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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

A Brief History of Food: Pizza

Updated: Feb 18

While working in one of our favourite schools, the book ‘Roman Adventure’ (pictured right) was discovered and was instantly intriguing given that Tastes Of History was founded on a passion for Roman history. Written by Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta, it is a slim volume aimed at developing the reading and comprehension skills of primary school children [1]. What drew our attention was the ‘Caesar-like’ character on the front cover who is apparently eating a pizza slice. What the…oh dear! As books like this can be highly influential on children often establish an early understanding of history, and frequently continue to frame adult thinking, the author had to investigate the context further.


The story begins with the two central characters, Biff and Chip, drawing a picture and making a model of a racing chariot for a Roman-themed school project. The latter is visible in the hands the of the girl, Biff, in the cover illustration. So, alongside the ‘pizza’ storyline, a second thread regarding Roman racing chariots also deserved scrutiny. Were readers about to be fed two historical fictions for the price of one?


Romans and their chariots Tastes Of History has briefly covered the subject of Roman chariots in an earlier ‘Dispelling Some Myths’ article debunking the spurious connections (still believed by some) between chariot wheel spacing influencing the gauge of modern railways which, by extension, limited the size of NASA’s space shuttle solid fuel rocket boosters. Feel free to take a moment to read the piece, but the significance to the current discussion centres on how we thought the book was about to depict a Roman racing chariot. The ‘problem’ is that Biff’s model, shown right, is clearly not a racing chariot but one more at home as everyday transport or the type used by successful Roman generals awarded a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. This style of chariot is popularised in films, such as ‘Ben Hur’ (below top left), TV productions, and in recreations of chariot racing intended to entertain modern audiences. Racing chariots, however, were not clunky, heavily built contraptions but lightweight, fast and manoeuvrable gigs as shown in the Roman era mosaic (below top right) and in the Time Team reconstruction (below bottom left and right).


Anyway, returning to the book, the story suddenly catapults Biff and Chip back in time to ancient Rome. The first person they meet is a Roman girl named Diana who is completely at ease with two strangely dressed children suddenly appearing out of nowhere and with whom she can instantly converse. Either Biff and Chip are gifted Latin speakers or Diana is fluent in a language – English – that does not yet exist! Of course, this is not the point as any disbelief was fully suspended with the time travelling plotline and, remember, it is a children’s book. However, what came next was a surprise. Turning the page and our two lead characters are introduced to Diana’s big brother, Mark, who is, conveniently, a chariot driver. Seriously, Messers Hunt and Brychta - ‘Mark’ – why not Marcus, an actual Roman name? Anyway, moving on…Mark shows Biff and Chip his racing chariot which, as illustrated above right, is a pretty accurate representation of the examples we observe in period frescoes and mosaics. So far it’s all looking good.


Pizza Now all the above has been a bit of long-winded preamble to the main topic which concerns ancient Romans and did they or did they not have pizza. In short, the answer is no. At least not in the form that we are familiar with today. Commendably, as shown right, this is clearly established early on in ‘Roman Adventure’ when Biff states ‘Romans didn’t have pizzas.’ However, what then follows undoes all the good work so far.


Leaving chariots and racing behind, Biff and Chip are next introduced to Diana’s parents. Her father, a baker (apparently not a good one), we are told has baked two lots of bread, but it has all failed to rise and consequently he claims ‘nobody will buy [it]’ This is of course another fiction as people have been eating flatbread from the Neolithic period onward, but it is a convenient plot device for Chip to introduce the idea of making pizzas. Various toppings are added to the flatbreads such as cheese, onion, olives and what appears to be slices of salami, all of which are perfectly possible. Unsurprisingly, the pizzas are an instant hit with the family who, after an initial hiccup, successfully sell their new snacks to the spectators at that afternoon’s chariot races. Even the emperor, as shown on the front cover, eventually approves. So, despite stating the Romans did not eat pizza the unfolding story proceeds to undermine the historical facts potentially leaving young readers with the confused message - did ancient Romans eat pizza or not?



The answer to this question was complicated when an image of a Roman period fresco purporting to show a pizza gained traction on social media in June 2023. At the time BBC News reported ‘Archaeologists in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have uncovered a painting which depicts what might be the precursor to the Italian pizza.’ To which the Italian Culture Ministry added that the flatbread depicted in the 2,000-year-old fresco ‘may be a distant ancestor of the modern dish’. The fresco was discovered in the hall of a house next to a bakery during new excavations of Regio IX in the centre of Pompeii nearly 2,000 years on from the volcanic eruption which engulfed the city.


Familiarity breeds… Back in June 2023, Tastes Of History chose not to engage in the back-and-forth debate about whether the Romans ate pizza or not. We were confident that although repeatedly described as such, technically what the fresco depicts lacks the classic ingredients to be considered a pizza. Instead, it would be more correct to say that it simply shows a flatbread apparently loaded with toppings resting on a silver platter alongside a silver goblet of wine. But why do so many modern viewers ‘see’ a pizza? Strangely this is not the first example of Roman-era food being misidentified.


In a related article, we discussed a mosaic floor (pictured right) which is housed in a gallery dedicated to ancient Roman frescoes and mosaics in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome. This particular mosaic dates from the early 1st-century AD and it too also illustrates various foodstuffs. At the top of the scene, a basket of fruit is brimming with figs, grapes, pomegranates, and what many viewers perceive to be a pineapple (circled). We contend that it cannot be a pineapple as the fruit is native to South America and the Romans very definitely did not have contact with a continent so far away across the Atlantic Ocean. However, when we view something novel or unusual our brains tend to decipher the image according to what we already know. So, as in this latest example, for many of us living in Europe or the Americas who are familiar with modern pizzas, then that is what we ‘see’.


