Dispelling Some Myths: Romans in the Americas
The mosaic floor pictured (right) is housed in a gallery dedicated to ancient Roman frescoes and mosaics on the second floor of the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Roma. It dates from the early 1st-century AD and illustrates various food items. At the top of the scene, a basket of fruit is brimming with figs, grapes, pomegranates, and the object circled. Some viewers see a pineapple and this has led others to postulate that it is clear evidence that the ancient Romans had contact with South America (Metatron, 2022). But this ‘theory’ is wrong on so many levels that we felt it deserved the ‘Dispelling Some Myths’ treatment.
Familiarity breeds… First off, let us deal with the simplest explanation of what viewers are seeing. How we perceive the world is heavily influenced by our experiences of it. When we view something novel or unusual our brains tend to decipher the image according to what we already know. So, for many of us living in the Americas and Europe. Having made their way to England in the 17th-century, by the 18th-century pineapples were the country's must-have accessory gracing the tables of the very richest aristocrats' social gatherings. They were such a rare, desirable item that the scaly, sweet fruit was too valuable to eat - a single pineapple was worth thousands of pounds and often the same one would be paraded from event to event until it eventually went rotten. In time a ‘roaring trade in pineapple rental developed, where ambitious but less well-off folk might hire one for a special event, dinner party or even just to jauntily tuck under an arm on a show-off stroll’ (Bell, 2020).
Until quite recently pineapples were rare, beautiful fruit most people had never encountered. Then artists began incorporating pineapples in their work, whether depicted in a painting or elegantly carved into wooden furniture. Today, with a truly global trade, it is now common to find pineapples in your local grocery store. For most modern viewers of the mosaic what they see therefore is a pineapple because from familiarity that is what they recognise. But the introduction of pineapples to Europe post-dates the Roman period by several centuries so how could the mosaicist have pictured pineapples?
Baffling? In her blog ‘Mystery in an Ancient Mosaic’, Rome tour guide Katie Farrar comments that the ‘presence of this tropical fruit (Ananas comosus) has baffled historians because the plant is indigenous to South America and wasn’t brought to Europe until the time of Christopher Columbus’ (Farrar, 2020). As Farrar also points out this mosaic floor is not the first time an object strikingly similar to a pineapple appears in Roman art. In Pompeii, a fresco discovered in the House of the Ephebe shows a child making an offering to the gods. The object looks like the fruit of a pineapple, but clearly cannot be. The most logical solution, therefore, is that Roman artists were trying to represent something they and their clients were familiar with. Those things were pinecones, which were considered symbols of fertility by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. But by adding foliage to make the pinecones more artistically appealing, the Roman artists were not to know that the result would baffle viewers familiar with pineapples several hundred years later.
So, the objects thought to be pineapples in mosaics and frescoes are in fact pinecones. Even so, the misidentified ‘pineapples’ have led to numerous theories about the possibility of contact between Native Americans and the ancient Romans.
Romans in the Americas As we have seen, it is true that pineapples are indeed native to South America. It is also true that as their empire stretched right round the Mediterranean, the Romans had to be relatively good seafarers, although perhaps not as comfortable at sea as their neighbours the Greeks. Yet the Romans’ ability to trade widely, traversing the Mediterranean Sea, and likewise the Arabian Sea for Indian spices, does not lend any credibility to theories that they sailed across the Atlantic Ocean only to discover, and return with, pineapples. It is reasonable to say that Graeco-Roman ship technology was well suited to Mediterranean seafaring. We also know that the circumnavigated Britannia. In doing so they must have traversed the seas off the North and West coasts of Scotland, the Irish Sea and possible the Atlantic Ocean, areas that can be treacherous to shipping - just ask the Spanish Armada! Yet it is highly unlikely that Roman ships were robust enough to cope with a long Atlantic crossing . 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 even existed is extremely doubtful.
Columbus For Europeans to discover pineapples necessitated a wait of some thousand years after the collapse of the Roman empire in the West (or, if you prefer, 40 years from the demise of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire in AD 1453). Enter Cristoforo Colombo Columbus the well-known Italian explorer and navigator who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, opening the way for the widespread European exploration and colonization of the Americas. Although largely self-educated, Columbus was widely read in geography, astronomy, and history. He developed a plan to seek a western sea passage to the East Indies, hoping to profit from the lucrative spice trade. As an aside, it was common knowledge among sailors like Columbus that Earth was a sphere (cf. flat earthers!) so sailing West to reach the East made perfect sense.
Sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Columbus left Castile in Agust 1492 with three ships intending to circumnavigate the globe westwards and establish a new trade route to India. On October 12th, 1492, after months at sea, Columbus’ expedition made landfall on an island in the Bahamas, known by its native inhabitants as Guanahani. He subsequently visited the islands now known as Cuba and Hispaniola, establishing a colony in what is now Haiti. Columbus returned to Castile in early 1493 taking a number of captured natives with him.
Columbus made three further voyages to the Americas, exploring the Lesser Antilles later in 1493, Trinidad and the northern coast of South America in 1498, and the eastern coast of Central America in 1502. Many of the names he gave to geographical features - particularly islands - are still in use. He also gave the name indios (‘Indians’) to the indigenous peoples he encountered. Clearly Columbus thought he had landed in India, hence referring to natives as ‘Indians’; a term that stuck for the next 500 years .
Conclusion The extent to which Columbus was aware that the Americas were a wholly separate landmass is uncertain; he never clearly renounced his belief that he had reached the Far East. But before Columbus’ expeditions and his discovery of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, we can safely conclude that Europeans could not have known about pineapples.
Hopefully, we have shown that even though the objects depicted in Roman mosaics and frescoes look like pineapples, they clearly cannot be. Rather the artists were depicting something far more mundane that viewers in the Mediterranean world would recognise simply as pinecones. We also know that before Columbus’ discoveries established European, particularly Spanish, interest in Central and South America pineapples were unknown outside this distant continent. As for the Romans, they had no idea that the Americas existed and nor did they have the seafaring technology to safely navigate the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, any suggestion of links between pineapples, Romans and the Americas is simply wishful thinking.
Bell, B., (2020), ‘The rise, fall, and rise of the status pineapple’, BBC News, available online: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-53432877 (accessed April 6th, 2022).
Farrar, K. (2020), ‘Mystery in an Ancient Mosaic’, Eyes of Rome, available on-line: https://eyesofrome.com/blog/eyes-on-storytelling/mystery-in-an-ancient-mosaic (accessed February 28th, 2022).
Metatron (2022), ‘Did the Romans Discover America? Debunking Video’, YouTube, available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4szHp_gcvA (accessed February 12th, 2022).
1. The width of the Atlantic Ocean varies from 1,769 mi (2,848 km) between Brazil and Liberia to about 3,000 mi (4,830 km) between the United States and northern Africa.
2. In North America, the indigenous populations are known as Native Americans in USA and the First Nation in Canada. The latter term somehow seems preferable as it acknowledges who first inhabited the land and that those people had a developed notion of nationhood.