Eat Your Barley! Whole Grains and Gladiators

Humble barley and oats generally give way to wheat berries, lentils, and chickpeas as principal ingredients in modern recipes calling for grains and legumes. But the Italian “farro” grains emmer and spelt were staples of Roman legionnaires who made nutritious soups from the cracked kernels and likely spread it and other Roman varieties throughout the empire. The Latin term “gladiators,” hordearii, literally means “barley eaters” since they subsisted on high energy foods like barley, oatmeal, and legumes. Roman legionaries were routinely outfitted with sickles in order to procure their livelihood throughout the far flung empire, and probably used them more often that their weapons. The helical frieze on Trajan’s Column in Rome (c. 110 AD) features a dynamic group scene of soldiers in full uniform harvesting waist-high grain with prodigious heads. (The English word “harvest” is derived from German Herbst (autumn), which descends from a root shared by Latin carp- [“to gather”] and Greek karpos [“fruit”]. “Harvest” in the sense of reaping grain and other crops came into vernacular use during the medieval era of Middle English. Likely due to the light color of a wheat kernel’s interior endosperm, the word “wheat” in many European languages meant “white,” as with Old English whete, Welsh gwenith, and German weizzi.).

Ceres and the Muses as Patron of Science the Arts (c. 150 AD) Roman marble sarcophagus panel State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Ceres and the Muses as Patron of Science the Arts (c. 150 AD)
Roman marble sarcophagus panel
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Roman poet Virgil’s epic Georgics (c. 30 BC, from a Greek term meaning “farmer” or “agriculturalist”) carries the passionate message that human culture is inextricably bound to the culture of the soil. The influence of Virgil’s eighth century BC Greek predecessors Homer and Hesiod is apparent in the poem through which Virgil (70-19 BC) hoped to stir his countrymen to properly tend land and livestock for the wellbeing of Rome and the empire. Hesiod’s didactic Works and Days had been a masterful poetic admixture of practical farmer’s almanac with ethical maxims and superstitious sayings intended to benefit an indigent brother. The descriptions were rich with depictions of everyday country life that shed light on a vast array of ancient trivia ranging from agrarian diets (“eight-slice wheat loaf” and “barley bread made with milk”) to harvest labors (“sharpen your sickles, …exhausting summertime has come”).

A native of Italy’s fertile Po valley, Virgil knew first-hand the challenges of Sabine peasant life known by the region’s small landholders (colonui) as well as the realm of responsibly managed and intensively farmed villa estates. The meter of his poetry, as with Hesiod and Homer and like most other substantial works in Greek and Latin, is dactylic hexameter but his hymns display a perfection of image and style unprecedented in ancient literature. The Georgics’ opening line makes clear one of his principal themes—“What makes the grainfield smile…,” followed by a wondrous narration of forces—both natural and supernatural, that influence annual harvests. Although a hard-working farmer can contend with choking weeds, granary mice, and to some extent drought, Virgil also tells of destructive winds and rain, and plundering armies that are beyond any conscientious laborer’s control. But the Georgics is no pastoral lauding the life of contemplation. Pastoralism in art, and to greater extent in Virgil’s Eclogues, is generally characterized by idealized natural settings devoid of laborers, or at most showing herders who passively oversee livestock. A rural idyll similarly expresses such experience through a short story or poem. Virgil, however, seeks through his own deep acquaintance with the countryside, crops, and convulsions of Roman Republic politics to relate the heroic virtues of diligence and frugality against the vagaries of private life and public affairs.