Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Horrible History: Documentary Re-enactments

Here at Tastes Of History we pride ourselves on trying to be as accurate as possible in what we do, especially when recreating history for the purposes of entertaining and educating the public.  Furthermore, we have both been Roman re-enactors for two decades with The Roman Military Research Society (THE RMRS) and consequently have accrued a wealth of knowledge on the ancient Romans.  Imagine then my horror when I saw this:

It is a still taken from an advert for a new History Channel television series called "Warrior's Way", which is scheduled to be broadcast in the UK later this month (May 2020).  For the uninitiated, you are probably wondering why this one image from a programme I have yet to view has got me so irritated.  There are several reasons that, if I am honest are actually minor criticisms, but taken together they point to much bigger problems with the public's perception of what is historically accurate and of television's credibility.

So, what is wrong with this picture?  Firstly, the helmet.  In Roman re-enacting circles it is known as "The Trooper Helmet", a poor quality, historically inaccurate lump of metalwork made in India.  These helmets were imported to the UK and sold through several agents some years ago.  Indeed, if you search on-line for "Roman helmet" today, it is most likely that a version of this helmet will appear.  Sadly the unwary might be tempted to part with good money on examples like the one pictured left, which is available on Amazon for a mere £45.98.  This version is being sold as a "Roman Centurion Helmet" which clearly it is not as the horsehair crest is fitted front-to-back and not transverse (ear-to-ear) as the evidence for most centurial helmets seems to show.

Crest fittings aside, if you want to be taken seriously and create a credible impression of a Roman soldier, then this helmet should be actively avoided.  Indeed, this is the advice THE RMRS imparts to all new members so they do not waste their money.  But you may be wondering why "The Trooper" is considered below par.  First let me explain the essential characteristics of Roman helmets introduced in the 1st century AD.  Each consists of a bowl and broad, ribbed neck-guard made in one piece, a browguard, and large hinged cheek-pieces.  They were often trimmed with brass piping and decorated with brass bosses[1].  Apart from the fittings being of poor quality, "The Trooper's" cheekpieces and neck-guard are domed unlike any exemplars from archaeology that I am aware[2].  Moreover the neck-guard tapers to a pronounced point.  Once again this deviates from the available evidence, and I do not know what the manufacturers were copying (or indeed thinking).  Yet it is the browguard that drew my particular attention in the above still, which leads to my second criticism.

The browguard on good reproduction helmets copy the known surviving examples and are fixed to reinforce the front of the helmet.  Just as the neck-guard quite clearly protects the back of the head and neck, the browguard was probably intended to counter (or at least hinder) downward slashing blows.  So why does the soldier in "Warrior's Way" have his helmet's browguard tilted toward the sky?  It reveals another issue with the historical accuracy and build quality of the "Trooper Helmet", namely that the browguard is not fixed in place.  Put simply, if the browguard can pivot as shown, then it will not function as the Roman design intended leaving the face vulnerable.

Thirdly, looking at the helmet's cheek-pieces, why, oh, why are they not tied together under the actor's chin?  If you think about it, the cheek-pieces are designed to protect the sides of the face, deflecting blows while not obscuring vision or hindering breathing.  Untied they simply flap about providing no protection whatsoever.  Yet, you will frequently see untied cheek-pieces sported by far too many "re-enactors" or extras in those recreated documentary scenes.  If it were not so annoyingly inaccurate, just imagine it is you in the fight sequence, or on one of the Roman army's famed route marches, and think how much fun it will be each time a loosely swinging cheek-piece smacks you in the face!  How far do you think you would go before securing the offending items?  Why, then, are those involved in producing recreated sequences, and those involved in the scenes, so adverse to simply and securely tying their helmet to their head?  Perhaps producers, directors, historical advisors et al. should be encouraged to start each day's filming slapping their cheeks until it jolly well hurts to prove the point.

