• Parker Johnson

Legionaries built the might of ancient Rome, but they couldn't have marched around the Mediterranean without food. Here, I tell of this early hardtack, the simple cereal sustenance that fueled ancient soldiers, with a recipe for you to try.

A photo I took of the buccellatum biscuits on a plate. Best soaked in something!

After pounding in the last of the log stakes, you drop the mallet on the grass of the low knoll that has become tonight's temporary campsite. You wipe your sweaty hands on your tunic.

The other seven members of your contubernium have finished pitching your tent, arranged in a circle with the rest of the centuria, your one-hundred-man company. As the nighttime fog rolls through the valley below, you notice the cold, clammy air piercing your cloak.

You and your tent-mates huddle together around the central fire for warmth (and for fear of bands of marauding nocturnal Britons). Feeling a loud grumbling in your stomach, you open your loculus, the leather pack sitting at your feet, and hope the provisions left will be enough to get you through to tomorrow's restocking from the sutlers out of Lindum (Lincoln).

To your surprise, what's left at the bottom of your sack isn't just stale crumbs — but it's little more. Reaching inside, you pull out a few pieces of buccellatum — food, but you won't want to bite down too hard or you might break your teeth!

For marching legionaries, it was essential to have enough supplies for military expeditions. Basic human needs — food, water, and shelter — had to be met by purveyors of the Roman army. However, while on the road, it was necessary to sacrifice the quality of their supplies for more certain longevity.

The first-century AD historian Josephus recorded some of the items carried by soldiers in his own time in The Jewish War:

...a saw and a basket, a pick-axe and an axe, a thong of leather and a hook, with provisions for three days, so that a footman hath no great need of a mule to carry his burdens.

Tools were certainly important for legionaries to work efficiently, but food was paramount to keep legionaries energized. Josephus passed over the contents of rations, but a number of other Latin texts substantiate what soldiers were eating.

The late Codex Theodosianus, a book of laws compiled under the emperor Theodosius II in the early fifth century, takes some time to describe the itineraries of earlier rulers and their troops. A section of the text lists what a traveling army ought to carry for its soldiers: "buccellatum ac panem, vinum quoque atque acetum, sed et laridum, carnem verbecinam."

Buccellatum and bread, wine and also vinegar, but also lard and mutton.

Hadrian, the second-century emperor who secured the empire's frontiers, served as a soldier before his government. As other authors remarked, Hadrian lived like a soldier for a period after he had completed his service.

Importantly for us, the Historia Augusta (Augustan History) tells that he enjoyed standard military fare — "larido, caseo, et posca" — lard (or bacon), cheese, and posca, a sour drink of vinegar, water, and honey.

In the same text, the anonymous authors wrote about Avidius Cassius, a powerful general who usurped the throne of Marcus Aurelius. The Historia Augusta notes that Cassius ordered his troops to carry "laridum ac buccellatum atque acetum"lard, buccellatum, and vinegar.

Needless to say, there are a lot of references to these military rations. Nearly every description includes buccellatum, which, based on historical accounts, is thought to be like a dry, tough biscuit.

The name of this food, buccellatum, comes from the Latin buccella, meaning "mouthful" or "morsel," ultimately coming from bucca, or "cheek." It seems the original etymology remained true: these biscuits were likely small enough to be eaten in a bite or two. But you probably wouldn't want to!

To withstand the drastically different climatic conditions across the empire — both the extreme heat of Syria and damp British weather — through it all, buccellatum had to be non-perishable, so mostly tasteless and very tough.

There aren't any recipes for buccellatum, but it seems similar to hardtack eaten by militaries for centuries. Hardtack was a staple food of sailors in the British Empire and of American Civil War soldiers.

From this latter group I was able to find a source describing hardtack and how it was eaten. Thanks to John Billings’ 1887 memoir of his time as a Union soldier, Hardtack and Coffee, we have an excellent account of Civil War hardtack:

What was hardtack? It was a plain flour-and-water biscuit. [...] Some of these [men] crumbed them in soups for want of other thickening. For this purpose they served very well. Some crumbed them in cold water, then fried the crumbs in the juice and fat of meat.

The ingredients of Roman buccellatum must have been similar, then, to what Billings mentioned: flour and water. Spelt flour was considered one of the heaviest and, as a result, most nutritious flours by the Romans — Pliny the Elder makes note of this — so I chose to use it to make provisions for active legionaries.

