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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Dispelling Some Myths: Roman Cheshire Cheese

Updated: Feb 17


The BBC’s Bargain Hunt has struck again. On this occasion the claim was made that Cheshire cheese was made by the Romans. That was news to us who for long enough have understood that we do not have evidence for specific cheeses from the Roman Iron Age. In fact we are only aware of one ‘recipe’, such that it is, described in a poem called ‘Moretum where a farmer makes a garlic infused cheese. As we have said before, we really love the show but whoever does the research for their historical interest pieces needs to check their facts before viewers risk being misled by incorrect information, uncorroborated claims, and dodgy history. So, in keeping with our ‘Dispelling Some Myths’ series we set about trying to discover where this link between the Romans and Cheshire cheese originated. A web search quickly revealed that the connection appears on several cheese related websites from which the Bargain Hunt researchers probably got the idea. We have focused on just two examples with the aim of dissecting the claims to determine or not their validity and dispel any myths.


One possible ‘patient zero’ might be the ‘Academy of Cheese’ website. It has a fledgling online record of heritage cheeses that the authors hope ‘will ultimately incorporate historic photographs, documentation and audio-visual files of the people, places and equipment that have impacted the development of the UK’s most notable cheeses over the decades.’ With this in mind the entry for Cheshire cheese states:

‘One of the oldest cheese produced in the United Kingdom, Cheshire cheese has seen its popularity grow over the centuries. From when it was first produced in Roman Chester, Cheshire varieties found success throughout the North West as well as London.’



Sadly, as is so often the case, no evidence is presented to back up the connection between cheese-making, Chester and the Romans. Regardless, as the history of each heritage cheese on the Academy of Cheese website was very much ‘a work in progress’ we looked for another possible source. Quite quickly a similar claim was found being made by The Gourmet Cheese Detective as shown right, which helpfully adds a little more information. According to the website’s author(s), Cheshire cheese is ‘the oldest cheese made in Britain’ which is a bit of a stretch given that although we have evidence for cheese-making from the Neolithic period onward, we do not know what types of cheese people were making - fresh or matured, hard or soft. Perhaps the subtitle should read ‘the oldest named cheese made in Britain’ as many other sources maintain (see below, for example, the website entry by Nantwich Museum).



Pedantry aside, our interest was piqued by The Gourmet Cheese Detective’s claim that Cheshire cheese ‘was already manufactured when Caesar conquered Britain’ because there are several reasons to be sceptical of this assertion. Before we dissect the text, one key observation to note is that no sources or references are provided for any online claims for Roman origin stories which makes it much harder to verify such assertions. As far as The Gourmet Cheese Detective entry is concerned, our first question was to which Caesar are they referring?


Ave Caesar! One might assume it is an oblique reference to the most well-known Roman with links to Britain, Gaius Julius Caesar. If so, then this is a major mistake since, quite simply, he did not ‘conquer’ these isles. During his own account of his conquest of Gaul, Caesar tells us that, having subdued two Gallic tribes, in the late summer of 55 BC he crossed into Britain because the Britons had aided one of his enemies the previous year (possibly the Veneti of Brittany). However his knowledge of Britain was poor and although he gained a beachhead on the coast, he could not advance further. According to his own account, Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō (Commentaries on the Gallic War), he did raid out from his beachhead and destroyed some villages before returning to Gaul for the winter. The following year, 54 BC, Caesar returned better prepared and with a larger force, and apparently achieved more. His troops advanced inland and established a few alliances before poor harvests led to a widespread revolt in Gaul that forced Caesar to leave an unconquered Britain. He never returned. So, if not Gaius Julius Caesar, then who?


