Diet and Romano-British Society

Pre-Roman Diet:

* The indigenous dietary pattern in the late Iron Age was largely one dominated by sheep.

* Already some imports such as olive oil and garum in some southern areas.

* Horses and dogs eaten

‘Romanised’ Diet:

* High cattle/pig pattern with gradient towards higher average cattle and pig percentages that climbs in following sequence: rural settlements, villas, secondary urban centres, urban sites, military sites, legionary sites.

* Increasing rarity of butchery marks on horse and dog bones suggest tastes had changed or new food avoidances had been developed/learned.

Military Diet:

* The Gallic/German pattern, probably already established as the military dietary pattern, becomes the standard for dietary change in the new province of Britannia. It might then be preferable to refer to ‘Gallicisation’ or ‘Germanisation’ of the diet.

* Higher proportions of beef and significant amounts of pork.

* Wild animals such as red and roe deer, boar and hare hunted for sport or to provide different meat, but not extensively exploited.

* Other wild resources such as oysters, cockles, whelks and other marine/estuarine creatures found on most early military sites.

* Moderate representation of domestic fowl (6%).

Urban Diet:

* Diet at Silchester dominated by cattle.

* Development of centralised processing and distribution of beef demonstrated by deposits of cattle remains dominated by skulls and limb extremities at Chichester, Winchester, Silchester, Leicester and Lincoln.

* Increased investment in cattle essential to cereal production. Plus become more viable when large numbers of people live together and meat can be shared.

* Wide mortality range of sheep shows some bred specifically for consumption whilst others kept until older for wool and milk.

* Pigs also important.

* Fish and shellfish found even at inland settlements.

* Chickens first appear in Late Iron Age but increase in importance in Roman period, together with geese and ducks (6-16%).

Villa Diet:

* Fishbourne is one of the few British sites to display the high pig ‘Roman’ pattern (up to 50%). This seems to indicate the occupants of this imported-villa type also imported their dietary style.

* Moderate representation of domestic fowl (3-10%).

Rural Diet:

* Many rural settlements (not villas) retain a residual pre-Roman pattern.

* Herd maintenance must have been major preoccupation, with rural farmers locked into system of supply based on demand elsewhere, as well as providing their own food.

* Importance of wool shown by mature sheep at urban and smaller sites.

* Pigs bred for home consumption at some sites, at others as ‘cash crop’.

* Low percentage of domestic fowl (often less than 1%)

Post-Roman Diet:

* General reversion to high sheep/goat percentages.

* By 4th/5th centuries, there is a trend towards increased beef consumption in Germany, Gaul and Britain.

* Sites with high pig percentages become uncommon in Germany and Britain.


Grant, A. 2004. Animals and the economy and ideology of Roman Britain. In Todd, M (ed). A Companion to Roman Britain. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Pp 371-392.

King, A. 1999. Diet in the Roman world: a regional inter-site comparison of the mammal bones. Journal of Roman Archaeology 12: 168-202

Maltby, M. 1981. Iron Age, Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon Animal Husbandry – A Review of the Faunal Evidence. In Jones, M, and Dimbleby, G (eds). The Environment of Man: the Iron Age to the Anglo-Saxon Period. BAR British Series 87. BAR: Oxford. Pp 155-203.

Maltby, M. 1997. Domestic Fowl on Romano-British Sites: Inter-site Comparisons of Abundance. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 7: 402-414.


3 responses to “Diet and Romano-British Society

  1. do you know what plants were popular to consume?

  2. I’m more of an animal than a plant person, I confess, but there has been research carried out on Roman plants too. A book I would recommend if you’re interested in that sort of thing is ‘Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain’ by HEM Cool. She does a nice round-up of all the evidence for a lot of different things related to food. Things that appear in the greengrocery section of that book include figs, grapes, cherries, olives, dates, plums, nuts, beans, peas, lentils, and brassicas.

    In addition, you may also want to take a look at an on-going archaeological project about the Roman and Islamic Spice Trade:

  3. Pingback: Domestic Fowl in Roman Egypt « Archaeozoology

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