An Ancient History of Bread (part 2): Bread for an Emperor

If our mutual friend Bread could pass a global decree I believe it would include the mandatory separation between dining and politics. It would absolutely prohibit political discussions when consuming bread. Even if politics is your favorite topic, from its cheap slogans and broken promises, it’s still not a good idea to discuss with your friends while enjoying a soft loaf. It brings back painful memories of a controversial time in Bread’s life–a time when it felt used, helpless, like a puppet in the hands of manipulative elites.

You can find the first part of our Ancient History of Bread series here.

Bread suffered exploitation at various times in different places; however, the most resounding example of its extensive politicization in ancient history occurred in the Roman Empire. You might be familiar with the metonymic Panem et circenses (Bread and circuses) coined by the satirical poet Juvenal. The expression was intended as a critique of the small-mindedness of the lower classes; nevertheless, it indirectly highlighted the strategy employed by Roman public officials to obtain and preserve consensus. Feeding and distracting the masses was the highway to a successful reign, hence many rulers took it, and never looked back.

Feeding and distracting the masses was the highway to a successful reign, hence many rulers took it, and never looked back

Bread and Circuses

The practice of offering doles started with the lex frumentaria in 123 B.C. Through this legislation the Romans would import wheat from their provinces in Africa, Sicily and Sardinia to then distribute it at low prices to the poor. Later on, the wheat was handed out free of charge thanks to an updated version of the law tailored by Clodius. As Jacob reports, populations who benefitted from this dubious gift grew exponentially over the years, from forty thousand people in the year 72 B.C. to two hundred thousand during Julius Caesar’s reign (46-44 B.C.). Throughout this time and afterwards, grain came mostly from one location: Egypt. 

The relationship between Rome and Egypt clearly shows the strategic importance that bread came to occupy in Roman politics. Egyptian wheat had been the obsession of many, but after Cleopatra’s death, Augustus made a pivotal move when he decided against the direct annexation of Egypt to the Empire, instead keeping the territory as his personal dominion. This decision led to a drastic change in Roman politics for a number of reasons. 

First, Egypt didn’t belong to the Roman Empire, it belonged to Octavian Augustus as an individual. Profits coming from Egypt would be destined to the Emperor’s pockets, and he was free to do what he wanted with it. It was only thanks to the Emperor’s benevolence that the wheat continued being shipped to Rome and handed out to its people. Such charity established a direct link between the Emperor and the poorest individuals in society, strengthening his authority through the gratitude and respect  from the disadvantaged. Augustus was smart to protect his most treasured possession; in fact he prohibited Senatorial travel to Egypt so that he could prevent any opposing political faction from causing uprisings in the land of pharaohs. 

Egypt, which made up a third of Roman grain imports, was owned by this handsome fellow – Octavian Augustus

Second, Egypt made up around one third of the total grain importation to Rome, thus without Egypt, an Emperor could not have fed the army and his needy subjects, two of the most important groups to appease if one wanted stable rule in the Eternal City. This was the reason why many of the most dangerous revolts in this period started from Egypt. Its control became the key variable in making or breaking a ruler. For instance, Vespasian in 69 A.D. blocked a Roman fleet trying to transport grain from Egypt to Rome, asserting that the Roman people would have their wheat only after his election. Rome couldn’t live without grains; therefore, surprise surprise, he was nominated Emperor that same year. 

With time the lex frumentaria was once again revised and, under Aurelian (270-275 A.D.), instead of wheat, people began receiving two bread doles each. This revised practice of distributing doles had a dramatic socio-economic impact on the Empire’s future. The right to receive bread doles soon became hereditary, hence unemployment rose. The number of bureaucrats needed to sustain this system also grew causing an increase in public expenditure, meaning Roman provinces were progressively drained of their resources. More importantly, the Romans gradually lost their greatest strengths of pragmatism and military genius. These were suffocated by a relatively easy life. With vast portions of the population being fed directly by the Emperor, Romans were free to dwell in leisure rather than spend time determining how to sustain themselves. Once the Barbarians attacked, the Romans had simply become too weak. 

