Tag Archives: Pompeii

Millet in the Roman Diet

“If you want to waste your time, scatter millet and pick it up again” (moram si quaeres, sparge miliu[m] et collige)

A proverb scratched on a column in the peristyle of the House of M. Holconius Rufus (VIII.4.4) at Pompeii (Jashemski et al. 2002, 137).

Looking for the evidence of millet, a generic term for a large group of small seeded-grasses, that includes both Setaria italia (L.) P. Beauv. and Panicum miliaceum L., used during the Roman empire, circa 753 BC–610 AD, presents a number of challenges. Millets are only mentioned a handful of times in the ancient surviving texts, there are only a few well-documented preserved archaeological finds of millet and limited scientific evidence, including archaeobotanical (ancient preserved plant remains) and isotopic evidence (based upon plants using either C3 and C4 photosynthesis). All these lines of evidence are problematic in terms of their representativeness but together they offer a more complete glimpse into the growing understanding of millet and its use and importance in the Roman world.

In other plant taxa it may be problematic to attribute specific botanical species to ancient Greek and Latin names as it is difficult to trace the ancient version of the plant through to modern times. However, this is not the case with Panicum miliaceum or common millet as it has been recovered dating back to the end of the third millennium BC on European archaeological sites (Boivin et al. 2012; Dalby 2003, p. 99; Valamoti 2013) and Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv or commonly known as Italian millet has been cultivated since the Bronze Age circa 2000 BC in Europe (Jashemski et al. 2002, p. 162). The wild progenitor or ancestor of foxtail millet, Setaria viridis (L.) P. Beauv, is well identified and shows clear morphological affinities with, and can interbreed with domesticated Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv. (De Wet et al. 1979, p. 53; Zohary et al. 2012, p. 71).

Wall painting of common millet (left) and Italian millet (right) being eaten by two quails (NMinv. No. 8750) from Pompeii, Italy (photo by S. Jashemski p. 137 in Natural History of Pompeii). NB: It is possible to distinguish the two plant species and their similarity to modern species of common millet and Italian millet

Fig 1: Wall painting of common millet (left) and Italian millet (right) being eaten by two quails (NMinv. No. 8750) from Pompeii, Italy (photo by S. Jashemski p. 137 in Natural History of Pompeii). NB: It is possible to distinguish the two plant species and their similarity to modern species of common millet and Italian millet

Millet is most commonly known in ancient times as being used for fodder to feed livestock and other domesticated animals including birds (see Figure 1). However, millet was also eaten by humans. Millet can be boiled and made into a porridge or ground into a flour and made into a heavy flat bread. The Romans probably did both with it. From the writing of the ancient Greek physician and author Philotimus, we know that one way of preparing millet involved being ‘pounded when raw, ground finely and, after some water has been poured on, it is pounded once again, strained, boiled’ (Oribasius I.15.2).

Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. in autumn

Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. in autumn

Based upon the ancient texts it appears that millet was not the Romans’ favourite or first choice of flour for making bread with but it also wasn’t discarded by the Romans. For example, the presence of millet within the majority of properties with Insula VI.I and other elite houses within the city of Pompeii suggests that millet may have been consumed by the wealthy Roman owners and their servants and slaves. We now know that millets are rich in carbohydrates but poorer in digestible proteins than other cereals making it an excellent appetite satisfier to fend off hunger (Spurr 1986). Thus, common and Italian millet could have been used by the Romans in place of other cereal grains to make and/or bulk up breads and porridges, particularly in times of food shortages or crop failures in an to attempt to satisfy a starving stomach. Practically, millet filled a very useful place in the Roman diet. Millet was cheap to purchase and easy to grown alongside both summer and winter crops. Millet could have helped to hedge against famine in terms of its ability to grow in a wide range of less than ideal agricultural environments. This would have been a very important trait in an unpredictable agrarian world that was quickly exhausting its agricultural farmland (Fraser and Rimas 2010). As the ancient author Strabo (5.1.12) advised, ‘millet is the greatest preventive of famine, since it withstands every unfavourable weather, and can never fail, even though there be scarcity of every other grain’.

Traditional Roman foods were considered ones that the small farmer could grow cheaply on their small plots of land to sustain their families which included millets, pulses and vegetables. Millets were grown in Europe since the Bronze Age and possessed a hardy nature, capable of growing when and where other crops failed. These intrinsic attributes of common and Italian millet’s nature tie-in with traditional Roman values, connecting Romans with their perceived past as a conservative, hardy agrarian people living off the land. Based upon limited ritual evidence, common and Italian millet were likely traditional Roman foods that continued to be offered to the gods. Hence, common and Italian millet appear to fit into the model of the conflicted Roman psyche of traditional agrarian values and the reality of expanding new frontiers and increasing influx of foreign foods and ideas within the empire.

