BMCR 2022.02.07

Foodways in Roman Republican Italy

, Foodways in Roman Republican Italy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021. Pp. xvi, 349. ISBN 9780472132300. $85.00.


Pots and bones—the choice ingredients of the volume under review—have enjoyed somewhat diverging trajectories in modern scholarship. While pots—that is, properly put, ceramic wares—have for some time now been recognised as important objects for study, bones—here focused on animal bones—have taken somewhat longer to attract a similar level of detailed academic attention. This disparity holds true not just for the fancifully decorated types of pottery, but has increasingly also been the case for those that were primarily destined for mundane or daily use. Moreover, pots and bones are regularly studied in isolation from one another—by pot and bone experts respectively. A further separation inherent in the study of these materials consists in the widespread differentiation of ceramic wares between cooking and serving pottery. Focussing on the pot and bone remains at three sites in central Italy over the outgoing centuries of the first millennium BCE, Laura Banducci’s Foodways in Roman Republican Italy breaks at once with every one of the noted separations to produce a lively and meaningful picture of ancient life as documented by the chosen evidence. But this is not the book’s only feat.

The backbone of Banducci’s study is meticulous, systematic and comprehensive analysis of the ceramic and faunal remains from selected locations at (from north to south) Cetamura del Chianti and Populonia in Tuscany, and Musarna in northern Lazio, roughly half-way between Tuscania and Viterbo. All three sites—one coastal (Populonia), one on a low plateau (Musarna), one on a hilltop (Cetamura del Chianti)—are located in ancient Etruria; all three came increasingly under Roman influence in the centuries from which the assemblages studied in this book hail (c. 300 to 1 BCE). The geographically concise remit (which limits generalisation from the data to Republican Italy as a whole) is explained by the sites’ comparable assemblages: all three excavations have produced sizeable ceramic records, beside carefully published reports of animal bones and vegetal materials. On this basis, Banducci explores the three populations’ foodways—i.e. ‘the body of food-related activities—that is, the methods of food production and preparation, modes of consumption, and diet’ (2), focussed effectively on the middling and upper social strata, with special regard to those who cooked with fire. In so doing, Banducci aims to trace larger patterns of cultural change through the seemingly nugatory, yet actually significant choices made in food production, preparation and consumption at the personal, familial and communal level. What follows is first-hand analysis of mind-boggling detail and thoroughness.

The feast opens with a short Introduction (offering several brief surveys, thematic and historical, besides comment on the kind of evidence studied: 1–25). Part 1 follows, made up of further introductory overviews concentrated on historical and historiographical issues in Chapter 1 (29–43) and an introduction to the sites in Chapter 2 (44–67). The ensuing discussion of the actual materials is spread over three chapters, which—together with an explication of the employed analytical methods (71–94)—constitute the meat of the study (Part 2): ‘Ceramics for Cooking’ (95–150), ‘Ceramics for Preparing and Serving Food’ (151–88); ‘Food Remains from the Environmental Record’ (189–227). Part 3 comprises a synthesis of the materials from each site in Chapter 7 (231–46), an attempt at anthropological and historical contextualisation in Chapter 8 (247–71), and a final Conclusion (273–8). The book ends with three appendices, dealing with statistical questions (281–284), the relationship between rim diameter and vessel volume (285–9), and a summary of controlled laboratory experiments undertaken by the author (290–3).

For the ceramics, Banducci draws on morphological study as well as use-wear analysis. There are seven vessel forms discussed, with the ‘lid’ thrown in not just for good measure: pentola, olla, tegame, clibanus, jug, bowl, and plate; numerous physical variables are used in these vessels’ study: size, stability, durability, wall thickness, surface treatment, graspability, and openness or closedness (73–9). The use-wear analysis centres on ceramic attrition besides accretion from fire contact. Particular attention is given to the differentiation of soot and char (79–85), enabling a much more sophisticated analysis of what is routinely called ‘blackening’ on the pots’ outsides and insides. The benefit of this fine-tuned approach is best illustrated on the tegami at Musarna (119–27). Traditionally, these low-walled and wide open pans with flat or concave bases are appreciated as vessels preferentially used for the baking of bread in ovens (which does not normally lead to sustained blackening). But Banducci’s study of the Musarna tegami reveals notable blackening on the outside of several of the vessels typical of contact with open fire, not oven heat, suggesting that the vessels were ‘not used for baking in an oven’ (126). A good example is the tegame recorded as MUS 4975 (Fig. 27).

The careful autopsy cannot be stressed enough: each sherd or (occasionally) complete vessel is studied in minute detail, and the levels of wear, including blackening, rigorously analysed and recorded, together with the other noted attributes. A digital repository offering for download the spreadsheets containing the data from the morphology and use-wear analyses supports the discussion. This openly accessible database may not automatically facilitate the reuse of the various datasets: for this, close familiarity with the material is required, of the type that can only be achieved through one’s own analysis, like that carried out by Banducci. But access to this data and the scholar’s analysis thereof must be considered the gold standard in research of this kind, enabling others to appreciate properly the interpretative discussions built on it.

