Romans

Romans: Food and Health

The Romans introduced many new foods to Britain. Some people had access to professional medical care during the period, although most relied on herbal remedies.

The changing rooms in the bathhouse at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall
The changing rooms in the bathhouse at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall

New Plants

Before the Romans arrived the Britons cultivated cereals (mostly wheat and barley), and peas and beans, generally on a subsistence basis. The Romans introduced over 50 new kinds of food plants: fruits such as fig, grape, apple, pear, cherry, plum, damson, mulberry, date and olive; vegetables such as cucumber and celery; nuts, seeds and pulses such as lentil, pine nut, almond, walnut and sesame; and herbs and spices including coriander, dill and fennel. Many of these were then successfully grown in Britain.

Although recent excavations at Silchester in Hampshire have shown that many of these exotic foods were consumed there before the Roman conquest, this was exceptional: Silchester was the seat of a client-ruler with links to the Mediterranean world.

Jar used for storing oil in a bathhouse, found at Corbridge
Glass flask discovered intact during excavations at Corbridge Roman Town, near Hadrian’s Wall. It held oil, which was used instead of soap at the baths.

A CHANGING DIET

In the Roman period these new foods became much more widely available and revolutionised the diet of people in the growing cities and small towns, where market gardens and orchards growing cash crops must have become a common sight.

The new diet was adopted far more slowly among the rural poor, and hardly at all in the remote north-west parts of the province. Although even there, military communities were able to eat Roman-style foods.

Meat was more widely consumed under Roman rule. The average size of cattle increased, pigs were commonly kept, and some villas must have prospered from sheep farming. Beef was the favourite meat of the army of Hadrian’s Wall, and was supplied in large quantities to the Wall forts.

Surgical instruments from Housesteads Roman Fort
A selection of medical instruments found at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, including ointment jars, tweezers and ‘ligulae’ for mixing remedies. One of the buildings at Housesteads has been identified as a hospital, and the tombstone of a young doctor has also been found at the fort.

MEDICINES AND DOCTORS

Many of the new herbs were valued for more than just their nutritional qualities. Knowledge of their possible medicinal uses was widespread.

Anyone suffering from ill-health in Roman Britain might have had the option of turning to a professional doctor, if they had the money to pay – and then only if they had access to the kind of urban environment where doctors could be found.

Medical theories had come to the Roman world from Greece, and doctors were often of Greek or eastern origin. Prosperous town councillors and villa owners might have had their own private physicians, usually Greek slaves or freedmen.

The army had its own staff doctors. We know the name of some, like Anicius Ingenuus, a medical officer of the First Cohort of Tungrians who is commemorated on a tombstone at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall. Some forts even had hospitals – remains of the one at Housesteads survive. Medical probes and surgical instruments are quite commonly found during excavations of both urban and military sites.

Reconstruction of the bathhouse at Housesteads
A reconstruction drawing of the 4th-century bathhouse at Housesteads Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall, showing the furnace room complete with copper boiler, the warm room, hot room and cold bath. Bathhouses were sociable places where bathers could exercise, discuss business, meet friends and obtain snacks. © English Heritage (drawing by Peter Urmston)

AMULETS AND EYE PROBLEMS

This kind of professional medical help would not have been available to the bulk of the population of Roman Britain, who relied on simple herbal remedies combined with the propitiation of deities, magic spells, and the wearing of amulets.

Those with access to baths would have kept cleaner – and smelled fresher – than the people of any other pre-modern period, but the waters of the baths may also have helped to spread the eye diseases that seem to have been prevalent in Roman times. Blocks of soluble eye ointment, stamped with a maker’s name, were popular in northern Gaul and Britain.

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