Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Dispelling Some Myths: The Amazons

For those studying the ancient Greeks, you will undoubtedly come across tales of the Amazons, the fearsome, man-hating warrior women of Greek legend. Ignoring the obvious connection to a large online retailer, popular interest in the Amazons was given a boost with the release of the film "Wonder Woman" (2017) and its more recent spin-offs. Based on the DC comic book heroine, the film mashes several "facts" into the narrative, but just how much is true. For example, were the Amazons a solely female based society? Where did they come from? Did the Amazons really hate men, and did they really cut off a breast to be better archers?

Greek mythology  The Greek legend of the Amazons first emerged “more than twenty-five centuries ago [when they] appeared in the writings of some classical scholars and writers” (Guliaev, p. 113). These early writings created a foundational mythology and remained popular throughout Greek history.

To the Greeks, the Amazons were a tribe of warrior women thought to dwell in Asia Minor at the edge of what the Greeks considered their “civilized” world. According to Apollonius Rhodius and other ancient authors [1], the Amazons were the daughters of Ares, the god of war, and his lover Harmonia [2], a nymph [3] of the Akmonian Wood. In his “Argonautica”, Rhodius described the Amazons as brutal and aggressive, and their main concern in life was war.

Homeland  To the Greeks, the story of the Amazons represented a distant land populated by a people whose culture was organised oppositely from their own (Kuiper, 1998). Precisely where the Amazons resided necessarily became more remote as Greek geographic knowledge developed. Most ancient Greek authors associated them with the area around the southern coast of the Black Sea, particularly the city-state of Themiskyra. For the historians Herodotus, and later Strabo, this was on the plains of the Thermodon River [4] in Asia Minor. Indeed, the foundation of many settlements in Asia Minor were credited to the Amazons most notably Ephesus where it was thought they had sacrificed at the temple to the goddess of hunting, Artemis, and performed war dances, a ceremony repeated annually thereafter. Other Amazonian settlements included Cyme, Sinope, Priene, Myrina, Smyrna, and Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. When Greek colonists first reached Amazon territory, however, none were found there and so it became necessary to explain their apparent disappearance. Thus, when the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules) was tasked with his Labour to obtain the girdle of Queen Hippolyte, he was said to have conquered and, conveniently, expelled the Amazons from their homeland.

In the 1st-century BC the Greek geographer, philosopher and historian Strabo confirmed the original homeland of the Amazons on the plains by the Thermodon river. Discovering, however, that they were long gone and not seen again during his lifetime, it was alleged that the Amazons had retreated into the mountains. Strabo, however, added that other authors, among them Metrodorus of Scepsis and Hypsicrates, claimed that, after abandoning Themiskyra, the Amazons had chosen to resettle beyond the borders of the Gargareans. Once again, this explanation resolves the problem of procreation for a women-only society. The Amazons and Gargareans, an all-male tribe native to the northern foothills of the Ceraunian Mountains, had met in secrecy once a year during two months in spring for many generations with the aim of producing children. These encounters would take place in accordance with ancient tribal customs and collective offers of sacrifices. Accordingly, all female infants were retained by the Amazons themselves, while boys were returned to the Gargareans.

Warrior women-only
Regardless of where they resided, Amazon society was thought of as Greek male-society in reverse and so they were attributed traditionally male-dominated activities such as horse-riding, hunting, and warfare. This warlike society of women, living on the borders of the known world, were thus renowned for their archery and riding skills, and considered experts at ambush and cavalry charges. According to Lefkowitz, Amazon women who could “hunt on horseback alongside men, often wear men’s clothing, and even fight in wars” were only hunters and warriors while virgins and were not allowed to marry until they had killed one to three men (Lefkowitz, p. 18). Yet the idea that this women-only society, where men were welcomed only for breeding purposes and all male infants were killed (Cartwright, 2017), has a significant problem. If the whole nation consisted of women, how did it not die out in a generation? Subsidiary tales therefore grew to explain why. The most common of these we have met before: the Amazons mated with men of another people (the Gargareans?), kept the resulting female children, and sending the male children away to their fathers (Guliaev, p. 113).

Such tales clearly became ever more gruesome in the retelling. Accordingly, it was said the Amazons would disjoint the lower extremities of male infants to render them lame (Lefkowitz, p. 18). While any captured male soldiers would sometimes be used to conceive Amazon children, but always be killed (Guliaev, p. 113). Without corroborating evidence, it is conceivable that these stories are fabrications intended to shock and titillate readers. Consequently, whether they have any basis in truth is debatable, but it does raise the question as to why lurid tales of the Amazons were told.

Much of the surviving myth stems from Athens and would have been created by men, which seems a compelling argument. Lefkowitz, for example, suggests (p. 26): “it is possible to view the myths of Amazons and other wild and destructive women who oppose men […] as expressions of the psychological conflict imposed by the customary segregation of the sexes in Athenian society and men’s apprehensions about female sexuality”. Consequently, and despite describing the Amazons as a race of warriors, almost every myth of them depicts them losing to male-dominant armies, especially those from Greece (Lefkowitz, p. 20). In this light, the portrayals of legendary battles between Greeks and Amazons, known as Amazonomachiai (Ancient Greek Ἀμαζονομαχίαι, or Amazonomachies), becomes part of Athenian propaganda to portray their enemies as weak [5].