The faunal analyses draw on standard techniques, especially the calculation of the ‘Number of identifiable specimens’ (NISP) and the ‘Minimum number of individuals’ (MNI), supported by the calculation of ‘meat weight’, as well as the study of butchery and burn marks and the ages of the consumed animals. From Musarna, 2,024 fragments of animal bones, teeth and shells were studied. No edible wild animals or mollusc shells, and only scarce fish remains were identified from the samples. Instead, the remains display a preference for cattle, pigs, and sheep/goats (besides chicken), and thus a reliance on domesticated animals. The maturity of the cattle suggests that beef consumption at Musarna was largely opportunistic, constituting a productive way of disposing of aged draught animals; by contrast, pigs and sheep/goats were eaten at earlier ages, suggestive of their being raised for the table. Banducci argues for an increase in the consumption of pig, with a correlated decrease in sheep/goat consumption at the site over time (197–200), aligning Musarna with a trend observed by other scholars elsewhere in Italy.[1] The data from Musarna are thrown into relief by those from coastal Populonia (206–12). While cattle, pigs, and sheep/goats are still largely at the top of the menu, there is a notable level of consumption of wild animals and molluscs, the latter especially in the first century BCE, combined with a distinct decrease in the consumption of pork; the nugatory recovery levels of fish bones make it impossible to judge its relevance to the local diet, although it was likely considerable, given Populonia’s location. Unlike at Musarna, the animals appear all raised for consumption, given the younger ages identifiable for all three species, while the few butchery and burn marks do not permit wide-reaching interpretation. Cetamura del Chianti presents yet another picture, sporting an intriguing rise in chicken (and other bird) consumption in its later phases, even if the meat-weight analysis recalls the prominence of cattle, pig and sheep/goats on the community’s table throughout. As at Populonia, these mammals appear primarily raised for consumption, while the possibility of the ritualistic use of chicken may explain the bird’s prominence in the data (213–8).

Combining the ceramic and faunal data with wider historical and anthropological considerations, Banducci stresses in conclusion complexity over a single narrative, undoubtedly rightly: ‘the foodways analyses […] suggest a heterogeneous and regionally specific change in food practices over time’ (276–7). But the concurrent tight alignment of historical events—the Hannibalic War, the Gracchan reforms—with shifts in the evidence for foodways is bold and opens up questions about the data itself. Take Musarna. Banducci notes a gradual increase in size for serving vessels, especially plates, at the site, combined with a rising prevalence of serving plates, besides an increase in the size of cooking olle—suggestive, she contends, of ‘the growing importance of group dining’ (234). This interpretation is contextualised through evidence for enhanced building activity in the second century BCE, i.e. the town’s monumentalisation, including the building of baths. The baths featured an Etruscan inscription recording the names of Luvce Hulchnies and Vel Alethnas, who oversaw and likely paid for the construction. Following the excavators, Banducci sees a contrast between Etruscan text and ‘“Roman-style” bathing’ (235): ‘The inscription […] may reflect […] a potential “Etruscan survival”—a streak of conservatism or ancestral pride […] The baths, then, are a public display of the tensions between traditional Etruscan identity and Mediterranean behaviours resulting from Rome’s increasingly far-flung political network.’ The proposed shift in foodways at Musarna towards communal dining is consequently seen as reflecting ‘impulses and tensions similar to those suggested by the bathhouse construction and inscription, a tension between tradition and participation in an increasingly vast, more complex and interconnected world’ (235).

Leaving aside the considerable ambiguity in the interpretation of Etruscan text and bathhouse construction as evidence for social tensions, the interpretative stretch is notably enlarged by the data itself. Thus, while the cooking olle show sizes from 7–35 cm in Period 6 (150–50 BCE), compared with only 10–19 cm in 300–200 BCE, there is also a considerable increase in the pottery volume over time: 30 vessels/sherds in 300–200 BCE against 127 in Period 6 (Fig. 14). Further, Periods 3/4 (250–150/200–100 BCE) show ranges that reach closely to the largest olle from Period 6—i.e. 5/6–29 cm. Critically, in the well-documented late period, there are only three specimens that are larger than 29 cm (30, 31, 35 cm): three. Can a chronological increase in vessel sizes really be deduced from all this? Conversely, the decreasing diameter range for black gloss plates at Populonia, from 6–33 to 15–24 cm between 150–100/50 and 100–1 BCE, is not deemed numerically meaningful, apparently documenting continuity, ‘possibly even resistance’ to participating in ‘the Roman cultural sphere’ (55, 170–4, 241, with Fig. 51). The problems with the survival record and the arising statistics are self-evident; the documentation of historical developments through that record less so. Characteristic of much of the data, the quantitative imbalance between the different (sometimes overlapping) periods, combined with the locational and social selectivity behind the data, questions Banducci’s wider contextualisations.

There are other, socio-historical issues: cooking is seen as a domestic activity (38–43), skewing the commendable gaze on individual behaviours towards the home. That home, and household more generally, is understood as Roman, illustrated through Latin authors and Pompeian architecture and art (5–16; 263–70)—odd at best for Hellenistic Etruria, and even more so if Etruscan culture is otherwise acknowledged, as with Musarna’s baths. The Romanising gaze also shows in understanding possible servile cooks as subject to Roman slavery (263–7)—unlikely to have been the power structure exploited by Luvce Hulchnies and associates for their slaving. This superficial, unmotivated Roman framework jars with Banducci’s concern to avoid generalising, and especially Romanising narratives, and her own multifaceted approach to the evidence.

Banducci has given us much to think about, much to copy and emulate, and much to straightforwardly enjoy: the impressive handling (literally!) of the ceramic wares is a pleasure to engage with, as is the level of innovation in approach. In all this, Banducci shows her own disciplinary anxiety vis-à-vis the supposed tedious nature of the data as misplaced (99; passim): it is in the display of the specialist’s extraordinary skill and knowledge that we can all rejoice, to depart from the juicy table dished up for us by Banducci with an academically full belly and multiply stimulated scholarly taste buds.


[1] See especially Anthony King’s ‘Diet in the Roman world: a regional inter-site comparison of the mammal bones’, Journal of Roman Archaeology12 (1999), 168–202.