Roman Meals > Roman Military Diet
We've been led to think that ancient Romans were mainly vegetarian and that when the legions came into contact with the northern European barbarians they had trouble stomaching the meat-rich food.
"The tradition about the legions being near vegetarian in camp is very believable for the early Republican era. Scurvy references are reliable, I believe. By the latter half of the 2nd century B.C., the whole Roman world had opened up and almost all aspects of Roman life, including diet, had changed from the 'old days.' My only real point is that Josephus and Tacitus could not accurately chronicle the early or middle Republican diet. Cato is the only source that comes close, and he is at the very end of the era (and a cabbage freak to boot)."
Maybe this is too simplistic. Perhaps the Roman soldiers weren't opposed to a daily meat-centered meal. R.W. Davies in "The Roman Military Diet," published in "Britannia," in 1971, argues on the basis of his reading of history, epigraphy, and archaeological finds that Roman soldiers throughout the Republic and Empire ate meat.
Excavated Bones Reveal Diet Details
Much of Davies' work in "The Roman Military Diet" is interpretation, but some of it is scientific analysis of bones excavated from Roman British and German military sites dating from Augustus to the third century. From the analysis, we know the Romans ate ox, sheep, goat, pig, deer, boar, and hare, in most places and in some areas, elk, wolf, fox, badger, beaver, bear, vole, ibex, and otter. Broken beef bones suggest the extraction of marrow for soup. Alongside the animal bones, archaeologists found equipment for roasting and boiling the meat as well as for making cheese from the milk of domesticated animals. Fish and poultry were also popular, the latter especially for the sick.
Roman Soldiers Ate (and Perhaps Drank) Mostly Grain
R.W. Davies is not saying the Roman soldiers were primarily meat eaters. Their diet was mostly grain: wheat, barley, and oats, mainly, but also spelt and rye. Just as Roman solders were supposed to dislike meat, so too they were supposed to detest beer -- considering it far inferior to their native Roman wine. Davies brings this assumption into question when he says a discharged Germanic soldier set himself up to supply the Roman military with beer near the end of the first century.
Republican and Imperial Soldiers Were Probably Not That Different
It might be argued that the information about Roman soldiers of the Imperial period is irrelevant for the earlier Republican period. But even here R.W. Davies argues that there is evidence from the Republican period of Roman history for meat consumption by soldiers: "When Scipio reintroduced military discipline to the army at Numantia in 134 B.C. [see Table of Roman Battles], he ordered that the only way the troops could eat their meat was by roasting or boiling it." There would be no reason to discuss procedure for preparation if they weren't eating it. Q. Caecilius Metellus Numidicus made a similar rule in 109 B.C.
Davies also mentions a passage from Suetonius' biography of Julius Caesar in which Caesar made a generous donation to the people of Rome of meat.
"XXXVIII. To every foot-soldier in his veteran legions, besides the two thousand sesterces paid him in the beginning of the civil war, he gave twenty thousand more, in the shape of prize-money. He likewise allotted them lands, but not in contiguity, that the former owners might not be entirely dispossessed. To the people of Rome, besides ten modii of corn, and as many pounds of oil, he gave three hundred sesterces a man, which he had formerly promised them, and a hundred more to each for the delay in fulfilling his engagement.... To all this he added a public entertainment, and a distribution of meat...."
Suetonius - Julius Caesar
Lack of Refrigeration Meant Summer Meat Would Have Spoiled
Davies lists one passage that has been used to defend the idea of a vegetarian military during the Republican period: "'Corbulo and his army, although they had suffered no losses in battle, were worn out by shortages and exertion and were driven to ward off hunger by eating the flesh of animals. Moreover, water was short, the summer was long....'" Davies explains that in the heat of the summer and without salt to preserve the meat, soldiers were reluctant to eat it for fear of getting sick from spoiled meat.
Soldiers Could Carry More Protein Power in Meat Than Grain
Davies is not saying the Romans were primarily meat eaters even in the Imperial period, but he is saying that there is reason to question the assumption that Roman soldiers, with their need for high quality protein and to limit the amount of food they had to carry, avoided meat. The literary passages are ambiguous, but clearly the Roman soldier of at least the Imperial period did eat meat and probably with regularity. It could be argued that the Roman army was increasingly composed of non-Romans/Italians: that the later Roman soldier may have been more likely to be from Gaul or Germania, which may or may not be sufficient explanation for the Imperial soldier's carnivorous diet. This seems to be one more case where there is reason at least to question the conventional (here, meat-shunning) wisdom.