The final "insult" comes in the form of the shield.  As a member of THE RMRS, we try to faithfully portray Roman soldiers of the Fourteenth Legion, Legio XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix.  One of the only known shield designs that we are reasonably certain can be attributed to a particular legion is that of the Fourteenth.  The evidence comes from the funeral stele of one Gnaeus Musius (pictured left), a Signifer (standard bearer) of Legio XIIII.  Gnaeus is shown with his hand resting on what we can assume to be his shield in the bottom right-hand corner of the relief.  Although not so clear in the image, examination of the actual carved shield reveals a distinctive design thus allowing us to make a reasoned connection.  Said design is reproduced on the shield carried by our "hero" in the "Warrior's Way" still perhaps suggesting an affiliation with the Fourteenth[3].  Given all the sloppy, unmilitary "issues" highlighted by this one image, one might be forgiven for thinking it insults the memory of the proud legionaries of Rome's Fourteenth Legion. That aside, the lack of historical accuracy does make one question the credibility of this history documentary even before it is broadcast.

Sadly, the "Warrior's Way" image epitomises for me all that is wrong with so many TV history documentaries, especially those that insist on recreating scenes[4] using the cheapest available (so-called) re-enactors.  In some way it insults the efforts of those who spend a lot of time, and money, on trying very hard to be as historically accurate as they can.  We do not always get it right - there are far too many historical unknowns - but the professional ethos of many re-enactors demands we strive to not mislead the public.  Given the power and influence on the popular imagination, it ought to be a similar matter of principle for television producers.  Getting costume, equipment and "the look" historically correct should not be too hard given the sheer volume of information available to even the most novice researcher.  It is not enough to think no one will notice, because we will.  So, television people, if you want to be taken seriously, not seek to exploit the viewer's credulity all the while producing quality history documentaries, then consider who can offer the best help.  It might cost a bit more, but the end result will be worth it.

1.  Bishop, M.C. & Coulston, J.C.N, (2006), Roman Military Equipment, Chapter 5 "From Augustus to Hadrian", Oxbow Books, Oxford, p.101.
2.  If any readers know of examples, please let me know as I am always keen to revise my understanding.
3.  I suspect not as the design has become commonplace on reproduction Roman shields for sale.
4.  The dramatic fight sequence is another bug-bear.  "Roman soldiers" are usually depicted in some sort of free-for-all melee rather than fighting in the close-order disciplined ranks for which they were famous.  The latter, of course, would not be quite so dramatic.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Recipe: The Spring Oven Ciabatta Bread

Tastes Of History recently purchased a new toy: The Spring Oven (pictured left) which, according to the website, "is a unique [slip cast] terracotta creation designed to steam bake bread at home for bakery style results."  If we were to be critical for a moment, the design is definitely not "unique".  In styling it is quite clearly inspired by the North African tajine.

For those not familiar with this item of cookware, "the traditional tajine pottery, sometimes painted or glazed, consists of two parts: a circular base unit that is flat with low sides and a large cone- or dome-shaped cover that sits on the base during cooking.  The cover is designed to return all condensation to the bottom.  That process can be improved by adding cold water into the specially designed well at the top of the lid."[1]
Moreover, The Spring Oven's design owes much to the ancient "clibanus" (also called "testum").  An excellent guide to how one of these ovens can be used was written by Sally Grainger for The British Museum Blog[2].  At Tastes Of History we regularly was a version crafted by Graham Taylor of Potted History at Roman themed cooking events and demonstrations to bake bread and other dishes.  So, The Spring Oven's provenance is tried and tested from antiquity to the modern times.

The Spring Oven's selling point is to allow steam to circulate within the vessel without the need for extra trays or pots of water.  By filling the integral channel surrounding the baking platform with water, steam is generated during the cooking process.  This acts to keep the surface of the dough moist helping the bread to rise and to produce a good crust.  Just like a tajine, the lid's shape ensures condensed steam returns to the water channel thereby retaining a high humidity baking environment.

Instructions for using The Spring Oven are not overly long or complicated.  They cover seasoning the oven on receipt and before the first bake it is also advised to sprinkle a little flour on the base before placing the dough.  The latter will help release the bread after baking.  So far we have found the temperature guides and timings provided in the how to use the oven section to be spot on.  We will see if these guides remain consistent with further experimentation using different doughs.  The instructions end with how to care for the product.  From experience do follow this information, especially to avoid potential cracking from the thermal shock resulting from rapid cooling of the hot terracotta.

