BMCR 2008.03.26

Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain

, Eating and drinking in Roman Britain. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xvi, 282 pages. ISBN 9780521802765. £19.99 (pb).

Table of Contents

H.E.M. Cool’s book about food in Roman Britain successfully combines a variety of archaeological, biological, epigraphic and literary sources, including very recent excavation results, as well as a review of secondary sources, by focussing on all aspects of food and nutrition in the province. The book achieves both a detailed overall summary and a comprehensive approach using a variety of methods and sources. It is an invaluable source of information for any scholar researching the subject of Roman food and drink, a subject which has previously not been comprehensively presented for the province of Britain. However, it will also be appealing to the general reader interested in the subject of Roman food.

Cool is interested in food as an indicator of social habits and presents a culture’s eating habits as one of the keys to its understanding. The book is divided into three parts. The first part (Chapters 1-5) deals with the sources on food in Roman Britain, including written sources, inscriptions and archaeological and biological evidence. The second part (Chapters 6-15) discusses general food patterns in Roman Britain, including ingredients and cooking techniques. The third part (Chapters 16-19) deals with the cultural implications of food in Roman Britain and selects certain sites to show the different tastes of different communities.

Chapter 1 (“Apéritif”) is a general introduction, in which the author introduces her intentions and in which the structure of the book is explained. Chapter 2 (“The food itself”) mainly deals with food remains, namely biological ones, such as animal bones, plant remains and residues. Cool discusses rubbish pits and explains the differences between local depositions, which are invaluable as indicators of the things eaten at a certain site and structured depositions of food remains more distant from the cooking sites, which are usually more problematic to detect.

Chapter 3 (“The Packaging”) deals with the types of vessels food and drink was transported in. Cool explains the classification of types of Roman amphorae and other ceramic vessels and wooden barrels found in Britain.

Chapter 4 (“The human remains”) shows that human bones play a very important role in the determination of a community’s nutrition. Diseases discernible from human bones give valuable information about the diet of individuals or a community. The author uses the cemetery at Poundbury as an example of a community in which some individuals were poorly nourished in childhood and includes a discourse on the subject of weaning in Roman society. However, Cool also highlights problems with some of these results, such as site records failing to record male-female proportions and the fact that some recent techniques, such as isotope analysis were often not available at the time of a survey.

Chapter 5 (“Written evidence”) goes into detail about the scanty written sources for Romano-British food and drink and includes sources from locations other than Roman Britain. The most important epigraphic source for food in the military zone of the North, the Vindolanda Tablets, are also discussed in detail. Cool alerts the reader to the role of written and epigraphic sources in determining the social differentiation of the cuisine of the province and finally discusses the level of literacy in Roman Britain, which moves somewhat too far from the topic, in the view of this reviewer.

Chapter 6 (“Kitchen and Dining Basics: Techniques and Utensils”) deals with kitchen equipment and cooking techniques. Cool lists the most common types of pots and pans and talks about the use of these vessels in different areas. Many questions regarding cultural habits and ethnic groups are based upon the types of such vessels, for example the spread of African vessels has been explained as the result of the arrival of soldiers from North Africa.1 Cool also reviews the question if the spread of mortaria is to be equated to the spread of Roman cuisine or if these vessels may have been used in a totally different way.

