In the 1950s, a Roman necropolis was found in central Barcelona, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries en The site, called Plaça de la Vila de Madrid, was excavated again between 2000 and 2003, when a funerary complex of about 500 square meters. This mass grave, containing the remains of 66 people, was set up to bury slaves or free people with low incomes.
By paying a monthly tax during their lifetime, Romans in the lowest echelons could ensure decent burials. Problems arose, however, when the relatives had to hold the obligatory ritual banquets in front of the graves, because not everyone could celebrate the deceased as tradition dictated.
For example, according to authors such as Cicero, a tomb can only be considered as such after the sacrifice of a pig – a high-priced animal that was beyond the reach of most citizens, let alone slaves.
Funeral rites, imposed by law
In the necropolis, in addition to human remains, some animal bones were also found, confirming that the funerary rites required by the law – such as banquets and offerings – were indeed carried out. A hole was made in the graves through which food and drink were introduced. Offerings, banquets and animal sacrifices were made to provide food and protection to the gods. Archaeologists have also discovered pottery and plants inside the tombs.
In a study for the academic journal Plos Oneentitled “Food for the Soul and Food for the Body: Studying Food Patterns and Funerary Tables in the Western Roman Empire“, the authors explain that “the age, sex, offerings and diet of those buried show some differences suggesting that inequalities present in life may have persisted in funerary rituals as well.”
The analysis determined that 30% of the animals identified were pigs, 27.1% cattle, 24.3% goats and 10% chickens. Deer, hare, rabbit and fox remains have also been documented. Often these were old animals to reduce banquet costs.
“This is an important point because it suggests that only animals that could not be exploited for other purposes were slaughtered (…) therefore the economic burden of slaughter could be minimized,” notes the article in Plos Oneappropriate EurekAlert.
The differences were not only economic
Roman women and men did not eat the same sources of protein – men generally ate more meat.
“This could mean that sociocultural tastes in food differed between the sexes, or that more men than women had access to protein-rich resources, perhaps because of custom, social status, wealth or medical advice.”
Romanian doctors advised “to eat different types of food according to your mood”. Men, they believed, were “hot and dry”, so they were advised to eat “cold and moist” food, such as fish. Women, on the other hand, were “cold and damp” so they had to eat “warm and dry food like oats”.
In short, the study reveals that, “although offerings and banquets were stipulated by law, not everyone could afford lavish or rich offerings. The presence of the remains of birds and portions rich in meat suggests that the relatives of the deceased tried to follow the law as closely as possible.” However, it is clear that the poor did not eat like the rich even after death.