The ciabatta bread recipe we chose to use makes one loaf or ten rolls.  It is taken directly from the packet of Wright's Baking Ciabatta Bread Mix, albeit the baking instructions were adjusted to account for using The Spring Oven.

Dough Ingredients

500 g Wright's bread mix;
350 ml lukewarm water;
15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil.

Hand Baking Method

1.  Place the bread mix in a bowl, add the water and kneed for 5 minutes to form a ball of dough.  Add 15 ml (1 tbsp) of olive oil and kneed for a further 1 minute.

2.  Place the sticky dough on a floured surface forming it into either a loaf as we did or a more typical ciabatta rectangle roughly 30 cm by 15 cm.  Leave to rest for 10 minutes.

3.  Shape the dough and place on a greased baking tray or large loaf tin (for rolls divide into 10 small balls).  Dust the top with flour and cover with a damp cloth or loose clingfilm.  Leave to rise in a warm place for 25 to 30 minutes until the dough doubles in size.

4.  Using The Spring Oven: Pre-heat oven to 220°C (430°F, gas mark 7).  Carefully pour an additional 150 ml of warm water in the channel that surrounds the base of The Spring Oven, making sure the water does not splash onto the base.

5.  With the lid on, place The Spring Oven in the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes, carefully take The Spring Oven out, using gloves, remove the lid and place the dough on the base.  Score the top of the dough, replace the lid and carefully return to the oven for 15 minutes at 220°C (430°F, gas mark 7).

6.  After 15 minutes, remove The Spring Oven's lid, turn the oven down to 200°C (400°F, gas mark 6) and bake the bread for a further 30 minutes (or until the crust is a golden brown).

7.  Remember to allow the terracotta lid and base to cool naturally.
First impressions are excellent.  The Spring Oven is simple to use, the instructions are clear and easy to follow, and the results so far have been exceptionally tasty.  Indeed, we meant to photograph the baked loaf after removal from the oven but the smell of fresh baked bread was just too tempting.  Hot bread straight from the oven smothered in butter - what's not to love!


1.  Wikipedia, "Tajine" retrieved May18th, 2020.
2.  Grainger, S. (2013), "From Parthian chicken to flat breads: Experimenting with a Roman oven", The British Museum Blog, retrieved May 18th, 2020.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: The Hidden Code in Statues

You might have heard how the statue of a horse and rider reveals how the named person died.  In the United Kingdom, and the United States, this popular urban myth is held to be:
  • If the horse is rearing, with both front legs raised, then the rider died in battle.
  • If only one hoof is lifted, the rider was wounded in battle, possibly dying later.
  • If all four hooves are on the ground, then the rider was never injured in battle and died by some other means.
Writing for the Londonist, Matt Brown studied fifteen equestrian statues[1] of named individuals across London to see if this pattern held true[2].  Interestingly, nine of the fifteen horses have all four hooves on the ground which does correlate with the rider's eventual death.  For example, two statues of the Duke of Wellington, one in Hyde Park Corner and the other at the Royal Exchange, both depict his horse with all hooves grounded.  The Iron Duke died, aged 83, on September 14th, 1852 in Walmer Castle in Deal, Kent.  He was found sat in a chair, his death being recorded as due to the after-effects of a stroke culminating in a series of seizures.  He had sustained only minor injuries during his military career and had not been on a battlefield since Waterloo in 1815.  In the Iron Duke's case, as with the other seven quoted, the named individuals did not die in battle nor from wounds received.  So, the pattern seems to be holding, but what of other equestrian statues?

Just three further examples (undoubtedly there are many more across the UK and further afield) will suffice to reveal the inconsistency of the myth.  Take the statue of King George III.  Situated on Pall Mall his horse is sculpted with one hoof raised indicating, if the myth is true, that he had been wounded.  He never once fought a battle.

Similarly, another famous example in Whitehall, London, is of Earl Haig (top right).  The raised hoof suggests battle wounds, but Field Marshall Douglas Haig evaded any serious harm while commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front in the First World War.  He died of a heart attack, aged 66, on January 29th, 1928.