The Roman conquest of Britain is widely accepted as beginning in AD 43 during the reign of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, more commonly known as the Emperor Claudius. It is significant that, by this time, his formal name contained the honorific titles ‘Caesar’ and ‘Augustus’ used by all Roman emperors. In this instance Claudius adopted the name ‘Caesar’ as a cognomen (surname) as it still carried great weight with the populace in remembrance of the divine Julius. He also adopted the name ‘Augustus’ as the two previous emperors had done at their accessions [1]. What this means is that ‘Caesar’ became synonymous and used interchangeably with the title Imperator (‘emperor’) [2]. Yet there’s still a problem. Claudius died in AD 54 by which time Chester was not yet a Roman town. In fact, a settlement may not have existed at all. The precise date of the first occupation by the Roman army of the site that would eventually become Chester remains uncertain. Contact with Romans presumably increased greatly after Claudius' invasion in AD 43. Moreover, at his death twelve years later, elements of the Roman army had probably arrived in the area as part of their campaigns against the tribes of Ordovices and Deceangli in central and northern Wales and the Brigantes north and east of Cheshire.


The ‘walled city’ Returning to The Gourmet Cheese Detective, the website entry also states there is a ‘tradition’ that ‘the Romans built the walled city of Chester to control the district where the precious cheese was made’. The first part, that the Romans established the site that would become the walled city of Chester, can be substantiated historically and archaeologically. As to the ‘precious cheese’ claim, we will return to that shortly.

In AD 71 the new Roman governor of Britannia, Quintus Petillius Cerialis [3], arrived in the province accompanied by Legio II Adiutrix [4]. This legion founded what would become a substantial fortress named Deva Victrix in the land of the Cornovii tribe sometime around AD 74 or AD 75. Said fortress was almost certainly intended to dominate and control the surrounding territory, but its purpose was also to support Roman expansion northward and westward [5]. The fortress was named Deva possibly after the goddess of the river Dee or directly from the local British name for the river. The 'victrix' part of the name, meaning ‘victorious’, was taken from the title of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix who were based at Deva from about AD 90.


In keeping with standard Roman army practices, the fortress was initially defended by an earth rampart surmounted by a wooden palisade and surrounded by a ditch with a sharp V-shaped profile. When the fortress was occupied by Legio XX Valeria Victrix, a programme of rebuilding began that included improvements to the fortress’ defensive walls. Starting in about AD 100 the earthen rampart and wooden palisade were reconstructed using locally quarried sandstone. However, it seems the rebuilding of the walls was abandoned in the early part of the 2nd century, perhaps with the walls incomplete, and was not finished until over 100 years later. Regardless, the stone walls were maintained throughout the Roman occupation, with major repairs undertaken later in the 4th century. We also know that a civilian settlement (canabae legionis) grew around the fortress, probably starting as a group of traders and their families who were profiting from trade with the army and its soldiers. It is from these early beginnings that today’s city of Chester [6] would grow, but at no point is there any suggestion that any ‘precious cheese’ needed the army’s protection; the fortress’ walls were simply a military expedient. In other words, the Roman army did not build the ‘walled city of Chester’, but the walls of their original fortress would, much later after the legions had left, be retained and go on to define part of the developing town of Chester. So, we do have evidence that the Romans did indeed build a fortress with defensive walls according to their army’s normal practice. Such a fortress would indeed have been a base of operations ‘to control the district’, as The Gourmet Cheese Detective writes, but what about the idea that this was ‘where the precious cheese was made’? What evidence is there that, specifically, ‘Cheshire’ cheese was first made in or around Chester in the Roman Iron Age?


Cheese history Cheese-making has a long history but currently there is no conclusive evidence for where the practice originated. It may possibly have been Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, or the Sahara [7]. Likewise, precisely when humans first began cheese-making is not known, although archaeology has provided some of the best dating evidence for its origin, which we included in ‘A Brief History of Foods: Cheese’. From the archaeological record we can be confident that our prehistoric ancestors made cheese, but we cannot know with any degree of certainty what cheeses they made. It is presumed that the earliest cheeses were most likely soft versions recognisably similar to cottage cheese. We also know that ancient Greeks and Romans brined cheese, so a form of feta also might be assumed.