The Art of Baking

The gloomy portrait of such an exploitative and self-destructive phase in Roman history should not outshine objectivity. It must be specified that bread’s introduction in the Empire meant positive improvement for some societal groups. When it was first introduced in Rome, the baking of bread was seen as a task reserved exclusively for stay-at-home females. However, around 172 B.C. the rising figure of the baker started gaining a certain level of esteem. The baker came to be regarded as a creative genius, a true artist. His craft was named ars pistorica (art of baking). Bakeries developed and expanded just like its workers’ role and Rome eventually enjoyed the services of two hundred and sixty bakeries, each presenting more or less the same structural characteristics. A Roman bakery generally had a kneading area, a leavening department and a space designated for grinding grain. Furthermore, a portion of the bakery was dedicated to ovens whose product could be sold in the store area. When the baker’s job started booming, some individuals distinguished themselves by gaining extraordinary connections, wealth, and expertise – all thanks to bread. An example is that of Marcus Virgilius Eurysaces, a freed slave turned baker who lived in the second half of the first century B.C.

Rome eventually enjoyed the services of two hundred and sixty bakeries, each presenting more or less the same structural characteristics

Eurysaces was a remarkable man who, using what we would call networking, was able to become the Roman army’s favorite bread supplier. Consequently, he amassed enough wealth to afford a massive tomb for himself and his wife in one of Rome’s main streets, a privilege only the very few richest could afford. The monument proving the baker’s rise and bread’s kind gifts to its workers was so well crafted (and lucky) that it survives to this day in Rome close to the area of Porta Maggiore.  

Hopefully, it is now obvious that although Bread has been through a lot, it has retained its generosity. Maybe your doughy friend who’s always with you when you need it and never asks for anything in return deserves some gratitude. Don’t make it weird though, no tears, no shouting, no romantic tracks playing in the background, just a heartfelt “Thanks.” Then, keep up the mindful chewing. 

Further Reading

Jacob H.E., (2016). Six thousand years of bread: its Holy and Unholy history. Haruaki Publishing. [Number of people who benefited from grain doles, Augustus’ strategies, Importance of Egypt] 

Manetta, C. (2016). ” Our Daily Bread” in Italy: Its Meaning in the Roman Period and Today. Material Culture, 28-43. [Roman bakeries and Eurysaces]

An Ancient History of Bread (part one): the Child of Civilization

You’ve probably never given your lunch a second thought. How did bread become the worldwide sensation it is today? If one dares to go back in time, it is apparent how the consumption of certain foods came to symbolize the advancement of our species and the growth of civilization. In particular, staple foods like bread faithfully accompanied mankind like a puppy would its master.

Continue reading

A lifetime worth of stories

Like a painting, society is created out of different, colourful brush strokes of social, legal, economic, political, and religious aspects. The work of notary Bernardo Maria Callus depicts the changes and developments, traditions and values, and aspirations of the Order of St John’s as well as Maltese individuals’ needs. The acts of notary Callus are important for the study of continuity, change, and interaction in mid-eighteenth century Hospitaller Malta.

By examining the second volume of notary Callus under the supervision of Dr Emanuel Buttigieg (Faculty of Arts, University of Malta), I encountered a new perspective about the administration of the Order of St John. Individual knights created foundations, similar to today’s financial organisations, which leased property to the Maltese. Subsequently the income was invested into military, naval, or charitable needs of Maltese society (and the Order itself). By examining these contracts, I was able to continue building the picture of 18th-century trends in leasing and renting property in Malta, as well as the architectural and rural needs of the Maltese population at the time. This study helped piece together some of the changes in Malta’s landscape left by people. 

Reproduced with permission of the Office of the Notary to Government, Notarial Archives, Valletta.

With every page I turned, a new story emerged: a family adopting a child from the Holy Infirmary, fiscal receipts for parties, a drunkard asking the Grand Master for help in paying his debt, a woman noting her last wishes on her deathbed, or a father describing his daughter’s dowry. Notarial documents are full of these stories and much more. This research was a wonderful adventure, allowing me to immerse myself in the stories of mid-eighteenth-century Malta. It provided new insight into the daily lives of Maltese individuals, the work of the notary, the voice and power of women in society, and the changes to our islands’ landscape. In order to keep piecing together this puzzle, I have embarked on an MA in History to research the history of children and youths in Malta.

History is not only a story. It is an opportunity to learn from past mistakes. It can help rediscover traditions that explain our identity. By studying historical documents and continuing to piece together our history, we can help bridge our historical past and the effect it has on today.