Finally, to confuse the picture, the memorial of Richard the Lionheart, which stands outside the Palace of Westminster, shows the king in full mail mounted passant[3], his sword held forcefully aloft (below right).  His horse's left foreleg is very obviously raised which, in this case, actually would be correct.  On March 26th, 1199, while besieging the puny, virtually unarmed castle of Châlus-Chabrol, King Richard was hit in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt.  The wound turned gangrenous and the Lionheart died of sepsis (blood poisoning) eleven days later.

If nothing else, these three examples reveal the truth: there is no tradition of indicating on a statue how an individual died.  While it would correct to point to statues of each type that do fit the pattern, these are really just coincidences or one-offs[4].  Even more frustratingly, there is no evidence for where and when this idea came from, yet people still believe this myth to be true.  Hopefully not now though..?


1.  “Equestrian” comes from the Latin “eques”, meaning “knight”, which in turn derives from “equus”, a “horse”.
2.  Brown, M. (2016), "Do London's Horse Statues have a Hidden Code?", Londonist.com, retrieved May 13th, 2020.
3.  In heraldry, a beast passant (Old French: "striding") walks toward dexter (the viewer's left, or in the case of a knight's shield, its right edge.  From Latin "dexter" meaning "right") with the right forepaw raised and all others on the ground.
4.  Wilde, R. (2019), "Do Statues of Riders or Knights Conceal Codes?", ThoughtCo, retrieved May13th, 2020.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: "Ring a Ring a Roses" and the Great Plague

Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

For those of us of a certain age, you might remember being told at school that the children’s rhyme "Ring a Ring a Roses" was all about the Great Plague that swept Britain in AD 1665 to 1666.  The lines supposedly describe the symptoms: the "roses" are the red blotches on the skin, the "posies" are the sweet-smelling flowers people carried to try to ward off the plague, "a-tishoo" mimics the sneezing fits of people with pneumonic plague[1][2], and finally "we all fall down" invoking the victims' demise.  For those who study folklore, however, this explanation is without basis - a myth.

Yet the link with the Great Plague still holds sway over the popular imagination.  In 2014, for example, James FitzGerald asserted, in "Five London Nursery Rhymes Depicting Death And Ruin", that the rhyme refers to the Great Plague of 1665, an outbreak of pneumonic plague affecting London.  According to Stephen Winck[3], however, this interpretation emerged in the mid-twentieth century and, although it has become widespread, it has never been accepted by folklorists for several reasons.

Firstly there are many variations of the rhyme from across Europe and the USA.  In many of these versions the images associated with plague are simply not present.  Many have no words that sound like sneezes, and many versions do not mention falling down[3].  Indeed, several variations of the rhyme have people falling down only to get back up again, which makes little sense if they have died.  In European and 19th century versions of the rhyme the "fall" was not supposed to be a literal "falling down" but rather a curtsy or other form of bending movement common in other dramatic singing games or dances.

Moreover, of all the different versions known to exist, the rhyme did not appear in print until 1881.  It is not known what the earliest version of the rhyme was nor when it began, but it is said (albeit unsubstantiated) that a version was being sung to the current tune in the 1790s.  Yet it seems highly unlikely that, if the rhyme were about such dramatic events as the Great Plague, it would go undocumented for over two hundred years.  Even if it did, there ought to be other types of evidence.  A description of children playing dancing-games referring to roses and mocking the plague, for example, or oral traditions of the earliest informants making the link.  As it turns out, no evidence has turned up, despite meticulous day-to-day records of life in London in 1665 and the accounts of the Plague by those who survived it.  A sceptic would want to know "how the first person who claimed a connection between the events of 1665 and this rhyme find out about that connection, and why can’t we find whatever evidence he or she had?"[3]

If that is not enough, then the symptoms described do not fit especially well with those of the Great Plague, the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England.  Bubonic[4] is one of three types of plague caused by bacterium Yersinia pestis, the other two being septicemic plague and pneumonic plague.  One to seven days after exposure to the bacteria, flu-like symptoms develop including fever, headaches and vomiting.  In bubonic plague, swollen and painful lymph nodes occur in the area closest to where the bacteria entered the skin.  These swollen lymph nodes may occasionally break open.  If the rhyme reflects bubonic plague, then the first line might represent the red inflammation around the black buboes.

