Spanish Food History: The Romans.

Spanish Food. The Romans.
A significant stage in Spanish food history was marked by the arrival of the Romans. They remained in Hispania (as they called the peninsula) for about 600 years.

One of the main reasons they stayed was to cultivate foodstuffs for their expanding empire. They realised early on that Hispania (especially the east and south) was ideal for growing a variety of foods.

But in order to control the peninsula, the Romans had first to subjugate the numerous tribes inhabiting the land, a task that took them almost 200 years (only Euskadi/ the Basque lands remained uncontrolled)! During this period, the Roman armies were constantly called into action, and as Frederick the Great (1740-86) or Napoleon (1769-1821) are reported to have said, an army marches on its stomach. 

Roman aqueduct in Segovia.

For the Romans, bread, cheese, wine (often vinegar diluted with water) and olive oil were staple goods for marching soldiers. So, in order to feed their armies and also provide food for Roman settlers attracted to southern and eastern Hispania, extensive irrigation projects (e. g. aqueducts) were carried out and a large network of roads and bridges ensured rapid movement of both soldiers and goods.

A particular advantage the Romans found in central, eastern and southern Hispania was its relatively light soil, which allowed for easier ploughing than the heavier, more compact, and rain-laden soil of the north. 

As a result, the wide valley of the Guadalquivir River, and the basin of the Guadiana River around Mérida (founded in 23 BC for retired Roman soldiers), became large grain producing regions. At the same time, vineyards and olive plantations were greatly expanded in the south and up the eastern half of the peninsula.

By the end of the second century AD, Hispania was producing so much wheat, barley, millet, wine and olive oil that it became a major exporter to Rome. The Greek geographer and historian, Strabo (ca 64 BC- ca 23 AD), makes the point that large quantities of the best quality grain, wine, and olive oil, were being exported from Turdetania (aka Baetica, i.e. roughly modern Andalusia) to the capital.

Both olive oil and wine travelled in terracotta amphorae to Rome to feed its large and growing cosmopolitan population (estimated to be between 600,000 and 1,000,000 in the first century AD)

Evidence of the extent and importance of this commercial activity can be gauged from the excavations (1872, 1980s) of a huge mound off the east bank of the Tiber River near the centre of Rome.  Known as Monte Testaccio, it is made up of an accumulation of an estimated 53 million discarded, broken olive oil amphorae, most dating from 140 to 250 AD, and most from Baetica.

Olives were also used for purposes other than food: e.g. fuel for oil lamps and soap, as a lubricant and medicine

Hispania also exported to Rome a large amount of pickled and salted fish and a particularly prized product called garum.

Bolonia, north west of Gibraltar, famous for its garum.

Garum was a pungent delicacy prepared in stone vats usually located some distance away from populated areas, and with reason.  It was a seasoning sauce concocted from the entrails, heads, roe and blood of fish (tuna, mackerel, anchovies) and left to ferment for weeks in salt until it had decomposed.  The stench was appalling, but the Romans were passionate about it and willing to pay exorbitant prices. It was also believed to have medicinal qualities.

Hispania’s exports to Rome often figure prominently as part of Roman history, because Hispania was in many ways an extension of Rome, so that from about 73 AD the peninsula was granted a large degree of Roman civil rights. And Roman soldiers on duty in Hispania often retired there, in some instances in towns created for them (e.g. Italica, Merida) or rewarded with land for their services.

Predictably, then, Hispano-Romans ate much the same as the Romans. Of course, a lot depended on geography and on the wealth of individuals: the rich enjoyed a wider variety and the poor and those living in more isolated areas had less choice.

Foods probably cultivated in Hispania that were familiar to the Roman palate included: fava beans, lentils, peas, chick peas, as well as lettuce, chicory, leeks, onions chard, cabbage, cucumbers, pumpkins.  Radish was served before meals as an antidote against possible poisoning.

Fruits such as apples, dates, pomegranates, peaches, quinces, melons, apricots, plums, pears, cherries were popular; many were dried to preserve over winter. Lemons were prized for their cleansing quality and figs were believed to reduce wrinkles on the face. Almonds, hazelnuts, chestnuts, acorns and walnuts were also part of Hispano-Roman diet, and honey was extensively used as a sweetener.