Yet, the fascination with the Amazons extends beyond just Athens to many other Greek city-states where the myths may have had an underlying message. Perhaps these fearsome, destructive warrior-women were a warning to Greeks not to disrupt the traditional family structure (Lefkowitz, p. 27). Many ancient Greeks, especially the men, may have been alarmed by a race of extremely tough and unforgiving women. It follows that one possible counter would have been to promote traditional Greek culture and reinforce the distinctive roles between men and women.

In contrast to Amazons, Athenian women were not traditionally educated and only learned skills while in the home (Seltman, p. 97). An Athenian wife and her daughters were tied to the home, as they were expected to do domestic work, such as caring for the children, running the home and controlling the servants (Seltman, p. 94-97). She could not own property and great importance was placed on her fertility and chastity. Pressured by society to conceive, for the typical Athenian woman, her lifestyle was far more restricted than the Amazons or even the Spartans.

Mastectomy myth  One example of just how different these warrior women were is revealed by the belief the Amazons burnt off their right breast to better use a bow and throw a spear. At first sight one might be tempted to think such stories make some sense but take a moment longer and this lurid tale begins to unravel. Consider how many modern-day female archers or javelin throwers have elected for this extreme procedure to improve their skills - very few, if any. With proper archery form, it is common to draw the bowstring to the chest. This is especially true when shooting the sort of recurve bow typically seen in depictions of ancient archers. Today, therefore, many archers, both women and men, use a chest guard to help keep their chest out of the way. Perhaps some form breast binding may have been employed by an Amazon archer to the same effect. Yet, with an appropriate technique and practice even this would not be essential. So, where might the legend come from?

The explanation is not as straight forward a tale as one might think. The ancient Greeks gave the name “Amazon” a popular origin from the combination of a- (ἀ-) and mazos (μαζός) to mean "without breast” or “breastless” [6]. Alternative meanings include “one breast” or “not breast-fed" (Cartwright, 2017). Much later this sense of the meaning was given further credence by Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus [7]. He followed the practise giving credence to the allegation that Amazons cut off or burnt out their right breast. Even with Justinus’ assertion, it seems the myth most likely came from the false etymology, especially as there is no supporting historical evidence and certainly no indication of the practice in ancient Greek art.

In the latter, Amazons were often depicted in battle (“amazonomachies”) with Greek male warriors; the confrontation between Theseus and the Amazons was a particular favourite.
In early classical art the women are most often depicted riding a horse and wearing hoplite armour similar in style to that worn by the goddess Athena. Interestingly, the most common weapons shown are the bow and spear, but there are also examples where Amazons carry axes and crescent-shaped shields. In later artworks Amazons were portrayed more like the goddess Artemis wearing a thin dress, girded high for better freedom of movement [8]. On painted vases their dress is often peculiarly Persian presumably in an attempt to link the Amazons with another enemy of the Greeks. Significantly, from such artwork it appears that Amazons were more likely to have been fully breasted, horse-riding Scythian warriors.

The link to the Scythians As we have seen, the precise location of the Amazonian homeland remained elusive. Originally placed “in the north east of Asia Minor, on the southern coast of the Black Sea, between Sinop and Trabzon” (Guliaev, p. 113), its whereabouts continued to change, moving continuously farther from the Mediterranean to regions such as Ethiopia or Scythia (Lefkowitz, p. 22). The latter location is all the more interesting because in modern times, archaeological discoveries of burial sites with female warriors on the Eurasian Steppes hints that Scythian women may have inspired the Amazon myth. Herodotus (c. 484 BC - 425/413 BC), writing in his Histories (Book IV, 110-117), gives a lengthy description of a meeting between Amazons and Scythians. Young warriors of the latter group persuaded several visiting Amazons to set up a new society together, with the women insisting neither they nor their offspring would change their lifestyles at all. This new race was considered the origins of the Sarmatians in southern Russia, appropriately enough, a people famous for their horses and military aggression (Cartwright, 2019).

Archaeological excavation of Sarmatian tombs and those of other nomadic tribes elsewhere, especially in Kazakhstan, and dating to the time of Herodotus suggests some of these women were indeed warriors. Female skeletons were found not only with weapons, armour, and horse trappings but also signs of injury from blades and arrowheads. One particular Scythian grave, dating to the 4th-century BC and located near ancient Tyras on the Dniester River on the northern coast of the Black Sea, contained a female skeleton with a wound in the skull probably caused by a battle-axe and a bronze arrowhead firmly stuck in one knee. The deceased had been surrounded by two iron spears, twenty arrows with bronze arrowheads and a bronze knife, as well as pieces of body armour. Far from being unique, however, some 370 steppe nomad graves, spread across territories from Turkey to Russia, contain the remains of women. Dated to the 5th- to 4th-century BC, many of the women had survived or succumbed to injuries typical of violent one-on-one combat. The parallels with the Amazons of Greek mythology are uncanny so it is just possible that tales of these Scythian women, or actual contact with them, were the inspiration for the legend.

