The diet of a Roman soldier

The Roman soldiers were the foundation on which the expansion of Rome from local Italian power to global power was archived. But what did Roman soldiers eat? What fueled them on their long marches, hard battles, and exhausting campaigns?

The diet of a Roman soldier consisted of wheat (he got 66 pounds per month), rations of smoked bacon or fresh meat, vegetables, cheese, vinegar, olive oil, and wine. The cost of the diet, around 60 Denarii per year, was deducted from the soldier’s pay. A popular drink was Posca, a mixture of water and vinegar with a refreshingly sour taste.

Let`s take a closer look!

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What did Roman soldiers eat?

The basic ingredients of the diet of a Roman soldier were similar to the diet that regular Roman civilians would eat. Just like for Roman civilians the bulk of the diet of a Roman soldier consisted of wheat that was usually eaten as either bread or Puls. Here you can find out more about how Puls was prepared and why it was such an essential part of a Roman diet.

In the second century BC, Roman soldiers got around 66 pounds of wheat per month. Additionally, they got rations of smoked bacon, legumes, cheese, olive oil, vinegar, wine, and (when available) meat (usually pork). The cost of the rations was deducted from the pay and handed out several times per week so that every soldier carried food for around 3 days. Soldiers were responsible for preparing their meals.

The 66 pounds of wheat that every soldier got per month was handed out as whole grain and had to be milled and processed by the soldier. The soldiers of each Conturbernium, more on that later, would probably prepare their food together or take turns in the preparation of the meals.

By the way, the costs of the diet were deducted from the pay of the soldier. You can find out more about the average pay of a Roman soldier and the deductions he had to endure in my article here.

The contubernium – a close community in battle and peace

Preparing the meals was the duty of the common soldiers. Neither temporary military camps nor long-term Roman army bases had any sort of refectories or big kitchens in which the meals could be prepared for the entire legion.

To further understand how roman soldiers prepared their meals we have to take a brief look at the contubernium and its significance in both war and peace.

The contubernium (=tenting together) was the smallest unit of the Roman army consisting of 8 legionaries and can roughly be equated with a modern-day squad. 10 contubernia would form a centuria. The 8 men of each contubernium would not only fight close to each other but would also perform daily tasks like preparing meals together. They would also share one tent.

Each contubernium did have a mule on which parts of the contubernium`s equipment (like the tent or the quern that every contubernium had) was transported and an (enslaved) servant who would take care of the mule, bring water to the soldiers while on the march, and would probably also help with the preparation of the meals.

The preparation of the meals was quite time-consuming since the wheat was handed out as full grain. So the wheat had to be milled first by hand before it could be baked to bread or processed into Puls.

Here you can find a recipe for Puls.

But let`s now look at the different types of food a Roman soldier would eat in more detail.

The diet of a Roman soldier – the food

So we have established that every Roman soldier would get around 66 pounds of wheat per month. It is most likely that the amount was not given out at once but in smaller amounts so that every soldier would only carry rations for about 3 days. By the way, have you noticed that I always talked about wheat instead of the more general term grain? There is a reason for that!

Wheat made up the absolute majority of the grains that a Roman soldier would eat. Oats were seen as fodder and would only be eaten in times of extreme hunger, millet was only grown in small amounts, rye was only grown in areas too cold for wheat, and rations of barley were used as a punishment for minor offenses.

Bacon was another important part of the Roman diet since it provided the soldier with both fat and a lot of calories. When smoked that bacon would also be much easier to transport than for example olive oil that had to be transported in either barrels or amphorae that were made of clay and obviously much more fragile than a piece of smoked bacon.

Since Romans preferred pork over beef it is safe to say that the bacon was made from pork. But more on the general question of if Roman soldiers really ate meat in the following paragraph.

In addition to the wheat and bacon roman soldiers also got rations of legumes like lentils and beans that were high in protein. Cheese was also a staple of the diet of a Roman soldier. Since Romans didn`t really appreciate beef or cow milk the cheese was usually made from either sheep- or goat milk and provided a more durable alternative to (fresh) meat.

Another source of fat was olive oil, which together with wheat and wine is seen as one of the staples of the ancient Mediterranean diet!

The costs for all these basic foods were deducted from the pay that every Roman soldier got. But archaeologists have found additional food at several Roman army camps that suggest that soldiers, especially officers, could also buy finer imported ingredients like coriander, oysters, or even pepper that was imported from India.

