In the previous chapter, we have not proved the point that it was the intensive personal agriculture in a favourable soil and climate, which gave to the early Romans their physiological vigour and virile character. We have not proved it for it is not susceptible of proof as a separate entity. It can only be brought forward as an example of the reasonable supposition that the quality of the food and the animal that eats it must be interwoven. All, therefore, that we have been able to do has been to bring forward certain facts bearing upon early Latium which to some readers will at least link up with the tradition of the exceptional character of its inhabitants.
Let us now review, as far as we are able, the foods themselves from which this physiology derived.
At the beginning we are forced to realize that in history generally it is difficult to find out about the quality and character of the food of a people, and to this the early Romans afford no exception. Dr. K. Hintze, however, has in his invaluable Geographie und Geschichte der Ernährung collected such knowledge as persistent scholarship can reveal.
What Hintze is able to tell us about the foods of the early Romans is not copious, but nevertheless it is fully in accordance with that of some of the most virile people at present upon the earth. It has already been shown what care was given to its cultivation. That is of primary importance. One may presume that with such skilled and laborious cultivation, the soil, itself of excellent natural gifts, rendered healthy and well-growing vegetable and animal food.
There is no contemporary information, says Hintze, about the foods of early Latium; there are only the traditions, supported by the influences of modern research, of what it had been.
Of grains, there was barley, wheat (emmer) and millet. There were no mills, but the grains were crushed in a mortar and the husk removed. The grain was then made into a porridge and eaten with salt. The grains were often lightly roasted so as to make the removal of the husk easier. Later came the hand mill and the grain was crushed between two millstones.
The student of nutrition and dietetics will at once note that only the husk was removed. The porridge was thus wholemeal porridge and, if flat cakes of bread were made, they too were wholemeal.
This traditional porridge, Hintze surmises, was the staple food of the early Romans, who ate alike as there was little or no food distinction of the classes at that time.
Then came vegetables and fruit. There were cattle, but flesh was seldom eaten, except on the days of religious festivals. The animals were kept for work upon the farm, for the provision of manure, and for milk and cheese. Milk and cheese were an important part of the food.
The grape was cultivated in Italy in pre-Roman times, but in ancient Latium it seems to have been unknown. Its culture, however, reached Latium at some early date and the inhabitants then drank wine. Whether they drank wine made from other juices, as was the later habit of the Romans, is not known. Barley beer, the drink of northern peoples, never found favour in the land of the grape.
The food of the early Latin farmers was, therefore, the lacto-vegetarian, which has won such high praise from Sir Robert McCarrison and other distinguished modern nutritionists, as the food of many of the healthiest and strongest peoples of the present day. If a healthy soil can be granted to these people, then they had in their food all the necessary elements of physiological excellence.
The lacto-vegetarian diet is not the only healthy whole diet. There are other such diets, that of the Polar Eskimos for example in which whole carcass feeding plays almost but not quite as prominent a part as it does in that of the beasts of prey. But the lacto-vegetarian diet of wholemeal grains, fruits, vegetables, milk and its products, as McCarrison has shown, is the basis of the excellent health and physique of the Hunza, the Pathans and the Sikhs of North-western India and, with a more precarious supply of grain and vegetables, of the Arabs and Baggaras.
What proportion milk and its products added to the vegetables and fruit foods of the early Romans is not of course known. Their value was, one would think, firmly established in the tradition of people, some of whose ancestors came from central and eastern central Europe. It was certainly a tradition handed down to and maintained from the early days of the republic. The latifundia or large estates of the later republic largely specialized in milk and milk products, as well as wines and olives, and left the growing of corn in large degree to the provinces. They raised cows, sheep, goats, horses and asses, and the milk and cheeses of the milks of all these animals were consumed with the inner knowledge, which Cossinius, in Varro's work, displays. Cossinius discusses the qualities and differences of these products as connoisseurs discuss those of wine. Nothing perhaps shows more vividly the immense gap that exists between the sophisticated town diets of to-day and that of early and middle republican Rome than this serious devotion to milk and its products.