Along with buccellatum, lard was a main ingredient on commissariat menus. Taking some culinary license, I added lard to my hardtack for better texture (though the simplest biscuits, like in the Civil War, would have probably been just flour and water). I also added salt for flavor, but it could double as a preservative. Without any further ado, here's my recreated hardtack recipe:

2 cups of spelt flour

1 tbsp of lard

2-3 generous pinches of salt

3/4 cup of water

Mix all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Transfer to a well-floured surface (I used the countertop) and knead until the dough is smooth, firm, and mostly dry. If needed, add more water or flour to get the right consistency.

Roll the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Using a knife or the mouth of a glass, punch out circles of dough 2-3 inches wide. I managed to get a dozen of these biscuits from my dough. Flour both sides of all biscuits so they don't stick during baking, then arrange on a lined pan. Poke holes in each biscuit to keep them from rising in the oven — this is a common feature in hardtack, and was called "docking" in the Civil War era. I used a toothpick to do this.

Place the pan in the oven at 350ºF and bake the biscuits for around 45 minutes, until the hardtack is solid. When finished, remove the pan from the oven and let the biscuits cool. Either eat fresh from the oven (as they're softer then) or soak the biscuits in water or other liquid if you want to eat them at a later time. Try to enjoy!

Photos of the ingredients; the hardtack on the pan; the biscuits piled on a plate; and a legionary's marching meal (hardtack with lard, back bacon, and a glass of posca).

There's no need to sugar-coat this: the hardtack tastes like a dog biscuit! It's pleasant and definitely edible, but not the most flavorful thing on the planet.

I noticed the buccellatum got harder as it aged, but it aged well — it's been about a week since I made the biscuits and there's absolutely no difference in their quality. If you'd like to eat them, I'd recommend soaking them somehow — in water or broth or something else — to soften them a bit.

The more exotic dishes might be more exciting to prepare and eat, but this buccellatum was what fueled the legionaries of the Roman military as they marched across continents and helped to build, in my opinion, the most eternal empire in history. So grab a jug or mug of posca, dunk your rock-hard biscuits (and let them soak for a few minutes), and ponder the history within the buccellatum you're about to eat. Cheers!

  • Parker Johnson

Much as melons are popular summertime fruits today, they found a spot on the Roman table. Here, I describe gardening, convoluted melon terminology, and an ancient melon salad recipe you can make in your own kitchen.

A photo I took of the chopped melon salad in a bowl, served with the dressing over top.

With summertime all but here, I've noticed myself spending a lot more time outside.

Last spring, I planted a garden out of boredom, and I ended up with lots of dead greenery. I realized I don't have a green thumb, but I also had a great time tending to my plants (until the heat got the best of them).

This year, I figured I'd give my garden a second go. I read a stack of books about rearing plants and I found seeds for interesting herbs like borage, yarrow, and St. John's wort. Alongside these herbs I planted food plants, too: I don't just want to make tea!

Many of the crops I'm growing are New World stock — tomatoes, peppers, and beans. But there's one seedling I'm tending to that I'm especially excited to harvest in a month or two: a melon plant.

Melons and, more broadly, their cucurbit kin — pumpkins, squash, gourds, and cucumbers — are grown all over the world now (including my backyard), even though their historical ranges were much smaller. Pumpkins and winter squashes were first cultivated in Mesoamerica, but nobody knows exactly where melons came from.

It's thought that watermelons originated in Africa, as remains of melon seeds have also been found in Egypt and Libya. Plus, watermelon landraces from Zimbabwe have very high genetic diversity (which likely means they were bred extensively in the area). Muskmelons may hail from Africa, too, or they may have been first domesticated in the Levant, Iran, or central Asia.

In any case, melons are particularly handy fruits. In times of drought (or in hot deserts), they act like little edible jugs, giving water and sustenance to parched, hungry folks.

Probably for this purpose, melons have long been grown beyond their cradle of cultivation. In 2017, archaeologists unearthed sacred wells built by the Nuragic civilization in Sardinia. Inside the wells, dating back over 3,000 years, the excavators found — you guessed it — melon seeds.

A millennium later across the Tyrrhenian Sea, melons were growing in Roman gardens and cropping up in their meals. I took this dish from the cookbook Apicius, a treasure trove of ancient recipes. There are scores of recipes for produce, but nearly all of them make savory vegetable dishes — this melon recipe happens to be a notable exception.

