly to pay a ferryman to transport the child’s spirit safely across a river that led from the land of the living to the afterlife.

“Archaeologists hope to figure out how these people died, if they belonged to the same community, and what their social standing was. In 2005, shackled skeletons were also found in a graveyard excavation from Roman days in York, England. Some of those human remains had bite marks, indicating they may have died in the arena from attacks by wild a On a site in London, Ramsey wrote: “Executed criminals, Roman gladiators, or war trophies? “That question has yet to be answered about the 39 male human skulls discovered in the late 1980s in a burial pit near a Roman amphitheater and Walbrook stream in London. These men, most of whom were 25–35 years old, led hard lives judging by the evidence of decapitation, fractures, sharp-edged weapon injuries, and blunt-force trauma on their skulls. Their deaths have been dated to 120–160 when Londinium (now London) was a thriving capital in Roman Britain.” [Source: Heather Ramsey, Listverse, March 4, 2015 ]

The skulls, housed at the Museum of London, have been analyzed by bioarchaeologist Rebecca Redfern and earth scientist Heather Bonney. “They published their findings in early 2014 in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Although the skulls don’t look as though they were mounted on posts, the researchers believe they may have been exhibited in the Londinium amphitheater after the men died. They could have been thrown into the burial pit later. But Kathleen Coleman, a Roman gladiator expert from Harvard, disagrees. Without gravestones proving these men were gladiators, she believes they may have been killed in riots, common assaults, or gang warfare.

“Redfern doesn’t buy that argument. “There is no evidence for social unrest, warfare, or other acts of organized violence in London during the period that these human remains date from,” she said. “[Instead, there are] two possible outcomes—that these are fatally injured gladiators, or the victims of Roman head-hunting—a tantalizing prospect.” Were these head-hunting trophy skulls, such as those displayed by the military at Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain? The archaeologists want to do isotope analyses to determine where these men resided originally. The answer to whether they were locals or distant strangers may help scientists to narrow the possibilities of how and why they died.

Greco-Roman Surgical Instruments: Archaeological Finds

John Stewart Milne wrote in “Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times”: “Finds of ancient surgical instruments, though not by any means common, are still sufficiently numerous for specimens to have found their way into most of our larger museums; and private collectors have here and there acquired considerable numbers. The most prolific source has been the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, which have now been systematically pursued for nearly three hundred years, while the objects found have been deposited in the National Museum at Naples. In 1818 a physician’s house with a large number of surgical instruments was discovered in the Strada del Consulare of Pompeii, and two chemists’ shops have also been found with instruments in them. Besides these there is a large number of instruments from other finds in the two buried cities. [Source: “Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times” by John Stewart Milne, M.A., M.D. Aberd. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1907) ^*^]

“The custom of burying personal effects along with the ashes of a deceased person, which prevailed among the Romans from the second to the fourth century, has preserved to us a number of interesting finds. In 1880 M. Tolouse, a civil engineer in Paris, in executing some alterations in the neighbourhood of the Avenue Choisy, discovered the grave of a surgeon, containing a bronze pot full of surgical instruments. Among these were numerous forceps and vulsella, ointment tubes, bleeding cup, scalpel handles for blades of steel, probes, and spatulae. Sixty-six coins of the reigns of Tetricus I and II showed that the grave belonged to the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. The instruments are now in the Archaeological Museum at Namur

Roman surgical instrument

“In 1854 there were discovered at Rheims the remnants of a wooden chest containing two little iron jars for ointments, several scalpel handles, a small drill, eight handles for needles, five hooks (two blunt and three sharp), two balances, various probes and spatulae, seven forceps, medicament box, a mortar, and a seal showing that the instruments had belonged to an oculist named Gaius Firmius Severus. The instruments are all of the most beautiful pattern and finish, several being finely inlaid with silver. Some coins of the reigns of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius showed that the interment belonged to the end of the third century. These instruments, &c., are now in the Museum of St-Germain-en-Laye. ^*^

