Port Workers in Ancient Rome Ate Like Kings, Until the Vandals Arrived

Dockworkers in ancient Rome ate as lavishly as the elites, excavations at the port of Imperial Rome find — until the Vandals vanquished the legions in the year 455

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Aerial photo of the Portus Project excavations in 2009
Aerial photo of the Portus Project excavationsCredit: Portus Project
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The last association one might have with Imperial Rome is egalitarianism. The excesses of the ancient Roman elite are the stuff of legend, not to mention revulsion. But there was more to ancient Rome than gladiatorial battles, feasting, rotating theaters and legions of soldiers serially slaughtering fractious barbarians.

Olive oil press (middle of the picture), situated by a mikve, from Second Temple Era in Sharafat, south Jerusalem Credit: Dr. Ya'akov Billig

Excavations in the maritime port of Imperial Rome indicate that muscle-bound dockworkers enjoyed roughly the same diet as the elites, an international team of researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Antiquity.

But political upheaval starting in the mid-fifth century seems to have ended the idyll, such as it was. After the Vandals vanquished the weakened Roman forces in the year 455 and sacked the city, followed by the conquest of Italy by the Ostrogoths in the sixth century, the port’s worker class was reduced to the lowly lentil as a key source of protein.

Whether the discovery of trickle-down economics at the port can be extrapolated to elite Romans in general versus the hoi polloi is debatable. Evidence from elsewhere indicates that social strata differed in their table fare. But the fact is that analysis of rubbish dumps and skeletal remains from the great Portus Romae area indicates that high society and the manual laborers alike got their protein mainly from large animals, and all also consumed imports such as olive oil, wine and their — how shall we put this — “aromatic” fermented fish sauce called garum that the Romans commonly used as a condiment.

Yes, the Romans could produce olive oil and wine, and fish sauce, locally too. But, then as now, imports were often considered “better.”

Better from North Africa

The great Portus Romae was only built in the mid-first century and would serve the city for well over four centuries. Dr. Tamsin O’Connell, of the University of Cambridge’s archaeology department, and her team write that it was the city’s gateway to the Mediterranean and key to its prosperity.

Peoples around the Mediterranean, up and down the European coast and even as far north as Scandinavia had been trading briskly since prehistoric times, well before the invention of newfangled technologies like writing.

Reconstruction of Portus, the maritime port of Imperial RomeCredit: Portus Project / Artas Media

The Romans were not the first to sail the briny. But Rome’s command of the lands around the Mediterranean (and sailing) brought access to goodies and whatnot — from exotic oils, foods, spices and slaves to impressive animals.

Analyzing 1,700-year-old charred wheat grains found in the port of ancient RomeCredit: L. Bonner

Bones of crocodiles and other exotica found in the port excavations don’t mean the ancients ate them, by the way. The beasts may have been imported for display in games, for instance.

The research on the diets of the elite and the others was based on two main elements: analysis of garbage, and analysis of skeletal remains from three sites. These were Isola Sacra, a cemetery of the well-to-do; Tenuta del Duca — a resting place for laborers from the second to fifth centuries; and “Building 5,” a site dating to the mid-fifth and early sixth centuries.

1,700-year-old charred wheat grain from Portus RomaeCredit: R. Ballantyne

The bodies buried at Tenuta del Duca and Building 5 were mainly men whose bones indicate they engaged in heavy labor.

The rich buried in Isola Sacra and the workers buried in Tenuta del Duca had similar isotopic signals, indicating that they ate similar diets: animal protein, imported wheat and olive oil, and locally common foods.

But the men buried in Building 5, from the later, post-Vandals period, apparently got their protein mainly from plant-based food — or, as we call it today, lentils. And beans. The Romans derived much from their predecessors, the ancient Greeks, but not the Pythagorean queasiness about eating beans.

1,700-year-old charred grains from Portus Romae.Credit: L. Bonner

"Isotopic analysis works on the principle that you are what you eat – that your body tissues are made from the food and water you consume," O'Connell explains to Haaretz. "We can track chemical signals from the diet into body tissues, to find out about people’s diet. We are not looking for specific dietary molecules, but signals in the actual atoms that someone’s bones or teeth are made from."

What they learned was this: “By the mid-fifth century, imports were dominated by olive oil, fish sauce and wine from North Africa, with smaller amounts of wine from the Eastern Mediterranean; subsequently, these disappeared,” the authors write.

How could the laborers have afforded the same goods as the rich?

"We cannot say how they were able to afford meat – and the isotopic analyses don’t tell us about the quality of the meat, only of relative importance. Thus poor cuts of meat have the same isotopic signal as desirable ones," O'Connell says.

Perhaps, suggest the archaeologists, the base problem was the political upheaval following the Vandal sack of Rome in the year 455, then the Gothic Wars between the Byzantine rulers of Rome and the Ostrogoths from the year 536 to 552.

But it was the victory of the Vandals that likely marked the turning point for Roman culinary practice, the archaeologists postulate: It ruined trading relations between Rome and North Africa (and the Levant). The Romans were reduced to becoming locavores, buying their foods in Italy.

Mark you, O’Connell points out that whatever dietary egalitarianism existed in Portus Romae wasn’t the case elsewhere in the Roman empire at the time. But in the port itself, they could deduce clear shifts in imported foods and diet over time, which tied in with commercial and political changes following the breakdown of Roman control of the Mediterranean, she explains: “We are able to observe political effects playing out in supply networks. The politics and the resources both shift at the same time.”

The truth is that Rome was having difficulties even before the Vandals arrived. The port so central to Roman fortunes was silting up, says the director of the University of Southampton’s Portus Project, Prof. Simon Keay. The excavations show that by the mid-fifth century, the outer harbor basin was becoming useless; defensive walls had been erected around the buildings; and warehouses weren’t being used to store goodies and grain, but bodies. They had become cemeteries, Keay says.

“These developments may have been in some way related to the destruction wrought upon Portus and Rome by invading Vandals led by Gaiseric in 455, but may also be related to decreasing demand by the City of Rome, whose population had shrunk significantly by this date,” Keay said.

It all makes sense. Intuitively, we could expect war and tribulation to affect resources and diet. Trickle-down economics may have worked better at Rome’s port than on, say, Wall Street, but Rome had been in decline well before the Vandals showed up. Some even attribute the fall of the empire to nothing less than the Roman predilection for using lead in everything from their tableware to their makeup to their water pipes. And when tough times come and the trickle-down of the good times stops, the lower strata of society must share the pain.



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