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D - 49: Bread for the Romans, Low Gluten Pasta for Us

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

In one of my 2018 blogs I talked about the logistics of feeding ancient Rome and reached the conclusion that it needed about 365’000 tons of wheat a year. Since then, I found a few articles from other researchers which put the number between 150’000 – 237’000 tons. Their numbers are based on the consumption of 600g of bread per day whilst I used one kilo. But we are on the same magnitude. The logistic needed for supplying Rome was challenging. An average cargo ship could carry about 300 tons. It would thus take 500 – 800 ships to transport all that wheat.

A small Roman Grain Ship being loaded – big ones had three masts

During the reign of Augustus, it was said that wheat from Egypt would feed Rome for 8 months. The other four months were covered by Carthage, Libya, Sardinia and Sicily which gets us to today’s topic. Sicily was ideal for growing Durum wheat, the hard, high quality cereal that we already encountered in Sardinia and Tunisia. The rolling hills of central Sicily drain well, allow for large fields, there is enough rain during winter, spring and fall, the volcanic soil is fertile and the summers hot. Sicily was and is an agricultural paradise!

When reading textbooks or research papers on the Punic Wars, I always wondered why people wrote that the Romans conquered Sicily for its wheat supply. The statement that Sicily produced much more wheat than it needed is definitely correct. Also, that Durum wheat was of high quality and easily storable. But I never found a convincing answer to the question why the Romans needed so much wheat at the time of conquest.

The three Punic Wars were fought from 264 – 241, 218 - 201 and 149 – 146 BC. Only the first war was fought in Sicily which Rome annexed in 241 BC. The second one was mainly fought on the Italian Peninsula and in Spain. The third one primarily on Carthage’s territory in North Africa. The Romans thus controlled Sicily’s wheat production from 241 BC on. Assuming that the island suffered severely from 25 years of war and needed to be rebuilt, full wheat production could have resumed by 220 BC – give or take.

Durum field in central Sicily

The Cura Annonae, the distribution of wheat to Rome’s population, did only start in 123 BC. At first, subsidized wheat was given to 40’000 poor citizens. Only by 58 BC was the number of recipients expanded and wheat handed out free. Not surprisingly, the number of recipients grew to 320’000 before Julius Caesar cut it back to 150’000. Maybe another reasons why he was murdered? At the time of Emperor Augustus, the number stabilized at around 200’000 recipients and stayed at this level for the next few centuries. The Cura Annonae thus cannot have been the reason why the Romans wanted Sicily. For more than 150 years they would not need the wheat.

Roman Legion Deployed in Cohorts on a Battlefield

Or did they use it to supply the Roman Legions? Let’s have a look at the numbers. During the Punic Wars, the Roman Army consisted of 4 Legions of 5’000 Legionnaires each (2 Legions per Consul) and 4 allied armies of similar size. If each of these soldiers consumed 1 kg of wheat a day then the annual tonnage would reach almost 15’000 tons. Do not have access to any production statistics but the number sounds about right when compared to Rome’s consumption. But there is a catch. The Roman Army was based on levies. When there was not war, the army was not on duty. Am sure they kept a considerable amount of wheat as a strategic reserve but that still does not explain what the Romans did with all the wheat from Sicily.

When Rome became an Empire and established a standing army, the situation changed. Under Emperor Augustus Rome had about 25 Legions (125’000 Legionnaires) and more or less the same number of secondary troops in 250 Auxiliary Regiments. Using above calculation again, an army of that size would consume about 92’000 tons of wheat a year. Almost a third of the Rome, the Imperial Capital.

After much research on this blog, I still do not have the answer as to why the Romans wanted Sicily. Maybe it had nothing to do with grain but more with big power politics? Carthage was a global sea power and Rome a upcoming land power. A good subject for another blog. What we know is that during the Empire, Sicily was one of Rome’s main breadbaskets. But history should not be written with the benefit of hindsight.

Byzantium in 650 AD, having just lost Egypt – its breadbasket – in 642 AD to the Arabs

Sicily maintained its role of agricultural powerhouse over many centuries after the fall of the Western Rome (473 AD). By 650 AD, after the loss of Egypt to the Arabs, the Island was so important that the Byzantine Emperor Constans II planned to move his capital from Constantinople to Syracuse. But he was murdered before he could execute his plan. Sicily and to a lesser degree the Crimea where now the only places which could supply Byzantium with wheat on a large scale.

I could not find out how Sicily’s agriculture was going during the two and a half centuries of Arab rule (827 – 1091) but under the Norman kings (1038 – 1282) who were on good commercial terms with their Arab neighbours it was exporting wheat again, primarily Durum to the Muslim states in North Africa. They had armies to feed and gold to pay.

When Sicily came under Spanish rule the export business came to an end, however. Sicily was on the front line against the Ottoman Empire. Doing business with the arch enemy was strictly forbidden. The Spanish fortified the island heavily and it became dependent on Spanish subsidies. The many fortifications on the island are silent witnesses of that time. Sicily ceased to be a grain exporter.

Durum, the ancient low gluten wheat

Whilst Sicily lost its role as a major grain exporter, it never lost its agricultural knowhow. With almost perfect timing, a few young millers and farmers are revitalizing traditional wheat farming. Durum is much lower in gluten than modern, modified wheat and can usually be consumed by customers who have a mild or medium gluten intolerance. Of course, Durum takes more space and is more expensive to cultivate but it may open the door again to a new future for Sicily – producing healthy, low gluten wheat, pasta and bread.

When we finally arrive on the island after four weeks of sailing, we will actually see how important pasta is to the local cuisine - tomorrow’s blog subject. By the way, the young Durum enthusiast proofed that the ancient wheat does not only make good bread but also very delicious pasta!

Making pasta with ancient Durum wheat

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