Grain of Truth: Roman Bread Brings Ancient World Alive

If you want to understand Latin, says Rivers sixth-grade Latin teacher Cathy Favreau, you have to understand Ancient Rome. “They were a people in time,” Favreau says. “Why not learn about the people who spoke Latin?” Doing so, says Favreau, brings the subject matter alive, helping students learn and retain the language.
And if you want to understand Ancient Rome, says experimental archaeologist Farrell Monaco, you have to understand bread. Toward that end, Favreau—along with science teacher and Freight Farm director Emily Poland—teamed up with Monaco to offer students a remote but hands-on baking class in which students re-created the bread of Ancient Rome. On a recent Saturday afternoon, some 40 members of the Rivers community—students, parents, and faculty members—used modern technology to experience the ancient world, gathering around computers in their home kitchens while Monaco guided them through the preparation of two Ancient Roman specialties: panis quadratus and taralli. 

The “infamous panis quadratus,” as Monaco calls it, was excavated at the site of ancient Pompeii, the Roman city buried in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. “The Pompeiian bread is a really big thing,” says Favreau. “When they excavated the city, they found 81 loaves of it, carbonized. They’re in a museum; it’s so iconic.” She goes on to cite a theory that the loaves were left in a brick oven by a fleeing baker; protected behind iron doors, the bread was “sealed in time.” 

In their kitchens, students proofed yeast (a concession to modern times, as the Romans would surely have used a bread starter), mixed whole-wheat flour with fennel seed, poppy seeds, and parsley, and, once the ingredients were combined, threw their weight into kneading the stiff, dry dough by hand. As they worked, Monaco encouraged them to imagine the lives of those who performed this task in the ancient world. 

“You’ll feel the kneading in your biceps tomorrow,” she said. “So you will know with your body, not just with your mind, how a Roman slave felt.” And she emphasized the essential nature of the skills involved: “People have been kneading since the dawn of bread-making. It’s a very human activity, and one that everyone should do…. You’re not just making bread; you’re doing a repetitive human motion that thousands of ancestors have done before you.” 

Monaco had met with the students virtually during class time the day before, to talk about Ancient Roman foodways and to help them practice, with play-dough, creating the distinctive shapes of the panis quadratus and the taralli. The conversation about food systems formed a natural bridge to the science side of the lesson, as one of the “essential questions” that sixth graders wrestle with in their Freight Farm curriculum is “How does food build community?” 

The mass production of bread helped fuel the emergence of cities like Pompeii, and access to grain dictated how large those cities could grow. Poland, in her Freight Farm work with the students, helps them draw parallels with our world, as climate change, the pandemic, and other geopolitical factors shape the growth and movement of populations.

Weeks beforehand, the students had fashioned planters from recycled plastic and used them to grow the parsley that ultimately found its way into the panis quadratus, further underlining the interconnectedness of science, history, foodways, and language. “Our mission is to make this as interdisciplinary as possible,” says Poland, “and to have students discover through doing.”

“There’s a lot of systems thinking that goes into putting together our curriculum,” seconds Favreau. “Seeing the various parts, and how they connect.”

At the Saturday class, Monaco kept up a steady stream of informative commentary as students formed their second batch of dough into some 80 or so taralli, small bread rings that are still made today much as they were in the ancient world (although they are no longer treated as offerings to the gods). Later, once the panis quadratus dough had had a chance to rise, Monaco walked them through forming the round loaf, which involved tying it with twine and using a tool such as the back of a knife or a dowel to demarcate eight wedges. The finished product looked and tasted authentic—very plausibly like a food consumed in ancient times.

And that, said Monaco, is precisely the point. “This is what we’ve done since the beginning of agriculture,” she said. “It hasn’t changed. It doesn’t have to—because it’s perfect as it is.”