This research was carried out as part of the Bachelor of Arts in History, Faculty of Arts, University of Malta. The study is called: The economy, women and social interactions in eighteenth-century Malta: A study of the acts of Notary Bernardo Maria Callus, Vol.2, 1746–1748.

Our editor-in-chief’s favourite THINK stories of all time!

The festive season is a time for family, friendship, and remembrance. Over the last nine years, I’ve seen THINK magazine being born, grow up, and mature. First as its life giver, then as its pilot, my job has been to make sure the ship doesn’t stray too far off course while allowing the excellent editors Cassi Camilleri, Daiva Repečkaitė, and David Mizzi to bring their own flavours and thoughts to the magazine. 

The journey has been long — full of hurdles and rewards. Some academics did not agree with the approach: ‘THINK turns researchers into superstars,’ blurted one researcher, making that seem like an awful thing. Other researchers couldn’t understand why we wanted to talk about their failures. Experiments don’t always work, and we wanted to show the passion researchers need in order to contribute to human knowledge through publications. Meanwhile, other people loved how much time we dedicated to design and how easy the magazine was to read, proud that the University of Malta could produce such a high quality publication on a shoe-string budget.

The year’s end has made me reflect on all the stories we have covered, from articles that affected every Maltese resident to research stories that rewrote Maltese history. It has been a great ride. Below are some of my favourites. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed working on them with the excellent THINK team.

Stories that bring to light vital issues

Research sometimes brings shocking things to light. Imagine If one-third of the world’s shipping traffic passed by your door, and every ship burnt heavy fuel oil equivalent to a medium-sized power station. Prof. Ray Ellul and his team discovered that these fumes were causing pollution peaks in Malta, which also has high levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases. 

Writing about this story showed me how important it was that THINK’s dedicated team was trying to find out what research was happening in Malta. We were the first to write about this research. Our story was picked up by issuu.com, gaining over a million hits through their platform. The story hit a nerve both in Malta and abroad.

Malta’s pollution problem is partly due to shipping, but also stems from traffic: fossil-fuel burning vehicles are Malta’s largest contributor. To this day, neither has been addressed. Lung conditions are still rampant.

We followed up the story in 2017 and again in 2020.

Imagine If one-third of the world’s shipping traffic passed by your door, and every ship burnt heavy fuel oil equivalent to a medium-sized power station.

Re-writing history

Other research shows how history tells many stories. History is not made up of one narrative but of many competing ones. The final story is written by the victor. Back in 1798, Malta was invaded by the French, but recent research by Dr Charles Xuereb adds nuance to the story Maltese children have been taught in school. The story was that the French were hated, stole all our silver, and treated the Maltese very badly. Xuereb found out that many Maltese people and the then-rulers, the Order of the Knights of St John (many of whom were French), had practically invited the French to Malta. Napoleon tried to bring his values of free education and health to Malta, but that didn’t last long as it upset the merchant class and church — two powerful forces that didn’t benefit from Napoleonic rule.

But this isn’t what surprised me the most from Xuereb’s research. Around 10,000 Maltese people died in the ensuing two-year siege by the Maltese people in rural Malta supported by the British, against those locked up in the Three Cities and the Valletta/Floriana area bolstered by the French. What’s shocking is that this event is not remembered in our history books or monuments. The British rulers who came after the French didn’t want the Maltese people to think they could overthrow a colonial power, so they emphasised the British help and reduced the role of Maltese residents in this bloody two-year war. 

For more, do read MALTA | Stockholm Syndrome: or why we love the British. If you’d like to read about other rewrites of Maltese history, see 1565 – Was it that great?

‘Lil din l-art ħelwa’ – Jean Claude Vancell

Stories that touch people’s hearts

Research changes lives. Dementia affects over 6,000 people in Malta. Cassi Camilleri wrote I’m sorry I forgot: Is dementia Malta’s next national crisis? Her story interwove Malta’s National Dementia Strategy publication with the sad story of Briton Geoffrey Morgan, who went missing and died because of his condition. His family opened up about their experience, showing just how important it is to invest in research on how to treat dementia, but also how to care for patients and their carers and families, who are normally overlooked. 