Chapter 7 (“Store Cupboards”) talks about the basic ingredients used in Romano-British cooking , such as salt, olive oil, fish sauce, spices, flavourings and sweeteners. There is also a paragraph about the cleaning of cereals and milling and about storage and querns. One paragraph, entitled ‘White bread, brown bread, barley cakes’, explores the different traditions regarding the preparation of cereals of different social groups, which are, however, not easily discernible. Chapter 8 discusses staples, namely emmer, spelt and wheat in Britain. Chapter 9 deals with the different types of meat eaten in Roman Britain. Cool states that during the Late Iron Age and the Roman period, the main meats eaten in Britain were cattle, sheep and pig, as shown from the bone remains. ‘Romanized sites’ display a higher percentage of cattle and pig bones, whereas lamb dominates at native sites, following the Late Iron Age pattern. Cool includes an excellent table on the distribution of bones from different sites and concludes that the usage of beef and pork was probably more a military than a Roman habit, since many of the soldiers who arrived in Britain came from Gaul or the German provinces. Some civilian elite sites, such as Fishbourne, have produced similar bones to military sites; rural sites, in comparison, hardly ever produce pork and Cool wonders if this points to cultural taboos regarding the types of meat eaten. In a sub-chapter entitled ‘Tough but Tasty’ Cool investigates why cows were usually only eaten after four years. Some thought it also given to the type of butchery tools used. The final thought in Chapter 9 is given to the question of whether eating horse was a taboo in Roman Britain, as elsewhere. Chapter 10 deals with dairy products. Their detection is usually problematic since they leave little residue. The skeletal evidence, however, according to Cool, speaks against a widespread use of dairy products, which somewhat contradicts Cool earlier statement regarding the usage of cows of milk animals before being eaten (p. 85-86). Perhaps she is referring to the consumption of milk for drinking only and not to cheese consumption here, nevertheless more specific details on the usage of cows’ milk would have presented a slightly clearer picture.

Chapter 11 deals with consumption of poultry and eggs. Domesticated birds in Roman Britain were chickens, ducks and geese. Cool compares different bones from different sites in a coherent table. Chapter 12 deals with the consumption of fish and shellfish. In Rome, fish was seen as a luxury food; however, it is not certain if the fact that fish was a rare occurrence in Roman Britain points to the same trend. Generally, there are more fish bones from medieval sites than from the Roman ones, which may be due to Christian influence, which forbade the eating of meat for certain parts of the week and year. However, shellfish is very common in Roman Britain and may not have been as luxurious in Britain as in the centre of the empire, as the author points out.

Chapter 13 discusses game and hunting. Several sources, such as the Vindolanda Tablets, suggest that hunting was popular in Roman Britain, however, Cool points out that this is not reflected by the animal bones found. Gaming was a pastime of the elite and Cool illustrates very well that the presence of lots of hunting scenes in art are not necessarily a sign of the fact that hunting was practiced often and that it was probably a sport as much as a means of food provision.

Chapter 14 deals with greengrocery. On the subject of fruit in Roman Britain, Cool shows that good evidence is found in cesspits through seeds and pips. The presence of certain seeds does not necessarily mean that fruits were actually grown in Britain, which Cool illustrates on the example of figs, which were grown on a small scale but more often imported. A discussion of the most important vegetables, the most popular of which was the radish, follows including a discourse on the types of problems encountered when working with vegetable residues.

Chapter 15 centres on the subject of drinks. Cool argues that, due to the fact that milk was not popular and that water was often unclean, alcoholic beverages would have been drunk, such as wine or mead. This is followed by a discourse, in which Cool goes into detail about wine in general, followed by evidence for amphorae in Roman Britain, and the mechanisms of wine supply for the Roman army. The usage of beer is also discussed. In her sub-chapter ‘pints and half-pints’, the author talks about changing fashions related to drinking vessels and their social significance.

Chapter 16, entitled ‘End of Independence’, is the first of the final chapters, which investigate social patterns of eating and drinking habits. Cool illustrates very convincingly that no particular date of change for Late Iron Age culinary habits to Roman ones is discernible. Her list of Late Iron Age chronological problems is very thorough. She argues that the so-called core-zone in the Southeast of Britain did experience a change in eating and drinking habits prior to the conquest of ; Cool uses the model of tea drinking and its dilution to different social spheres in more recent times to illuminate how new customs are passed down to the different levels of society. She names the elite burials of Hertfordshire as an example of a community which used new table forms, which could refer to new types of cuisine, and investigates the Dorset area in comparison to show that outside the core zone, exotic vessels were also imported but seem to have had less impact on cooking practices. She concludes that some areas adopted Roman food practices and some did not, but is of the firm belief that it is wrong to seek political explanations behind all these processes.

