Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 4-2 (April 2013)Laura I. Kooistra; Marieke van Dinter; Monica K. Dütting; Pauline van Rijn; Chiara Cavallo: Could the local population of the Lower Rhine delta supply the Roman army? Part 1: The archaeological and historical framework
3. The Roman army in the Rhine delta

3.4 Food for soldiers and vicus inhabitants

Various Roman authors have written about the quantities and the composition of the soldier’s diet. In the second century B.C., Polybius mentions circa 840 grams (converted) of wheat per day for an infantry soldier, 1.7 kg wheat for an auxiliary cavalry soldier and his servant(s) plus circa 6.3 kg barley for his horse and pack animals (Polybios The Histories 6.39; converted to grams in Erdkamp 1998, 28). As far as meat is concerned, Polybius writes about special spaces within a Roman camp that were reserved for cattle (Polybios, The Histories 6.31). In the mid-first century B.C. Caesar wrote that he regularly supplied his soldiers with vegetables and meat, besides cereals (Caesar, De Bello Civilli 3.47; see also the discussion in Erdkamp 1998, 31-32). Inventory lists for the army from other periods and regions show that the army was supplied with vegetables, fruit and nuts (Davies 1989, 198-199).

Nevertheless, cereals seem to have been the main part of the soldier’s diet in all centuries of the Roman empire's existence. Under emperor Hadrian, a century and a half after Polybius, a soldier's diet consisted of cereals, bacon, cheese and sour wine (Aelius Spartianus, Scriptores Histora Augustae Vita Hadriani 10.2). Vegetius, living in the fourth century, but using sources from earlier centuries, stated that there should be enough supplies of grains, sour wine, wine and salt at all times (Vegetius, De Re Militari 3.3), and when a fort was threatened to be sieged, supplies should be stored within the fort, consisting of enough food for horses and for the soldiers enough cereals, fruit, wine and sour wine. Pigs and other animals should be slaughtered to obtain a good supply of meat (Vegetius, De Re Militari 4.7). Olive oil is not named in these sources, although it is likely that this product was part of the basic soldier's diet. A quote from Tacitus is interesting with regard to the necessary amounts of food that should be in store. Tacitus writes that every Roman fort in Great Britain under the governorship of Agricola (between A.D. 78 and 84) was to have enough supplies for a year (Tacitus, Agricola 22.2-3), which amounted to circa 333 kg of cereals per soldier per year (Davies 1989, 187). Quantities are also mentioned in the Egyptian papyri from the fourth century A.D. They describe that a soldier had a right to 969 grams of cereals per day (=3 Roman pounds); 646 grams (2 Roman pounds) of meat or bacon, 1.1 litres of wine and 0.07 litres of oil (Garnsey & Saller 1987, 83-104).

Whether the sources date to the second century B.C. or the fourth century A.D., each soldier had to be supplied with 800 to 1000 grams of cereals a day. Less is known about the quantities of the other required food products. When we consider that 1 kg of cereals provides 3000 to 3300 kCal of energy (Bloemers 1978; Bakels 1982), and that an active, young adult man uses between 3000 and 3600 kCal of energy (Den Hartog 1963, 78-79; Gregg 1988, 143; Roth 1999), it becomes clear that cereals were the most important food for the Roman soldier (Kooistra 2012). This does not deny that meat products, fruits, nuts, vegetables, wine and olive oil were also substantial ingredients of the soldier’s diet. Some of the ingredients belonged to the official soldier’s diet. In addition, in times of peace soldiers could buy food themselves in the vici surrounding the forts. The now famous writing tablets from Vindolanda and other letters reveal that the soldiers also used family and relations to supplement their daily diet (Bowman 2003).

Analysis of the archaeobotanical and archaeozoological data from military sites in De Meern, Woerden, Zwammerdam, Alphen aan den Rijn, Leiden Roomburg and Valkenburg have given us insight into the food pattern of the military community in the Rhine delta. The archaeozoological research shows that in the start-up phase of a fort, relatively high amounts of pig and chicken were eaten (Cavallo et al. 2008). Once established, cattle became the main meat supplier. This applies to both the first and second centuries. Perhaps this can be explained by an insufficiently stable supply of animal products in the establishment phase of a fort. The soldiers would therefore have brought chickens and possibly pigs. Both these animals are fast breeders and require relatively little attention, which means that they could serve as temporary food until the supply lines had been established and the local population could take over (part of) the food production.

The archaeobotanical research (Kooistra 2009; idem 2012) shows that until the end of the first century (circa A.D. 70), there is a broad cereal spectrum in the forts, consisting of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccon), barley (Hordeum), spelt wheat (Triticum spelta), millet (Panicum miliaceum) and oat (Avena). The weeds found among the cereals indicate that part of the cereals was imported from Gaul. Since bread and spelt wheat are almost absent in agrarian settlements to the north and in the coastal, peat and river area south of the Rhine, it is assumed that these cereals were imported. Apart from remains of cereals, pulses, nuts, fruits and herbs have been found in the forts. Only Celtic beans (Vicia faba var. minor) could have been supplied by the agrarian settlements in the region. The other listed vegetable food products were not grown in agrarian settlements at this time, and must have been imported. At the end of the first century, the supply of cereals changed. In the forts, only bread wheat, spelt, emmer and barley are now found, with the first two cereals being imported, while the latter two could have been supplied by agrarian settlements in the region. From the second century, some Mediterranean herbs were grown in agrarian settlements to the south of the Rhine. Orchards for fruits and nuts can only be found in the southern and eastern parts of the province of Germania inferior. Both in the first and second centuries, part of the vegetable food products could have been sourced from the region, and part was imported. How much was imported and how much could have been local cannot be established purely by archaeobotanical research.

The food consumed by vicus inhabitants has not yet been discussed. Nothing is known on this topic from historical sources. The vici inhabitants were entirely dependent on the forts, since most of the population consisted of traders, craftsmen and relatives of the soldiers. There are no indications from archaeological research that there were any farmers living in the vici, growing cereals or breeding livestock. There are some indications for gardens where vegetables and herbs could have been grown (Van Amen & Brinkkemper 2009). However, it is generally assumed that the vicani were food consumers, and that means that they were also mainly dependent on the supply of food by the local agrarian population or on imports over longer distances. The relation between soldiers and vicani was probably so close that most of the vicus population would have moved when army units were transferred. This interconnection between soldiers and civilians makes it likely that their dietary habits were similar. This idea is supported by archaeozoological and archaeobotanical research. This has shown that the same food remains are found in the vici as in the military contexts (Kooistra 2009).