The trade routes to India had been long known, even Alexander the Great had already reached India (well, at least the part of the world that he called India). Here you can find more information on if Alexander really conquered the part of the world that we today call India.

And here you can find out more about how much Roman soldiers got paid (and what kind of buying power their pay had).

But let`s return to the diets of Roman soldiers. After we have talked about what Roman soldiers would eat we also have to talk about what they would drink.

In addition to wheat, bacon, and the other basic foods Roman soldiers also got rations of wine and vinegar. And that brings us to the question of what Roman soldiers drank!

What did Roman soldiers drink

Not only the food that roman soldiers ate but also the drinks of Roman soldiers were quite similar to the drinks of Roman civilians, more on that here.

Water was essential for Roman soldiers since every man would consume between 0.5 and 2.1 gallons (2-8 liters) depending on the climate and the physical demands he had to face. The problem was that the supply of water fresh from the well could be unsteady at times, especially on a campaign.

Because of that water was often transported in barrels. The downside was that that water did not always smell that good….and that is where the wine and the vinegar came into play.

Romans generally saw the habit of drinking pure wine as barbaric. Only extremely good wine was drunk pure and only in small quantities. Most wines were diluted by adding (a lot of water). That had the benefit that the soldier would not get drunk and that the flavor of the wine would cover up the taste of water that was not completely fresh.

The same goes for mixing vinegar with water.

By adding vinegar to water Romans created Posca, a kind of ancient lemonade that did not only have a refreshingly sour taste but also covered the smell and taste of stale water with the taste of vinegar.

By the way, Posca was also the drink that was handed to the crucified Jesus! But contrary to the popular belief that was not a kind of torment but rather a sign of compassion since the soldier did give Jesus the preferred drink of the Roman soldier (probably even from his own army ration).

Roman soldiers and the consumption of meat

A common misconception about the diet of Roman soldiers that at first glance might even be backed up by some sources is that Roman soldiers rarely ate meat.

The source in question is a part of Caesar’s Gallic War*, a book that Caius Julius Caesar himself wrote to inform the Roman Senate about how the war in Gaul was going.

I actually read it a few years ago and can highly recommend it since the book gives a good insight into Caesar’s campaign from the view of the man himself. You can find the book here on amazon.

But enough of that fascinating book, let`s return to the passage that supposedly shows that roman soldiers didn`t like meat.

In one passage Caesar describes how his army was running so low on grains that his soldiers had to search the close villages for animals that could be gathered and slaughtered. Caesar explicitly informs the reader (remember, he wrote the book as a war diary to inform the Senate about his deeds) that even though his soldiers ate mostly meat instead of their usual diet that no rebellion or displeasure was shown by his men. Should you be interested in reading about the Gallic War and how Caesar experienced the war then I would recommend you the book he himself wrote about that war. You can find it here* on Amazon.

Now that is interesting. It sounds like the fact that his soldiers were NOT rebelling even though they got mostly meat instead of wheat was so important to Caesar that he explicitly included it in his depiction of the war.

But does that really prove that Roman soldiers didn`t like to eat a diet that mostly consisted of meat? I don`t think so!

Remember how I wrote that Romans liked pork but held beef in low esteem? Both Romans and Gauls mostly used cattle for working the fields so the livestock that the plundering Roman soldiers were able to corral and slaughter was probably mostly cattle.

That might explain why Caesar felt like he had to point out that even though his men ate mostly meat it did not come to any rebellions.

Another factor might have also been the fact that a diet that purely consists of meat without any bread or vegetables is not really satisfying, especially for soldiers on an exhausting campaign.

So I think it is safe to say that the rumor that Roman soldiers didn`t like meat is wrong. Roman soldiers were definitely eating meat although the meat was only an addition to a diet that was mainly built around wheat.

For more information on the different kinds of meat that Romans enjoyed I would like to recommend you my article here. There you can also find a list of popular Roman vegetables and fruits.

And for more information on the pay that a Roman soldier could expect you might want to check out my article here. And you can find out more about the 3 official reasons to leave the army here.

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

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer

Sources

H.J. Höper: Alltagsleben römischer Legionäre (1985).

Ulrich Fellmeth: Brot und Politik. Ernährung, Tafelluxus und Hunger im antiken Rom (Stuttgart/Weimar 2001).