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Skeletons from a vaulted chamber in Herculaneum.	Source: L. Fattore, Sapienza University of Rome / Sciencemag

Roman Diets Exposed: Who Ate Best? Elite Roman Men, Or Women?

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Archaeologists in Italy have discovered significant ‘dietary gender differences’ in an exclusive pocket of the ancient Roman Empire. Skeletons found at Herculaneum have provided new insights into the Roman diet, and revealed big differences between men and women.

This new finding of ‘dietary differences’ was not identified in decomposed food remains. Nor was it scraped from the insides of fragments of clay storage pots. This time, archaeologists relied on technology and looked deep within the isotopic structures of the 240 poor souls who were roasted alive on the beach of Herculaneum.

The ancient Roman elite beach resort of Herculaneum, that was destroyed in the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, has revealed further secrets of how the rich and powerful lived almost 2000-years-ago. The results of a new study demonstrate that within the elite Roman classes at Herculaneum, access to certain foods at the doomed resort was “differentiated according to gender”.

Herculaneum was a luxury seaside retreat for the Roman elite. ( milosk50 / Adobe Stock)

This Study Is Different From All Others In Its Class

The new study was published in the journal Science Advances by lead author Silvia Soncin from the University of York. The new evidence was not displayed on intricate mosaics, neither was it gleaned from architectural remains, but it was gathered from dietary data and the resulting information.

Working with archaeologists at Rome’s Museo delle Civilta and researchers from the Archaeological Parks of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Professor Soncin examined the remains of the 240 bodies that were trapped in a beach hut when the 79 AD pyroclastic flows incinerated the entire coastline.

View of skeletal remains in one of the vaulted chambers (fornici) during excavation. (Prof. L. Fattore, Sapienza Università di Roma/ Sciencemag)

Study co-author, Professor Oliver Craig from the University of York, said that while most historical resources often reference ‘dietary differences’ according to gender in the Roman Empire, seldom do they explain why they existed. Craig said, where this new study is different to all others is that it provides “quantitative information” to support its claims.

Some of the classic foodstuff of the Roman Empire. (Андрей Журавлев / Adobe Stock)

Reasoning With Ancient Gender Dietary Differences

According to a report in Daily Mail the new analysis applied stable isotope analysis (CSIA) which looks at isotope ratios to reveal dietary trends. The new study shows that male adults in Herculaneum ate “about 1.6 times more seafood” compared with females. What’s more, the results demonstrated how male adults also ate more cereals, which was represented in higher grain protein levels. In conclusion, adult males in Herculaneum feasted on fresh fish and seafood more often than women, who ate more meats, eggs, dairy, fruit and vegetables than men.

These new dietary revelations add volumes to what is currently known about life at Herculaneum, that ill-fated resort was engulfed in the 79 AD eruption along with Pompeii. How so? Well, while many of you might be looking for signs of sexism or social-repression against women in all this, the answer is much less dramatic. And while it doesn’t align with modern narratives, this is all very simple.

The new information provided in the study directly supports previous notions about gender differences in the ancient Roman Empire. Because men were released from slavery earlier, they accessed mineral rich seafoods long before women, and this would lead to higher levels of marine proteins being found in their bones. Furthermore, men more often worked on fishing boats and around harbors and docks, so when Vesuvius erupted higher levels of marine minerals were discovered trapped in their bodies.

The results of the analysis also showed that women at Herculaneum leaned on diets much heavier in calories and fast release carbohydrates. Foods that perhaps took longer to prepare. Therefore, while men were grilling handfuls of shrimps on beaches, women were indulging in feasts of meats and the richest fruits. The question is: who had it best? Looks like the women win this one (spits out fish bone).

Top image: Skeletons from a vaulted chamber in Herculaneum.   Source: L. Fattore, Sapienza University of Rome / Sciencemag

By Asley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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