“Find of Sextus Polleius Sollemnis, oculist of Fonviel, Saint-Privat-d’Allier. In levelling a heap of earth which had fallen from a cliff above as the result of a landslide, there were found at Fonviel in 1864 a number of bronze surgical instruments. The place where they were found is at the intersection of two old Roman roads, and the instruments had been buried in the grave of a Roman surgeon high up above the valley on the edge of a cliff. Eighteen coins of the reigns of Julia Augusta, Trajan, Hadrian, Commodus, Gordian, Philip, Valerian, and Gallus, showed that the interment had been made at the end of the third century. The instruments found included three scalpel handles, fragments of two forceps, and an oculist’s seal in stone showing that the grave was that of Sextus Polleius Sollemnis. Many more instruments had probably been buried originally. Those enumerated are now in the Museum of Le Puy-en-Velay.. ^*^

“One of the most prolific finds of late years has been the discovery of a Roman military hospital at Baden, the ancient Roman station of Aquae, or Vicus Aquensis. From time to time isolated discoveries of instruments had been made, including a catheter, a scalpel, and several varieties of probes, and in March, 1893, MM. Kellersberger and Meyer proceeded to excavate systematically the remains of some Roman buildings on their property. A large chamber 10.35 metres by 12.5, with walls 60 cm. thick, was discovered, and later others were discovered varying from 3 to 27 metres in length. There were in all fourteen rooms. Along the side of the building on which a Roman road ran, there were the remains of an imposing façade, running the whole length of the building. It had consisted of a portico with colonnades, the foundations of which were found at regular intervals. It is possible that some of the larger rooms had been subdivided into others by thin walls or partitions, for fragments of partitions of plaster with wood lathing were found. ^*^

“A large number of objects—tiles, lamps, vases, pots, knives, spearheads, nails, glass, fibulae, beads, weavers’ weights, three amphorae a metre high—were found near the surface. Then, at a depth of two metres, surgical instruments began to be found. These included probes to the number of 120, unguent spoons in bone and bronze, a fragment of a catheter 13 cm. long, bronze boxes for powder, needles, earscoops, unguentaria, spatulae, a fragment of an étui for instruments, and cauteries. Many coins of the reigns of Claudius, Nero, Domitian, Vespasian, and Hadrian were found, showing that the hospital had been in use between 100 and 200 A.D. ^*^

“A case containing a surgeon’s outfit was found in the Luxemburgerstrasse, Cologne. It contained a phlebotome, a chisel, and some fragments of other instruments of steel, two forceps and two sharp hooks in bronze, and a small ivory pestle-like instrument. These are now in the Cologne Museum. This is a most interesting and important little find. The phlebotome is by far the best preserved and best authenticated example which we possess of this instrument. Probably the same may be said of the chisel as a purely surgical instrument.” ^*^

Roman Infant Burials

Unlike Christians, Romans did not consider children as beings with a developed soul. As a consequence they often discarded dead infants or buried them in the garden like a dead pet. Laws were passed in the 5th century outlawing the sale of children to families who might give a child a better chance of survival.

mourning a child scene from a sarcophagus

An infant graveyard, dated to around 400 B.C., the largest ever discovered, was found near the town of Lugano, 70 miles north of Rome. The bodies of the infants were buried there in earthen jars, with, in some cases, decapitated puppies and raven claws. By this period in history Rome had been Christianized and archaeologists interpret these gruesome pagan offerings as a superstitious act brought on by "extreme stress."

The epitaphs composed for infant tombs also disclose a great deal about the intense grief parents felt towards lost infants. One inscription read that the baby's life consisted of just “nine breaths." In another a father wrote: “My baby Aceva was snatched away to live in Hades before she had her fill of the sweet light of life. She was beautiful and charming, a little darling as if from heaven, her father weeps for her and, because he is her father, asks that the earth may rest lightly on her forever."