So in the spirit of light, summery food, here's the formula for melon salad, in Latin and English:

Pepones et melones: piper, puleium, mel vel passum, liquamen, acetum; interdum et silfi accedit.

Pepones and melones: pepper, pennyroyal, honey or passum, liquamen, vinegar, and sometimes add silphium.

Just by the looks of it, this dish gives the ingredients of a dressing to go with the melon. We'll have to swap out some of the ingredients (as I'll explain later), but it seems very straightforward. Except for the marrow of this dish: the melon.

I've whipped up a dish with gourds once before. Last summer, I cooked Alexandrian gourd, or cucurbitas more alexandrine. As I learned then, the Latin words for cucurbits are unclear. In my reading, I found five words for these fruits in Latin:

  • cucumis,

  • cucurbita,

  • pepo,

  • melo, and

  • melopepo

Apart from descriptions in a few botanical catalogues, there's little evidence to establish which word describes which species.

Based on what we do have — accounts, etymology, and inferences — it seems that cucumis describes our modern cucumber. And in the recipe I made for Alexandrian gourd, I decided the cucurbita in question was the bottle gourd from sub-Saharan Africa.

Those are fine and well, but the other three terms — pepo, melo, and melopepo — are vexing. All three arrived in Latin from Greek, and it seems like they're all variations of the same word. By delving further into historical sources, though, we learn there are a few revealing differences in the melons they described.

The Latin word pepo comes from the Greek πεπον (pepon), and the fruit was covered amply in the writings of the latter language. Dioscorides, a Greek physician, prescribes the rind of the pepon to place on the foreheads of children suffering from heatstroke. Ostensibly, any melon could fit the bill. The rind of the watermelon (Citrullus lanatus), though, would probably be the best at cooling given its high water content.

Centuries later, Pliny the Elder described in his work Naturalis historia (Natural History) that the largest gourds were called pepones. As watermelons are generally larger than kindred melons, the watermelon seems to be a solid candidate for the Latin pepo.

In the same chapter, Pliny tells of another melon variety: the melopepo. Here is what he says:

It is only of late, too, that a gourd of entirely new shape has been produced in Campania, it having just the form of a quince... The name given to this variety is melopepo. These last do not grow hanging, but assume their round shape as they lie on the ground. A thing that is very remarkable in them, in addition to their shape, color, and smell, is the fact that, when ripe, although they do not hang from the stem, they separate from it at the stalk.

The arrival of this new quince-shaped fruit struck Pliny, but what he noted as most remarkable was how they detached from their stems on their own. It might seem insignificant to us, this fact, but there's only one Old World species whose fruits drop from the plant when ripe: the muskmelon (Cucumis melo).

Other ancient authors suggest that the melopepo and the melo are similar fruits. I think it's safe to say, then, that the melo is some type of muskmelon, like a cantaloupe or honeydew.

Now that we've settled on the melons, there are two ingredient swaps I've made. The first: pennyroyal is a type of mint, so I used spearmint since it's tricky to find. The other swap was for silphium, an herb that grew around Cyrene on Libya's coast. Unfortunately for us (and for later Romans, even), silphium went extinct — but the stinky spice asafoetida offers a substitute.

Whew! With all of that out of the way, here's my take on the pepo and melo salad from Apicius:

1 cantaloupe or muskmelon

1 watermelon

¼ cup of red wine vinegar

2 tbsp of honey

1 tbsp of liquamen

10-12 leaves of mint

¼ tsp of peppercorns

¼ tsp of asafoetida

Quarter the cantaloupe and watermelon, then cube the flesh (I did this by cutting it from the rind first). Stir the vinegar, honey, and liquamen together in a bowl. Mince the mint, then add it into the sauce along with the ground peppercorns and asafoetida. Move the melon into a bowl and pour the sauce over. Either let the flavors meld for a few minutes for a more aromatic savor, or enjoy right away.

Photos of the ingredients for the salad (somehow I forgot the watermelon!); the finished salad; and a melon-shaped Roman bead, c. 1st century BC-1st century AD.

I'm partial to melons, but I really liked this dish! The vinegar cut through the sweetness of the melons, though it was balanced out by the honey. The mint was tastily aromatic, and though asafoetida is a funky-smelling spice, it added great depth and tempered the salad's sweetness. I think this dish is one that could be eaten unironically — beyond the realm of ancient cooking — as it's cool and refreshing.

