by Sextilli(Clive Hewitt)

Napoleon is supposed to have said that 'An Army Marches on its Stomach' he may well have done but I suspect that it was borrowed from Vegetius who said much the same in Book 1 of 'Ars Militaris' and there's a probability that Vegetius had the detail from some-one who had it from Greek sources as there are similar things said in both Thucidydes & Herodotus.

The fact that it was known to be a vital factor in warfare was demonstrated by the Persian Emperors Darius and Xerxes who recognised that they had to feed between 2½ and 5 million people [given the ground and transport problems I find this number impossible to believe, but that's what was said] when they were in conflict with the Greeks. Although we have the technology to make it a lot easier to whistle up 'Compo Rations' than to try it on fresh rations every day, it is just as true today as it was when it was first said, in what-ever form & language, by whom ever said it first.

However, let us first disposed of some preconceptions [emotive freight or mental baggage if you like] that we all carry with us as a part of the language we use.

The idea of "a diet" is a modern one. It all started in the mid 1840's by the British Royal Navy, searching for a cure for scurvy. Charles Darwin took part in one of the experiments on his voyage in the Beagle, although I can't find out if he was aware of it, however, it only came into its' own as a part of the medical lexicon in the 1930s' and 40s'.

In Roman times' diet was what you could get to eat and it was nearly all fresh, in-season, produce. The facilities for saving food were extremely limited and, where food did not keep well naturally, consisted of drying, smoking, pickling or salting, but it should be remembered that food poisoning was quite common. Even so, the milite did get his rations on a regular basis, although it was variable in content and quality dependant upon WHERE, WHEN and WHO they were and if they were under punishment or not.

This depends upon which year you're discussing and the time of year in which it is being discussed. During the winter in Germania Superior there would not be a lot of green vegetables, except maybe cabbage or leeks - scurvy was rife although the medicii did their best. Radice Britanii (the root of the common dock) was supposed to be a cure.

Are you in Gaul, Africa, Iudea, Tungria, Ægyptus or Britannia? Are you in the field or in barracks?
In the field you carried some prepared food in your kit, foraged for some part of it and had some issued from the waggon train.
In barracks the staple of grain would be

  • plentiful in Ægyptus (the 'Bread Basket' of the Roman Empire],
  • relatively safe in Gaul, Tungria, Hispania and Britannia but
  • not necessarily so in turbulent Iudea (Israel) and
  • problematic in Germania Superior during those periods when the Germanic warbands roamed freely.


The amounts varied according to rank and arm of service. A cavalryman, at some periods of time, got twice as much grain allowance as a foot soldier - presumably half for his horses - and the Centurio got more than a Milite. [RHIP]

Let's open a window into a Roman party and see what sort of things they had to eat - a party that has changed from its' original gathering of family and friends and has become one of the most celebrated birthday parties in the Roman World.

I am of course referring to the Birthday party thrown on or around 11 Sept. 100 AD at Briga [near Vindolanda/Chesterholme] by Claudia Severa who had invited her good friend Sulpicia Lepidina, who was also the wife of her husbands' commander, Flavius Cerialis, Prefect of the Ninth cohort of Batavians. [Vindolanda tablet 291] Sorry we're just a tad late!

As the wife of Aelius Brocchus the 'Praefectus' (commander) of the Briga garrison Claudia Severa had recourse to all the legionary issue food items and the money to buy all those little extras' that make a party a real success, as well as that she had her own slaves to do the cooking, fetching & carrying and washing up. But, as we all know, you have to be careful about a party given by officers wives as it may not be a good 'Primary Source' when discussing the mens rations.

The menu could have been something like:-

  • Fresh bread
  • Butter - freshly churned
  • Ham - local
  • Pork Cutlets - local
  • Fish - freshwater or preserved
  • Oysters
  • Beans - New season
  • Olives - from Italy or Greece
  • Chicken - from the garden
  • Eggs - local
  • Wine - Gallic possibly Italian
  • Cervesa (beer) - local brew
  • Onion - local
  • Cheese - maybe local
  • Honey cake
  • Dates? - Judea/N. Africa
  • Figs ? - Judea/Syria
  • Plums - local
  • Fish Sauce - imported
  • Herbs - from the garden
  • Honey

All of these could have appeared on the table that day

Very few of those things would not be available to a milite ordinarius or his woman (morganatic wife) as they had the necessary connections as well, so it's not too absurd to say that the rank and file could have eaten them as well. It's also on record that the 'Food Parcel from Home' was a god-send.

Life was hard for the poor old milite as various Emporers and Tribunes etc [amongst others Hadrian, Trajan, Caracalla, Scipio Aemilianus, Metellus, Avidus Cassius, & Severus] said he had to eat the same things, war or no war!!! (This is part of another old military dictum 'Train Hard, Fight Easy').

Hadrian, Trajan, & Caracalla are all recorded as living the life of the common soldier, even of grinding & cooking their own flour ration. I must admit that this may have been a propaganda 'spin' put on an occasional happening [NB: just because I use modern terminology don't assume it didn't happen that way]. The ration was dry measure in terms of the modius per contubernium that I have approximated into modern terms.

Calculations show that each soldiers basic peace time diet would be a grain ration of about 1-1½kg per day (2-3lb) added to which would be Oil or Lard, Bacon or some other meat, Vinum (Vintage wine) or Acetum (Sour wine), Salt, Cheese, Vegetables etc. Contrary to popular opinion the meat part of the ration seems to have been regular and may have been substantial. Naturally no-one knows what the ration was but the most usually found remains are Beef, Sheep, Venison & Pig with Wild Boar, Goat & Hare. Elk, Bear, Wild Ox & Horse are also recorded at some sites. Of course having all that spare cash burning a hole in his scrotum (purse) a legionary could buy himself some additional food at the local vicus or canabae.

Click here to View a PDF which lists the common food items found in the Vindolanda tablets, the cure for a Roman hangover, flatulence and a Gladiator's favourite stamina food!

Sextilli 2006