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date: 06 February 2023

baking, Romanfree

baking, Romanfree

  • Jared T. Benton


  • Ancient Economy
  • Science, Technology, and Medicine
  • Roman Material Culture

The earliest Roman bakers almost certainly made bread for their own households, but not for sale to the public. Pliny the Elder tells us in his Natural History (18.28) that among the quirites of Rome’s past, women baked the family’s bread, an observation he bases on comparisons with contemporary non-Roman peoples. Yet modes of domestic production were probably as diverse as the families themselves; early terracotta figurines from the eastern Mediterranean show women, men, and children all participating in the production of bread (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Terra-cotta figurines baking bread from Tanagra, c. 6th or 5th century bce. After Blümner 1875, fig. 29. National Museum in Athens.

Moreover, the figurine shows both milling and baking, processes that remained interlinked until the end of antiquity. Even later commercial bakers seem also to have been millers. Medieval bakers, however, rarely milled their own grain. To some extent, this resulted from the advent of new technologies such as watermills and windmills, but the watermill, at least, was available from the 1st century bce onward (Vitr. De arch. 10.5.2; Strab. Geo. 12.3.30).1 Bakers who purchased flour premilled, rather than milling their own grain, do not appear to have been the norm until the 6th or 7th century ce.

Whoever the early domestic bakers were, they had at their disposal a number of methods to produce their bread. The bread making described by Pliny (18.26) suggests that much Roman bread was of the sourdough sort. Flour, from any number of grains, was mixed with some sort of leavening agent. Pliny describes the use of fermented grape juice (mustum), a soured barley cake, or even beer foam, but he makes clear that these practices were abnormal or antiquated in his time. The normal method, says Pliny, was to save some dough before salt is added. It was mixed with water and allowed to ferment into a sourdough starter (a sort of fermented slurry) and added to the next day’s dough to serve as the leavening agent. Although sourdough bread was probably the norm, what characterises Pliny’s description of Roman bread is the variety of types, made from different grains and taking myriad forms. In general, white leavened bread was preferred to coarser brown breads. Certain types of bread were even associated with higher or lower social status; for Juvenal (Sat. 5.74–5) “to know the color of one’s bread” meant knowing one’s place in Roman society, and jokes about giving darker bread to sub-elite guests were common.2 Carbonised loaves of bread were found in some bakeries in Pompeii, still in their ovens.

Most domestically produced bread was probably not baked in masonry ovens such as those found in the bakeries at Pompeii and Ostia, but in terracotta baking vessels such as the testum and the clibanus.3 Cato (Agr. 75) refers to the process as sub testu (“under brick”). These devices were widely used from the 3rd to the 1st century bce. Following the 1st century bce, testa and clibani persisted in rural contexts, but became extremely rare in urban ones.4 It is likely that the disappearance of these baking technologies resulted from the increasing commercialization of baking in Roman cities. Indeed, rapidly advancing baking and milling technologies during the last few centuries bce corroborate intensified commercial baking in the Roman world.

When the first commercial bakers emerged in Rome is somewhat unclear owing to a dearth of archaeological evidence, and distinguishing the earliest commercial bakers from their domestic counterparts may be impossible. The issue is complicated by Pliny the Elder, who says that there were no bakers in the city until the war with King Perseus in 171 bce (18.28), though the earliest literary accounts of bakers in Rome pre-date Pliny’s assertion by a generation or so. Moreover, the etymology of the Latin words for “baker” and “bakery” leads to further confusion. According to Varro (Rust. 1.63) the terms for commercial bakers, pistores, and their bakeries, pistrina, were derived from the verb pinsere, “to grind or pound.” The earliest pistores, then, may have actually been millers rather than bakers, and the Roman baking industry may have grown out of commercial milling.5 Later pistrina were places of both milling and baking, suggesting that craftsmen or workshops could bear a title that did not entirely reflect the reality of their commercial endeavors. In Plautus’s late 3rd century bce play Asinaria (l. 200), a character notes that bread is purchased from a pistor, suggesting that at least some pistores were baking as well as milling at an early point in the history of Roman commercial baking.