It is in this lacto-vegetarian character that the early Roman diet allies itself, as has been said, to that of many of the finest people of the present day. It is in their intensive cultivation of the land as individual farmer-families that they resembled the Chinese, Koreans and pre-modern Japanese. It is in their traditional reverence for the nutritional qualities of milk and its products, however, that they differ from these far-eastern peoples, whose land supports so numerous a population that there is not sufficient for the support of a large number of domesticated animals as well. It is in the combination of the two, intensive cultivation and the culture of dairy products, that the Roman diet most resembled that of the Hunza people of the western Himalayas who are probably unsurpassed in physique and health by any other people of the present times. Moreover, whether by tradition or not cannot be said, but certainly in mid- and later republican times, and therefore possibly in the early Roman period, a great quantity of different fruits were cultivated in Italy, so that Hintze, at one passage, yielding perhaps to hyperbole, declares, that 'at Varro's time all Italy resembled a fruit garden'. In this generous provision of fruit, the diet resembled that of the present-day Hunza, who eat great quantities of fresh and sun-dried fruits. It also has allied to it the great quantities of dates, which those other people of superb physique, the Arabs of Arabia, eat.
As regards early Roman agriculture, the intensity of which has already been indicated, Frank praises its practical efficiency. Professor Whitney, in his great work Soil and Civilization (1926), writes of the Roman knowledge of certain principles and practices, such as their recognition of the different types of soil and the crops suitable for them; their recognition of the need of local knowledge of the soil and its preservation by successive generations of families cultivating the soil, where they themselves were born and bred; their use of legumes which allied them to the prolonged agricultural history of the Chinese, as also in their avoidance of any waste upon the farm, all animal and vegetable refuse being returned to the soil as manure, and other technical features of agricultural practice upon which a competent student of practical agriculture like Whitney is qualified to write and to whose book I refer the interested reader.
There is therefore, I think, quite sufficient evidence to presume that the Romans and their neighbours belonged to those people who by long adaptation to a repetitive, well-cultivated, sound diet, seem to have acquired an absolute harmony with their food, and, as a sequential necessity, were themselves a people of exceptional physique and health. The foundations of their western world dominion included their foods and agriculture.
The change in both came with the spread of that dominion.
The change amongst the agricultural Italians was much slower in its ingress than it was amongst the rapidly increasing urban populations. The rural people were necessarily affected by the changes recorded in the previous chapter, but their foods were still locally produced, milk and its products, grains, vegetables, fruit, oil, wine and occasional meat.
It was upon the metropolis and other major urban centres that the chief effect of the change fell. The bread or porridge of the lower classes was now prepared, not from local grains, but from grain imported across the seas from Egypt and northern Africa. 'The sustenance of the Roman people is day by day being tossed about at the caprice of wave and storm', were the words of the Emperor Tiberius to the Senate. But that is almost all that can be said with accuracy about the urban lower classes and their food. Hintze laments that 'unfortunately as concerns the life of the smaller folk, comprising the mass of the population, we can learn practically nothing from the writers of the time'.
It is a very different story as regards the wealthier classes of the later republican and early imperial Rome. Their breakaway from the simplicity of their great ancestors to luxury were frequent themes of the writers of the time. The wealthy Romans were indulgent of their appetites. Taste and the temptations of delicate dishes replaced the satisfaction of robust appetites. Dinner (cena), beginning about 3 p.m., became a cult. Individually and socially it occupied by its time alone, which was three or more hours, a considerable part of the day.
Hintze gives a list of the foods in their variety which reached the table at the time of the empire: milk, cheese, honey, wine, wheat, barley, millet, beans, lentils, peas, cabbage and other leafy vegetables, tubers, beets, turnips, radish, salad, onion, cucumber, celery, mushrooms, truffles, dill, mint, garlic, coriander, mustard, pepper, cardamon, olives, grapes, apples, oranges, lemons, dates, pears, plums, cherries, figs, quinces, apricots, peaches, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, fruit-wines of apple, pear, pomegranate, mulberry and other juices, mutton, goat, pig, deer, boar, chamois, antelope, hare, spiced meats, smoked meats, hams, goose, chicken, ortolan, bunting, starling, thrush, dove, peacock, flamingo, guineafowl, fish, mussels, crabs, lobsters and oysters. Beef was not much eaten, the bullock being kept for labour and the cow for milk.
There was, therefore, a complete change from the ancestral lacto-vegetarian diet to one drawn from all parts of the available world by the fame and wealth of Rome.
