Bread in Pompeii and the ovens of the ancient Romans

by Luisa Ramaglia

It is now known that the ancient Romans they were very early risers, but in particular the unmistakable scent of freshly baked bread in Pompeii awoke the citizens ... 

The Roman bakeries: the Casa del Forno

The ancient ovens present in Roman cities were not very different from those of today. Rather, they consisted of two parts: a combustion chamber, where the burning wood was clearly distinguished, and the cooking chamber, where loaves were usually cooked, made up of bricks arranged in a vortex, in order to create a perfect dome.

In short, they were very similar to our typical pizzerias with wood ovens, but with a few differences: two mules they revolved around millstones of volcanic stone. Similar to large black hourglasses, they consisted of a conical stone (half) and another quarry (catillus). But how did it work? Handfuls of wheat grains were dropped into the top of the catillus, which went to slip into the space between the two turning stones, which, rubbing together, minced the grains to obtain flour. Even today the remains can be seen in the Casa Del Forno in Pompeii.

A typical Roman oven


From Latin far (i.e. spelled), the flour came out of the millstones and was collected with great care by the slave-workers, who passed it through a sieve (circulating a very fine flour powder in the air) to separate it from the fragments of the shell of the chopped grains . It was then processed in a side room next to the ovens, where slaves mixed it with water and yeast in vessels made of stone.

It was certainly hard work, but they didn't do it alone: they were helped by some sort of kneading machine moved by the strength of man, who was turned to work the dough in the best possible way. This saved time and effort, but above all the production of bread increased dramatically. At this point, the dough was left to rest for many hours covered with a cloth, before resuming its processing, giving life to real loaves that were arranged along a wooden table, which is the most classic of modern showcases. 

The difference between the bread of those times and the current one is that the former was often spiced; the analogy, on the other hand, was that even the ancient bakers made the crust slightly crunchy thanks to a little trick: next to the ovens there were always containers of water, one to cool the tools and the other to sprinkle a little on the loaves of bread halfway through cooking, in such a way as to brown and harden later.

Another characteristic of bread in ancient times was that the stone mills used to chop the grain released tiny fragments, which ended up consuming and ruining the teeth. This did not happen in Pompeii, because the lava stone used to make the millstones was so hard that it did not release any small pieces. 

The famous baker house, where bread was prepared in Pompeii

Free distribution of bread in Pompeii

Bread in Pompeii was a fundamental food especially for the poor. According to some statistics, it constituted the 80% of the diet in the lower classes and this is probably the reason why, in times of elections or famine, it was distributed for free. Regarding this, there is a famous Pompeian fresco that portrays a man with a long white tunic sitting on a counter, in the midst of many loaves of bread and extends one to two men and a child.

According to many scholars, it is a baker who sells bread, but others say that it could very well be an electoral candidate or a high authority of Pompeii who gives bread to the needy. The customers' clothes recall the winter period, a time when free distribution was most in demand.

Famous Pompeian fresco

A wide range of breads

Looking at the fresco, you can see different varieties of bread in Pompeii: in fact the Roman bakers made at least ten types and there were already biscuits for dogs. A wide choice, not only in size, but also in flour. There was white bread for the rich and black bread for the slaves and the poor, which contained the scraps left in the sieve. It is practically our wholemeal bread that today is also recommended for health, but at the time it was seen as a poor quality food and for this reason defined of last flour.

And there were different types of bread also depending on the ingredients, such as barley or millet. On the counters you could also find small loaves of must, the bread of Picenum, which was dipped in milk, or again, several bakers were able to sell bread clibanicus, a sort of brioche from the Roman era.

The temptation to try them still today is really strong ...

Finding of a loaf of bread with the engraving of a baker

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