Conclusions  It seems that Greek myth-makers, historians and artists were inspired not only by their imaginations when they created and depicted the Amazon legends but perhaps by the historical reality of Scythian fighting women. That said, it seems that only the Greeks were aware of their existence (Lefkowitz, p. 22) as other contemporary cultures appear not to mention Amazons in their histories. So, despite the many ancient Greek pseudo-historical narratives that survive, the origin of the Amazons and the existence of their culture remains largely a fiction. Mythical they may be, but there is something about the idea of strong, independent women threatening the “established patriarchy” that resonates even today. In the struggle for equality in the largely male-dominated western societies, perhaps that is why the Amazons endure as inspiring icons.


1. Lysias, Isocrates and Philostratus the Elder also say that their father was Ares.
2. In Greek mythology, Harmonia (Ancient Greek: Ἁρμονία) is the immortal goddess of harmony and concord. Her Roman counterpart is Concordia. Her Greek opposite is Eris, whose Roman counterpart is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Discordia.
3. Apollonius of Rhodes claims Harmonia was a naiad, a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.
4. A short river, now known as the river Terme, in Samsun Province, Turkey that drains into the Black Sea
5. It was popular in ancient Athenian literature to compare various races in Asia to the Amazons so that they would seem weaker and more effeminate (Lefkowitz, p. 19). Using the myth in this way meant the Athenians could affect opinions on foreign and domestic issues.
6. The historian Adrienne Mayor suggests the literary confusion comes from the similarity between mazon and the Greek word for breast mastos.
7. Marcus Junianus Justinus was a Roman historian who flourished 3rd-century AD and was the author of Epitome. This work was an abridgment of the Historiae Philippicae et totius mundi origines et terrae situs (known as the “Philippic Histories”) by Pompeius Trogus, whose work is lost. Nothing is known of Justin’s personal history other than his work on Trogus’s book (chiefly a history of Macedonia and the Hellenistic monarchies, with Parthia), which preserves material that has proved valuable to students of the Hellenistic world.
8. In some depictions one breast, quite often the right, is uncovered.


Wikipedia, "Amazons", retrieved May 3rd, 2020.
Cartwright, M. (1998), "Amazon Women", Ancient History Encyclopaedia, retrieved May 3rd, 2020.
Fennell, D. (2017), "The (Not-So) Ancient Amazons", retrieved May 3rd, 2020.
Lefkowitz, M. R., (1986), Women in Greek Myth, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (in Fennell, D., op. cit.).
Kuiper, K., "Amazon Greek Mythology", Encyclopædia Britannica, retrieved May 3rd, 2020. Seltman, C., (1956), “Women in Antiquity”, Pan Books Ltd, London (in Fennell, D., op. cit.).
Guliaev, V., (2003), “Amazons in the Scythia: New Finds at the Middle Don, Southern Russia”, World Archaeology 35(1), pp. 112-125 (in Fennell, D., op. cit.).

Dispelling Some Myths: Dirty water? Drink beer!

For some reason it is often stated on popular television programmes that Mediæval Europeans drank lots of wine, ale or beer all day, every day because the local water was dirty or somehow fouled. Unfortunately for those repeating this myth, there is plenty of evidence that people regularly drank water. After all, what was the town, village or castle well for?

Water is a basic need for human survival, together with food and shelter. What is true today has been so since antiquity. In truth, very few civilisations have not been established near a source of clean water. The ancient Egyptians had the river Nile. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires flourished between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia [1].

The Spartans had the Eurotas, while for the Romans it was the Tiber. Nearly all European capitals are founded on or near rivers. To name but three: Parisiennes have the Seine, Londoners the Thames, and Buda and Pest sitting on either bank of the mighty Danube became the Hungarian capital of Budapest.

Medieval cities and water supply  There was a very good reason why the Mediæval forerunners of these modern capitals were sited near a water supply. As the 15th-century architect Leon Battista Alberti noted: “a city required a large amount of water not only for drinking, but also for washing, for gardens, tanners and fullers, and drains, and in case of sudden outbreak of fire, the best should be reserved for drinking, and the remainder distributed according to need” [2].

The importance of drinking water is evidenced by the recorded efforts of local leaders to give people access to it. Writing in the 7th-/8th-century AD, the Benedictine monk, Bede noted that King Edwin of Northumbria, “established a benefit for his people in that in many places where clear springs or streams ran by well-used roads, where they were most frequented he ordered posts with bronze cups hung on them to be set up for the refreshment of travellers.” Scroll forward in time and it becomes clear that cities in Mediæval Europe were spending large amounts of money on creating and maintaining water supplies. In 1237, for example, the City of London acquired the springs of the Tyburn and built a small reservoir, a head of water, to help serve the city with a steady, free, flowing supply. Eight years later work began on the Great Conduit, a man-made underground channel that brought drinking water from the Tyburn to Cheapside in the City. Londoners were at liberty to draw water but even so wardens were appointed to stop them taking too much, the unpermitted taking or diversion, and to repair pipes. There are also records for the City noting the expenses related to maintaining and cleaning the Great Conduit. Yet despite this example, the myth of constant beer drinking persists.