Excavations of an ancient sewer under a Roman bathhouse in Ashkleon in present-day Israel revealed the remains of more than 100 infants thought to be unwanted children from the brothel. The infants had been thrown into a gutter along with animal bones, pottery shards and a few coins and are thought to have been unwanted because of the way they were disposed of. DNA tests revealed that 74 percent of the victims were male. Usually unwanted children were girls. Infant mortality may have been the outcome of one third of live births.

Roman Burial Inside a House

In 2010, archaeologist at the University of British Columbia announced that had found a grave inside a room a house at Kaukana, an ancient Roman and Byzantine village on the south coast of Sicily. Normally burials from this period are found in the village cemetery on the outskirts, or else around the village church. Inside the burial were two skeletons – one of a woman aged about 25, and the other of a young child. The discovery was made by a team led by Professor Roger Wilson, Head of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at UBC. [Source: Loren Plottel, University of British Columbia, April 10, 2010 ]

Loren Plottel of the University of British Columbia: “DNA testing in 2009/10 has now confirmed that the woman and child belong to the same family, and the child has been identified, also through her DNA, as a little girl, about four years old: they were clearly mother and daughter. From the way in which her bones were arranged, it is clear the child was placed in the tomb sometime after the mother had been buried. But the discoveries have now got even more interesting. The mother is now known to have been approximately 30 weeks pregnant (some bones of her foetus survived), and periodic feasting occurred at her graveside: not only were dining plates, amphorae for wine and oil, and cooking pots found alongside the tomb, but also ovens where the food they ate was cooked.

“Preliminary analysis of carbonized seeds shows that one meal consisted of wheat, barley, millet, peas, eggs and lentils. There was even a bench provided for the diners, and a low table. One of the amphorae had brought wine all the way from Egypt, and a clay lamp of about 550 CE, imported from Tunisia, is thought to show the earliest depiction of a backgammon board ever found. It is known that this game (a descendant of earlier Roman games) was being played by Roman emperors in the fifth century CE. Clearly the woman, whose tomb had a hole in the lid to take libations of wine, was a much-loved person, given the attention paid to her burial and the evidence of ritual feasting in her honour. The team now also knows, from the discovery of an inscription in 2009, that she was definitely a Christian, since a tomb slab was inscribed ‘holy, holy, holy’, an allusion to part of the early Christian liturgy.

“But why was she so honoured, and why here inside a home within the settlement, and not at the cemetery or church? One discovery of 2009 was that she possessed a tiny hole in her skull, a natural defect which she had had from birth, with the result that the lining of the brain, the meninges, would have protruded from it. The condition, known as meningocoele, would have given her constant headaches and a tendency to suffer from periodic seizures. Perhaps her miraculous powers of recovery on such occasions, apparently coming back from the ‘dead’, meant that she was seen by some as a holy woman, possibly one possessing special mystical powers. Perhaps she was rejected by her local church as being too scary, given her disabilities – one revered by some but feared by others. Or did she belong to a different, non-catholic Christian sect? The cause of her death is unknown, but it might have been due to complications which arose during her pregnancy. Even if questions surrounding this discovery abound, one thing is certain. The woman remained as remarkable in death as she was once in life.”

Roman-Era Mass Grave Filled with Beheaded Skeletons

Matthew Brunwasser wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The Roman colony of Scupi in northern Macedonia is the most thoroughly excavated ancient site in the country. Thus archaeologists were shocked when, in fall 2011, they uncovered a completely unknown mass grave on the periphery of the settlement's largest necropolis. By the time they had to stop digging in mid-December due to weather, project leader Lence Jovanova and her team had identified at least 180 adult male skeletons that had been tossed into a pit a foot and a half deep. Many had been decapitated and most had their arms bound behind their backs. Some of the bones show the marks of extreme violence such as cutting and breakage. "It was a terrible sight, like a modern massacre," says Jovanova. When archaeologist Phil Freeman of the University of Liverpool, who specializes in Roman battlefield archaeology, saw images of the excavation, he says his jaw dropped. "The only thing I can think of that is comparable to this is the Vilnius, Lithuania, mass grave from 1812," he remarks, referring to the find 10 years ago of 2,000 well-preserved corpses of French soldiers killed during Napoleon's retreat from Russia. [Source: Matthew Brunwasser, Archaeology, Volume 65 Number 5, September/October 2012]