Etymology ‘Cheese was made throughout western and central Europe long before the Roman Empire; but we can know little about it’ (Dalby, 2009, 44). However, for those modern countries that were once part of the Empire - Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and Italy - their history of cheese-making probably began with the Romans. The general names for cheese in the Romance languages are derived from Latin caseus (e.g. queijo, queso, cacio, cas, etc.) or from a later Latin word forma meaning a cheese mould and by extension any cheese shaped in such a mould (fourme, fromage, formagio) (Dalby, 2009, 45). In the northern reaches of the Empire the name for cheese was also influenced by Latin caseus (Irish cāise, Welsh caws, English cheese, Dutch kaas, German Kāse). Of note to the current discourse is that, according to Dalby, our Roman sources confirm these countries were producing cheese before and during the Roman Iron Age. What the contemporary sources do not record are any cheeses that we can confidently identify as surviving over the centuries. There are some vague parallels (soft ‘cottage-like’ cheese, feta-style or harder parmesan-like versions), but nothing definitive. Unfortunately, the recorded history of cheese does not begin until the Middle Ages (Dalby, 2009, 45), which means we cannot prove the Romans were at all influential in either developing or indeed first making a type of cheese in the province of Britannia that is now known as ‘Cheshire’.


Oldest named cheese Despite all that has been written so far, Cheshire cheese remains one of the oldest recorded named cheeses in British history. It is first mentioned, along with a Shropshire cheese, by Thomas Muffet in Health's Improvement c. 1580. Furthermore, according to the ‘History Of Cheshire Cheese’ by the British Cheese Board, Cheshire cheese was first recorded in William Camden's Britannia of 1586 [8] which stated it was ‘more agreeable and better relished than those of other parts of the kingdom’. The 1637 edition refers to cheese-making in Cheshire: ‘...the grasse and fodder there is of that goodness and vertue that the cheeses bee made heere in great number of a most pleasing and delicate taste, such as all England againe affordeth not the like; no, though the best dairy women otherwise and skilfullest in cheesemaking be had from hence.’ Praise indeed.

Cheshire became the most popular type of cheese on the market in the late 18th century. In 1758 the Royal Navy ordered ships be stocked with Cheshire and Gloucester cheeses to replace the thin, hard, durable, but practically inedible, Suffolk Cheese it had up to then issued (Miggins, 2002). Until the late 19th century, the different varieties of Cheshire cheeses were aged to a sufficient level of hardness to withstand the rigours of transport (by horse and cart, and later by boat) to London for sale. However, a younger, fresher, crumbly cheese, similar to that of today, which required shorter maturation began to gain popularity towards the end of the 19th century, particularly in the industrial areas in the North and the Midlands. It was a cheaper cheese to make as it required less storage.


‘First produced in Roman Chester’ All of the available evidence strongly argues against the notion that the Romans were the first to produce what is now known as Cheshire cheese whether in Chester or not. In summary, here is why.


First produced…’ We have proof for cheese-making from the Neolithic period onward, but we can only presume this was the case in Britain without stronger supporting evidence. We cannot identify particular types of cheese such as Cheshire, however. More importantly, the Gourmet Cheese Detective claims Cheshire cheese ‘was already produced when Caesar conquered Britain’ and thus it could not be ‘first produced in Roman Chester’. As for ‘…in Roman Chester’, well that is true-ish. Over centuries the Roman army’s fortress of Deva Victrix would eventually become the modern city of Chester. The very name of the city is derived from Latin castrum meaning a military camp or fort [6]. Thus, we can confidently connect the Romans to Chester, and now we think we see how this myth has been crafted. Cheshire is a particular variety of cheese that has been produced for decades in the county of the same name. Cheshire’s county town is Chester and Chester would not have existed had it not been for the Romans who, as we are now aware, like many other people since the Neolithic period made and ate cheese. Quod erat demonstrandum [9]: the Romans first made Cheshire cheese.