The first archaeological evidence for commercial baking in Rome dates to the late 1st century bce, discovered just outside the Porta Maggiore.6 This bakery, if it was in fact a pistrinum, is very poorly preserved; indeed, little material evidence for commercial baking remains extant in Rome from any period. Despite the lack of evidence from Rome, bakeries at Pompeii and from around the Roman Empire offer possible comparanda for the early bakers in the city. Bakeries have been found around the empire, including around thirty in Pompeii, two in Herculaneum, six in Ostia, two in Italica (Spain), and eight in Volubilis (Morocco) (Figs. 26).

Figure 2. Plan of Pompeii with bakeries indicated.

Illustration by author.

Figure 3. Plan of Herculaneum with bakeries indicated.

Illustration by author.

Figure 4. Plan of Ostia with bakeries indicated.

Illustration by author.

Figure 5. Plan of Italica with bakeries indicated.

Illustration by author.

Figure 6. Plan of Volubilis with bakeries indicated.

Illustration by author.

Many bakeries in Pompeii are located in large homes, like that of the Casa di Laberinto, integrated with the areas of low accessibility and visibility in the house most commonly associated with the household’s more modest residents: slaves (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. Plan of Casa di Labirinto, Pompeii.

Illustration by author.

Slaves, as members of the broadly defined Roman familia and residents in the elite domus, surely performed the vast majority of the labour. Some slaves were probably in charge of oversight as proxies (institores) for their masters, while others performed brutal physical labour.7 In Plautus’s Asinaria (l. 709), impertinent slaves are threatened with despatch to the bakeries as a punishment, and the bakery slaves described by Apuleius (Met. 9.12) are whipped, chained, and beaten black and blue. When needed, free poor may have also been employed in Roman pistrina. A graffito from Pompeii suggests that a day’s work earned someone one denarius and a loaf of bread: OPERARI PANE DENARIV (CIL IV 6877), though the exact nature of the labour is not specified. Work for pay may be suggested by another graffito, with illustration (GraffPalatino I.289), from the Palatine hill in Rome that reads, “Work, little ass, as I have worked and you shall profit.”

Although some bakeries in Pompeii are located in large, elite houses, most pistrina around the Roman world are independent of such large houses. In the Casa dei Casti Amanti in Pompeii, the commercial production of bread is integrated into the house’s dining rooms and other spaces with elaborate decoration, typically associated with elite domesticity Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Plan of Casa dei Casti Amanti, Pompeii.

Illustration by author.

Unlike that of the bakeries in large houses, production is in areas of high visibility and high accessibility. Other bakeries, such as the Forum Bakery at Volubilis or the so-called Pistrinum of Sextus Patulcus (Insula Orientalis II.8) in Herculaneum, seem entirely consumed by production space (Figs. 9 and 10).

Figure 9. Plan of Forum Bakery at Volubilis.

Illustration by author.

Figure 10. Plan of Pistrinum of Sextus Patulcus, Herculaneum.

Illustration by author.

Bakers working in such bakeries may have lived in the pistrinum as well, albeit in a more modest fashion than the residents of the Casa dei Casti Amanti. The possibilities are innumerable, but the space in all these smaller bakeries suggests intimacy and closeness. Family members were probably responsible for the operation of such bakeries, assisted by the slaves or hired help that the family could afford. Customers were almost surely familiar faces.

Bakers, particularly in the Latin West, frequently used imagery derived from their trade on their tombs, on shop signs, and even on signet rings. Such iconography often shows a single millstone with a donkey, such as the funerary monument of M. Careius Asinus from Narbonne or a signet ring of unknown provenance (see Figs. 11 and 12).

Figure 11. Funerary monument of M. Careius Asinus from Narbonne. E. Espériandieu, Recueil général des bas-reliefs, statues et bustes de la Gaule romaine (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1925), no. 6903.

