Sugar & Other Sweeteners in Antiquity

Romans liked a pretty sweet cuisine. But how did Romans sweeten their food? Did they already have sugar or did they have to rely on other sweeteners? And if so, how expensive were those sweeteners?

Sugar was unknown in antiquity. Instead, Romans and Greeks relied on honey (thyme honey was especially popular), fruit syrups, or dried fruits to sweeten their food. The Edict of Maximum Prices that emperor Diocletian issued in 301 AD put the price of honey at 24-40 Denarii per Sextarius (1,72 lbs/0,78 kg) depending on the quality while date syrup was sold for 8 Denarii per Sextarius. 

Let`s take a closer look!

Sugar – unknown to Greeks & Romans

Today it is hard to imagine a diet without any sugar. However, sugar is a relatively new addition to the European diet and was unknown to both Greeks and Romans.

Neither Greeks nor Romans knew sugar since sugar only came to Palestine in the 7th century AD from where it reached Greece in the 8./9. Century AD and Western Europe in the late 10th century through Venice.

Venice being a merchant city built into a lagoon played a large role throughout the Middle Ages when it came to both trade and military expeditions in the Eastern Mediterranean. For more information on why Venice was built into a lagoon, how that had to do with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and how it was done I would like to recommend you my article here.

However, despite the absence of sugar both Romans and Greeks preferred a pretty sweet cuisine for which alternatives to sugar – mostly honey, must-wine syrup, other fruit syrups, and dried fruits were used.

By the way, the Saccharum that is mentioned by ancient physicians and botanists wasn`t sugar but tabasheer. The Romans imported tabasheer in small amounts from India and used it exclusively in medicine (where it was also used throughout the Middle Ages).

But Rome did not only import tabasheer from India.

Many spices including both black and white pepper but also ginger were imported in large amounts during the time of the Roman Empire from India to Rome. For more information on these spices, the price (and use) of white and black pepper in ancient Rome, and the quantities that were imported each year you might want to check out my article here.

But let`s now look at the main sweetener that was used in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome: Honey.

Honey – the main sweetener in ancient Rome & Greece

As mentioned, Romans preferred a rather sweet cuisine and due to the absence of sugar, the main sweetener in Antiquity was honey. The use of honey in Roman cuisine stretched from consuming it pure to coating cured meat with honey before putting it in the oven to make it taste less salty. But honey was also used for Mulsum, a sweet honey wine that was irreplaceable for the feasts of the Roman high society.

So honey was just as important as salt and often used to sweeten up meats that had been cured. Here you can find more information on the production and the price of salt in ancient Rome.

Beekeeping & the most popular honey in Antiquity

The high demand for honey made beekeeping a lucrative business throughout Antiquity that was pursued in all of Italy and all parts of the Roman empire. The standing that beekeeping had in ancient Rome can also be proven by the abundance of textbooks teaching beekeeping.

And just to give you an idea of the amount of beekeeping that was done in Antiquity: In 173 BC Rome demanded that the island of Corsica should pay an annual tribute of 65 tons of beeswax. By the way, the reason why Rome demanded the tribute in beeswax and not in honey was that the honey that was produced in Corsica was boxwood honey which tasted pretty bad.

The taste of honey depends on the flowers that the bees visit to collect the nectar that they then turn into honey. And while honey from boxwood was highly unpopular in Rome the honey from the blossoms of thyme, savory, and marjoram was extremely popular. However, not only the flowers but also the way the honey was extracted from the honeycombs played a role in taste and quality.

While most kinds of honey were harvested by pressing out the honeycombs the highest quality honey was harvested by cutting off the wax lits from the honeycombs and allowing the honey to drip out without any additional help.

In general the most popular type of honey in ancient Rome was Honey from the blossoms of thyme that had been harvested by allowing it to drip out of the honeycombs without putting mechanical pressure on the honeycomb.

But while the quality of honey that was allowed to drip out of the honeycomb was the highest, so was its price.

The price of honey in ancient Rome

Needless to say that the quality decided over the price of honey. Additionally, we must also remember that many farmers probably also had beehives with which they could supply themselves with honey.

Several sources indicate that regional honey was a staple in the diet of many Romans. One example of that is the diet of an old man called Celeus which is described by Roman sources as composed of soured milk, fruits, and a honeycomb.

And in the time of the Late Republic and the Early Empire honey that was served with poppy seeds was the second course of the feasts that rich Romans indulged in.

Needless to say that the honey that was eaten by old Celeus and the honey served at the Roman dinner parties was of different quality, origin, and price. While Celeus probably ate regional honey (maybe even from his own beehives) the honey that was served together with poppy seeds at the dinner parties was oftentimes imported and of the best quality.

And that obviously meant a much higher price!

The Edict of Maximum Prices that emperor Diocletian issued in 301 AD put the price of honey of the highest quality at 40 denarii per Sextarius (1,72 lbs/0,78 kg) while honey of average quality did cost 24 denarii per Sextarius. That put one Sextarius of honey at the same price as olive oil.

Do you want to find out more about the buying power that 1 Denarius had? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.

So while the origin, quality, and price of honey varied there were situations in which honey was so rare (or too expensive) to be used. In these incidences, cheaper alternatives for honey had to be found.

Must-Wine Syrups, Fruit syrups & dried fruits – cheaper alternatives to honey

Not just the relatively high price but especially shortages caused by diseases that killed many beehives or bad weather that reduced the amount of honey that could be harvested could lead to the need to replace honey with other – ideally cheaper – sweeteners.

Sweeteners that were used instead of honey included date syrup, other fruit syrups, wine-must syrup, and dried fruits. The Edict of Maximum Prices that emperor Diocletian issued in 301 AD put the price of date syrup at 8 Denarii per Sextarius (1,72 lbs/0,78 kg) while real honey did cost 24-40 Denarii per Sexarius (depending on the quality).

So, even though Romans did not have sugar they certainly knew how to sweeten their foods by using honey, fruit syrups, or dried fruits just like we use sugar today. Indeed, even today sugar can be replaced in many recipes by honey.

By the way, not only the price for honey in Rome is known.

We also know the prices of salt and pepper in ancient Rome. So if you are interested in that topic I would like to recommend you my article here where I go into the price and production of salt in antiquity and my article here where I talk about the price and import of pepper (and other spices) in Antiquity.

And if you want to find out more about the price of salt in the Middle Ages (and whether or not salt was worth its weight in gold) I would recommend you to check out my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


J. Andre: Essen und Trinken im Alten Rom (Stuttgart 1999).

H. Freis: Historische Inschriften zur römischen Kaiserzeit von Augustus bis Konstantin (Darmstadt 1994).