Absence of evidence
  There may be a simple explanation. There are few references to people drinking water in the surviving Mediæval letters and chronicles. Instead, such sources speak of drinking ale or wine. Perhaps water drinking was so mundane it was just not worth mentioning. If truth be told few historians in the past rarely recorded the ordinary things that would be familiar to their readers. Rather, they focused on relating the novel, different or strange. That Mediæval authors seldom wrote about a love of water, does not mean people avoided drinking it.

The benefits of drinking water from a good source are often noted in Mediæval medical texts and health manuals. There are numerous references to when one should drink water or add it to another drink. The 7th-century Byzantine physician, Paul of Aegina, for example wrote: “of all things water is of most use in every mode of regimen. It is necessary to know that the best water is devoid of quality as regards taste and smell, is most pleasant to drink, and pure to the sight; and when it passes through the praecordia [stomach] quickly, one cannot find a better drink” [2]. In a similar vein, the Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum [3] advises drinking from a cool spring was good for thirst but adds that rainwater was even better. The treatise does caution against drinking water during a meal to avoid its chilling effect on the stomach. Wine, it notes, should be preferred.

Being on bread and water
  As well as medical texts, Mediæval religious manuscripts also mention provide further evidence of drinking water. Many of the saints, for example, are chronicled abstaining from drinking alcohol preferring water instead. Some of the more austere monastic communities advocated relying solely on water. Moreover, it became a standard practice throughout the Mediæval period for people to atone for their sins on a diet of bread and water. If said water was polluted, then it would be rather sadistic of the church to compel the penitent to risk illness or death. Rather, the idea of “bread and water” was clearly intended to limit those seeking repentance to a bland diet, but one sufficient to sustain life while discouraging further minor transgressions [4].

Ale or Water?  Water has always been the stuff of life. Access to good sources of clean water was prized and throughout history great efforts were undertaken to supply people with water not only for drinking but for washing, sewerage, firefighting and so on. People in the Middle Ages clearly understood that not all water was safe to drink. It was common knowledge that obtaining water from marshy areas or places of standing water was to be avoided. They also knew that, when making ale or beer, the boiling of the mash during the brewing process usefully killed any harmful bacteria in the water. Moreover, the mash gains nutrients from the barley and other ingredients, and the microorganisms can also produce vitamins as they ferment. For many people, therefore, the drinking of ale or beer was an excellent nutritional supplement.

So, it is true that people in Mediæval Europe drank large quantities of ale or beer during the day [5], but not necessarily for inebriation or because the water was unfit to drink. Rather beer drinking provided daily sustenance. Of course, where a water source was polluted, then it made perfect sense to consume ale or beer. But if water could be drawn from a good source, then people would commonly drink it. The myth it seems reveals more about our misunderstanding of the past. With more contemporary references to wine, ale and beer drinking than to water it would be easy to see how the “dirty water” idea might take hold. But people in the Mediæval period did drink water and, because it was such a normal and mundane thing to do, they, like us, simply did not boast about it.


1. Literally “[land] between rivers” from the ancient Greek Μεσοποταμία which is formed by the root words μέσος (mesos, “middle”) and ποταμός (potamos, “river”).
2. “Did people drink water in the Middle Ages?”,, retrieved April 17th, 2021.
3. The Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum is a Mediæval didactic poem believed to have been written in the 12th- or 13th-century. Even though the book bears the name of the famous mediæval medical school, the Schola Medica Salernitana, it is not certain if it originated there.
4. Chevalier, J., (2013), “The great Mediæval water myth”, Les Leftovers, retrieved April 17th, 2021.
5. In the 12th-century, the strength of ales and beers varied and were identified by marking with single, double or triple X’s. Lighter ales might be drunk earlier in the day and the heavier, stronger one later.
6. Marks, T., (2018), “A sip of history: ancient Egyptian beer”, The British Museum Blog, retrieved April 18th, 2021.
Today, April 23rd, marks the 457th birthday of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). As he is famously thought to have been born and died on the same date, so April 23rd is also the 405th anniversary of his death on St George's Day 1616.
This day was once celebrated with feasts much like those we enjoy at Christmas, but its popularity waned in the 18th-century after England's union with Scotland. Parts of England do still honour George with annual fetes and pageants, perhaps with traditional entertainments like Morris dancing or Punch and Judy shows. Most will undoubtedly involve dragons of some persuasion, but very few will involve feasting.

Unlike in December, where we dine on roast turkey and Christmas pudding, there do not appear to be any traditional recipes associated with St George's Day. Undeterred, back in 2018 we set about producing some sweet and some savoury Mediaeval dishes for the visitors to The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to try. If you would like to recreate these tasty dishes, then here are the recipes:

We hope you have a very merrie St George's Day with our Tastes Of History. Enjoy!