The new diet had what has been termed the virtue of variety. Whether the incentive of variety or the adaptation of familiarity is better for individual men cannot be answered. As far as I know, the question is one of those which has had little attention paid to it.
One can only repeat facts. This very varied diet is essentially one of wealthy urban or urbanized classes, and it entails gradations downwards to the masses of the urban population. Immediately below the upper class which gets the pick of the food, there is a grade which gets the foods that are in excess of those required by the rich or those slightly spoilt for the fastidious palates of the wealthy. So the diet passes downwards, contracts, and changes to that of the lower classes, who, in the case of Rome, depended for their staple food on distant countries.
It is most important, however, here to realize that the defects due to poor food are acquired defects and therefore they are not, in the commonly accepted view of modern science, inheritable or inherited defects. Any poor Roman, who by wisdom or fortune, received a good diet from conception onwards, would show the better physique and health which that diet ensured. As to the rich, their varied diet judiciously used clearly gave opportunity for health and fine bodily quality, for the rich mostly had estates and other means of access to good milk, cheese, oil, fruit, vegetables and corn.
The rural population, like the wealthy, had access to fresh food. The growing of wheat in Italy did not come to an end. 'In Nero's day,' writes Frank, 'Egypt sent about five million bushels of wheat to Rome annually while Africa sent about twice as much. That would suffice for the capital alone, and reveals why cereal-culture could be neglected in the vicinity of the city. But the rest of Italy had a population of about fifteen millions and they would require more than 150 million bushels a year ... We must conclude therefore that wheat was very extensively and successfully raised during the first century.'
The foods of Rome of the period of dominion may then be summed up broadly as four.
Firstly, there were the small farm home-produced foods to the Italian countrymen. These approached most closely of the four groups to the traditional foods of their ancestry. To what degree they did so it is impossible to relate, for as Mr. H. Stuart Jones says in Companion to Roman History, 1912, though 'there is good evidence in the literature and inscriptions of the early Empire that the small holding was far from extinct in A.D. 100 and later, we know so little of its working that we can only describe the fundus of the capitalistic landowner as Cato and Varro picture it.'
Secondly, there were the home-produced foods of the slave-worked latifundia. Under the late republic the condition of the slaves was wretched in the extreme. Under the empire their lot was gradually ameliorated. Their foods were presumably not the equal of the first group. Moreover, the specialization of the estate limited the number of foods compared to that produced on the general farm.
Thirdly, there was the varied diet of the wealthy classes comprised of fresh foods from their own or neighbouring farms and estates, fish from the seas and rivers, and luxury foods imported from abroad.
Lastly, there was the food of the lower urban classes. Of this Mr. F. H. Marshall, in Sir John Sandys' A Companion to Latin Studies, 1921, writes: a kind of porridge of wheat, like that eaten in early republican times 'even in imperial times continued to be eaten by the classes ... with green vegetables, seldom meat'. The grain was still consumed as a wholemeal grain. As to its quality, there is no means of comparing it with the wheat or emmer and other grains of early Latium. But its wholemeal character was certainly preserved.
This is about the only fact of importance one can gather from what is known of the food of the urban lower classes. One knows little or nothing about their access to dairy foods. As already quoted, Hintze states that 'unfortunately as concerns the life of the smaller folk, comprising the mass of the population, we can learn practically nothing from the writers of the time'.
Summing up one may assert that compared to the foods produced by the farmers of early Latium, that of the first group approached, but owing to the increasing difficulties of the farmers, cannot have reached that of the early period.
The food of the second class of the agricultural slaves was certainly inferior.
The food of the third class, the wealthy, is less comparable. It is not possible to state, but it is possible to imagine that it produced a greater variety of human qualities. That it also brought with it the deterioration of over-luxurious and over-gross feeding is certain. Nevertheless, the daily life of its eaters, their gymnastics, games, and bathing proves the persistence of the ideal of bodily health and physique.
The food of the fourth class, the poorer urban class, was certainly inferior.
With the degeneration of Italian agriculture, there came a degeneration of foods and their quality, and a degeneration of the eaters of these foods. To whatever other causes the decline and fall of the Western Empire was due, this of its foods was assuredly amongst the primary ones. It suggests that no empire can endure with its centre in the motherland, if the agriculture of the motherland deteriorates. The process is naturally a slow one and as such was not mentally impressed upon the Romans as a people, though realized by many of its thoughtful and prominent men.
