Rich and Hungry, Poor and Full: Social and Cultural Food Poverty in the Roman World

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


The numerous references, descriptions and discussions of food by ancient authors attest to the fact that both the Greeks and the Romans had thriving food cultures. The existence of ancient food cultures, whereby food was a symbol and food choices represented a means of communication meant that it was possible for an individual in antiquity to exist in a state of social or cultural food poverty. However, the distinction between economic and social dietary poverty in the ancient world has received very little scholarly attention. Both ancient historians and archaeologists have mined the literary and material sources for evidence of economic poverty. Descriptions of those surviving at a level barely above subsistence (ie. rural farmers, fishermen) abound in the ancient sources. Isotopic analyses and human osteoarchaeological studies have provided evidence for dietary deficiencies and malnutrition amongst particular individuals and populations. Studies of the Greek and Roman economies attest to periods of shortage and famine, and scholars have created models estimating purchasing power and the relative cost of foodstuffs. However, we have yet to explore or even define what it meant to be culturally food poor in the ancient world. The notion that most individuals consumed a limited diet, based primarily on bread, wine and olive oil, is rapidly being discounted in the face of a growing body of archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological and ithythofaunal evidence from around Europe and the Mediterranean. If many people did live at a level moderately above subsistence and did eat a moderately diverse diet, what then, did it mean to be culturally food poor? How are we to distinguish those who were culturally food poor from those who were economically food poor? Just like any other form of cultural expression, being socially or culturally food poor in antiquity was a relative concept. This chapter aims to answer these questions, making use of the available literary, archaeological and, in particular, environmental evidence. It will be argued that the inability to participate in broader cultural trends and fashions, to any degree, was the defining feature of cultural food poverty while economic poverty was the inability to consume a sufficient or varied diet.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPoverty in Ancient Greece and Rome
Subtitle of host publicationRealities and Discourses
EditorsFilippo Carla-Uhink, Lucia Cecchet, Carlos Machado
Place of PublicationAbingdon, Oxford
ISBN (Electronic)9780367221157
ISBN (Print)9780367221140
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Publication series

NameRoutledge Monographs in Classical Studies


  • Classical archaeology
  • Classics
  • FOOD
  • Roman

Cite this