North Africa is one of several regions known as the breadbasket of Rome. In the Roman world, regions that were able to produce the vast quantities of foodstuffs needed to keep the empire working became extremely wealthy, and the already high status families from these areas became increasingly powerful. Members of families from Spain and North Africa even got the top job!
One of the most important commodities produced in North Africa was olive oil, so we’ll start with some olive oily stuff.
Oil’s well that ends well
This mosaic, from Tabarka but now in the Bardo Museum, shows a North Africa fortified farmstead and estate surrounded by olive trees, interspersed with grape vines. Parts of a mixed farming economy.
To harvest the olives, workers would bash the trees with long poles so that the ripe olives would fall to the ground, where they would then be gathered up by others. To be honest, I can’t confirm that this fellow is gathering olives, but he’s gathering something, that’s for sure.
Olives are still grown extensively in these areas. This image of neat rows of olive trees was taken out of the window of the train from Tunis to El Djem. The field may look half empty, but in olive growing, tree spacing is key to a good crop yield.
To extract the olive oil, they would have used a press like this one at Madauros, Algeria.
If you’re not familiar with this kind of press (it’s a lever press), this may all look a bit random, so this diagram may help to explain how it works. It’s in Italian, but non-italian-speakers (like me) can look at the pictures.
The first stage involves crushing the olives using an olive mill like this one at Tipasa, Algeria, making it easier to squeeze out the oil.
The pre-crushed olives are then loaded into circular baskets, which are stacked up on the pressing bed (this one is at Sufetula (Sbeitla), Tunisia) to be squeezed for their oil. The groove helps the oil to run into the collection tanks next to the pressing bed.
These presses (below) are the best preserved Roman presses in North Africa found, together with the remains of the building in which they stood, at Sufetula (Sbeitla) in Tunisia. You can get an idea of the scale by the man sitting on the wall next to the left hand orthostat (upright standing stone). They’re pretty big.
I love this little mini press at Tipasa. It’s about 60cm (-ish) in diameter.
I wonder if someone just had this at their home or village, maybe they had just a handful of trees and pressed their own oil for their local needs. The technology scales up or down pretty easily, so it’d work.
And this is where they put all that lovely olive oil once it’s ready.
Amphorae were pretty standard storage and transport vessels for a range of commodities such as olive oil, garum, salted fish, preserved fruit, wheat and others.
There are sherds all over the place on the ground at the various sites. As I went round I was looking for any particularly interesting bits and bobs, and on the beach at Nabeul, Tunisia was this amphora base.
(REMEMBER! Just because there are loads of sherds on the ground, that doesn’t mean that you can help yourself. Take only photographs, not artefacts).
The fruits of the earth
Agriculture was big business in North Africa and estates produced a whole range of commodities in addition to olives, with a major crop being wheat. These reliefs from Ghirza (now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Tripoli) record sowing and reaping of the crops on estates in the Tripolitanian pre-desert. The pre-desert is an arid environment so the people farming these areas used large-scale irrigation techniques to ‘green the desert’.
And from the Bardo is this beautifully delicate relief.
Wheat formed a major element of the economy, particularly in the areas of Tunisia and Algeria which were centuriated; divided up into large estates, including imperial estates. This was wheat production on an industrial scale.
There were also vegetables and fruits, these are in the National Museum of Antiquities, Tripoli (formerly the Jamahyria Museum).
These grapes and pomegrantes are in the Museum at Lepcis Magna. From the style, they look like they might be from Ghirza.
Trade in these commodities took place in the markets of the coastal emporia, many of which were originally established as Pheonician trading centres.
There is a particularly fine market, macellum, at Lepcis Magna, built in 9-8 BCE, which consisted of a large square market-place surrounded by a portico, with two octagonal buildings known as tholoi. This is the surviving southern tholos.
Within the macellum there are tables and benches from which goods were traded. Then, as now, prices, weights and measures were strictly regulated and many of the tables have these built-in measures for checking that the correct quantities were being sold for the correct prices.
Here are some other examples from Timgad, Djemila and Tiddis in Algeria.
In the Bardo, in Tunis, is another type of measure called a modius.
To grind the wheat there are several difference types of mill. This hand mill from Latrum, Libya.
And a reconstructed version of the same type at Chemtou, Tunisia. The wheat goes in the top and drops down between the stones. Then the ground flour collects in the reservoir under the stones.
And here, from Carthage, Tunisia, are several quern stones of difference sizes and materials. There would have been a top and bottom stone and the wheat was ground between them by rotating the upper stone over the lower. The central hole is for the spiggot linking the two stones and the smaller hole at the side is for a handle.
Huntin’, shootin’ n fishin’
Hunting features on many mosaics and reliefs from North Africa, sometimes the hunting of animals destined for the arena, sometimes for the pot. The boars hunted in this mosaic from the Bardo (below) could have been destined for either.
And here, in an in-situ mosaic from Bulla Regia, Tunisia, is a detail of another boar hunt.
This small relief of a bird hunt, also from the Bardo, really shows the technique for driving the birds into nets.
And here’s their catch
No guns, of course, but this lovely late-fourth century mosaic from Carthage (now in the Bardo) shows contemporary shooting from horseback. These hunters must have been skilled horsemen, notice there’s no saddle or stirrups. The rider would have controlled the horse with his knees.
Having direct access to the Mediterranean coast, the North African provinces have produced lots of evidence for fishing and related activities during the Roman period. These views of net fishing are from the Bardo.
And for fruits de mer…
And from Nabeul, these little nets look like lobster pots
And, actually, I think that it would be safer for this man if he didn’t catch these giant fish.
All ready for a fish supper in Ptolemais, Libya.
And talking of fish, as well as consuming fish fresh from the sea, the other hugely important fish product was garum; Roman fish sauce.
A major garum production site in Tunisia was Neapolis, modern Nabeul.
The tanks you can see in the centre of the image would have been used to produce the garum (see my earlier post about Nabeul for info about garum production and use).
These are the tanks at Tipasa on the Algerian coast. There are still traces of the plaster lining in the tanks.
This is the end
Obviously once all of this lovely food has been produced everyone tucks in, but food has also always been culturally and socially important. A way of displaying wealth and status; a way of entertaining friends and guests; and a way of marking important life-events. Births, marriages and deaths all involved foods, then as now. As this is the end, I’ll leave you with death.
Several of the reliefs already posted above actually come from tombs on which individuals (or their heirs) display the sources of the deceased’s wealth. As it is often from agriculture, that is what is shown.
But food also featured in funerary and commemorative rituals themselves. This grave marker has a vertical stone with an inscription, but also a base with bowl-shaped indentations. Into these would be poured libations of (eg) olive oil, spring water, or offerings of grain would be left to the spirits of the departed.
So there you are. A little look at the grub of Roman North Africa. If you wish to leave a libation, pop it in the ‘Leave a Reply’ box 😉