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Feeding the Nascent City: Archaeobotanical and Zooarchaeological Evidence from Early Rome

Victoria Carley Moses, Laura Motta, and Katherine Beydler

University of Arizona, University of Michigan, University of Iowa

Ancient authors often wrote about the idyllic roots of Rome, and much of our understanding of farming and rearing animals rested on these testimonies. However, the recurring literary tropes of the poetic herdsman or the farmer/statesman cannot stand alone in explaining Archaic foodways. While these sources provide useful insights on how later Romans viewed their ancestors, recent excavations offer new material perspectives into Rome’s earliest food system. The analysis of the physical remains of plants and animals from the Early Iron Age through the Archaic period allows a better understanding of the political economy of food production and consumptions patterns during Rome’s transforming period of urbanization. While botanical, faunal, and textual sources are usually analyzed separately, this paper links these sources together to define early Roman foodways, relate food production and consumption to social structure, and identify evidence of changes related to urbanism, using examples from Rome itself and nearby settlements that were undergoing similar processes of increasing socio-economic complexity. 

During the 9th through 6th centuries BCE, Rome and nearby settlements changed drastically from a collection of hut compounds into fortified urban centers. The transition to more densely populated sites likely had profound effects on foodways as the cities needed to provision more people and the spaces required to do so would have increased even as urban growth pushed these activities into the hinterland or small, noncontiguous urban spaces. The bulk of the diet was plant based, and most Roman authors emphasize the importance of wheat and pulses. In particular, Roman identity was associated with emmer. This is partially supported by findings in Rome, but it is often at odds with the material evidence from Gabii and other nearby sites. The early diet was diverse and included a variety of crops such as millet, barley and bitter vetch used by elite and non-elite consumers; in contrast to expectations from literature, the early plant evidence indicates there was no social differentiation of grain consumption and that wheat was not seen as a superior grain. Even while other economic practices were becoming more centralized, crop processing remained at the household level showing a very slow change to centralized distribution systems.

Plants constituted the majority of food consumed in this period, but meat was a socially and symbolically important food source. Zooarchaeological remains from ritual sites in Rome, such as the Curiae Veteres and the Area Sacra di Sant’Omobono, and habitation contexts in Rome, Gabii, and other sites in ancient Latium provide material evidence into the production and consumption of meat. From the early Iron Age through the Archaic period, a time characterized by many economic and social changes, the faunal evidence shows no massive overhaul in the meat production economy or the introduction of standardized, exclusive animal sacrifice rituals. Instead, meat continued to be produced at a household level and a broad range of community members participated in rituals. The faunal remains suggest a high level of participation from both elites and non-elites in shaping early Rome’s economy and society. Just as with plant remains, the producers were significant players in urban development, and the consumption of plants and animals remained consistent in this period even as the city grew, showing that traditional foodways were maintained during Rome’s foundational periods and more resistant to change than other components of economy. In later periods, pork production and consumption increased and became a hallmark of Roman identity based on both literary and archaeological materials.

The archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological materials from recent excavations provide a much more comprehensive and nuanced picture of early Roman foodways as they relate to daily life and urbanization processes than we can build from the literary sources alone. The archaeological materials add depth to our knowledge about the origins of Rome and call the indiscriminate application of data from later authors into question.

Session/Panel Title

Between Myth and Materiality: The Origins of Rome 800-500 BCE

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