A few years later dementia treatment in Malta received another boost: dance. The Step Up For Parkinson’s Voluntary Organisation started working with dementia patients and carers in Malta. THINK worked with them to produce Dancing with Parkinson’s: A short documentary and an article by Dawn Giles about the lives of people changed by this movement. Research by the organisation’s founder Nathalie Muschamp showed the impact the organisation’s work has on people’s lives. We recently followed up on this story in Caring for Carers, where we take a look at these unsung heroes.

Dementia affects over 6,000 people in Malta

Tackling the problem of gender

THINK hasn’t shied away from difficult issues. Our March 2020 issue focused on gender boundaries. THINK investigated how women are still held back in journalism, medical research, STEM careers, and even climate change. The issues are both Maltese and present the world over. I really loved how we celebrated the women who made it despite the glass ceilings. Read Making it in a male-dominated world to learn more about the three researchers we covered. 

One article that is close to my heart is on the need to normalise the issue of gender. Rather than simply shrugging off the problem, the issue needs to be tackled head on. Dr Brenda Murphy spoke about Mainstream gender = mainstream funding. By focusing on gender and including more LGBTIQ+ community members in research, research quality will improve. I have spent tens of hours writing research grants to try and make this happen in Malta — the search goes on.

By focusing on gender and including more LGBTIQ+ community members in research, research quality will improve

THINK has been an incredible life journey for me. Creating a magazine that speaks about Maltese research has been a dream come true. I had the idea while I was still living in Edinburgh, but the concept was a shared one, and many others pushed to start such a publication in Malta. That it is still going strong, with plans to make it even stronger under the helm of Editor David Mizzi, is the best Christmas present I could have received. 

I want Maltese research to be known locally and worldwide. I want locals and politicians to talk to researchers and to make the best decisions for the country by balancing facts with public need. These wishes sound like pipe dreams, but let’s hope Santa is listening.

Safe haven?

Dr Trevor Borg

Some refer to the Venice Biennale as the pinnacle of the international art world. Last year, feathers were flurried by the Maltese delegation and their representation of Maltese identity. This year, the works question a specific part of the Maltese narrative. 

‘We are working around the theme of MALETH,’ says Dr Trevor Borg, artist, curator, and University of Malta lecturer. Maleth refers to the ancient word for Malta. ‘It is also called HAVEN and SAFE PORT.’ These were all terms used in reference to Malta over the centuries. But is our island really that? This is the question being tackled by Borg and his colleagues. 

Immigration has been a critical issue in recent years, creating an inflammatory divide in Malta. Borg is using the first immigrants, the animals that travelled to Malta during the ice age, to make his point. ‘They travelled here because of the heat our island provided and the food that came with it. But as the ice in the North started to melt, sea level rose and they were unable to return.’

What is the relation between an (apparent) safe haven and a heterotopia? Here, heterotopia refers to Michel Foucault‘s notion of the ‘other place’. Heterotopias are described as ‘worlds within worlds’, connecting different places. They are places that constitute multiple layers of meaning, that accumulate time, that can be both real and unreal.

To represent this visually, Borg is going to create an archaeological find with hundreds of objects from history. Animal remains will feature, as will unusual artefacts and other strange finds. Borg was inspired by Ghar Dalam and used it as a starting point, but this work is not about history. ‘My work begins at the cave. But I will then leave the cave behind and delve into a distant world that never was! The work responds to fabricated histories, museological conventions, historical interpretations, and hypothetical authenticity. It is based on pseudo-archaeological objects and imaginary narratives,’ he explains. 

Collaborating on this work, bringing the artefacts to life is Dr Ing. Emmanuel Francalanza (Faculty of Engineering). The process began at the National History museum in Mdina. ‘Together we selected and scanned a number of animal bones from their archives,’ Francalanza says. This included femurs, teeth, and skulls among others. ‘I then supported Trevor in reconstructing the 3D model and preparing it for printing.’ 

For Francalanza, this was a chance to apply engineering technologies in new ways, to allow artists to express themselves. But not just. ‘At the same time, this opportunity provides us engineers and scientists with an avenue to explore concepts and even utilise thinking patterns which are not traditionally associated with our disciplines. It helps us be more creative and open to innovative practices.’ 