The Roman Family
The human group, by which the farming of early Latium was carried out, was the family. A slave of that time was one of the family and took his part in the general work and domestic life without degradation.
The human family and the cultivated soil were indissolubly connected; the family was pledged and wedded to the soil. The very type of marriage, that of monogamy, was dictated by the soil.
The farm provided the family group with food, clothing, shelter, fuel and an overflow of produce for exchange for goods produced by others. It gave security to the children and old people, and the security was continuous so long as the soil was well-husbanded. The peculiar knowledge of the family and of their ancestry was that of their farm and all that affected it.
To the family its land with its particularities was as living and particular as were their own particularities. The creation of children to continue the family was, as it were, an aspect or relation of the creative quality of the soil. The blended intimacy was an intimacy formed within the mystery of the recurrent creation of both. The farming family was inevitably religious; it was so near in its life to the abundant life in which it was itself the agent of creation; in death it was so near to the inevitability of the resurrection of that which is apparently dead but which, mixed with the soil, again joins the regions of life.
Every schoolboy, recalling his Roman history, carries in his mind the grim figure of the pater familias, the head of a Roman family, who preserved the form of the family and punished any member of it who endangered its corporative existence, and did not in extreme cases hesitate to inflict death upon his own flesh and blood.
Ordinarily, one may presume, as member of a family he was not grim, but the fact that he had those traditional powers showed that the family was cultivated with as great an intensity as the land; and his summoning of the family at the awakening of day to the worship of the household gods showed that that, which man ultimately does not reach but which by intimacy he can approach, was a deeper interpretation of the common life upon the farm.
The family was the large or joint family, which is the form of family particularly correlated with the intensive hereditary cultivation of small farms. It was the large or joint family consisting of the father and mother, their sons and grandsons with their wives and children, and their unmarried daughters. The men worked upon the land and for the State, the women worked for the family. Outside the family woman had no recognized place. She inherited her portion of the family land, but that was for her security and not to give her individual scope for agricultural skill or toil.
She was the mother and the housewife. But in the relation of her children to the State and family, she was subordinate to the pater familias. It was he who had an absolute legal right to decide whether a child born to him or in his family should be reared or not. It was he who ordained the death of a defective child or one threatening the family unit by over-population. 'The maxim was not suggested by indifference to the possession of a family,' is Mommsen's comment. 'On the contrary, the conviction that the founding of a house and the begetting of children were a moral necessity and a public duty had a deep and earnest hold of the Roman mind.'
But the family had to be strong in its individual units and in itself as a unit of the State. It had to be strong because the proper service of the soil demanded physiological strength, and the strong State, the State that could successfully defend itself against invaders and aggressive neighbours, had to be compounded of strong family units. The family was, indeed, the very essence of the State. 'Of all Roman institutions marriage was the most sacred,' wrote Mr. Romaine Patterson in The Nemesis of Nations, 1907. 'The family altar, transmitted from one generation to another and holding a fire which had been lit by ancestors who had been dead for centuries, was the central and most impressive fact in the life of a Roman burgess.'
The economy which was attached to this sanctity of the family has been called a 'natural economy'. After the Punic Wars, there arose as its rival and supplementer a 'money economy'. The new rich, in the main, were new men, the Equites. The older landed aristocracy, as was to be seen later in other nations, were not a match for the new men. It was the Equites who made and controlled the money economy in its various forms. They farmed rents, taxes, customs, excise and other duties. They controlled the import of food, the slave trade, and the creation and circulation of money. The most certain path to wealth was the profession of banking. Only exceptional cleverness or luck in speculation built up wealth more rapidly than did banking, and this very speculation was supported by the bankers. Almost all, who laid claim to credit, fell into the bankers' debt. The successful politicians depended upon the backing given to them by the bankers. Capital, labour and competition, under the money economy, became commonplaces, though unknown under natural economy. In the growing ascendancy of money economy, the bankers necessarily became indispensable, and eventually the whole State became an exhibition of their indispensability. Everything hung from them as the staples of the State. Property concentrated. The tribune, Philippas, quoted by Cicero, stated that there were only 2,000 property and landowners in the whole Commonwealth.