Thus, the evidence for millet reveals that millet was part of the Roman dietary assemblage, to varying degrees, throughout the Roman empire. Based upon the limited evidence to date it looks like millet consumption within Roman society was a more complex issue than the ancient sources alone would lead one to believe and millet consumption was closely tied to Roman social, economic and cultural values (Killgrove and Tykot 2013, p. 36). As more data is collected it is suspected that millets’ reputation and usefulness in the ancient world will become clearer and millets will move beyond being regarded simply as animal fodder.

 Charlene Murphy, UCL


Boivin N, Fuller D, Crowther A (2012) Old World globalization and the Columbian exchange: comparison and contrast. World Archaeol 44(3):452–469

Dalby A (2003) Food in the ancient world, from A to Z. Routledge, London

De Wet JMJ, Oestry-Stidd LL, Cubero JI (1979) Origins and evolution of foxtail millets (Setaria italica). J Agric Tradit Bot Appl 26(1):53–64

Fraser EDG, Rimas A (2010) Empires of food: feast, famine, and the rise and fall of civilizations. Free Press, New York

Jashemski, WF (2002) The Vesuvian sites before A.D 79: the archaeological, literary, and epigraphical evidence. In: Jashemski WF, Meyer FG (ed.) The natural history of Pompeii. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 6–28, chap. 2

Keenleyside, A, Schwarcz, H, Stirling L, Lazreg, NB (2009) Stable isotopic evidence for diet in a Roman and Late Roman population from Leptiminus, Tunisia. J Archaeol Sci 36:51–63

Killgrove K, Tykot RH (2013) Food for Rome: a stable isotope investigation of diet in the imperial period (1st–3rd centuries AD). J Anthropol Archaeol 32:28–38

Murphy, C (2015) Finding Millet in the Roman world. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. DOI 10.1007/s12520-015-0237-4.

Murphy, C, Thompson, G and Fuller, DQ (2013) Rubbish, Refuse and the Romans, the Archaeobotanical Assemblage of Insula VI.I, Pompeii. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 22 (5), 409-419. doi:10.1007/s00334-012-0385-8

Murphy, C (2011) Pompeii, A Changing City, the Archaeobotanical Analysis of Insula VI.I. Unpublished PhD thesis, Institute of Archaeology, UCL.

Spurr MS (1986) Arable cultivation in Roman Italy c. 200 BC–c. AD 100. Journal of Roman studies, monograph no. 3. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, London

Valamoti SM (2013) Millet, the late comer: on the tracks of Panicum miliaceum in prehistoric Greece. Archaeol Anthropol Sci. doi:10.1007/s12520-013-0152-5

Zohary D, Hopf M, Weiss E (2012) Domestication of plants in the Old World: the origin and spread of cultivated plants in west Asia, Europe and the Nile Valley, 4th edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Ancient Sources

Oribasius (1997) Dieting for an emperor: a translation of books 1 and 4 of Oribasius’ Medical compilations. Brill, Leiden

Strabo (1924) In: Jones HL (ed) The Geography of Strabo. Harvard University Press, Cambridge


Grain milling in the Roman world

One of the most iconic sights in Pompeii are the bakeries with their donkey mills. These hourglass-shaped mills were one of several types in use in the Roman world to mill grain ready to make bread. The donkey mills have a solid lower stone, called a meta, which was bell-shaped. Over the top was a hollow upper stone, which was shaped like an hour glass; this was called the catillus. The catillus functioned like a hopper into which the grain would be poured for grinding. The stone used is hard and abrasive to help with the grinding, often basalt. As their name suggests, these mills were probably rotated by donkeys. In addition to these extant examples, there are also numerous depictions on tombstones and sarcaophagi. These come not only from Italy, but also from North Africa, the Aegean and Gaul, which attests to how widespread they were in the Roman world.

One of several bakeries in Pompeii where grain was milled on site using donkey mills.

One of several bakeries in Pompeii where grain was milled on site using donkey mills.

One of the objects we have selected for our exhibition comes from a different kind of mill: a rotary hand quern. These are also made from hard, abrasive stone to help grind the grain. Rotary querns are flatter than donkey mills, but also have an upper and lower stone. These kinds of mill would have ground smaller amounts of grain and would have been sufficient for a domestic household.

At the other end of the scale are watermills, which could grind grain on an industrial scale. Studies of Roman watermills have suffered in the past from the traditional view of technological stagnation in the ancient world. It was thought that slave labour and lack of interest in investment in new technologies caused a lack of water milling technology. As a consequence, for a long time, all water mills were thought to date to the early medieval period at the earliest. This idea was challenged by Orjan Wikander in the 1980s, who started to find archaeological evidence for watermills belonging to the Roman period.