Dispelling Some Myths: Mediæval Peasants ate Bland Food

The first thing to note is that what people ate was heavily dependent on where they lived and at what time. For example, Europe covers a large area with many different countries and peoples living within its boundaries, and the Mediæval period in Europe lasted a long time, roughly ten centuries. Much as today trends in food came and went, and access to particular foods may have been restricted by a multitude of factors such as the climate affecting harvests, war and pestilence, trade links, cost and a person’s disposable wealth, religious observance, personal preference and so on.

New research  Much is known of the medieval dietary practices of the nobility and ecclesiastical institutions, but less about what foods the medieval peasantry consumed. A 2019 study by a team from the University of Bristol examined a range of historical documents and found that medieval peasants ate meat, fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables. Before this study, there had been little direct evidence that this was the case.

Yet, even though we now have a better understanding of what Mediæval peasants and the poorer social classes ate, the notion persists that food was bland or tasteless. This is a myth, so what is the truth?

What did Mediæval peasants eat?
  In some respects, the Mediæval diet was much healthier than ours today. There was little or no processed food and far less sugar. Bread remained a staple food for all, but what did Mediæval peasants actually eat? The University of Bristol team analysed food residues from the remains of cooking pots found at the small medieval village of West Cotton in Northamptonshire [1]. By identifying the lipids, fats, oils and natural waxes still present on the porous ceramics, the team found that stews (or pottages) of mutton and beef with vegetables such as cabbage and leek were a mainstay of the medieval peasant diet. The research also showed that dairy products, likely the “green cheeses” [2] known to be eaten by the peasantry, also played an important role in their diet.

A rural diet  It should be borne in mind that, unlike today, for most of the Mediæval period people did not live in towns and cities. While reliant on good harvests, a predominantly rural existence meant people could forage for wild fruits, nuts, fungi, plants and herbs. For those with a little piece of land, then homegrown produce was available. Cottage gardens were common but unlike today’s obsession with cultivating flowers, people would focus on growing vegetables and plants with useful culinary or medicinal properties. Unsurprisingly, herbaceous borders were for herbs!

Fish could be dried or salted, but fresh fish, like herring or mackerel, was popularly eaten by people living near the sea. Those living near rivers could eat freshwater fish such as eels, pike, perch, trout, sturgeon, roach, and salmon. Indeed, in the Mediæval period, English rivers had a plentiful supply of salmon making it a cheap source of food. So cheap in fact that some towns passed laws to limit the feeding of apprentices (trainees) with salmon to no more than three times a week. Today, the introduction of fish farms has made salmon more affordable, but it is still considered a luxury by many.

Farming was one way of providing meat, but unlike today meat remained a luxury unaffordable to the majority. For those who could, the rich and privileged, hunting game (deer, pheasant, rabbit and so on) was a popular pastime that added to their diet. But for those poorer folk who could, they might keep animals all year round. Cows, for example, could provide milk for producing cheese, while chickens could be reared for their eggs or for their meat. When they had the money a Mediæval peasant might buy some meat from the local market, while game animals, like rabbits, they could catch for themselves - but beware of being caught poaching (see right).

Added flavours  Herbs and plants such as parsley, rosemary, thyme, basil, garlic, chives and many others were, just as now, added to recipes to develop and improve flavour. Spices, however, were expensive and beyond the means of the ordinary Mediæval peasant.

The spice trade has a long and lucrative ancestry. Although there was an overland trade route across Asia, it was mainly by sea that the trade grew. Voyages from Roman Egypt to India, for example, soon brought vast quantities of aromatic spices to the markets of Greece and the Roman Empire. Roman trade with India continued for more than three hundred years and allowed exotic spices, such as black pepper, to be far more commonplace than in later centuries. As Roman influence waned, however, the trade in spices followed suit. A short-lived resurgence in the 5th-century AD did not prevent trade declining once more in the 6th-century.

The Arab traders, who had always been sailing directly to spice-producing lands, kept their albeit weakened hold on the spice trade in the post-Roman period and through the Middle Ages. But by the tenth century both Venice and Genoa had begun to prosper through their trade with the Levant. The bitter rivalry that developed between the two cities ended with Genoa's defeat and Venice securing a monopoly of trade in the Middle east for the next century. In so doing, the Venetians made vast sums of money by trading spices with buyer-distributors from northern and western Europe. Nonetheless, this trade did little to reduce the price and few ordinary folk could afford spices.

Bland and tasteless food
  Today many of us have to hand a wide variety of spices from across the globe and we use them almost daily to flavour our meals. From that familiarity it is easy to see why, if Mediæval peasants lacked access to such spices, many might assume their food was bland and tasteless. But, as we have seen, this was far from the case. The Mediæval peasant had a well-rounded, healthy diet which, while dependent on good harvests, kept them properly nourished. Apart from bread, they ate stews (adding meat when it could be afforded), fish, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, eggs, and dairy products. By adding herbs from their garden plots, their meals could be as flavoursome as ours.


1. The pottery analysed covered a period of around 500 years during the Middle Ages.
2. In this instance the cheeses are not “green” by reason of colour but for its newness or under-ripened state. The whey has not fully pressed out of it and the cheese has not been thoroughly dried nor aged. “Green cheese”, therefore, is typically white in colour and usually round in shape.