Figure 12. Signet ring. Blümner 1875, fig. 21.

Never, in the provinces, does one find monumental tombs of bakers or programmatic, complex iconography exalting the craft of a baker. In Rome, in contrast, there are signs as early as the 1st century bce that the commercial baking industry might be developing in ways different from those in the empire’s smaller urban centres. On the 1st-century bce Tomb of the Baker, Eurysaces is described in one inscription (CIL VI 1958a) as a pistor redemptor, likely a contract baker, perhaps providing bread to some state institution (Fig. 13).8

Figure 13. South façade of the Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker, Porta Maggiore, Rome.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

No such contract bakers are evident in the small bakeries around the empire, and it may explain the grand size of the tomb. The form of the tomb consists of hollow roundels supported by long cylinders, also hollow. Some have proposed that the hollow roundels and cylinders represent grain measures,9 but the most recent scholarship maintains that the round holes are kneaders of the sort found in Pompeii, in Ostia, and around the Mediterranean (Fig. 14).10

Figure 14. Kneaders in the Caseggiato dei Molini, Ostia.

Photo by author.

Squares evident in the roundels are also apparent in the truncated cylinders on the broken eastern façade, and the same squares are observable in kneaders (Fig. 15).

Figure 15. Square in the bottom of a kneader from Casa dei Casti Amanti, Pompeii.

Photo by author.

Eurysaces may have wanted to showcase a new technology on his tomb; kneaders appear to have been a recent innovation. The recently published Romolo Relief is roughly contemporaneous with the Eurysaces’ tomb, but no kneaders are depicted in the scene.11

The most discussed attribute of the tomb, however, is the frieze showing scenes of commercial baking, which originally existed on all four sides but is only partially preserved on three (Fig. 16).

Figure 16. Drawing of frieze, Tomb of Eurysaces, Rome. Curtis 2001, fig. 28, after Hans Lamer, Römische Kultur im Bilde (Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1915), fig. 145.

The frieze depicts all the processes necessary for the production of bread. The number of figures and their varying attire suggest high levels of production and a complex internal hierarchy within Eurysaces’ operation, congruent with the wealth necessary to have built such an opulent tomb. Indeed, there is ample legal evidence to suggest not only that Rome’s bakeries were producing on a larger scale, but also that the state was going to some effort to ensure high levels of production. For example, Trajan offered concessions to Junian Latins and pistores in general if they operated a bakery that milled at least 100 modii of grain a day, enough to feel at least a thousand people (Gai. Inst., 1.34; Digest (Paulus) 27.1.46).

By the 2nd century ce, Rome’s bakeries were approaching mass production of bread, if Ostia’s baking industry is any indication. The so-called Molino at Ostia (I.13.4) housed six or seven millstones, four kneaders, and an oven 5m in diameter (Fig. 17).

Figure 17. Plan of Molino, Ostia.

Illustration by author.

In fact, the oven in the Caseggiato dei Molini (I.3.1) is so large that it has been suggested that it contained some sort of rotating “lazy Susan” so that the baker could utilise its entire capacity, as evidenced by a series of grooves in the sides of the oven (Figs. 18 and 19).12

Figure 18. Plan of Caseggiato dei Molini, Ostia.

Illustration by author.

Figure 19. Grooves in oven from Caseggiato dei Molini, Ostia.

Photo by author.

But the ovens are all oval, and so no rotation within them would be possible; it seems more likely that the Ostian ovens baked bread in trays, which were loaded using some sort of long pole that made the marks on the sides of the ovens. Indeed, the lateral apertures behind the baking space would have allowed the baker to move the pole beyond what the wall would otherwise have allowed (Fig. 20).

Figure 20. Apertures in front of oven room in Caseggiato dei Molini, Ostia.

Photo by author.

Operating one of these huge bakeries may have been a hardship. The 3rd-century sarcophagus of Annius Octavius Valerianus from Rome, now in the Vatican, shows scenes of commercial baking not unlike those on Eurysaces’ tomb. But in the inscription (CIL VI 11743), Valerianus laments his poor fortune in life and welcomes the escape of death.