The effect upon the family and marriage was profound; they both began to lose their meaning, and indeed did lose the greater part of their meaning. As the sacredness of marriage and the family fell, it is in the women of the upper class -- the class which, as in the case of food, practically monopolized the pens of the great Roman writers from which we get our information -- that the change of values is most vividly illustrated.
The Roman matrons now became figures of tradition. The object of the fashionable ladies was the reverse of that of the displaced domina or mistress of the home and family. Their desire was to avoid by all possible means the appearance of being matronly. To conceal all appearances of advancing years, to look young, attractive and ripe for adventure, that was, in particular the object of the society women. Their culture was beauty culture, their scarcely concealed convention was to occupy themselves with love affairs without fruition. As, perhaps, a form of revenge for the secret desolation of their wifehood and motherhood, they wasted the imperial resources with lavish prodigality. Fashion and beauty cost so much that thousands of slaves throughout the empire were necessary to support them. The passion for personal freedom, in the sense of untrammelled desire, divided them from the few children which they had. The younger folk, on their part, freed themselves from the shackles of parental authority. The pater familias vanished into the past with the domina. The family elders, once honoured as the store-house of experience and wisdom and links with the past, were unreverenced and made to feel the uselessness of old age.
I cannot better substantiate the accuracy of the picture of the upper class Roman women than quote Theodor Mommsen's account in his History of Rome. He is describing the time when society had first erected itself to a great height of luxury upon the wealth that accrued from the exploitation of Rome's widespread provinces and the great number of slaves, which filled the place in the Roman world that machines were to fill in the Industrial Era. Amongst society, he wrote: 'Morality and family life were treated as antiquated things amongst the ranks of society. To be poor was not merely the saddest disgrace and the worst crime, but the only disgrace and the only crime.' The effect upon society women, he described in these words: 'Liaisons in the first houses had become so frequent, that only a scandal altogether exceptional could make them the subject of special talk; a judicial interference seemed now almost ridiculous. An unparalleled scandal, such as Publius Clodius produced in 61 B.C. at the women's festival in the house of the Pontifex Maximus, although a thousand times worse than the occurrences which fifty years before had led to a series of capital sentences, passed almost without investigation and wholly without punishment. The watering-place season -- in April, when business was suspended and the world of quality congregated in Baiae and Puteoli -- derived its chief charm from the relations licit and illicit which, along with music and song and elegant breakfasts on board or on shore, enlivened the gondola voyages. There the ladies held absolute sway; but they were by no means content with this domain which rightfully belonged to them; but also acted as politicians, appeared in party conferences and took part with their money and their intrigues in the wild coterie-proceedings of the time.' 'Celibacy and childlessness became common, especially amongst the upper classes,' and it was held to be the duty of 'a citizen to keep great wealth together and therefore not to beget too many children'.
Childlessness, indeed, had further advantages. Men and women who had children were debarred from the joys of society and were omitted from invitations to social gatherings. Hence Seneca (5 B.C. - A.D. 65), himself a man of great wealth, whose strange attachment to Stoic philosophy led him, with his colleague Burrus, to the wise and humane government of the first five years of Nero's reign, did not think it ill, in a manner that would have outraged the farmer-Romans, to console a mother who had lost her only son by pointing out that she would now be free to enjoy the pleasures and prestige of society.
Nothing could better than this convey the gulf that formed between the position of the women of 'natural economy' and the dominant women of 'money economy'. But it is juster to regard this great change as an example of relativity than to condemn it on the grounds of morality. The conduct of the first women was relative to the pre-eminence of the soil, that of the second to the pre-eminence of money. The first economy was preservative of life and the soil, the second was destructive. How destructive it was will be seen in the next chapter.
Roman Soil Erosion
The best summary of this aspect of Roman history which I have read is that of Professor Simkhovitch, in an essay published in the Political Science Quarterly of the Columbia University, 1916, under the title of 'Rome's Fall Reconsidered'.
Simkhovitch began with quotations from Roman writers, Pliny, Horace, Varro, Columella and others, who were fully aware of Rome's progressive degradation at the roots. The process was a slow, progressive exhaustion of soil fertility. It was not due to lack of knowledge of good farming, for, 'nothing could be more startling than the Roman knowledge of rational and intensive agriculture'. Nor, I think, could it be said to be due to debt, for debt did not begin its devastating career until the fertility of the soil became impoverished. Debt was not necessary as long as the farming families were able to give their time to intensive cultivation.