“Why the men were killed remains a mystery. "All we know is that they died violent deaths. Maybe they were executed. It could have been a war or conflict," Jovanova says, adding that she thinks that whatever did happen occurred near the town, explaining why the victims were buried in the main necropolis. Freeman believes that a mass military execution is the likely scenario. With civil executions, the victims' heads were often placed at the corpses' feet, he explains. None of the Scupi skeletons were found this way.

“Freeman further notes that the grave is not likely the result of a battlefield event. The repeated evidence for decapitation suggests the victims were killed after, not during, battle. It is possible that the mass killing could be linked to the conflicts destabilizing the Roman Empire during the late third to early fourth centuries A.D., according to Jovanova. Freeman agrees that the empire's intense political instability, as different armed factions fought to bring their preferred leader to the emperor's throne, could be tied to the grave in some way. "Our natural tendency is to see the archaeology as simply adjunct to the historical sources," Freeman says. "Since something dates to the first century, for example, it has to fit into a known first-century event. That assumption is made time and time again." But he calls it "a dangerous game" to attempt to match such dramatic finds with known military episodes. Although this may come as a surprise to many, Freeman stresses that there is still a great deal of Roman history that is unknown.”

Curse Tablets in Ancient Rome

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Jews, Christians, Gauls and Britons all dispensed curse tablets used to placate "unquiet" graves and call up the spirits of the underworld to make trouble. [Source: Christopher A. Faraone, Archaeology, March/April 2003]

In the Roman empire fortunetellers placed elaborate curses on lead tablets called defixiones . The practice was so common that scribes were hired to copy form-letter curses from "magical" papyri and many fortunetellers who dispensed curses made money from breaking them. Curse tablets endured until they were prohibited by the Christian Church.

Archaeologists have found hundreds of tablets with strange letters or the victim's name. The Greeks called them “curses that bind tight” and they appear to have invented them, with a great number focusing on sporting competitions or legal contests. The Latin term means “curses that fix or fasten someone." “To make such a “binding spell," Christopher A. Faraone wrote in Archaeology magazine, “one would inscribe the victim's name and a formula on a lead tablet, fold it up, often pierce it with a nail, and then deposit it in a grave or a well or a fountain, placing it in the realm of ghosts or underworld divinities who might be asked to enforce the spell."

curse objects

Curse tablets aimed at bringing misfortune to chariot racing teams have been found. One Roman-era curse tablet from Carthage read: "Bind the horses whose names and images on this implement I entrust you . . . Bind their running, their powers, their soul, their onrush, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow morning in the hippodrome they are not able to run or walk about, or win, or go out of the starting gates, or advance either on the racecourse or track but they fall with their drivers." One aimed at a particular chariot team and driver that was buried with a rooster sacrifice went, “Just as this rooster has been bound by its feet, hands, and head, so bind the legs and hands and head and heart of Victoricus the charioteer of the Blue team, for tomorrow."

Curses were not always bad. Many were love spells. One from the A.D. fifth century read: "Grab Euphemia and lead her to me, Theon, loving me with frenzied love, and bind her with bonds that are unbreakable, strong and adamantine, so that she loves me, Theon, and do not allow her to eat, drink sleep or joke or laugh but make [her] rush out of every place and dwelling, abandon father, mother, brothers and sisters, until she comes to me, Theon, loving me, wanting me” with “unceasing and wild love. And if she holds someone else to her bosom, let her put him out, forget him, and hate him, but love, desire, and want me . . . Now, now. Quickly, quickly."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston except garbage Archaeology News

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ;“Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, BBC, Livescience and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.