Many of you have probably seen the photo below as it made its way around the social media avenues: it is a loaf of bread from the ruins at Pompeii. The original publishing site, Ancient Resource, focused on the bread stamp mark in the preserved ancient bread, but I think more people are amazed by the bread itself.
I am fascinated by all of it – the stamp, the shape and the scoring marks on top of the ancient bread.
Ancient Bread Stamps
When I started to do some research about ancient bread stamps, I discovered quite a bit about the bread of antiquity. In Roman times, the bread stamp was used for various purposes. It could signify the bread was from an authentic or approved bakery, that the bread was for a particular person or family, and also used to indicate the bread was baked for free distribution.
Beginning in the year 168 B.C., the Romans legislated and formed the first baker’s guild, known as the Collegium Pistorum. The word pistorum comes from the phrase to grind so the guild members not only baked but also milled grains. Soon after the formation of the guild, the Roman government took control; bread became a regulated public commodity with price increases requiring the high levels of legislative approval. There is historical evidence of pleas sent to various Emperors asking for an increase in the subsidized bread prices.
Although controlled by the local governing entities and the Emperor of Rome, there were some interesting benefits and regulations allotted to these certified professional bakers. Unlike most trades, where the workers were slaves, the members of the Collegium Pistorum were freemen and they and their families enjoyed all the benefits to which free Roman citizens were entitled. Choosing to become a member of the Collegium meant you would be a baker for the remainder of your life.
As beneficial as it could be to become a certified guild member, there were some odd restrictions. There was a requirement of the Collegium Pistorum which stated that members were forbidden to mix with “comedians and gladiators.” Bakers were also forbidden to attend performances at the amphitheater.
Getting back to our stamp, a certified guild baker could use these ancient bread stamps to indicate place of origin, quality and implied certification of the state and surrounding authorities.
We know not all bakers were certified guild members. Historians from Rome, Egypt and other parts of the ancient world stated that the Cappadocians (Modern Turkey) possessed superior skills as bakers and thus were often taken as slaves and employed in many of the larger, privately owned villas and bakeries.
I have no doubt that state sanctioned or certified bread could be more expensive, so it is easy to believe there were “bootleg” bakers offering up cheaper bread in back alleys providing an alternative for the poor.
Special Order Bread
History records wealthy Roman citizens often placed large orders of bread with a favored local baker for parties and special events. We can assume that breads baked on special order would be marked with a family name or insignia to separate this bread from those commonly available for sale in the bakers stall.
Bread for Free Distribution
Given the sheer volume of bread baked in Rome and the varying styles integrated into the culinary palate by the diverse cultures that made up the Republic, it would be virtually impossible to list all of the baked goods and types of bread enjoyed by the Romans. Suffice it to say that a given baker produced several grades of bread for the public. Most Romans were eligible for a daily dole of imported grain, which citizens commonly would take to the local bakery and, along with a few coins, exchange the seed for a fresh, hot loaf of bread.
It is recorded that certain groups of people were designated to receive free bread by order of local magistrates or edicts from the Emperor. We also know that free bread was handed out at large festivals or games and these breads were often marked with a special stamp by the baker.
In later centuries, we find the metallic stamps were replaced by stencils or distinctive towels at public bakeries. The average person did not have a home oven capable of properly baking bread. So home bakers would mix and raise their dough at home, then bring the ready-to-bake loaf to the local baker, who would bake it in a communal oven. The bread would have either a floured stencil or special scoring marks to indicate the owner of the bread.
Speaking of scoring marks, on the ancient bread from Pompeii, we notice cuts which divide the round loaf into eight roughly equal sections. Except for references to Panis quadratus, which owes its name to the slashes on the top of the loaf that divide it into quarters, I could not find an explanation for the eight piece sectioned scoring. Most depictions of ancient bread from Roman life show these scoring marks. My wife and I wondered if these marks were for bread sold in a public cafe where a patron might have purchased an individual slice of bread vice the whole loaf. It could also have been used by private citizens to easily tear or serve the bread.
Normally bread is slashed, or scored, prior to going into the oven to give the expanding bread dough an area to bloom while baking. This significantly improves the appearance of baked breads and also allows for varieties in form and shape. If not scored in some way, bread will burst in random locations and can result in oddly shaped loaves. The scoring also brings out the bread baker’s artistic talent, providing a unique signature.
The classic modern example is the French baguette where the bread expands through each careful slit into an eye shape maintaining the slender length of the bread. One thing we know about people in all eras: physical appearance is important to the buyer, so proper scoring ensures a consistent, pleasing bread shape.
Ancient Bread Summary
This article could easily have been several thousand words long and gone into great detail about the wonderful world of Rome’s ancient bread culture. From the amazing yeast and fermentation methods, to the surprising number of bakeries in each village and town, bread history is a fascinating topic to the baking geek.
This preserved loaf of ancient bread from Pompeii shows we modern humans that life really hasn’t changed all that much and food in ancient Rome wouldn’t be a completely unfamiliar experience. The breads made by the Romans could easily be served in modern cafes and restaurants without a diner noticing anything different.
The Village Baker, by Joe Ortiz, was source of later communal oven information