From Julius Caesar’s first landing on the shoreline of England in 55BC to the famous ‘Look to your own defences’ letter of AD410, the Romans played an important part in British history for over 400 years.
In 43 AD, four Roman legions led by Senator Aulus Plautius set foot in Britain; the Roman troops were Emperor Claudius’ response to the exile of Verica, king of the Atrebates and a Roman ally. It was the dawn of that chapter in British history, almost 400 years long, known as Roman Britain. See the timeline of Roman Britain here.
The Roman Empire was arguably the most developed and powerful society of the time, and as Roman troops gained more ground in Britain, they spread their way of life and culture among the locals.
Agriculture and the Romans
When the Roman Empire occupied Britain, Rome already had an extremely well developed agricultural system and elaborate culinary traditions.
The innovations introduced by the Romans in Britain are countless, ranging from architecture, art and engineering to law and society. You can see a few of the influences the Romans had on Ancient Britain by following this link.
Among the sectors of British culture that were most influenced by the Romans, but nonetheless among the least talked about, were agriculture and food.
Roman culture emphasized the importance of agriculture and rural life as a noble way of life, and the Romans had been quick to acquire the secrets of farming from other cultures they had integrated (i.e. Greeks, Etruscans and Syrians). Trade of food and agricultural products reached an unprecedented scale during Roman times: the social importance of food and banquets in Roman culture is so well documented that it does not need an introduction.
It comes as no surprise that when Rome occupied Britain, bringing its culinary and agricultural traditions along, it changed British food and agriculture forever.
Foods the Romans brought to Britain
The Romans introduced many fruits and vegetables previously unknown to the Britons, some of which are still part of the modern national diet.
Before the Romans arrived, the Britons cultivated cereals (mostly wheat and barley), and peas and beans, generally on a subsistence basis.
The Romans introduced over 50 new kinds of food plants: fruits such as fig, grape, apple, pear, cherry, plum, damson, mulberry, date and olive; vegetables such as cucumber and celery; nuts, seeds and pulses such as lentil, pine nut, almond, walnut and sesame; and herbs and spices including coriander, dill and fennel. Many of these were then successfully grown in Britain.
In the Roman period these new foods became much more widely available and revolutionised the diet of people in the growing cities and small towns, where market gardens and orchards growing cash crops must have become a common sight and this may have been the case around the Roman fort of Deva Victrix.
The new diet was adopted far more slowly among the rural poor, and hardly at all in the remote north-west parts of the province. Although even there, military communities were able to eat Roman-style foods.
Meat was more widely consumed under Roman rule. The average size of cattle increased, pigs were commonly kept, and some villas must have prospered from sheep farming. Beef was the favourite meat of the army of Hadrian’s Wall, and was supplied in large quantities to the Wall forts.
Roman cuisine was a lot more elaborate than that of the Britons, and it made extensive use of ‘exotic’ ingredients such as spices and herbs previously unknown in Britain.
As a result, herbs and spices like mint, coriander, rosemary, Thyme, Chives, Fennel , radish, and Garlic were introduced and increasingly cultivated.
Many of the new herbs were valued for more than just their nutritional qualities. Knowledge of their possible medicinal uses was widespread.
Anyone suffering from ill-health in Roman Britain might have had the option of turning to a professional doctor, if they had the money to pay – and then only if they had access to the kind of urban environment where doctors could be found.
Medical theories had come to the Roman world from Greece, and doctors were often of Greek or eastern origin. Prosperous town councillors and villa owners might have had their own private physicians, usually Greek slaves or freedmen.
Roman Medicinal Plants
The Romans discovered apples growing in Syria and were central in dispersing them around the world from there, using the Silk Road as a means of transport from East to West.
The Romans practiced the skill of grafting – selectively breeding apples they wanted, based on their size and taste. Grafting is the incredible process of taking a cutting from your chosen apple variety and attaching it on to a rootstock (young roots and trunk) from another tree. This is necessary as apple trees grown from seed will not grow true to their parent fruit. It is a skill still used for almost all apple trees grown today
The ancestors of apples as we know them today come from Kazakhstan. They spread naturally to Syria, where the Romans picked them up and travelled along the Silk Road to bring them East. You can find the origins of the apple from here.
The Romans learnt to graft, and started to cultivate apples similar to the ones we know and enjoy today.
Among the new fruits, a special chapter must be dedicated to the grape: in fact, it is generally agreed that the Romans introduced the grape and created the wine industry in Britain.
Pre-Roman interest for wine is confirmed by the presence of wine amphorae dating back to before the Roman conquest. However, imported wine was expensive and following the Roman conquest, there were large numbers of Romans living in Britain unwilling to leave their favourite drink behind.
This need for cheaper wine, coupled with the winemaking and viticultural knowledge of the Romans, led to an increased desire for domestic wine and the introduction of winemaking in Britain.
Rosemary ( ros marinus, meaning “sea dew”) — burnt for purification. In fact its antiseptic properties meant it would be used to preserve foods.
Usage of rosemary dates back to 500 b.c. when it was used as a culinary and medicinal herb by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Coriander was brought to Northern Europe by the Romans and made its way to America via the European settlers.
The Romans used coriander mixed with cumin and vinegar as a meat preservative.
In the Roman era, folk wisdom strongly associated thyme with courage. Soldiers would exchange thyme as a sign of respect. Religious leaders would burn thyme in their temples, while ordinary folks did the same in their homes in order to purify the space and instill a feeling of strength and bravery.
According to the writings of Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), the Romans grew thyme extensively for bee culture.
Greeks, and Romans all used Fennel in remedies, food, and – in some areas – as an insect repellent.
The seeds, along with celery, dill and coriander, were frequently used in Roman cooking and their ancient remains have been found in Pontibus (modern Staines) and London.
Romans brought chives to Britain where these plants still grow wild near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumbria.
Here are some interesting links for you! Enjoy your stay :)