Bread was the staple food of the ancient Greek and Roman diet. It could be made from a variety of grains, but when grain supplies ran short, famine often resulted. The importance that ancient people gave to eating bread has come down to us in the word companion, derived from the Latin words com and panis, meaning “one with whom one breaks bread.”
The early Greeks used barley to make bread, preparing a flat cake called maza. Although barley produced an inferior bread, the grain produced high yields in the thin, rocky soil of Greece. Many Greeks—especially poor people and slaves—relied on barley bread. The Spartans fed barley bread to their army, and a popular saying of the time declared that “a barley cake is the next best thing to a loaf.” By the 300s B.C., wheat bread replaced bread made from barley. Wheat bread was tastier, more nutritious, and easier to digest than barley bread.
The Romans used several different varieties of wheat to make their bread. The early wheat breads were made from a grain called emmer and were shaped into cakes. In the days of the Roman Republic* and then during the Roman Empire, a softer wheat—which made a better quality loaf— gradually replaced emmer.
The process for making bread started with milling the grain to separate the kernel from the husk. The kernels were ground and passed through sieves, refining the grain further and producing flour. The baker added water and leavening agents to the flour, which caused the dough to rise. The dough was then kneaded and allowed to rise again. Finally, the dough was placed on leaves or tiles and baked in a low hearth or a wall oven.
The color, taste, and texture of bread varied from region to region and from class to class. In Roman times, poor people ate dark, gritty bread. This rough-textured bread might contain bits of husk, or sometimes even particles of dust from the millstones used to grind the flour. The upper classes ate lighter, more refined loaves. While women generally made bread at home for their families, many Roman cities had bakeries that produced loaves for sale to the public.
The failure of a wheat crop often led to famine. When wheat ran out, the ancient Greeks and Romans sometimes used chestnuts to make bread. The Greek historian Xenophon wrote about a group of Greek soldiers who found a hoard of chestnuts in Armenia and baked them into loaves. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Famine; Food and Drink.)
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials