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  • hbanziger

B - 21 : Where Was the Roman Bread From?

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

When we travelled as young studente to Rome, my then girlfriend and me had of course no money. We had to put up our little tent on a camping ground near Ostia, Rome’s main port in antiquity. Walking around its ruins, we were stunned by the harbour's sheer size and the fact that the port area mostly consists of granaries.

Roman bread stall from a fresco in Pompei

Little did we know that we were looking at the remains of the greates trade in antiquity. To please and pacify the 1 million people living in Rome, the Roman Emperors followed the policy of “Pane et Circenses” or “Bread and Games”. Bread was handed out for free in bread stalls as shown above.

Assuming one person consumed 1 kilo bread per day (given that it was the staple food), one reaches the staggering number of 1’000 tons of bread consumed per day or 365’000 tons per year. How did all this wheat get to Rome and where was it produced?

Typical Roman grain ship 27 m long with a cargo capacity of 300 tons

The answer is straight forward - of course. The only way such large quantities could be transported in antiquity was by sea - hence the giant port of Ostia where all these goodies arrived. Let’s do a little math. To produce 1 kilo of bread one needs a bit more than 0.8 kg of wheat - the rest is water. The production of 365'000 tons of bread would thus require 292'000 tons of wheat - to make it simpler let's say 300'000t/p.a. If the above Roman ship which is about the size of our Carpe Diem V could transport a cargo of 300 tons, it would take 1’000 ships for the 300’000 tons. Luckily, there were two harvests in the Mediterranean per year thus the number would drop to 500 grain ships if they could do a return journey in 3 months. The sailing season was limited from May to September so this is already tight but still possible - with the prevailing northern winds it takes 14 days to sail from Rome to Alexandria.

Roman fresco from Pompei showing a small grain ship - definitely can not take 300 tons'1

And that is exactly how it was. Rome’s main grain supply came from Egypt and southern Sicily. The journey back took about two months since the ships had to follow the coast lines to use the thermal wind system to get back. The grain ships had to sail first straight north along Israel and Phoenicia, then follow the coast of Anatolia before rouding the Peloponnes and Apulia to return to Ostia. But a roundtrip within three months was possible.

Were we sailing 2’000 years ago we would meet all these ships crossing our path - the staggering number of 500 per season. In the ports we stop on our journey, we would meet sailors from all over the Roman Empire - all busy with transporting grain and other luxury goods westwards. Would it not be interesting to listen to their tales?

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