Roman Fast Food

The popular representation of Roman dining is that of reclining on benches enjoying a buffet style meal. This image, however, only really reflects the practice of wealthier families, those who could afford a home with a triclinium (dining room) and slaves to prepare, cook and serve them. So, what of the ordinary city folk? What was their dining experience and how would one go about recreating it?

Walk through the remains of ancient Pompeii, Herculaneum or Ostia and you will encounter some form of food or drink outlet on virtually every street corner. They are easily recognisable from their distinctive masonry counters, which in fancier thermopolia (sing. thermopolium) might be decorated with frescoes. Embedded in the counters were earthenware jars (called dolia; sing. dolium) used to store drink or dried foods, as shown in the example from Herculaneum below right. A dolium in the thermopolium attached to the House of Neptune and Amphitrite also in Herculaneum had the carbonized remains of nuts [1]. It is not thought that hot food was kept in these dolia. Firstly, because there does not appear to be a way to heat the jar embedded in the counter and secondly because it would be difficult for the dolia to be cleaned out after use [1].

Archaeologists tend to refer to all such places as “thermopolia” which, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, was a commercial establishment where it was possible to purchase ready-to-eat food. The name derives from Greek θερμοπώλιον (thermopōlion), or “cook-shop”, but literally means "a place where something hot is sold". In Latin literature thermopolia were also called:

· Popinae (sing. popina), a general name for a restaurant.

· Tabernae (sing. taberna, “tavern”) or street-side snack bars that often featured a thermopolium or a tavola calda (“hot table”), which might be accessible from the pavement. Sometimes a taberna was simply called a thermopolium.

· Cauponae (sing. caupona) which were predominantly drinking establishments where food was also available.

· Hospitia (sing. hospitium) a hotel that typically had a ground floor popina.

· Stabula (sing. stabulum) an alternative name for a tavern, public house or hostelry.
were the forerunners of, and comparable with, today's restaurants serving modern fast food. They ought to be likened to a cross between a hamburger fast food restaurant and a British pub or a Spanish tapas bar. Directly accessible from the street, each had a large counter with a receptacle in the middle from which a variety of food and drink was served to ordinary Romans. Many were the inhabitants of multi-storey insulae who simply could not afford a private kitchen. Significantly, excavations of entire neighbourhood blocks in Pompeii have revealed an unusual lack of tableware and formal dining or kitchen areas within the homes [2]. Penelope Allison of the University of Leicester, for example, did find isolated plates here and there, such as in sleeping quarters suggesting Romans would eat food in certain areas where they possibly engaged in other activities [2]. What she did find in the homes were multiple mini barbecue-type fire boxes, suggesting that "BBQ or fondue-style dining" often took place [3]. Allison concluded that the majority of Pompeii’s population consumed food "on the run".
Historians often extend findings from Pompeii to other parts of Italy, particularly Rome, given the former's proximity to the Eternal City. Indeed, the numerous fast-food restaurants identified in Pompeii are mirrored in other parts of Italy and across the Rome Empire. It seems, therefore, that most Romans, living in apartment blocks or in rather confined spaces, lacked the room for stoves and other cooking equipment. It makes eminent sense, therefore, to use smaller brazier-style cookers as these would not require large quantities of fuel to be carried up several flights of steps. Smaller cookers, like the Greek-style version shown above, also mitigated the risk of fire which, after the Great fire of Rome in AD 64, remained a major concern in densely packed urban centres. After due consideration, therefore, one might theorise three possible scenarios by which metropolitan Romans fed themselves:

1. Produce, bought daily, was taken upstairs to be prepared and cooked on small brazier style cookers.

2. Meals were purchased from a street vendor, taken upstairs and reheated before consumption.

3. Meals were purchased from a thermopolium and eaten either on the move or at the street side food outlet.

"Fast food" restaurants became popular because they were plentiful. Thermopolia offered a panoply of affordable choices for Rome's and Pompeii's residents, many of whom made enough money as artisans, shopkeepers, and weavers to support these places. Besides, grabbing food to go, either in a house or on the street, seems to match the energy and flexibility of the Italian mindset. The vibrant street and bar scenes today, together with the multi-purpose design of Italian homes, with bedsteads stacked in a corner or kitchenettes in surprising places, reflect the wonderful, slightly chaotic, qualities of early Roman life.


1. Berry, J., (2007), The Complete Pompeii, Thames & Hudson.
2. Allison, P.M., (2007), "The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii Volume III: The Finds, a Contextual Study", Oxford University Press.
3. Viegas, J., (2017) “Ancient Romans Preferred Fast Food”, Discovery News.

Pompeii, Bodies and Assumptions

Last year, on Saturday November 21st, 2020, the Italian culture ministry announced to the world’s media that archaeologists have discovered the exceptionally well-preserved remains of two men scalded to death by the volcanic eruption that destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in AD 79. Unsurprisingly this led to usual flurry of media stories.
Those shown are only a small sample but all have one thing in common: all pronounced the younger man was a "slave". He may well have been, but that is a bold claim. So, we thought we would read the news releases and gather the evidence, What quickly becomes apparent is that each media outlet is simply rewording a single press release from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. So, despite the appearance of multiple sources, the presented evidence is, well, uncorroborated.