Yet, while the fresco might appear to show a ‘pizza’, there are two good reasons why it would be impossible for ancient Romans to make one in the modern sense. Firstly, one key ingredient typically found on today’s pizza is mozzarella cheese. While the Romans had similar cheeses, modern mozzarella is a more recent invention [2]. Much more of a ‘problem’, however, is that in most instances the flatbread forming the pizza base is first topped with a tomato sauce. Inconveniently for the ‘Roman pizza’ theory tomatoes are also native to South America and were not introduced to Europe until the colonization of said Americas. The aforementioned ‘Dispelling Some Myths: Romans in the Americas’ argued, firstly, it was highly unlikely that Roman-era ships were robust enough to cope with a long Atlantic crossing. Secondly, and far more importantly, contemporary accounts by Greek and Roman geographers, historians and commentators make no mention of lands West of Ireland. The likelihood, therefore, of the Romans being even remotely aware that the Americas existed is extremely doubtful. So, if tomatoes were unknown to ancient Romans, then pizza in the modern sense was also unknown.


Focaccia That said, the idea of a pizza-like dish existing in antiquity is not so far-fetched as various ancient cultures are known to have produced flatbreads adding different toppings to them. So, what is more likely depicted on the fresco is something akin to focaccia, a speciality of the Liguria region of Italy, consisting of a flat leavened oven-baked bread topped with olive oil, spices, and other foodstuffs. Focaccia may be served as a side dish or as sandwich bread and may be round, rectangular, or square shape. The basic recipe may well have originated with the Etruscans or Ancient Greeks, but the ancient Romans are known to have had a flatbread cooked in the ashes of a fire and named panis focacius (‘focus’ in Latin meaning a hearth or fireplace). It is from this Latin root that the modern Italian term ‘focaccia’ is clearly derived.


Conclusion? To bring the story up to date, in some present-day places such as Rome itself, focaccia is considered a style of pizza. As it has no tomato sauce base, it is known as pizza bianca (lit. 'white pizza') and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that something similar is depicted in the Pompeii fresco. Regardless, our modern-day pizzas evolved from flatbreads with various toppings on a tomato sauce that were first originating in Naples no earlier than the 18th or early 19th century. From their creation the eating of pizza was restricted to Central and Southern Italy until Italian emigrants to the USA and other European countries spread pizza ever further afield. Since then its popularity has risen dramatically along with the multitudinous variety of toppings and a diversity of styles. Now one can enjoy an original, classic thin crust Neapolitan (Marinara or Margharita), a Sicilian or ‘sfincione’ (‘thick sponge’) with its thick, extra fluffy crust and crunchy exterior, a Roman-style pizza that to this day resembles focaccia, a Chicago-style deep dish or one of numerous other American pizza variations, French sweet or savoury pizzas such as the Provençale or spicy Puttanesca, and Spanish versions topped with traditional local ingredients (Dumitru, 2022). From antiquity to the present-day, flatbreads have been topped with whatever is available or whatever takes your fancy. Thin crust, thick crust, fluffy or crunchy, with a couple of toppings or piled high with them, worldwide we simply love eating pizza. Bon appétit!



 

References:


Dumitru, I.C., (2022), ‘The Atlas of Pizza: 23 Types of Pizza (With Pictures!)’, Chef’s Pencil, Available online (accessed February 4th, 2024).


Gregory, J. (2023), ‘Pompeii archaeologists discover 'pizza' painting’, BBC News, Available online (accessed February 2nd, 2024).


Italian National Tourist Board North America (1998-2013), ‘Italian bread (archive.org)’, Available online (accessed February 2nd, 2024).


Muzdakis, M. (2023), ‘Archeologists Discover ”Pizza” in an Ancient Pompeii Mural’, My Modern Met, Available online (accessed February 2nd, 2024).


Endnotes:


1. For readers outside the UK, primary schooling in state funded schools begins in Year One when most children are aged five to six and ends in Year Six when most children are aged ten to eleven. This period is divided into Key Stage 1 (KS1) for Year 1 (ages 5 to 6) and Year 2 (ages 6 to 7) and Key Stage 2 (KS2) covering Years 3 to 6 (ages 7 to 11). To confuse matters further, ‘Infant Schools’ add an Early Years element to KS1 for nursery (or pre-school) children aged 3 to 4 and reception (or foundation) children aged 4 to 5. In this scenario KS2 children often attend an adjacent or nearby ‘Junior School’. For a more explanation, click here.


2. Mozzarella is the Southern Italian diminutive form of mozza (‘cut’), or mozzare (‘to cut off’), derived from the method of producing the cheese. The earliest use of the word is in a 1570 cookbook by Bartolomeo Scappi who writes of ‘milk cream, fresh butter, ricotta cheese, fresh mozzarella and milk’. Reference to 12th century pilgrims to the Monastery of Saint Lorenzo, in Capua, Campania being offered a piece of bread with ‘mozza’ may date the term even earlier. Either way, mozzarella is not attested in the ancient Roman period.


3. From the archaeological record it is true that sometimes shields were made of metal, in which cooking on or in them would be theoretically feasible. For the most part, however, shields of wood or animal hide construction were much more common. In some instances, for example the ancient Greek aspis, an outer covering of thin bronze might be affixed to reinforce a wooden core. Current thinking generally asserts that the surviving examples of metal shields are more likely ceremonial rather than practical. Examples of these include the Yetholm-type shields of the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age Battersea shield on display in the British Museum, with a replica in the Museum of London. The latter, however, is more correctly a sheet bronze, decorated in La Tène style, that once covered a (now vanished) wooden, rectilinear shield (cf. the earlier aforementioned Greek aspis).

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