The diet of a Roman soldier consisted of wheat, rations of smoked bacon or fresh meat (when available, usually pork), vegetables, legumes, cheese, vinegar, olive oil, and wine. These rations were issued several times per week so that every soldier would have carried food for around three days. The cost of the ration, around 60 Denarii per year, was deducted from each soldier’s pay.
Just like for Roman civilians the bulk of the diet of a Roman soldier consisted of wheat that was usually eaten as either bread or as a porridge known as puls made from emmer wheat. Of the other grains available, oats were seen as fodder and would only be eaten in times of extreme hunger, millet was only grown in small amounts, rye was only grown in areas too cold for wheat, and rations of barley are recorded being issued to soldiers as a punishment for minor offences.
In the second century BC, Roman soldiers received a ration of about 66 pounds of wheat per month. The grain was issued whole so had to be milled and processed by the soldier himself. The men of each Conturbernium  were responsible for preparing their meals, either doing so together or with individual soldiers taking turns. Neither temporary military camps nor long-term Roman forts had any sort of mess hall or big kitchens in which meals could be prepared for the entire unit.
As Romans preferred pork (from Latin: porcus ‘pig’) over beef (Latin: bubula)  it is safe to say that the bacon was an important part of the Roman soldier’s diet as it provided him with both fat and a lot of calories. When smoked the bacon would be much easier to transport than, for example, olive oil, another source of fat, which had to be transported in either barrels or clay amphorae, the latter being obviously more fragile.
In addition to the wheat and bacon the ration included legumes like lentils and beans that were high in protein. Cheese (Latin: caseus) was also a staple of the soldier’s diet. Since Romans did not really appreciate beef or, by extension, cow’s milk, cheese was primarily made from either sheep’s or goat’s milk. Cheese in the ancient world seems to be mainly of the soft varieties such as cottage cheese and feta. As is the modern practice, the latter was formed into large blocks and aged in brine (being washed before use to reduce its saltiness). Smoked cheeses were also made to preserve them for longer so may well have been favoured by soldiers when available.
Archaeologists have found additional foodstuffs at several Roman army camps suggesting that soldiers, especially officers, could also buy finer imported ingredients like coriander, oysters or spices such as pepper imported from India.
Water was essential as every man might consume between 2 and 8 litres (½ to 2 gallons) per day depending on the climate and the physical demands he had to face. One major logistical problem was the supply of water fresh which could prove unreliable at times, especially on a campaign. Consequently, water was often transported in barrels, but this might easily become tainted. Wine and vinegar, therefore, were mixed with the less than fresh water to counteract any aftertaste. By adding vinegar to water the Romans created Posca, an everyday drink popular in the army and also the urban poor. It has a refreshingly sour taste, but one that would have also disguised the smell and taste of stale water. The Roman’s development of posca was also convenient economically since the faulty storage of wine tends to result in vinegar.
According to Andrew Dalby, the initial unfamiliarity with posca in the Greek-speaking East meant writers such as Plutarch used the Greek term oxos ‘vinegar’. The same word was used in the crucifixion narratives which was rendered acetum in the Vulgate Latin translation of the Bible and ‘vinegar’ or its equivalent in many modern versions (Dalby, 2003, 270). Thus, the drink handed to the crucified Jesus was most likely posca and, contrary to the popular belief, may not have been intended as a torment but a sign of compassion. The Roman soldier gave Jesus his preferred drink, and probably from his own ration.
Alongside water, posca, and beer in the northern provinces, wine (Latin: vinum) was a popular drink. In general, most Romans thought the habit of drinking pure wine was barbaric, although extremely good quality wine was drunk pure albeit only in small quantities. ‘Moderation was promoted by the almost universal Greek and Roman habit of drinking wines mixed with water’ (Dalby. 2003, 350). For soldiers on campaign that had the bonus of limiting their opportunity for drunkenness and any resulting disciplinary issues.
Dalby, A. (2003), ‘Food in the Ancient World from A to Z’, London: Routledge.
1. As defined in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, contubernium meant a ‘dwelling together’, as of soldiers or animals, but referred especially to a quasi-marital union between slave and slave or slave and free. Within a century, a contubernium consisted of eight soldiers so ten contubernia formed a century of 80 fighting men commanded by a centurio (centurion). ▲
2. For the most part ancient Roman authors on farming practices assume cattle will be kept as working animals rather than for milk or meat. ▲