What did the Romans do for us?

"What did the Romans do for us?" is an often quoted line from The Monty Python film ‘Life of Brian’. We have learned through our history lessons how much they influenced everyday life during the years we were governed by the Romans, in ways that still exist today!

But maybe we don't realise how much our diets were formed - items we nowadays take for granted were previously unknown.

The Roman influence in what Britons ate started before they occupied our islands. Trading took part with the Celtic British elite having an ‘exotic’ taste for wine and olive oil.
The whole culinary experience for the majority of Britons only improved after the Romans became the occupational force that ruled the land.  Before this, the diet was cultivated cereals (mostly wheat and barley), and peas and beans.
The Chinese were producing noodle-like food 3,000 years BC but that is another story. However pasta did appear on the Roman menu in the fourth century AD. Pizza was a much later addition being  invented in 1889 in Naples as a tribute to the Italian Queen Margherita so cannot be attributed to our past occupiers. 

Many items introduced by the Romans are still part of our staple diets. These items include apples, asparagus, turnips, garlic, cabbage, celery, onions, leeks, cucumbers, artichokes, figs, sweet chestnuts, cherries and plums. Who would have thought it?!
And the Roman cuisine was certainly a lot more elaborate and tasty. Herbs and spices, previously unknown in Britain, were introduced, including mint, coriander, rosemary, radish and garlic. 

Farm animals like white cattle and rabbits came over from the continent. Chickens were here but not a great source to the Britons until the Romans open their eyes to the possibilities. From being a source of entertainment with fights chickens became a source of food. 

Seafood was an important part of the Roman diet. This became so for the Britons. The Romans were particularly fond of shellfish like oysters. 

The Romans brought over native animals like wolves, bears, wild boar, deer, and goats. They also introduced animals from their conquests abroad. Elephants, leopards, lions, ostriches and parrots were imported in the first century AD. These species were followed by hippopotamus, rhinoceros, camel and giraffe. None of these now exist in the wild in the UK but we can still visit them in zoos and safari parks.

The brown hare is our fast mammal reaching speeds of 40 mph yet they were introduced by you know who. Also introduced were peacocks, guinea fowl, pheasants and domestic cats.

Plants like roses, foxgloves and box hedges are seemingly typical British plants yet it was the Romans who introduced them over here. 

And nettles might be the bane of the gardener but they are not native as the Romans brought their seeds with them. Being beaten by nettles in cold climates helped keep people warm. Perhaps best not tried at home!

The Romans did a lot for us apart from simply providing sanitation, medicine, education, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health! So now you know, Reg!

Andrew Harrison

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