Now, there is a good chance Roman melons had thicker rinds and less sweetness, like the modern orange versus its ancestor, the citron. Though the fruits featured in this salad have changed — I would argue for the better — other things have stayed largely the same.

People still retire to the countryside in the summer, much like the Roman statesmen (and possibly part-time melon-growers) did to their villas just beyond civilization. And much like with classical Rome, with summertime here in the States comes seasonal crops: peaches, corn, and my favorite, melons.

  • Parker Johnson

Fresh seafood was quite the treat on the ancient dining table, so I was lucky to cook up a fish à la Apicius. Here, a brief history of fish and fishing in Rome, plus a recipe for a dressed sea bass you can whip up yourself.

A photo I snapped of the roasted sea bass on a plate, served with the vinaigrette over a bed of cilantro.

Rome's foundation story is one of the land and pastures. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, sons of Mars and Rhea Silvia (a priestess of Vesta), who were abandoned as babies on the bank of the Tiber River. Legend has it that Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf (lupa) until they were discovered by a shepherd named Faustulus.

The idyllic pastoral conception of Rome's early history was traditionally revered holidays like Parilia were dedicated to sheep and shepherds, an ode to Rome's origin story. But the sea and the creatures lurking in its depths were sources of great intrigue (and food and economic opportunity), so fish became a focal element in the late republican and imperial diet.

As the power and purview of Roman civilization expanded as lands around the Mediterranean Basin were conquered Rome's ability to access the sea became easier. However, fish frenzy was a Greek import.

Ancient Greek cuisine, much like that of early Rome, consisted mostly of bread or barley porridge. These grain staples were supplemented with relishes or sides called opson. The most desirable type of opson was fish, so opsophagos ("opson-eater") was a disparaging name given to men who savored fish too much.

This seafood craze eventually caught on with the Romans. Although it was frowned upon, gluttony was an ultimate display of wealth and clout. Pliny the Elder notes the following about a politician, also a notorious gourmand, in the first century AD:

Asinius Celer, a man of consular rank, and remarkable for his prodigal expenditure on this fish, bought one at Rome, during the reign of Caligula, at the price of eight thousand sestertii.

Celer spent 8,000 sestertii on a single red mullet. In his day, the same amount of money could have purchased ten cows!

Since certain fish were ridiculously expensive, some enterprising Romans created fishponds to breed them on their own. Lucius Licinius Murena, a praetor during the late second century BC, was known as the first man to build one of these pools or piscinae. (Side note: his cognomen or surname, Murena, means "moray" in Latin, and comes from his obsession with fish!).

The piscinae were used for multiple types of fish: freshwater, fed by the aqueducts and cisterns of the city, or saltwater, built by walling off inlets near coastal villas.

Even with aquaculture, the market for marine seafood in Rome was alive and kicking. The ancient Roman condiment game was partly responsible sauces made from salted fish were consumed by virtually every level of society.

Amphorae of garum and liquamen, especially expensive varieties like garum sociorum, stood on the tables of well-off diners. The salty dregs from garum production were used to make allec, used by poor Romans to flavor their porridges.

Whole fish were (understandably) more prized. It seems like fresh fish, especially marine ones, were eaten by the wealthy. Salted fish and second-rate fresh fish, with less sophisticated flavors and poorer quality meat, were likely eaten by the poor.

However, the poet Martial describes salted fish anchovies as making appearances on several classy dinner menus. And archaeological excavation of the sewer in Herculaneum's Cardo V district has revealed all sorts of fish remains, even though many of the people living there weren't elites. There weren't clear-cut distinctions between what different classes ate, but it is clear that the Romans made good use of the fruits of the sea.

With what we're able to glean about fish and aquaculture in ancient Roman cuisine, it should come as no surprise that we know a good bit about how cooks prepared their fishes. The cookbook Apicius, a fount of ancient recipes, is rich with fish dishes it includes a whole book that consists entirely of recipes for sauces to go with fish!

I picked one of the sauces from this section, so the recipe we're working with isn't for the fish, but for the dressing. Here it is, taken from the tenth book of Apicius:

Ius in pisce asso: piper, ligusticum, thymum, coriandrum viridem, mel, acetum, liquamen, vinum, oleum, defritum. calefacies et agitabis rutae surculo et obligabis amulo.

Sauce for roasted fish: pepper, lovage, thyme, green coriander, honey, vinegar, liquamen, wine, oil, defrutum. Heat and stir with a sprig of rue and bind together with starch.