The 3rd century ce witnessed the rise of a new technology which would forever change the Roman commercial baking industry: the watermill. Some have argued that the introduction of this technology spurred a hyperspecialisation of bakers and millers and the creation of two separate crafts in late 4th century ce.13 But Vitruvius (De arch. 10.5.2) and Strabo (Strab. Geo. 12.3.30) describe such devices as early as the 1st century bce.14 Even if watermills were only being implemented in the 3rd century ce and later—and there is significant evidence to the contrary—the mills on the Janiculum could not have provided for more than 5 or 6 percent of the city’s population.15 Indeed, there is significant evidence to suggest that Roman pistores around the empire continued to mill and bake well into the 6th century ce.16 It is only at the very end of antiquity, when new systems of supply and consumption superseded the old Roman ways of doing things, that the miller and the baker finally became two separate professions.


  • Bakker, Jan Theo. The Mills-Bakeries of Ostia: Description and Interpretation. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1999.
  • Blümner, Hugo. Technologie und Terminologie der Gewerbe und Künste bei Griechen und Römern. 2d edn. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1875.
  • Brandt, Olle. “Recent Research on the Tomb of Eurysaces.” Opuscula Romana 19.2 (1993): 13–17.
  • Coates-Stephens, Robert. Porta Maggiore, Monument and Landscape: Archaeology and Topography of the Southern Esquiline from the Late Republican Period to the Present. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2004.
  • Cubberley, A. L., J. A. Lloyd, and P. C. Roberts. “Testa and Clibani: The Baking Covers of Classical Italy.” Papers of the British School at Rome 56 (1988): 98–119.
  • Curtis, Robert I. Ancient Food Technology. Leiden: Brill, 2001.
  • Erdkamp, Paul. The Grain Market in the Roman Empire: A Social, Political and Economic Study. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Frayn, Joan M. “Home-baking in Roman Italy.” Antiquity 52.204 (1978): 28–33.
  • Fujisawa, A. “I ‘Pistores’ nel Primo Impero.” Acme 48.2 (1995): 169–181.
  • Kirschenbaum, Aaron. Sons, Slaves, and Freedmen in Roman Commerce. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1987.
  • Leduc, M. “Les Pistrina Volubilitains, Temoins Majeurs du Dynamisme Economique Municipal.” In L’Africa Romana: Le Ricchezze dell’Africa Risorse, Produzioni, Scambi: Atti del XVII Convegno di Studio, Sevilla, 14–17 Dicembre 2006. Rome: Carocci, 2008.
  • Marquardt, Karl Joachim. Das Privatleben der Römer. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1886.
  • Mayeske, Betty Jo B. “A Pompeian Bakery on the Via dell’Abbondanza.” In Studia Pompeiana et Classica in Honor of Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, edited by Robert I. Curtis, vol. 1, 149–166. New Rochelle, NY: A. D. Caratzas, 1988.
  • Monteix, Nicolas. “Pompei, Pistrina: Recherches sur les Boulangeries de l’Italie Romaine.” Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome 121.1 (2009): 322–335.
  • Moritz, L. A. Grain-Mills and Flour in Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.
  • Oleson, John Peter. Greek and Roman Mechanical Water-Lifting Devices: The History of a Technology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
  • Petersen, Lauren Hackworth. The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Rossetto, Paola Ciancio. Il sepolcro del fornaio Marco Virgilio Eurisace a Porta Maggiore. Rome: Istituto di studi romani, 1973.
  • Sirks, Adriaan Johan Boudewijn. Food for Rome: The Legal Structure of the Transportation and Processing of Supplies for the Imperial Distributions in Rome and Constantinople. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1991.
  • Tengström, Emin. Bread for the People: Studies of the Corn-supply of Rome During the Late Empire. Stockholm, 1974.
  • Toynbee, J. M. C. Death and Burial in the Roman World. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971.
  • Wacke, A. “Mühlen und Müllerbäcker im römischen Reich und Recht.” In Europarecht, Energierecht, Wirtschaftsrecht: Festschrift für Bodo Börner zum 70. Geburtstag. Edited by J. F. Bauer et al. Köln: C. Heymann, 1992.
  • Wikander, Örjan. “Water Mills in Ancient Rome.” Opuscula Romana 12 (1979): 13–36.
  • Wikander, Örjan. “Where of Old All the Mills of the City Have Been Constructed”: The Capacity of the Janiculum Mills in Rome. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2002.
  • Wilson, Andrew, and Katia Schorle. “A Baker’s Funerary Relief from Rome.” Papers of the British School at Rome 77 (2009): 101–123.