For those who argue that the Great Plague was the pneumonic version, then it is the third line "A-tishoo! A-tishoo!" that might be the closest analogy to the severe lung infection that develops.  With pneumonic plague, the first signs of illness are fever, headache, nausea and weakness.  This is followed by rapidly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain, cough and sometimes bloody or watery sputum (the mucus coughed up from the lower airways).  The pneumonia progresses for two to four days and may cause respiratory failure and shock.  Patients will die without early treatment, some within 36 hours - "We all fall down".  Taken together it seems the rhyme does not point to one form plague or the other but to conflate the symptoms of both suggesting, as Winck writes: "that the story did not grow from compelling evidence; rather, evidence has been gathered to support a compelling story."[3]

As alluded to earlier, the link with the plague did not appear until the mid-twentieth century.  No mention is made before the Second World War, for example.  So, the great variety of forms makes it unlikely that the modern rhyme is the most ancient one.  Remember also that the words on which the interpretations are based are not found in many of the earliest records of the rhyme.  Put simply, that "Ring a Ring a Roses" is all about the Great Plague of London is yet another unsubstantiated myth.

1.  BBC Bitesize, A Summary of the Plague, retrieved April 21st, 2020.
2.  Observers noticed two strains of the plague.  Bubonic plague, with painful buboes, was spread to humans by infected fleas and transmitted from person to person.  In contrast, pneumonic plague was airborne and spread by sneezing.  Those who caught pneumonic plague often died within a day.
3.  Winck, S. (2014), Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason, Library of Congress, retrieved April 21st, 2020.
4.  The term "bubonic" is derived from the Greek word βουβών, meaning "groin".

Monday, May 11, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: Julius Caesar's Birth

On the face of it one could be forgiven for thinking the medical procedure known as Caesarean section[1] was named for Roman statesman and general, Gaius Julius Caesar.  It is, however, a false etymology[2] despite a couple of reasons to make the connection.

Firstly, the ancient Romans performed caesarean sections in accordance with the Lex Regia (royal law)[3], instituted during the reign of the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (reigned 715 - 673 BC).  The law required the child of a mother who had died during childbirth to be cut from her womb to save the baby[4].  The Roman practice also held that the procedure could be performed where an expectant mother was in her tenth month of pregnancy or experiencing birthing complications.  Carrying out the procedure, however, was only ever done in the full knowledge that the mother would not survive the delivery.

Secondly, Pliny the Elder theorised that an ancestor of the famous Roman statesman, also called Julius Caesar, was ab utero caeso, "cut from the womb".  In this way Pliny explained the cognomen "Caesar" carried by the family's male descendants.  The Roman practice of sharing familial names may explain the confusion and why it was thought Gaius Julius Caesar was born by caesarean section.  Of course had he been ab utero caeso, then his mother, Aurelia Cotta, would have almost certainly died as no classical source records a mother surviving such a delivery.  This was clearly not the case as Aurelia Cotta took an active and substantial role in her son's upbringing, and died (in 54 BC) just ten years before Caesar's assassination[5].


1. Also known as C-section or caesarean delivery, it is the use of surgery to deliver babies.
2. Etymology is the study of the history of words.
3. Under the rule of Caesars, the Lex Regia (royal law) became the Lex Caesarea (imperial law), hence the procedure's name.
4. Segen, J. C. (1992). The Dictionary of Modern Medicine: A Sourcebook of Currently Used Medical Expressions, Jargon and Technical Terms, Taylor & Francis. p. 102. retrieved May 10th, 2020.
5.  Caesar was stabbed to death in the Theatre of Pompey on the Ides of March (March 15th) 44 BC.  The assassination was a conspiracy of several Roman senators, notably led by Marcus Junius Brutus, Cassius Longinus, and Decimus Brutus, at the end of the Roman Republic.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

A Brief History of Foods: Roman Pasta?

