May 16, 201307:09 AM

The history of wheat and the fall of the Roman empire

The history of wheat and the fall of the Roman empire

Statue of Demeter, goddess of the harvest.

This story is translated and abbreviated from the Italian text published in Pizza e Pasta Italiana by Giampiero Rorato

The Romans always had a certain respect for the crop which in 5 BC was stored in the temple dedicated to the Latin and Roman goddess of agriculture who was later identified with Demeter, the Greek good of the harvest and Cibele, mother earth.  The Romans respected wheat so much, it was considered almost sacred for the great importance that it held in their diet. Magistrati all'annona, or harvest masters, were assigned the task of keeping cereals in stock, above all the grain, at a reasonable price.  Price speculation of grain was a serious offense in ancient Rome.  There were also laws in Rome which regulated the acquisition, sale and consumption of the grain.

Soldiers in the Roman army had to carry with them a small ration of wheat, enough for 15-20 days, a basket, a saw, a gardening spade, and an ax.   For about every 20 men there had to be a mill, a pot to cook and two or three long sticks: everything together weighed about 90 lbs.  On top of carrying all this, they had to know how to fight, swim, build and repair roads, plant seeds and (time and war permitting,) harvest and mill the grain.  They also planted and harvested the lettuce which we call today Romaine.

In the 4th book of Gallic Wars Cesar tells la battaglia tra le spighe or the battle among the wheat.  The 7th legion went to the fields to harvest wheat when a group of Britons suddenly attacked.  The result was disastrous for the Romans as the legion had become accustomed to leaving their weapons to go harvest the grain.  Luckily a guard in the main field knew that something wasn't right and sounded the alarm.  Cesar then ordered soldiers to rush to the aid of their fellow country men.  In the end, the Romans came out victorious.  Cesar refers to this episode to mark the the event when Rome conquered Gaul and decided to plan a the military campaign against Britain. 

Around the 1st century, the Roman empire began to not only worry about conquering land, but also about the economic situation of the land it governed.  At the end of the 1st century and beginning of the 2nd, the emperors Nerva and Traiano were determined to bring new life to the languishing agriculture.  They were concerned about the breadmaking laws which granted the use of ovens only to the privileged.  Around 100 AD they called together a meeting of bakers and millers in an association and opened a baking school.  

After that, more baking associations appeared throughout Rome which lasted until the end of the feudal age when bread making was generally private property of the land owner.  Each landlord in fact, had his own mill with his own oven and those who wanted to use the equipment to mill their wheat or bake bread had to pay a tax.  Public ovens and bread making associations were reborn into a communal state during the Renaissance when the technique of bread making advanced rapidly.   

Around the 2nd century AD, Rome began falling into poverty. Not only Rome but other smaller cities of the empire.  Many Romans became satisfied with nothing more than entertaining themselves with panem et circenses, that is, bread given to them by the state and free attendance to bloody shows in the circus and the Colosseum.  In the last century of the empire, the rate of unemployment had skyrocketed.  Perhaps it was due to the enjoyment of not doing anything and depending on public assistance which continued to rise.  In his 10th satire, Juvenal blatantly writes "the Roman people who once distributed power and legions, today is set in idleness: bread and entertainment (panem et circenses), this is the only thing that they greatly desire."

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