  • 1. For fuller discussion, see L. A. Moritz, Grain-Mills and Flour in Classical Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 193–196; Örjan Wikander, “Water Mills in Ancient Rome.” Opuscula Romana 12 (1979): 15–16; John Peter Oleson, Greek and Roman Mechanical Water-Lifting Devices: The History of a Technology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 118–120.

  • 2. Moritz, Grain-Mills, 153; Martial 9.2.4; Petronius 64.8.

  • 3. Joan M. Frayn, “Home-baking in Roman Italy.” Antiquity 52.204 (1978): 28–33.

  • 4. A. L. Cubberley, J. A. Lloyd, and P. C. Roberts, “Testa and Clibani: The Baking Covers of Classical Italy.” Papers of the British School at Rome 56 (1988): 101.

  • 5. A. Fujisawa, “I ‘pistores’ nel primo impero,” Acme 48.2 (1995): 175.

  • 6. Robert Coates-Stephens, Porta Maggiore, Monument and Landscape: Archaeology and Topography of the Southern Esquiline from the Late Republican Period to the Present (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2004).

  • 7. Aaron Kirschenbaum, Sons, Slaves and Freedmen in Roman Commerce (Jerusalem: Magnes Press of Hebrew University, 1987), 99.

  • 8. Paola Ciancio Rossetto, Il sepolcro del fornaio Marco Virgilio Eurisace a Porta Maggiore (Rome: Istituto di Studi Romani, 1973); Olle Brandt, “Recent Research on the Tomb of Eurysaces,” Opuscula Romana 19.2 (1993): 14–15; Robert I. Curtis, Ancient Food Technology (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 358–360; Lauren Hackworth Petersen, The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 87–88.

  • 9. J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), 128.

  • 10. Rossetto, Il sepolcro del fornaio; Brandt, “Recent Research on the Tomb of Eurysaces”; Petersen, Freedman, 112–113.

  • 11. Andrew Wilson and Katia Schorle, “A Baker’s Funerary Relief from Rome,” Papers of the British School at Rome 77 (2009): 101–123.

  • 12. Jan Theo Bakker, The Mills-Bakeries of Ostia: Description and Interpretation (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1999), 60.

  • 13. Joachim Marquardt, Das Privatleben der Römer (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1886), 423; Emin Tengström, Bread for the People: Studies of the Corn-supply of Rome during the Late Empire (Stockholm: P. Åstrom,1974), 76–77; Adriaan J. B. Sirks, Food for Rome: The Legal Structure of the Transportation and Processing of Supplies for the Imperial Distributions in Rome and Constantinople (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1991), 307; Wacke, “Mühlen und Müllerbäcker,” 648; Paul Erdkamp, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire: A Social, Political and Economic Study (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 253–254.

  • 14. For fuller discussion, see Moritz, Grain-Mills, 193–196; Wikander, “Water-Mills,” 15–16; Oleson, Greek and Roman Mechanical Lifting Devices, 118–120.

  • 15. Örjan Wikander, “Where of Old All the Mills of the City Have Been Constructed”: The Capacity of the Janiculum Mills in Rome (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2002), 130.

  • 16. Tengström, Bread for the People, 77; a 6th-century legal contract from Egypt records the lease of a bakery by a father and son described as millers and bakers, P. Oxy 1890.