There are two main types of watermill that are distinguished by the orientation of the wheel: vertical or horizontal. The vertical wheel requires a right-angle gear and turns a horizontal wheel shaft on the other end of which is a vertical cogwheel. This cogwheel drives a horizontal cogwheel and the millstones above. The horizontal wheel does not require a gearing system and is driven by water conducted either by a steep chute onto oblique paddles on the wheel or from a nozzle at the base of an arubah penstock (which functions like a tube delivering water to the wheel), or exceptionally, as a turbine.

Schematic drawing of a vertical-wheeled mill with a right-angled gear.

Schematic drawing of a vertical-wheeled mill with a right-angled gear.

Schematic drawing of a horizontal-wheeled mill with an arubah penstock.

Schematic drawing of a horizontal-wheeled mill with an arubah penstock.

In most parts of the Roman world, mills are of the vertical-wheeled type. In some cases, as at Barbegal in France, there were 16 wheels in a single installation. This multi-wheeled mills give a strong impression of the scale of grain milling that was occurring in the Roman world. They suggest that grain was being milled at a near-industrial scale and so that there was a large market for grain and bread. This market may have been related to the annona, a system of free grain (and later bread) given out to the populace – this is where the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ comes from i.e. that these were given to the people to keep them happy and peaceful.

In the Near East, the majority of the 25 known watermills seem to be of the horizontal type with an arubah penstock. The arubah penstock is usually a 6-10 m high stone tower that contains a column of water. This column of water is let out through a narrow orifice at the bottom of the tower, so the wheel is driven by a jet of water under pressure. It seems that this type was used in the Near East because it is a particularly efficient design to use when there is a limited flow of water.

Dating watermills is fraught with difficulty, so most of the Near Eastern mills I looked at in my PhD thesis were only tentatively dated to the Roman period. A case in point is the mill complex at Lejjun, which was thought for several years to date to the Roman period, but excavation subsequently revealed that it dates back only as far as the 19th-century AD Ottoman use of the area (McQuitty, A. “Watermills in Jordan: technology, typology, dating and development,” in Amr, K., Zayadine, F. and Zaghloul, M. (eds) Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan 5 (Amman: Dept of Antiquities, 1995), 745-751.). In some rare cases, the mills can be dated from literary references, for example the mills at Amida were mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus (18.8.11) and so can be firmly dated to AD359.

For more info and a list of all possible Roman watermills in the Near East, see my book (Zena Kamash 2010 Archaeologies of Water in the Roman Near East (Gorgias Press) and http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/kamash_2006/

For a full account of grain mills and milling, in the ancient world, see LA Moritz 1958 Grain Mills and Flour in Classical Antiquity – old, but still good on donkey mills and rotary hand querns.

Food For Thought at Horatio’s Garden

Sunday saw the first event of our ‘Food for Thought’ project. The event was held at Horatio’s Garden in the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre of Salisbury District Hospital (http://www.horatiosgarden.org.uk ), and was focussed around a ‘Roman lunch’ for staff, patients and their families – c. 75 of whom came. The wonderful Horatio’s Garden team put on a delicious spread of boiled eggs, olives, ham and wild boar sausages with spelt and honey cakes for dessert and pomegranate juice to drink.

Dan and Miranda help to prepare the lunch

Dan and Miranda help to prepare the lunch

Olivia with a tasty selection of Roman cakes.

Olivia with a tasty selection of Roman cakes.

Alongside the food we had a set of posters created by members of the ‘Food for Thought’ team, which introduced ways of learning about food in the Roman world, discussed the evidence for food in Roman Britain and Italy and posed questions about food and identity. Erica and Lisa also put together a display of seeds and shells with a microscope to help people view the smaller objects – lots of people were particularly intrigued by how well the eggshells were preserved!

Erica and Lisa setting up their environmental archaeology display.

Erica and Lisa setting up their environmental archaeology display.

Dan had a portable display of pottery from Roman Britain, which he used to introduce people to the basics of pottery analysis and how it relates to food. We also gave out handouts with Roman recipes for people to try at home and we dotted around the garden some quiz sheets about food in the Roman world.

Dan with his pottery sherds.

Dan with his pottery sherds.

As well as the archaeology, it was a pleasure to work again with artist Miranda Creswell, who put on a display of some of her recent pieces – chopping boards (including an old one of mine!) on which Miranda has drawn landscapes. These provided a nice link between food preparation and the land and were hidden in various parts of the garden.

One of Miranda's chopping boards.

One of Miranda’s chopping boards.

We couldn’t have had a better start to the project – lovely weather, tasty food, good company and interesting conversations. Thank you, Horatio’s Garden!

The project team.

The project team.