What did the Romans do for us?

You may consider the apple, pear and hare to be the most quintessentially English of species, but think again. We owe many of our most valued 'native' edibles to 400 years of Roman occupation.

The yellow flower umbel of the Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) plant
Apples, peaches, pears and plums were all Roman introductions (pic: Mark Cartwright)

What we have to thank the Romans for, as the joke goes, is merely our roads, sanitation, plumbing, currency and written language. The legacy of their great settlements is acknowledged everywhere you see a “cester”, but what’s less well-recognised is that every time you pick an apple (Malus sp.), damson (Prunus domestica) or pear (Pyrus sp.), trim a box hedge, stand in the shade of a walnut tree, or spot a brown hare, you’re sharing in the enduring impact occupation had on the British landscape.


The invading forces, when they arrived in AD 43, considered themselves culturally superior to the common Briton, whose diet was heavy in cultivated cereals, supplemented with some peas and beans. Little had changed for the livestock and agrarian farmers of the British Isles since the introduction of wheat and barley during the Neolithic (Van Der Veen, Livarda & Hill, 2008). The Romans, in pursuit of the Britons' land and precious metals, arrived with an army to feed, and were able to supply it with resources tapped from a vast empire. They not only brought with them a large number of foods from the Mediterranean basin, but also exotic specimens from their trade routes. In all, more than 50 species are thought to have arrived in Britain during their 367-year occupation (Van Der Veen, Livarda & Hill, 2008). Today, we still benefit from this rich and varied list of introductions, which helped to define the arrival of Roman legions as an ecological and cultural turning point for the British diet (Witcher, 2013).


Over time, some of these imported species became naturalised while others became commonly cultivated, helping to feed not only the indigenous population but also the group of consumers that emerged from the newly-created towns (Van Der Veen, Livarda & Hill, 2008). The introductions were broad ranging, including everything from fruits and vegetables to nuts, herbs, oily seeds and even fauna. Some of these edibles are still predominantly cultivated today, including fruits such as the peach (Persica vulgaris), fig (Ficus carica), grape (Vitis vinifera) and olive (Olea europea) as well as vegetables like the turnip (Brassica rapa), leek (Allium porrum), cucumber (Cucumis sativus), lettuce (Lactuca sativa), oil seed rape (Brassica napus) and asparagus (Asparagus officinalis).

Young forming pears on a branch in the sunshine - The pear is a naturalised Roman introduction
The pear is a naturalised Roman introduction

Others became common features of hedgerows and gardens, such as the

mulberry (Morus nigra), sour cherry (Prunus cerasifera), sweet cherry (Prunus avium), plum and damson (Prunus domestica sp.), pear (Pyrus sp.) and, of course, the apple (Malus sp.) — which was once exotic even to the Romans, having originated in Kazakhstan and been spread to Europe along the silk road, influenced heavily by Alexander The Great.


The Roman’s enjoyed their fine living and a huge range of flavours were added to the British culinary palate during their tenure through the introduction of herbs, edible leaves and seeds. Among these were Alexanders (Smyrnium olasatrum), black pepper (Piper nigrum), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), dill, (Anethum graveolens), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), anise (Pimpinella anisum), summer savory (Satureja hortensis), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), black cumin (Nigella sativa), rue (Ruta graveolens), white mustard (Sinapis alba), ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) and lovage (Levisticum officinal) (Van Der Veen, Livarda & Hill, 2008; Witcher, 2013).


Ground elder growing from grass
Ground elder is one of the more invasive Roman species

For the forager, it is this group which has left perhaps the most enduring legacy, as naturalised escapees. One of the most prevailing of these is ground elder, which is now viewed as a nuisance "weed" by many gardeners — not least because of its deep, rapidly-spreading, spaghetti-like rhizomes that earned it the nickname devil’s guts (Wildlifetrusts.org, n.d). The Romans used it as a culinary spring leaf and also medicinally — its use being given away by its later colloquial names of goutweed and bishopsweed, so called as bishops were thought to be particularly prone to over-indulgence (Mabey, 2012).


Fennel was another Roman kitchen garden herb that rapidly naturalised, aided by the ability of its seeds to swiftly colonise disturbed ground. Perhaps for this reason Romans were said to have associated it with strength, and gladiators and soldiers were reported to mix the herb with their food to promote success in the arena or on campaign. To the Romans, fennel had almost sacred status and triumphant gladiators were crowned with fennel garlands (Nutritional Geography n.d). It is now a very common plant in Britain, although it hints at its Mediterranean past with its preference for southern climes and drier soils.


A walnut fruit on the tree
The walnut: food of the Roman gods

While some introductions were rampant, others have had to find their niche. The Macedonian native Alexanders found its footing in our climate hugging the warmer coastal regions. Like many favoured medicinal and culinary Roman species, its cultivation was later taken up by monks. It didn’t stray far, and as a result it can often be spotted near monasteries and other sites of old human habitation. Find several of these species at a site and you may well be walking in ancient Roman footsteps.


Look up and other imposing relics of Roman occupation remain. Among the nuts cultivated was the walnut (Juglans regia), which became one of the first trees to make a naturalised home here post-colonisation. It was highly prized by the Romans, who named it after their god Jupiter, who was said to have dined on walnuts when he lived on earth.


The sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) was also long thought to be an emblematic Roman contribution — understandable, as the world’s oldest example of the tree, aged between 2,000 and 4,000 years, resides in Italy, on the slopes of Mount Etna. Recent investigation, however, has shown that while the Romans may well have eaten imported chestnuts, there is no evidence of the tree growing here before AD 650. The oldest written references to the sweet chestnut appeared in the 11th century, while the oldest living examples have been dated to the mid-1600s (Jarman et al., 2019).


An young elm with signs of Dutch elm disease at the remains of the Roman amphitheatre in Silchester
A young, diseased elm at Silchester amphitheatre

The Romans certainly brought with them some tree species for practical uses, notably the elm, which was used to train grape vines. A team of Spanish researchers discovered that the English elm (Ulmus procera) population was derived from a single, asexual clone, which occurred 2,000 years ago during occupation (Gil et al., 2004). This lack of genetic diversity may well explain why the species was so devastated by the outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, which killed more than 25 million English elm trees.


Britain’s first formal gardens were also laid out by the Romans — as evidenced by the remains at Bancroft, Fishbourne and Frocester villas — and so a variety of ornamental tree species also made their entrance. These were primarily box (Buxus sempervirens) and on a lesser scale, stone-pine (Pinus pinea) and Norway Spruce (Picea abies). Box was thought to have ritual, funerary uses and has been recovered from Roman burials in Dorset, Berkshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex, although Pliny the Younger described its use in topiary (Lodwick, 2017).


Ask any school child what the Romans ate and they will be unlikely to mention herbs and vegetables — they will name the dormouse. Both edible and garden dormice were indeed Roman introductions, as were the brown hare, Roman snail, pea fowl, pheasant and possibly the common carp and fallow deer (Witcher, 2013). The jury remains out on the rabbit, which, like the fallow deer, may have been the result of a later conquest, either introduced or re-introduced by the Normans.

A Roman snail
The Roman snail: now so British it's a protected species

In an era in which we have become sensitive to the devastation introduced species can cause to ecosystems, it is curious to observe how many of these Roman contributions have come to define Britishness. For this reason, when talking about ancient introductions, some ecologists have found describing species as “alien” or “native” unhelpful and they are instead considered “archaeophytes” (introduced between c.4000 BCE and AD 1500) and “neophytes” (introduced post-1500) (Witcher, 2013).


Several Roman archaeophytes are considered such valuable additions to our landscape that they are protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, including the Roman snail and brown hare. The Romans themselves certainly did not consider the ecological impact of their actions, instead placing emphasis on the benefits of relocating plants and animals to conquered lands — including creating new hybrid varieties of plants and livestock by interbreeding and grafting (Futo Kennedy & Jones-Lewis, 2020).Today, despite a tendency to vilify alien species, we still laud the richness and variety the Romans introduced.


Roman nettle flowers
Myths about the Roman nettle have been debunked

So was there anything the Romans did not do for us? Contrary to popular legend, they aren’t to blame for the spread of the humble but pernicious nettle. The Roman nettle (Urtica pilulifera) is distinct from our common or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and while it used to occur casually in southern Britain, it is no longer found this far north in Europe (Lodwick, 2014). It was William Camden, writing in his Britannia in 1586, who first recited the claims of herbalist John Parkinson, who had linked the Roman nettle to Romney in Kent, where he claimed Julius Caesar had landed in 54 BC. The Roman soldiers were said to have brought seeds with them to sow, so they could use the plants to keep warm through the reaction of their skin to the stings. Even 400 years ago, Camden dismissed Parkinson’s claims as inaccurate. The common stinging nettle is considered a British native — so that is one thing the Brits can claim as their own.


References


Cartwright, M. (2014, May 06). Fruit, Roman Mosaic. World History Encyclopedia.


Futo Kennedy, R. & Jones-Lewis, M. (2020). The Routledge handbook of identity and the environment in the classical and medieval worlds. London: Routledge.


Gil, L., Fuentes-Utrilla, P., Soto, Á., Cervera, M. T., & Collada, C. (2004). English elm is a 2,000-year-old Roman clone. Nature, 431(7012), 1053–1053.


Grivetti, L. (n.d.). Fennel – Nutritional Geography.


Ground-elder | The Wildlife Trusts. (n.d.)


Jarman, R., Hazell, Z., Campbell, G., Webb, J., & Chambers, F. M. (2019). Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa Mill.) in Britain: Re-assessment of its Status as a Roman Archaeophyte. Britannia, 50, 49–74.


Lisa Lodwick. (2014, April 10). Roman nettle – Urtica pilulifera.


Lodwick, L. A. (2017). Evergreen plants in Roman Britain and beyond: Movement, meaning and materiality. Britannia, 48, 135–173.


Mabey, R. (2012). Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants. London: Profile.


Van der Veen, M., Livarda, A., & Hill, A. (2008). New Plant Foods in Roman Britain — Dispersal and Social Access. Environmental Archaeology, 13(1), 11–36.


Van der Veen, M. (2008). Food as embodied material culture: diversity and change in plant food consumption in Roman Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 21, 83–109.


Witcher, R. (2013). On Rome’s ecological contribution to British flora and fauna: landscape, legacy and identity. Landscape History, 34(2), 5–26.