The new find is located in Civita Giuliana, about 686 metres (750 yards) northwest of Pompeii’s city walls. Being on private property, government-commissioned excavations only began at the villa in 2017, when archaeologists stepped in to help prevent looters from tunnelling into the site and stealing artefacts. During this latest series of excavations the two bodies were found. It is likely that the victims were seeking refuge from the inundation of ash and pumice resulting from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. At about 9 o'clock on that fateful morning, the two were caught in the pyroclastic current of superheated volcanic debris that swept through the town, Their clenched feet and hands - the "pugilists stance" [1] - clearly demonstrates how the men died.
The intense heat destroyed soft tissue, but the men's teeth and bones were preserved. The subsequent voids left by the soft tissue was filled with plaster, left to harden, and then excavated to reveal the outline of their bodies. Examination of the resulting plaster casts has allowed researchers to evaluate the clues. The researchers believe the figures are those of a young slave and a richer older man, presumed to be his owner, based on the vestiges of clothing and their physical appearance. One of the men is described as aged between 30 and 40, and of "high-status". This assessment seems to be based on his "stronger" bone structure, particularly around his chest area, and that he was wearing a tunic and had traces of a woollen cloak under his neck. The stronger build might be indicative of a better diet but that is speculative at best; there is no guarantee that both men did not have access to similar food. As to his clothing, he is wearing garments typical of most Roman men in the first century AD. The cloak, for example, is sensible outer wear for someone contemplating or attempting to escape the town. So, the only way to link his apparel to a "higher-status" would be by analysis of the weave to show it was of finer quality. This, however, has either not happened, perhaps because the casting does not provide the necessary detail, or the results have yet to be made public. There is no suggestion that the actual material survived.

It was revealed that the younger man was probably aged between 18 and 25. Like the older man, he too is thought to have been wearing a pleated tunic, possibly made of wool. Again, it would be extremely difficult to determine the younger man's status based on his clothing. However, it was noted that he exhibited several compressed vertebrae, and it is this observation that seems to be the only reason the experts to believe he was a manual labourer or slave. Both explanations are clearly plausible, but neither can be definitively proven. One could speculate that by being a labourer he may have been susceptible to just such a back injury. Certainly, osteoarchaeologists note that repetitive manual tasks, performed over time, often result in identifiable skeletal joint wear. Equally, of course, it may have been an accidental injury. The point is that neither of these simple premises lead to a conclusion that he was a "slave". The honest answer is that we will never truly know who these two men were or their relationship. But that does not sell the story.


1. The "pugilists stance" is typically seen in severely burned bodies and characterised by flexion of elbows, knees, hips and neck, and clenching of hands into fists. This is caused by high-temperatures from fires, resulting in muscle stiffening and shortening.

A Brief History of Foods: Roman Wines

It may be reassuring to know that the wine gods continue to flourish.  While many narcotics are now illegal, the Roman god of wine Bacchus [1] must be revelling in our continued love of alcohol.  Of course, depending on which piece of research you read, the medical world has categorized wine as either a dangerous substance or, in small amounts, as beneficial to your health.  Such contradictions intrigued Pliny (the younger) who was amazed by the efforts that went into wine production when its effects were so questionable:

"If we consider the matter carefully, no area of human life is so laborious [as wine production], as though nature had not given us the healthiest of drinks, water, which all animals drink, apart from the fact that we even make our beasts of burden drink wine.  So much work, so much toil, so much money is put into wine, and this despite that it prevents the mind and leads to madness.  It is the cause of many crimes, and yet it is considered so attractive that much of mankind can see no other reason for living..” (Pliny, Natural History, XIC-137).

Pliny’s disapproval of wine consumption did not prevent him writing many books about its production, which had become essential to Roman agriculture.  In climates where the vine would not grow, the land was deemed habitable only for barbarians.  The borders of the Empire, to the north and south, mirror the limits of vine growing in the Roman period.

As is the method today, Romans harvested and crushed the grapes before beginning the first fermentation in a large open vat, where the grapes (referred to as "must') remained anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.  Then additives might be combined in the must. 

The Romans stored the mix in wide clay vessels and buried them in the ground to maintain a constant temperature.  The process of maturing wine in wooden barrels was a Celtic practice rather than Roman.  Sweeter than wine, some of the must was boiled down to produce a syrup, the basis of many sauces which could be used to sweeten wine.  In the cooking process, Roman chefs, unlike their modern counterparts, used wine already reduced.

While the wine was maturing, it was regularly checked to gauge its progress and to remove detrimental fungi.  The wine would be ready to drink after a year or more of such preparation, but before transferring it to amphorae, it was sometimes filtered.  As with modern methods, the wine would continue maturing in the amphorae; the longer the better.  It seems the Romans enjoyed aged wines considering them more delicious than young ones.  Moreover maturity was thought to be positively healthy with such wines supposedly strengthening the individual, improving the circulation of their blood while giving it a deep red colour, aiding their digestion and ensuring a good night's sleep.

