Sea Urchins & Olives & Dormice: That’s What the Romans Ate?
It seems that the ancient Romans ate… a lot of vegetables (in accordance with the new USDA recommendations that we all eat more of such, per the new food plate graphic). Archaeologists from the British School at Rome excavating an ancient sewer below the town of Herculaneum found a motherlode of, well, what you find in sewers, that is, solid human waste. Herculaneum was one of the towns buried when Mt. Vesuvius in southern Italy erupted in 79 AD.
Evidence that the ancient Romans ate their share of fish, spiky sea urchins, figs, walnuts, eggs, olives and dormice was also found.
Archaeologists found a sewer tunnel 86 meters long containing “what is believed to be the largest deposit of human excrement ever found in the Roman world,” says the BBC. After sifting through more than 750 sacks of preserved human waste, the archaeologists gained clues about their diet, matching what they found to the buildings above, which included a three-story apartment building for some 150 middle- and lower- class inhabitants.
If all of this seems a bit odd, it should be noted that “coprolite” is an archaeological term for fossilized dung which is indeed a good source for figuring out what ancient animals ate (several examples, with photos, here).
The Telegraph also notes that the Herculaneum sewer is in the form of a 10-foot high tunnel extending 100 yards below the ground. Each apartment’s kitchen and latrines were connected to the sewer via chutes for disposing waste. Archaeologists also found the remains of pots, pans, glassware and cups that would have been used in ancient Roman kitchens, along with bronze coins, precious gems, hair pins made of bone and “an exquisite gold ring decorated with a tiny figure of the god Mercury.” The Romans are believed to have kept dormice in pots to fatten them up prior to eating them.
An ancient Roman cookbook by one Apicius does exist and can be found at this site with recipes for the likes of patina de pisciculis (soufflé of small fishes) and dulcia domestica (housemade dessert). The findings at Herculaneum give us a clue about what actual, ordinary ancient Romans ate, more varied than may have been thought but still in contrast to the lavish excesses of a feast recounted in the fictional account of a feast at the rich man Trimalchio’s house by the 1st-century AD writer Petronius.
Still, pretty impressive that the people who conquered much of what was the then-known world did so on a diet (when they were in Rome and not marching against and subduing other peoples) of sea urchins, figs, walnuts and dormice.
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Photo of a street in Herculaneum by S J Pinkney.