Meat was not eaten as widely as nowadays and was rare for the poor, and usually restricted to special events or festivals. Pork was the most popular meat. Pigs were relatively easy to domesticate and being omnivores they were useful animals in cleaning up household waste.

A compilation of Roman recipes attributed to an unidentified Apicius (late 4th or early 5th century AD) has a large number of recipes dedicated to pork. Goat, mutton, lamb, game (e.g. rabbit, hare, venison, pheasant, partridge, pigeon, thrushes and poultry (mainly chicken, but also goose and duck) were also available but beef was scarce (it takes a lot more land to feed and water cattle, and they are far less easy to transport or move around, an important consideration in times of war). And there were always snails and frogs, to which the poor had easy access.

Fish, both saltwater and freshwater, were staple foods. When not eaten fresh, they were preserved in salt or dried or pickled. Eels were common, and sardines, mackerel and shellfish were widely available in coastal areas (e.g. shrimps, prawns, although cockles, mussels, and scallops were products of Northern Hispania). In the south, tuna fishing in the Straits of Gibraltar was already long established (tuna entrails were often one of the ingredients used to make garum). Freshwater fish included pike, carp, catfish, barbel (related to carp).

Salt, herbs and spices were important as preservatives and seasonings. Most spices originated in Asia and having travelled far were prized possessions.  The most common was pepper, found in many recipes from Apicius’s cookbook.

Others included saffron, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, caraway, coriander, ginger, turmeric entered through the eastern borders of the Empire. How many of these spices were used in Hispania is difficult to determine, although the Latin origin for the Spanish name for some suggests that these were probably known amongst the wealthy in the peninsula: cinnamon–canelo <Lat cuminum, coriander-culantro <Lat coriandrum, cardamom-cardamono <Lat cardamomum, mustard-mostaza <Lat mustaceus, nutmeg-nuez moscada <Lat nux-nucis, and ginger-jengibre <Lat zingiber.

Most herbs, on the other hand, were common to the Mediterranean: e.g. parsley, sage, mint, thyme.

Briefly, the Visigoths.
The Roman Empire gradually disintegrated during the 5th century AD, and Roman power was replaced by groups of migratory Germanic or Gothic tribes, the main one being –for Spanish history—the Visigoths.

Wedged between the great legacies of the Romans and the Moors (i.e. the Muslim conquerors of the 8th century AD), they are remembered more for their mythical role as models/ representing of untainted Christian Hispano-Roman values which were invoked regularly following the conquest of Hispania by the Moors in 711. Outnumbered by their Hispano-Roman subjects and culturally much less sophisticated, the Visigoths soon adopted the ways of those they had conquered, e.g. Roman clothes, Roman Catholicism, the language of Rome: Latin. Predictably, then, they ate the kinds of foods already cultivated by the Hispano-Romans and listed above.

Nevertheless, being from north of the Pyrenees by origin and nomadic by nature, they were culturally much more inclined to pastoral, livestock farming than to arable farming and, like their predecessors, the Celts, they cooked with lard and not olive oil. Although they appreciated wine, they were enthusiastic drinkers of beer (they introduced hops into Hispania), apple cider and mead.

And a Word about the Moors.
Until the early 8th century AD, Spain’s gastronomy was similar to that adopted in much of the Roman Empire. In 711, however, the history of the Iberian Peninsula took a radical turn. Muslim forces crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and by 720 had conquered the entire peninsula except for a strip along the north coast (roughly modern Asturias and Cantabria).

Almost overnight Hispania became al-Andalus, the name adopted by the Moors for the land they occupied. In addition to their customs and values, their religion, their language, they brought with them new agricultural techniques, new foodstuffs and their own style of cooking. We have three pages about their contributions: AgricultureZiryabal-Andalus and cookbooks. See also our Tyranny of Food (a look at how food was used to determine whether Jews and Muslims had truly converted to Christianity in the 16th century.

Adamson, Melitta Weiss  Food in Medieval Times Westport, Connecticut, London 2004

Collins, Roger Spain: An Oxford Archeological Guide Oxford, New York 1998.
Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain  London 1994
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for El Cid  London 1989
Martinez Llopis, Manuel M Historia de la gastronomia espanola Madrid 1989
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011
Trutter, Marion ed. Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999
Photo of garum factory in Bolonia (Baelo Claudio), between Cádiz and Algeciras, by Anual – Own work, CC BY 3.0,