We keep hearing mention of pasta's ancient Roman roots, but as far as we can ascertain pasta in the form familiar to us today simply did not exist until the 13th century at the earliest.  Here at Tastes Of History we have attempted to work out why this popular misconception persists and perhaps how the confusion has come about.  So, to improve our understanding of the history of foods, we have tried to unravel the origins of pasta, or more accurately whether it was something known to ancient Greeks and Romans.

If you ask someone to name two Italian foods they (almost) invariably reply: "pizza and pasta".  These two dishes have become synonymous with Italian cuisine, so a link to the ancient Romans would appear to make perfect sense.  But there is a problem.  Despite some similarities, the Romans ate neither pizza or pasta.  That said, descriptions from ancient sources do reveal a popular food made from flour and water that, on the surface, resembles the ingredients for making pasta.  At the risk of being pedantic, however, that is where the similarities end.

Defining Pasta  Pasta is typically made from an unleavened dough of wheat flour mixed with water or eggs.  The resulting mixture can be formed into sheets or other shapes, then cooked by boiling or baking.  While pasta is a staple food of Italian cuisine, it has Greek origins.  The term "pasta", for example, is derived from the Latinisation of the Greek word παστά (pasta), meaning a "barley porridge", with the familiar term entering the English language in 1874[1].

Pasta-like foods have been eaten for centuries, particularly in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  Many of them, however, are not necessarily recognisable as a modern pasta.  Today's pastas are divided into two broad categories: dried (pasta secca) and fresh (pasta fresca).  Although it can be produced at home, most dried pasta is factory-made using an extrusion process to mass produce a relatively cheap commercial product.  Like the early forms, however, fresh pasta is traditionally handmade, although today simple pasta making machines often aid the process[2].  Both the early forms and modern pastas use wheat flour mixed with water to make an unleavened dough.  Pasta makers today favour semolina flour, which is ground from the endosperm of Durum wheat, to produce a similar mixture.  It is this basic similarity between the ancient and modern recipes that has driven many commentators to link the two in an origin myth, with the term "pasta" being applied indiscriminately.

To complicate things, both dried and fresh pastas come in a bewildering number of shapes and varieties.  There are 310 specific forms known by over 1300 documented names[3].  In Italy, the names of specific pasta shapes or types often vary by locale, but would any of them be familiar to ancient Greek and Roman cooks?

When in Rome  In the 1st century AD, references are made to tracta (singular: tractum; ancient Greek: τρακτὸς, τρακτόν), thin sheets of drawn-out or rolled-out pastry dough that was typically fried[4].  According to Andrew Dalby, tracta "appears to be a kind of pastry.  It is hard to be sure, because its making is never described fully"[5].  Precisely what it was or how it was used seems to vary over time being an unleavened bread, a bread roll, or a sort of pancake.  Tracta is mentioned in Apicius' de re coquinaria as a thickener for liquids that Vehling translates as "a piece of pastry, a round bread or roll, in this case stale, best suited for this purpose"[6].  It is also mentioned in Cato the Elder's recipe for placenta cake, thin sheets of pastry dough layered with cheese[7], and Athenaeus's Deipnosophistae writes of a kind of cake called καπυρίδια, "known as τράκτα [tracta]", which uses a bread dough, but is baked differently[8].

To confuse things even further, this everyday foodstuff, popular in both ancient Roman and Greek cuisines, was also called laganon, laganum, or lagana (Greek: λάγανον).   Writing in the 2nd century AD, Athenaeus of Naucratis provides a recipe for lagana which he attributes to the 1st century Chrysippus of Tyana.  In the recipe sheets of dough made of wheat flour mixed with the juice of crushed lettuce, are flavoured with spices and then deep-fried in oil[9].

An early 5th century AD cookbook describes a dish called lagana that consisted of layers of dough with meat stuffing.  This has given credence to the misleading claim that the ancient Romans ate lasagne.  There is no evidence to link the two dishes and it wold be misleading to do so even though, on the face of it, the two dishes do seem recognisably similar.  Some might claim lagana was the inspiration for the modern-day lasagne, but the ancient method of cooking the sheets of pastry dough (lagana) does not correspond to our modern definition of either a fresh or dry pasta product.  The confusion is easily understood when you consider that both have similar basic ingredients and perhaps a similar shape.