The spread of the degradation of the soil was centrifugal from Latium itself outwards. Varro noted abandoned fields in Latium, and two centuries later Columella, about A.D. 60, referred to all Latium as a country where the people would have died of starvation, but for their share of Rome's imported corn. The Roman armies moved outwards from Latium demanding land; victory gave more land to the farmers; excessive demands again brought exhaustion of fertility; again the armies moved outwards.
'Province after province was turned by Rome into a desert,' wrote Simkhovitch, 'for Rome's exactions naturally compelled greater exploitation of the conquered soil and its more rapid exhaustion. Province after province was conquered by Rome to feed the growing proletariat with its corn and to enrich the prosperous with its loot. The devastation of war abroad and at home helped the process along. The only exception to the rule of spoliation and exhaustion was Egypt, because of the overflow of the Nile. For this reason Egypt played a unique role in the empire. It was the emperor's personal possession, and neither senators nor knights could visit it without special permission, for even a small force, as Tacitus stated, might "block up the plentiful corn country and reduce all Italy to submission".'
Latium, Campania, Sardinia, Sicily, Spain, Northern Africa, as Roman granaries, were successively reduced to exhaustion. Abandoned land in Latium and Campania turned into swamps, in Northern Africa into desert. The forest-clad hills were denuded. 'The decline of the Roman Empire is a story of deforestation, soil exhaustion and erosion,' wrote Mr. G. V. Jacks in The Rape of the Earth. 'From Spain to Palestine there are no forests left on the Mediterranean littoral, the region is pronouncedly arid instead of having the mild humid character of forest-clad land, and most of its former bounteously rich top-soil is lying at the bottom of the sea.'
The same fate at a later date fell upon Asia Minor, the decline of the Eastern repeating that of the Western Empire in its soil-aspects. Sir William Ramsay, in The National Geographical Magazine of November, 1922, wrote one of those articles which almost stagger one with the super-eminence of the treatment of the soil in the story of mankind. The Province of Asia 'in Roman times was highly populated and therefore highly cultivated ... It is difficult to give by statistics any conception of the great wealth and the numerous population of Asia Minor in the Roman period. In the single province of "Asia", to use the Roman name for the western part of the peninsula, which was the richest and most highly educated of the whole country, there were 230 cities which each struck its own special coinage, under its own name and its own magistrates, each proud of its individuality and character as a self-governing unit in the great Empire.'
Sir William carried out a careful exploration of some of the areas of high cultivation, which he regarded as the necessary basis of this wealthy province. What he found was what is found elsewhere, namely, hills denuded of forest and swept by heavy seasonal rains, and what he further found was the relics of the extensive terraced engineering by which the nourishing water had once been conserved and distributed: 'In older time', he wrote, 'the numerous terraces would have detained the water from point to point up the mountain side, preventing it from ever acquiring a sufficient volume to sweep down in a destroying flood.' Against this fertile land came invaders. First came the least destructive, the Arabs, least destructive because they observed in war the sanctity of trees. The Arabs could under the rules of war destroy the crops and produce of the enemy, but only exceptionally the tree, which conserved the soil. 'It was left to the Crusaders under the command of German, Norman and Frankish nobles and bishops, to inaugurate the era of total destruction of a country by cutting down the trees ... These broke the strength of an organized society by reducing a great part of the country from the agricultural to the nomadic stage. The supply of food diminished accordingly, and with the waning of the food-supply the population necessarily decreased.
'A decreasing population', continued this masterly account, 'in its turn was unable to supply the labour necessary to maintain the old standard of water engineering, on which prosperity rested. Gradually industries languished and died in the towns as well as the agriculture in the country. The Sultans did what they could. Neither the Seljuk Turks nor the Ottoman Turks were actuated by fanaticism. They wished to preserve the old social system so far as it was consistent with the dominance of a conquering caste; but they could not maintain the education which was necessary in the old Roman system ... Thus the whole basis of prosperity was wrecked, not by intention, but by steady decay. A number of causes co-operated and each cause intensified the others. Can the prosperity of this derelict land be restored?'