When you look into your kitchen cabinet then you will probably see salt, pepper, and sugar. But have you ever wondered whether or not Ancient Romans could also rely on salt, pepper, and sugar to season their food?
To answer that I wrote a total of three articles. And while this one deals with pepper, the article that you can find here talks about the price and production of salt in ancient Rome while the article here talks about sugar and other sweeteners in ancient Rome.
According to Pliny the Elder one Roman pound (0,7 lbs/0,3kg) of white Pepper did cost 7 Denarii in the year 77 AD while 1 Roman pound of black pepper did cost 4 Denarii. Pepper was imported in large quantities from India and used by Rome’s high society. While whole peppercorns were rarely used, ground pepper was used in many recipes, especially for seasoning venison.
Let`s take a closer look!
Since when & from where did Rome import pepper?
Pepper was called piper by the Romans. And although black pepper had already been known to the ancient Greeks, the use of pepper in Rome is not mentioned before the books of the Roman writers Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) and Horace (65-8 BC).
So it seems like the Romans only started to import pepper from India during the end of the 1st century BC and used myrtle berries in place of black pepper. And while the use of black pepper in Rome gained popularity among the wealthy during the time of the early Roman Empire, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was still bewildered by the popularity of pepper although he still gives us insight into the price of both black and white pepper in ancient Rome.
By the way, the reason for Pliny the Elders’ surprise regarding the popularity of pepper must not be seen in the price of pepper but in the fact that Romans in general preferred a rather sweet cuisine.
Do you want to find out more about how Romans sweetened their food although they did not have sugar? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where you can also find the price of honey in Ancient Rome.
Speaking of prices, let`s look at the price of pepper in Ancient Rome.
The Price & Use of Black & White pepper in Ancient Rome
As mentioned, it seems like pepper was unknown to the Romans until the late 1st century BC. But in the early Roman Empire (starting in 27 BC) pepper was used extensively by the Roman high society. While the whole peppercorns were less often used, ground pepper was used in many recipes, especially for seasoning venison.
However, that kind of popularity opened the door for con men who would blend the expensive black peppercorns with cheap juniper berries to increase their profits. Other con men even blended ground pepper with lead powder or lead ash to increase the weight and make more money.
While pepper was a lot more expensive than salt (here you can find out more about the price of salt and whether or not it was worth its weight in gold) it was still not as expensive as one might expect. But let`s now look at the price of 1 Roman pound (0,7 lbs) of pepper that was not blended with worthless add-ons.
According to Pliny the Elder one Roman pound (0,7 lbs/0,3kg) of White Pepper did cost 7 Denarii in the year 77 AD while 1 Roman pound of black pepper did cost 4 Denarii. For comparison: A legionary serving under Caius Julius Caesar made 225 Denarii per year.
But these 225 Denarii of annual pay were not fully paid out. Instead, subtractions for the food that the soldier consumed, for the accommodation of the soldier, and the weapons and armor that the soldier used were made.
The value & buying power of one Denarius in ancient Rome
And while it is almost impossible to accurately name the value a Denarius had some have tried to name the buying power of a Roman Denarius in today’s world by comparing bread prices. So some estimate the buying power that one Denarius (the equivalent to 4 sesterces) had at the turn from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire in 27 BC to be equal to 20 US-Dollars.
But again, that is speculation based on very little evidence.
How much pepper did Rome import?
Now one might think that the amount of Pepper that Rome imported from India must have been rather small. But that was not the case. The Greek geographer Strabo claimed that during the time of the early Roman Empire a fleet of 120 ships was sent to India on an annual basis to bring spices (including pepper) to Rome.
That fleet sailed from the Arabian sea to India using the annual Monsoon winds. On the way back the cargo ships transporting the spices sailed from India across the Arabian sea and up the Red Sea. There the spices were either carried overland or the Canal of the Pharaohs (the ancient Suez Canal that connected the Red Sea with the Nile) was used to bring the spices from the Red sea to the Nile from where they were barged to Alexandria.
From Alexandria, a coastal city that Alexander the Great had commissioned during his campaign into Egypt in April of 331 BC to have a Hellenistic stronghold in Egypt while connecting the rich Nile valley to Greece, the spices were shipped to Italy.
Do you want to find out more about how long it took a Roman cargo ship to sail from Alexandria to Rome?
Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I explain how long the cargo fleet bringing wheat from Alexandria to Rome needed for the passage and why Rome rather imported grain instead of growing it in Italy.
The significance that the Roman import of spices reached during the Roman Empire is clearly shown by the construction of the horrea piperataria (large warehouses solely built to store pepper) in 92 AD. And when Alaric and his Goths sacked Rome in 410 AD they were able to capture a total of 3527 lbs (1600 kg) of pepper.
But pepper was not the only spice that Rome imported.
Spices that Rome imported
Some of the spices that Rome imported from India include…
- Saffron (from Cilicia)
- Coriander (from Egypt)
- Caraway seeds (from Ethiopia, Syria, and Libya)
- Ginger (imported from India and sold at 6 Denarii per Roman pound (0,7 lbs/0,3kg)
- White & Black pepper (from India)
- Cardamom (from India)
The fact that Roman coins with the portrait of the first Roman emperor Augustus have been found in Southern India show that there has been a vivid trade between India and Rome in the 1st century AD in which spices played a major role!
That trade, even though the tradelines between India and Europe fell under Muslim rule as a result of the Muslim expansion during the Middle Ages, never completely ended throughout the Middle Ages. But that is a story for another time.
Now we have talked a lot about India and the trade between India and Rome. But the Romans were not the first Europeans to have interactions with India.
Instead, Alexander the Great is said to have marched his army as far as India. But is that really true or did Alexander mean a different (modern-day country) when he claimed to have been to India? You can find out more about that topic in my article here.
And here you can find out more about the extravagant feasts the Roman high society indulged in and for which pepper was used so extensively.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
J. Andre: Essen und Trinken im Alten Rom (Stuttgart 1999).
Pliny the Elder: Naturalis Historia