Italian Descent  The first concrete information concerning pasta products in Italy dates from the 13th or 14th century.  Most food historians theorise that the dish probably took hold in Italy as a result of extensive Mediterranean trading in the Middle Ages.  From the 13th century, references to pasta dishes - macaroni, ravioli, gnocchi, vermicelli - crop up with increasing frequency across the Italian peninsula[10].  Dried pasta became popular because of its nutritional value and its long shelf life[11].  Its storage properties became significant in the 14th and 15th centuries when dried pasta was an ideal foodstuff for long ship voyages and the subsequent exploration of the New World[11].  A century later, pasta went global as the European voyages of discovery explored far-flung destinations.  By then different shapes of pasta had appeared and new technology made pasta easier to make. With these innovations pasta truly became a part of Italian life[11].  The next big evolution in its history came about in the 19th century when pasta met tomatoes, but that is another story.

A Conclusion?  So where does all this leave us?  Fundamentally pastas prepared and eaten today are subtly but significantly different to those known in the ancient world.  What seems to have happened more recently is the liberal application of the term "pasta" to any dish, ancient or modern, made with flour and water (or egg).  The conflation is understandable as the use of similar ingredients to produce an unleavened dough does complicate any distinction, but labelling tracta or lagana as "pasta" is misleading.  Likewise, to connect lagana with lasagne is quite wrong.

The significant difference, if we are to be historically accurate, seems to be how these foods were cooked.  Ancient tracta or lagana was fried or used to thicken sauces, while modern pastas tend to be boiled or baked (served with a sauce).  Whether ancient or modern, however, this simple mixture of flour and water has provided a cheap, readily available everyday food for many centuries.  Long may it continue.


1.  Pasta: Etymology, Wikipedia, retrieved May 3rd, 2020.
2.  The fresh pasta available in grocery stores is produced commercially by large-scale machines.
3.  Zanini De Vita, O. (2009), Encyclopedia of Pasta, University of California Press, Berkeley.4.  τρακτὸς, τρακτόν: "dough drawn out or rolled for pastry, Lat. tractum or tracta." Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus, retrieved May 7th, 2020.
5.  Dalby, A, (2003), Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, Routledge, London, s.v. "Pastry" p. 251.
6.  Vehling, J.D. (1936, reprinted 1977), Cookery and dining in imperial Rome, p. 127.
7.  Lacus Curtius, "De Agricultura by Cato the Elder", section 76.
8.  Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 3:79.
9.  11.  Serventi, S. & Sabban, F. (2002), Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food, Columbia University Press, p.16.
10.  López, A. (2016), "The Twisted History of Pasta", National Geographic, retrieved May 7th, 2020.
11.  Demetri, J. (2019), History of Pasta, in Food and Wine.
12. eNnotes, Who invented spaghetti and where was it invented?, retrieved May 7th, 2020.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Roman Placenta Cake

Placenta cake is not what you might at first think.  To the ancient Romans, placenta, like its erstwhile fellow, libum, were cakes made with honey to be used in important religious services.  It should, of course, be remembered that honey took the place of our sugar and given humankind's love of all things sweet, these cakes were probably popular everyday treats.

The Latin placenta is named after the Greek plakous which is often translated as "cheese cake" because the chief ingredients were flour, cheese and honey[1].  The recipe survives to us in section 76 of Marcus Cato the Elder's De Agricultura (On Agriculture)[2], which we have reproduced (left) from the Bill Theyer's translation on his excellent website, Lacus Curtius.  It is worth noting that Cato's recipe makes a half modius cake.  Be warned, a modius is an ancient Roman unit for dry measures equivalent to 8.72 l (8.72 kg; roughly a peck) so this is a seriously big cake!

At a later date we will update this post with a placenta recipe using more practical quantities of ingredients.  We will also add one for libum, just in case you need to win favour with the gods in these trying times.

1.  Dalby, A. (2003), Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, Routledge Press, London, p. 70.
2.  Thayer, W, De Agricultura by Cato the Elder, Lacus Curtius, retrieved May 8th, 2020.