Working together, Borg and Francalanza are blurring the lines between what is real and what is fake. By recreating the original artefacts in such a way that a viewer cannot determine whether what is being seen is authentic, the project is poignant commentary for the post-truth era we are living in. 

Poverty in a prospering country

Author: Samuel Casha

Samuel Casha

In 2018, anti-poverty organization Oxfam reported how in 2017, the world’s 2,043 billionaires increased their combined wealth by $762 billion–enough money to eradicate global poverty seven times over. While in past centuries, poverty was a consequence of a lack of resources, abundance is a far greater issue in today’s world. The problem is resource distribution. 

The gap between the rich and poor is ever-widening, and this is a reality that is true in Malta.

Our streets might not be blighted by homeless people as in most big European cities, yet hidden poverty is increasing. In 2016, the National Statistics Office reported that 16.5% of the Maltese population live at risk of poverty. Skyrocketing property prices have their part to play, grinding society’s most vulnerable members down. Currently, over 900 families live in garages, as stated in a parliamentary meeting in May 2018. 

The situation is not the fault of any one political party or another. Poverty is a structural problem. Capitalism generates poverty, just as it generates wealth. Yet, too often, those in the middle-class point their fingers not at the rich and powerful fuelling the machine, but at the poor themselves. Many assume that the poor could climb the social ladder if only they worked harder, but many are employed and still fail to achieve a decent standard of living since the minimum wage is inadequate. 

Throughout history, countless artists have depicted poverty, among them Vincent Van Gogh, whose Potato Eaters (1885) remains one of the most powerful paintings about poverty in history. Criticised for its lack of a ‘conventional sweetness,’ in a letter to his brother, Vincent insisted that ‘a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.’ Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters brings the viewer face-to-face with a type of poverty that exists behind closed doors. Malta’s poverty problem is exactly that: behind closed doors. If we cannot do much to help them, at the very least, the poor deserve our empathy, not our judgement. 

This article is based on research carried out as part of the B. A. (Hons.) History of Art with Fine Arts course within the Department of Art and Art History, University of Malta, under the supervision of Prof. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci.

The sky’s role in archaeology

In 1994, Czech poet-president Vaclav Havel wrote an article discussing the role of science in helping people understand the world around them. He also noted that in this advance of knowledge, however, something was left behind. ‘We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.’ Almost all traditional cultures looked to the sky for guidance. Cosmology is what gave our ancestors their fundamental sense of where they came from, who they were, and what their role in life was. While arguably incorrect, these ideas created codes of behaviour and bestowed a sense of identity. The cosmology of European prehistoric societies has been studied independently by archaeologists and archaeoastronomers (an interdisciplinary field between archaeology and astronomy). Despite their shared goal of shedding light on our past lives, thoughts, and ideas, the two fields have often failed to merge, mainly due to different approaches. A clear local case is the question of the Maltese megalithic temples.

Tore Lomsdalen

The Mnajdra South Temple on Malta predates both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. It is the oldest known site in the world that qualifies as a Neolithic device constructed to cover the path of the rising of the sun throughout a whole year. What is unfortunate is that, so far, archaeologists and archaeoastronomers have studied the site largely in isolation.

Whether the temples were built to visualise the effects of the rising sun as seen today is an open question. But with such specific and repetitive patterning, one cannot deny that the sky was an important element in the builders’ understanding of the world—their cosmology.

With some exceptions, archaeologists have largely ignored, excluded, or underrated the importance of the sky in the cultural interpretation of the material record. When studying ancient communities, chronological dating and economic concerns are often given precedence over the immaterial.

But the fault does not lie solely with disinterested archaeologists. Archaeoastronomy has often been too concerned with collecting astronomical and orientation data, neglecting the wider archaeological record, and ignoring the human element in cosmology.

We need to find a common ground. Both sides need to open themselves up to different professional perspectives and convictions and embrace alternative interpretations and possibilities. Bridging the gap between archaeology and archaeoastronomy will allow us to paint a detailed picture of past societies. And maybe it will shed light on that lost knowledge about the universe and our place in it.


Lomsdalen and Prof. Nicholas Vella are organising an afternoon workshop on Skyscape Archaeology as well as an open symposium on Cosmology in Archaeology. For more information, visit: um.edu.mt/arts/ classics-archaeo/newsandevents

  Author: Tore Lomsdalen