Chapter 17 entitled ‘A brand-new province’ looks at the food in the new province Roman Britain. It is illustrated how the taste of the newly arrived soldiers need not necessarily have been Roman, since these soldiers came from everywhere in the Roman Empire. As examples, Cool discusses the military fortress of Colchester and also Leadhall in London, a site with civilian immigrants with wealth. In a sub-chapter on country life, Cool also introduces two example sites: Claydon Pike in Gloucestershie and Orton Hall Farm in Cambridgeshire. She shows that the two sites displayed different pottery than military or urban sites and that there are regional differences between them regarding the frequency of types of food found.

Chapter 18, ‘The Coming of Age’ investigates Britain during the third century AD. Several sites, which have produced evidence for food consumption in the second and third century AD, are discussed. Cool also highlights the role of food in the cult of Mercury and Mithras and analyses cult at Uley based upon the extremely young age of the animals slaughtered there, with religious implications and concepts of purity and taboo. She also includes a discourse on the types of animals sacrificed at graveyards, such as Brougham, although most of those were not eaten.

Chapter 19 entitled ‘A different world’ deals with the post-Roman era. Cool states at the start of this chapter that she can be counted amongst those scholars who do not believe in abrupt end to the province but that there was continuity and then goes on to discuss the problems with short chronologies in the fifth century AD. She analyses the increased use of drinking glasses, which spread beyond Britain into Ireland and investigates the role of Christianity on society, wondering if it could have contributed to the increased under-nourishment of some females (possibly due to extreme fasting, as advertised by some early church writers), giving examples from Poundbury. However, she also shows that some early churches, such as Butt Road, Colchester, dined particularly well, according to the evidence from excavated animal bones. She concludes that in spite of the fact that some typically Roman things, such as the use of mortaria and Roman fish-sauce went out of fashion and that there was continuity and variation in the fourth and fifth centuries.2

In her conclusion, Cool points out several things that need to be considered for further studies on the subject. As with all other aspects of life in Roman Britain, there was no united Romano-British cuisine but geographical variations. Also, no ‘Roman’ influence, as such, existed because the new immigrants that came into the province came from a wide geographical area and would have brought very varied influences with them. This corresponds well with other research on Roman Britain and the general picture of a very multicultural province. Culinary changes in Roman Britain began during the century before the conquest, although some areas were later than others to adopt changes in eating and drinking habits. Cool raises some interesting questions, such as why chicken, game, and pork were elite foods compared to beef, sheep or goat, for which no satisfactory answer has been found yet or why fish was rarely eaten in Roman Britain. She also raises the question why religious sites used very young animals and suggests that this must be an indicator of the type of human relationship with the Romano-British gods. On a final note, the author expresses hope that future scholars will check the patterns of her finding against new data and will generally aim to incorporate a more complete presentation of all data from a place.

Overall, this is an extremely valuable and informative new study, which both summarizes old data and new findings extremely coherently and which provides a very good analysis of the social implications of eating and drinking in Roman Britain. As a minor point of criticism, in the reviewer’s opinion, a brief comparison of foods within the province with those from the areas outside the Roman frontier in the general third part of the book, would also have been desirable since it would have been interesting to compare native sites with little Roman influence with ones with more influence within the province and to investigate if any food influences reached the non-Roman North at all. Also, very occasionally the author moves away from the subject of food, by discussing eating and drinking habits from elsewhere and evidence for other aspects of Roman life, such as literacy, which is slightly confusing. However, overall, this book is extremely well-researched and written and presents a very detailed summary of the subject and can be recommended highly to both scholar and enthusiast alike.


1. V. Swan 1992. “Legio VI and its men: African legionaries in Britain”. Journal of Roman Pottery Studies 5: 1-33.

2.I. Wood 2004. “The final phase”, in: M. Todd (ed.) A companion to Roman Britain (Oxford): 428-442.