Bread for Free Distribution
Given the sheer amount of bread baked in Rome and the varying styles brought by the diverse culturesthat 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 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 they would take totheir local bakery and hand over to the baker with a few coins and immediately take home fresh hot bread.It is recorded that certain groups of people were designated to receive free bread by order of localmagistrates or edicts from the Emperor. We also know that free bread was handed out at large festivalsor games and these breads were often marked with a special stamp by the baker.In later centuries, we find that the metallic stamps were replaced by stencils or distinctive towels at public bakeries. Average people did not have ovens capable of properly baking bread. People wouldoften mix and raise their dough at home, then bring the ready to bake bread to the local baker, whowould bake it in a communal oven. The bread would have either a floured stencil or special scoringmarks to indicate the owner of the bread.
Speaking of scoring marks, on the ancient bread from Pompeii, we notice cuts which divide the roundloaf into eight roughly equal sections. Except for references to Panis quadratus, which owes its name tothe 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 privatecitizens 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 anarea to bloom while baking. This significantly improves the appearance of baked breads and alsoallows for varieties in form and shape. If not scored in some way, bread will burst in random locationsand 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 slitinto an eye shape maintaining the slender length of the bread. One thing we know about people in alleras: 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 of words long and gone into great detail about thewonderful 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’tchanged all that much and that 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.