Those Millet-Eating Romans

Nice to see fellow blogger Kristina Killgrove’s work getting some attention at LiveScience … some excerpts from Stephanie Pappas’ piece:

[...]

But ancient Roman writers have less to say about the poor, other than directions for landowners on the appropriate amount to feed slaves, who made up about 30 percent of the city’s population. Killgrove wanted to know more about lower-class individuals and what they ate.

To find out, she and her colleagues analyzed portions of bones from the femurs of 36 individuals from two Roman cemeteries. One cemetery, Casal Bertone, was located right outside the city walls. The other, Castellaccio Europarco, was farther out, in a more suburban area.

The skeletons date to the Imperial Period, which ran from the first to the third century A.D., during the height of the Roman Empire. At the time, Killgrove told LiveScience, between 1 million and 2 million people lived in Rome and its suburbs.

Roman locavores

To determine diets from the Roman skeletons, the researchers analyzed the bones for isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. Isotopes are atoms of an element with different numbers of neutrons, and are incorporated into the body from food. Such isotopes of carbon can tell researchers which types of plants people consumed. Grasses such as wheat and barley are called C3 plants; they photosynthesize differently than mostly fibrous C4 plants, such as millet and sorghum. The differences in photosynthesis create different ratios of carbon isotopes preserved in the bones of the people who ate the plants.

[...]

There were also differences among people living within Rome. Individuals buried in the mausoleum at Casa Bertone (a relatively high-class spot, at least for commoners), ate less millet than those buried in the simple cemetery surrounding Casa Bertone’s mausoleum. Meanwhile, those buried in the farther-flung Castellaccio Europarco cemetery ate more millet than anyone at Casa Bertone, suggesting they were less well-off than those living closer to or within the city walls.

Historical texts dismiss millet as animal feed or a famine food, Killgrove said, but the researcher’s findings suggest that plenty of ordinary Romans depended on the easy-to-grow grain. One man, whose isotope ratios showed him to be a major millet consumer, was likely an immigrant, later research revealed. He may have been a recent arrival to Rome when he died, carrying the signs of his country diet with him. Or perhaps he kept eating the food he was used to, even after arriving in the city. [...]

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