Kitchenalia: Roman soldier's cookware
In an earlier article, we challenged the idea that Roman soldiers cooked farinata, a type of unleavened bread made from chickpea flour, on their shields (link here). Given that Roman shields (Latin scutae; sing. scuta) were typically made of wood this is highly unlikely and at best a myth. So, if not using their shields, then what utensils might the average Roman soldier carry to cook with?
Roman army mess tin
Trajan's column in Rome depicts soldiers carrying objects similar to the one pictured (right). They are thought to be ‘mess tins’ (a much more modern military term) or saucepans used both for cooking and for eating from. Today they are frequently referred to as patera , but this is possible a misnomer.
In his account of The Jewish War, Flavius Josephus  records that, in addition to three days rations, each Roman soldier carried ‘a saw, a basket, a pick and an axe, as well as a strap, a bill-hook and a chain’ (Goldsworthy, 2003, 135). The ‘bill-hook’ may well have been a sickle for reaping crops. Regardless, Josephus’ statement is supported by a scene on Trajan's Column, pictured right, that depicts legionaries carrying their kit over their shoulders on a pole (Latin: furca). This consisted in part of a string-bag for forage, a metal cooking-pot (situla) and a ‘mess-tin’.
Examples of the latter have been discovered in most parts of the Empire (Davies, 2011). Now housed in museums, most paterae are made of cast bronze, often tin-lined, and sometimes with their handles and/or bowls highly decorated. The maker frequently stamped their name on it, as did the object's owner. The analogy with modern military mess tins seems obvious, but these pans were used in far wider contexts, such as in kitchens and in religious observances for making libations.
Libations In the material culture of classical antiquity, to the ancient Greeks a phiale is a shallow ceramic or metal libation bowl. In Latin the same object is named patera (pl. paterae) The most numerous were small plates of the common red earthenware onto which an ornamental pattern was drawn. Numerous specimens may be seen in the British Museum, and in other collections of ancient ceramic vases. The more valuable paterae were metallic, being chiefly of bronze, although wealthier families may have had one of silver.
Libation bowls often have a bulbous indentation (omphalos, ‘bellybutton’) centrally underneath to facilitate holding them, and typically have no handles or feet. Although the two terms may be used interchangeably, particularly in the context of Etruscan culture, phiale is more common in reference to Greek forms, and patera in Roman settings (which should not be confused with the Greek (Πατέρας) patéras meaning ‘father’ and the Latin equivalent pater). In Roman art, the libation is shown performed at an altar, mensa (sacrificial meal table), or at a tripod. It was the simplest form of sacrifice, and could be a sufficient offering by itself.
Also mentioned in Josephus’ description is a situla (pl. situlae). From the Latin word for bucket or pail, the term is used in both archaeology and art history to describe a variety of elaborate bucket-shaped vessels dating from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages. Usually fitted with a handle, all types of situlae may be highly decorated, most characteristically with reliefs in bands or friezes running round the vessel. A more utilitarian, undecorated, tin-lined version (pictured right) was more likely carried by Roman soldiers as a cooking pot.
Folding Frying Pan
While Josephus specifically mentions soldiers carrying paterae and situlae, archaeological evidence also suggest they used other items of cookware. Pictured right is our splendid replica of a late Roman frying pan or skillet made by Len Morgan. Earlier dated pans tend to have a fixed handle much like the patera already discussed, which gave rise to them being named as such. The original iron version with a folding handle, upon which the replicas is based, was found near the fort Gelduba (Krefeld-Gellep, Germany) and dates from the 3rd-century AD. A similarly dated folding handle pan, made for a soldier of the Roman army in Wales, is housed in the National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon. The folding handle makes perfect sense in a military context as it minimises the space needed to carry it.
The replica’s handle is attached by a single barrel hinge and pin to an integral tang, as shown in the image above (bottom right). The pan has a spout to drain off fat, just like the originals. It is made of 1 mm thick steel and measures approximately 235 mm wide, 630 mm long with the handle extended or 360 mm folded. The pan’s depth is approximately 25 mm and it weighs 1.25 kg.
Davies, R. W., (2011), ‘The Roman Military Diet’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goldsworthy, A., (2003), ‘The Complete Roman Army, London: Thames and Hudson.
1. To confuse matters, pa′tera was also the name given to round dishes, small plates or saucers which, according to Pliny (Natural History, XXX.8 s21), were sometimes used in cooking, an operation more commonly performed in pots [olla] and basins or bowls. They could also be used at meals to eat upon or to serve food. The use of paterae at meals no doubt gave origin to the employment of them in sacrifices. On these occasions they held either solid food or any liquid intended to be poured out as a libation. We find paterae frequently represented in conjunction with the other instruments of sacrifice upon coins, gems, altars, bas-reliefs, and the friezes of temples.
2. Flavius Josephus (c. AD 37 – c. AD 100) was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian. He initially fought against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War (AD 66-70) but surrendered to the forces led by the future emperor Vespasian in AD 67. Subsequently, having defected to the Roman side, Josephus set about recording Jewish history with special emphasis on The Jewish War which, written c. AD 75, recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation and includes his account of the siege of Masada.