Portus Study Reveals Vandal's Invasion Destroyed Roman's Luxury Diets, And Class System
The diets and geographic origins of people living in Portus, the main maritime port of Imperial Rome, have been determined through analysis of human, plant and animal remains, revealing that after the Vandals sacked Rome in AD 455 a quick change in food resources caused widespread nutritional depletion.
Portus was a vast artificial harbor established by Roman Emperor Claudius in the first century AD and it’s estimated to measure a whopping 3.5km sq. This ancient center of Roman trade and commerce is situated on the north mouth of the Tiber, on the Tyrrhenian coast and served as Rome’s chief gateway to the Mediterranean.
For 500 years the docks at Portus received incalculable tonnages of imported wild animals, rare foods and drinks, exotic building materials and luxury goods, sustaining the grandeur and glory of Roman presence in the Mediterranean and keeping the masses in work. However, for all the millions of people who were born, raised, worked and died in Portus, virtually nothing is known of who they were and where they came from - until now that is.
A new study published today in Antiquity by an international team of researchers, co-authored by Dr Tamsin O’Connell of the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, presents their analysis of “plant, animal and human remains” and a reconstruction of “both the diets and geographic origins of the Portus inhabitants.”
(l) Digital Reconstruction of Portus Romae. Image Credit: Portus Project/Artas Media (r) 1,700-year-old charred wheat grains from Portus Romae. Image Credit: L. Bonner
Delving Into Portus People’s Diets
The new study essentially determines that a single historical event had considerable effects on the quality of the food resources and nutritional quotient of the diets of the people working at Portus Romae. Dr Tamsin O’Connell said “The human remains from the excavations at Portus belong to a local population involved in heavy, manual labour,” who are thought to be “ saccarii” (porters) who unloaded ships at dock. “When looking isotopically at the individuals dating to between the early second to mid fifth centuries AD”, continues Dr Tamsin O’Connell, “we see that they have a fairly similar diet to the rich and middle-class people buried at the Isola Sacra cemetery just down the road.“
Why this interests the team is that because even though the buried people’s remains were found to be of varying social status, “they both have access to similar food resources, contrasting what is observed elsewhere in the Roman empire. However at the end of the mid fifth century the population’s rich diet of animal protein, olive oil, fish, imported wheat, and “sauce and wine from North Africa”, changed to what is described as a "peasant diet” consisting of potages and stews. And it was just before this dietary tsunami that the Vandals attacked Rome in AD 455.
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A 16th-century fresco in the Vatican Palace shows an idealized reconstruction of Portus’ grand architectural and engineering features. (Jason Urbanus / Public Domain)
The Vandals were a large group of east Germanic tribes and when they sacked Rome, besides looting great amounts of treasure including the gilt bronze roof tiles of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, they knocked down all of the city's aqueducts and main water supplies collapsing its infrastructure. Basically, everyone, both rich and poor, went from sucking the nutrient rich meats from shell-fish and sipping soft red wines to munching plants, virtually overnight.
When asked by Ancient Origins if the diet shifted from one that was largely meat based to vegetarian, Dr O'Connell clarified:
We see a shift towards a more plant-based diet, but our results do not show that they became vegetarian. Both the animal bone assemblage (butchered large vertebrates) and the isotopis analyses clearly show there is still an animal protein component to the diet - so it is reduced, not excluded.
So the meat content was reduced, but as Portus was a well-established and thriving coastal port, it seems odd that the local fishing industry would not be able to supply fish and seafood to the population before and after the Vandal sacking. Dr O’Connell further explained to Ancient Origins:
There are marine fish present in the animal bone assemblage. We cannot be sure of their original quantities at Portus as the burial conditions are attritive and will have caused these delicate objects to fragment and dissolve. However, the isotopic results suggest marine fish are a small proportion of diet. There is no evidence at either Portus or Ostia for the large scale processing of fish, and the site of Portus was primarily dedicated to handling the large scale import of foodstuffs, one must conclude that fishing would have been a low level activity - certainly not an "industry". Whatever did take place was probably focused away from the main harbour basins, and along the cost to the north, or to the south between Portus and Ostia, or to the south of Ostia.
What Are The Knock On Effects Of This Dietary Study?
Director of the University of Southampton’s Portus Project, Professor Simon Keay explained:
These conclusions help us better understand major changes in patterns of production and trade across the Mediterranean that have been detected in recent years.” Archaeologists know that in the middle of the 5 th century AD, the harbor’s warehouses became burial sites and according to the paper, “the volume of trade that passed through the port en route to Rome had contracted dramatically.
Dr O’Connell asks a very interesting question, “Are food resources and diets shaped by political ruptures?” She argues that when “Rome was rich, everybody, from the local elite to the dockworkers, was doing fine nutritionally. Then after a big political rupture, wheat and other foodstuffs have to come from somewhere else. When Rome is on the decline, the manual labourers, at least, are not doing as well as previously.”
So was there archaeological evidence for widespread malnutrition in the general Roman population the after the Vandal sacking of Rome? Dr O’Connell told Ancient Origins that she was not aware of any such evidence, either at this site or others.
“From the individuals we have examined, our results do not show that they are malnourished but simply getting a balanced diet in different ways. Such a study of malnutrition would be a good area for future research.”
Modern day remains of Portus harbor (shown here near the modern-day Italian village of Porto within the Comune of Fiumicino, just south of Rome in Lazio (ancient Latium). (Nicola/ CC BY 2.0)
Since our time in caves two motivations have inspired all human activity: ‘eating and sex’, and not always in that order. When one of these functions are disrupted within a society ‘most’ folk pack up and walk as far as required to find them. But some will always stay behind and attempt to rebuild what used to be, and these are the people being studied in the Portus Project, those who stayed behind and lived in what must have looked like a post apocalyptic film set for decades after the Vandals retreated with the best of Rome on their pack mules.
Possibly the most important knock on effect of this entire project is that students are directly benefitting from the Portus Project through the annual Portus Field School, which has given them the chance to experience, first-hand, a globally significant archaeological site.
Top image: Sacking of Rome by the Vandals dramatically changed the diet of Portus inhabitants. Source: Karl Bryullov / Public domain
This article refers to the paper ‘ Living and dying at the Portus Romae’ by Tamsin C. O'Connell et al, published by Antiquity (2019). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.64
By Ashley Cowie