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!