Nowadays few wines are drinkable beyond twenty years old; and their last years are not exactly their finest.  Aware of this, the price of Roman wine rose significantly until the twentieth year after which it began to decline.  There are, however, frequent accounts of thirty year and even older wines.  Did the Romans therefore make longer lasting wines than we do?  Perhaps so, especially given that short term profit may have been less of an issue for Romans than now.  It is equally possible the Romans enjoyed mature flavours that today we would find overpowering.  If so, it might explain Pliny’s description of a famous vintage from classical antiquity of 121 BC, named for that year’s Consul, Opimius, which was still available to drink in Pliny’s time (AD 61 - AD 113).

The Romans distinguished between sweet and dry wines, with Pliny identifying four distinct colours:

Albus: a light white wine similar to a Moselle.

Fulvius: a golden yellow wine like a heavy Sauterne or a dessert wine.

Sanguineus: a blood red wine comparable with most young red wines of today.

Niger: a very dark red aged wine, almost black in colour hence its name.

Typing wines by their colour is difficult because colours are mentioned intermittently in the literary sources.  When wines are named, the sole reference is usually to the place of origin. 

For example, when Apicius mentions wine, he makes no comment as to type, frequently writing simply “wine” or, on one occasion, “old wine”.  We tend to think of red and white wine as two different forms of drink with quite different culinary properties.  In contrast, Apicius makes no obvious distinction and we are left guessing as to his intention.  One Apician recipe, for example, notes wine added to a “white sauce” from which one might infer a white wine is needed.  On another occasion, Apicius writes: “add wine to colour”, which one might reasonably assume to mean use a red wine, but we cannot be certain without experimentation.

The number of vine varieties was innumerable and, consequently, the same was true of the resulting wines produced.  From surviving sources, a few notable wines include:

Albanum, of which there were two kinds, sweet and dry.  This wine, from the Alban hills, was matured for fifteen years, and the Roman authors Athenaeus, Horace, Pliny, Martial and Columella all praise its excellent quality.

Calenum which, according to the poet Ovid (IV-xii-14), was a favourite wine of the patrician class, lighter than Falernum.

Falernum [2] itself was one of the most famous wines of antiquity being frequently mentioned in contemporary literature.  It was drunk after ageing for ten to twenty years; any older and it reportedly gave the drinker a headache.  Falernum could be either white or rosé.

Fundanum was a strong white wine that could intoxicate quickly.  According to the poet Martial, this wine existed in the time of Consul Opimius (Martial, XIII-113).

Massilitanum was a cheap but heavy smoked wine that, according to the physician Galen was healthy and delicious.  Martial, however, thought it disgusting and recommended giving it to beggars to poison them (Martial, XIII-123).

Nomentanum was a mediocre wine that, again according to Martial, one should give to friends and was only drinkable at five years old (Martial, XIII-19).

Opimanum was not a wine per se but rather a famous vintage named after the Consul of 121 BC, Opimius.

Sorrentinum was a light, immature wine which, because it was drunk so young, tasted sour and earthy.  It owed its fame principally to the elegant clay drinking bowls that came from the same region where the wine was traditionally drunk (Martial, XIII-110; Pliny, Natural History, XXXV-46).

Spolentinum was a sweet golden-coloured wine that Martial considered better than a young Falernum (Martial, XIII-120).  It was served mixed with water that had been boiled then cooled in snow (Pliny, Natural History, XXXI-40).

Tarentinum was, according to Galen, a wine with a light taste and low alcohol content. This is surprising as the wines that come from Puglia where Tarentinum was produced are, today, among some of the world’s heaviest.  Martial, of course, thought they were terrific (Martial, XIII-125).

Trifolinum was a wine comparable to Sorrentinum because of its earthy taste. Martial placed Trifolinum seventh on his list of good wines (Martial, XIII-114), while Pliny thought it only good enough for plebeians.

Despite popularising wine drinking across their empire, Roman viticulture was still a relatively new science. Wine spoiled quickly and crude measures were often taken to correct this problem. Cloudy wine, for example, might be cleared by the addition of albumen or chalk. Taste might be improved by smoking, but smoked wines are often bitter, and their colour suffers as a result. Interestingly, to correct the latter the Romans dyed the wine with such as additives as aloe, saffron or elderberry. Wines could also be sweetened with the addition of must, and many flavourings were added from plants and flowers such as myrtle, rose, violet, lilac, coriander, anis, almonds, pepper, cinnamon and so on. Apicius, for example, provides two recipes for heavily flavoured wine [3] where the principal ingredients were pepper and honey. From the ancient Greeks, the Roman winemakers adopted the custom of adding seawater and, similarly, some wines were flavoured with resin much as Greek Retsina is today.


1. To the ancient Greeks he was Dionysus. Either way Bacchus/Dionysus was the god of the grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, orchards and fruit, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre.
2. Popularly known as "Falernian" after the district of Italy from where it originated.  Latin Falernum should not be confused with a syrup liqueur or a non-alcoholic syrup of the same name from the Caribbean that first appeared in the 18th-century.
3. A heavily flavoured wine was known as consitum.