The sauce recipes from Apicius's tenth book sometimes specify the type of fish they are meant to be served with: tuna, conger, mullet, or perch, for example. The rest, though, describe the cooking method used to prepare the fish. This section abounds with sauce recipes for boiled, fried, and poached fish, but we're not told what species to cook.

I figured, then, that my options were open, except for the fish already singled out in other recipes (tuna, for example). The other fish mentioned in Apicius run the range of flavors and textures: conger, a type of eel, is said to taste like pork, while perch is much lighter and sweeter.

Roman fishermen would have operated entirely in the Mediterranean, so I had to pick a fish native to this area. I decided to go with a delicate fish of great renown even today, one that might've been caught in the nets of these ancient piscators.

Known as lavraki in Greek and branzino in Italian, the European or sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) is a modest fish that graces the coastal Mediterranean waters of southern Europe.

Its meat is mild, light, and buttery, a perfect blank canvas for a sauce. I fetched the fine specimen I cooked from the depths of the Ionian Sea. I wish...

But with the fish taken care of, I still had to figure out how to concoct the sauce. I noticed many of these sauces for fish in Apicius consist of similar ingredients. Vinegar, oil, wine, honey, and herbs are all common.

As I was trying to figure out how to prepare the sauce for this roasted bass, I decided to make a vinaigrette the ingredients are the same. And since we haven't been left with any measurements or proportions, that's just what I decided to do.

Here's my take on a sauce for roasted fish, served over sea bass:

1 medium sea bass, gutted and scaled with fins cut off

¼ tsp of peppercorns

⅛ tsp of celery seed

6-8 sprigs of thyme

5-6 sprigs of cilantro

2 tsp of honey

5 tbsp of red wine vinegar

2 tsp of liquamen

3 tbsp of white wine

¼ cup of olive oil, plus more for the fish

4 tsp of defrutum

1 tbsp of starch (wheat or, in a pinch, corn)

Salt and ground pepper to taste

Set the oven to 450ºF. Lay the fish on a shallow pan, and score several times on each side parallel to the gills. Rub a small amount of olive oil on both sides of the fish, letting it soak in. Drizzle more oil inside the fish, too.

Generously season the fish (inside and out) with salt and pepper, making sure to work it in evenly. Pull the cilantro leaves from the stems and stuff the stems into the fish, along with half of the thyme sprigs.

Transfer the bass to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment and place in the oven. Leave the fish to cook for 15-20 minutes, until it starts to brown (this depends on the size of the fish, too).

In the meantime, mix the remaining oil, wine, vinegar, honey, liquamen, and defrutum in a small bowl. Add the peppercorns and celery seed to a mortar and grind to a fine powder, then stir this in with the liquid ingredients.

Mince the cilantro leaves, at this point removed from the stems. Pull the thyme leaves from the stalks (run fingers against the leaves) and mince these, too. Add both herbs to the sauce.

Pour the mixture into a saucepan, and stir slowly over low heat. With a spoon or measuring cup, draw off a tablespoon or two of the sauce and add to a small bowl. Slowly mix in about half a teaspoon of the starch to form a smooth slurry, then replace into the pot. Repeat this several times until the starch is gone.

Once the sauce has thickened, take the pan from the heat. Remove the fish from the oven and let cool for 10-15 minutes, then pull out the herbs from inside. Plate the fish, pour the sauce over (this recipe makes a fair amount of sauce be warned), and enjoy!

Photos of the ingredients; the uncooked fish; the bass on a plate with the vinaigrette; and a piscina at Sperlonga (between Rome and Naples), part of the Villa of Tiberius.

I've hoped to cook up a whole fish for a while now. Since this blog is wanting in seafood recipes, this was the perfect chance. The sea bass dish didn't disappoint! I think the bass was a great specimen not too small but easy to work with and it looks super.

It also tasted great. Sea bass meat is certainly buttery, something that was accentuated by the oil it was cooked with. The vinaigrette cut through this little bit of richness, but wasn't any too strong. With so many ingredients, it was hard to make out individual flavors in the sauce but everything tasted good together. If you can't tell, I'm super happy with how this dish turned out. Nuff said!

Like the roast pheasant I made this past fall, this dish feels like I'm getting at what ancient feasts would have been like the sumptuous spirit of fancy food in ancient Rome. Fortunately, though, I didn't have to blow all my savings on this tasty fish!