Hopefully we have shown how this connection is a fallacy - a myth to be dispelled, if you will. Most importantly, we must stress that no offence is intended to either the popular BBC television programme or the websites critiqued above. Rather we hope that by challenging the quoted statements regarding Cheshire cheese’s origin, we have revealed some of the history that you, the reader, were perhaps unaware. And none of this should detract from the fact that Cheshire cheese is a tasty addition to any cheeseboard.

 

References:


Academy of Cheese, (2022), ‘Cheshire: History’, Available online (accessed January 1st, 2023).


BBC (2005), Timewatch: ‘Britain's Lost Colosseum’, first broadcast May 20th, 2005.


British Cheese Board (2016), ‘History Of Cheshire Cheese’, Available online (accessed January 31st, 2023).


Caesar, G.J, Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō (Commentaries on the Gallic War), Book IV, Chapter 33, Loeb Classical Library (1917), Available online from LacusCurtius.


Dalby, A. (2009), ‘Cheese: A Global History’, London: Reaktion Books.


Dalby, A. (2003), ‘Food in the Ancient World from A to Z’, London: Routledge.


The Gourmet Cheese Detective, (2011-2023), ‘Cheshire Cheese’, Available online (accessed January 1st, 2023).


Miggins, J. (2002), ‘Nelson and His Navy - Cheese and the Navy’, The Historical Maritime Society, Available online (accessed January 31st, 2023).


Nantwich Museum, (2023), ‘Cheshire Cheese’, Available online (accessed January 1st, 2023).


Publius Cornelius Tacitus, (AD 98), De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (‘On the life and character of Julius Agricola’), 24 (trans here).


Endnotes:


1. Augustus (plural Augusti), meaning ‘majestic’, ‘great’ or ‘venerable’. was an ancient Roman title given as both name and title to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (often referred to simply as Augustus), Rome's first Emperor. On his death, it became an official title of his successor, and was so used by Roman emperors thereafter.


2. The Latin word imperator derives from the stem of the verb imperare, meaning 'to order, to command'. During the Roman Republic it was first used as a title roughly equivalent to ‘commander’ conferred on a victorious general. Later it became a part of the titles adopted by the Roman Emperors as part of their cognomen. The English word ‘emperor’ derives from imperator via Old French: Empereür.


3. In AD 71, Quintus Petillius Cerialis Caesius Rufus (c. AD 30 - after AD 83), otherwise known as Quintus Petillius Cerialis, was appointed governor of Roman Britain and bought Legio II Adiutrix with him to the province.


4. Legio II Adiutrix (‘Second Legion, the Rescuer’), was founded in AD 70 by Emperor Vespasian (r. AD 69 to AD 79). It was originally composed of Roman navy marines of the classis Ravennatis (the ‘Roman fleet based at Ravenna).


5. Deva Victirx was 20% larger than the fortresses of Eboracum (York) - later capital of Britannia Inferior - and Isca Augusta (Caerleon). Its size and a unique elliptical building have fuelled speculation that Deva Victrix may have been the governor (Legatus Augusti pro praetore) Gnaeus Julius Agricola's administrative headquarters - in effect the provincial capital of Britannia (BBC, 2005). Moreover, the presence of Deva Victrix‘s port on the river Dee which grants access to the Irish Sea suggests, as Tacitus records in De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (‘On the life and character of Julius Agricola’), that the Governor had plans to conquer Ireland (Hibernia).


6. The English place-name Chester, and the suffixes -chester, -caster and -cester (old -ceaster), are commonly indications that the place is the site of a Roman castrum, meaning a military camp or fort (cf. Welsh caer), or the site of a pre-historic ‘fort’.


7. Wikipedia, History of cheese, retrieved August 10th, 2020.


8. William Camden was an English antiquarian, historian, topographer, herald and author of Britannia, the first chorographical survey of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. Originally published in Latin in 1586 the work was subsequently enlarged and revised before being translated into English by P Holland in 1616.


9. Quod erat demonstrandum or QED from Latin meaning ‘what was to be demonstrated’ is used to indicate that a mathematical proof or philosophical argument is complete. But you knew that, right?

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