As the Roman Empire increasingly grew, its demand for food also grew proportionately. The bustling population of Rome continuously exploded, as well as the size of the Roman military since more wars meant more territory conquered. This required Rome to find new places to practice settled agriculture. The province of Africa, which is located in present-day Tunisia, became a perfect place for the Romans as far as the supply of food was concerned. North Africa as a whole eventually grew to become the largest provider of food to the Roman Empire and this was instrumental in the phenomenal growth of the Empire as well as its downfall.
Feeding the people of Rome became a herculean task because of the unavailability of adequate tillable land. Satisfying the bellies of Rome – from the rich to the poor – required lots of arable lands, and this land was not available on a narrow, rugged peninsula. The Carthaginian Empire in modern-day Tunisia was already deeply embedded in new forms of settled agriculture. The First Punic War (264-241 BC) had caused the Carthaginians to lose most of their overseas territories, so their focus on life and civilization became restricted to the North African territories. Their energy was mostly shifted towards intensive agriculture and irrigation. The region became productive agriculturally because their neighbors in Numidia (modern-day Algeria) also picked up the agricultural skills.
In 146 BC, the Romans destroyed and sacked Carthage. But they retained one vital element of existence they found there – the agriculture. They took over wheat fields, well aware of the value of North African agriculture. Roman colonies were quickly established as they created new cities and towns alongside existing settlements. The Romans expanded on the agriculture they found there and created new technologies, which eventually made North Africa the breadbasket of the Roman empire. In the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries A.D. the population of Rome stood at a million inhabitants. North Africa provided a steady market for wheat, produce, olives, and olive oil.
A late Roman geographer described North Africa saying, “This region of Africa is altogether good, wealthy and fruitful, but the men living there are entirely unworthy to have it as their country, for they are said to be cunning — saying one thing and doing another — and among them are to be found many wicked and only a few decent people.”
The incorporation of the North African region into the Roman Empire through conquest meant that Rome was able to freely distribute grain to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Supplies from North Africa satisfied the cravings of the elite, as well as the hunger of the poor. These supplies led to the creation of new trade routes, and this is because food ships had to leave for Italy every day. The crossing from Alexandria would last 13 days, while that from Carthage took 4 days or less. Food taken through these routes was dependent on the amount of tribute that the defeated districts were supposed to pay. Each subdued district was required by the Roman legions to pay a fixed annual tribute to Rome in the form of grain, oil, wine, seafood, etc. Some went to Italy and the rest to the Roman troops deployed in distant regions of the Empire.
The average Roman relied on wheat and barley from North Africa, in addition to legumes, olives, olive oil, salt-preserved fish, and fermented fish sauce (garum). Most of the common citizens were reliant on wheat and barley every day in the form of a gruel (food consisting of some type of cereal—such as ground oats, wheat, rye, or rice—boiled in water or milk) or as a coarse home-baked flatbread. Cheese, meat, and fish were the occasional alternatives for proteins. Flavoring is a crucial part of any diet, and the Romans would get some of their flavoring from olive oil, spices, herbs, and honey.
The middle-class Romans would take their cereal to a local bakery so that it could be turned into loaves of leavened bread, which was favorable for dipping into olive oil, milk, wine, or the sauces from cooked dishes. But beginning in the 3rd Century A.D., raised loaves became accessible to all citizens primarily because of the inclusion of baked bread, along with olive oil, wine, and pork in upgraded rations. The upgraded rations came as a result of the Cura Annonae system, in which the Roman government gave grain to its citizens freely. The diet of soldiers was also based on bread, wine, olive oil, with some meat. Slaves were given bread or gruel, scraps of meat, and hallec fish-paste, a by-product of garum production.
The pomegranate made its way to Italy from Punicus (part of present-day Tunisia), ancient Carthage because of the cravings of the elite in Rome. Other fruits that found their way to Rome to satisfy these cravings included gourds and melons, lemons, figs, dates, and fumé grapes. Valued birds such as the ostrich and the African chicken (guinea fowl) were taken from the margins of the desert to Rome. Egypt was renowned for its lobsters. The dominance of Roman demand for food also birthed innovative food processing technologies which included the olive presses and fish-salting factories.
Oil making was made possible through the olive presses that were scattered across northern Morocco and other rural areas in the region. Also, in northern Morocco, at the ruins of Lixus, there is evidence of fish-salting factories. Hundreds of these factories were found along the coasts of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Black Sea. The saltworks at Linux show that it was probably the largest fish-salting factory at that time.
Food production in North Africa was conducted on an immense scale. By the 2nd Century A.D., the Roman government adopted the “Cura Annonae” which was a social welfare program of importing and distributing grain to the residents of Rome. The government provided a dole of subsidized or free grain, and later bread, to between 750,000 and 1,000,000 residents of the city. It is said that at the peak of the Empire, North Africa supplied 2/3 of Rome’s grain supply.
The remainder came mostly from Egypt (not considered part of North Africa at the time). Some of the grain came from Sicily but the large part of what Rome fed on came from the North African region and Egypt. The Jewish historian and general Flavius Josephus wrote in the 1st century A.D. that the grain needs of urban Rome were supplied by the province of Egypt for 4 months, and by the province of Africa for 8 months of every year. Grain was necessary for bread, and bread was by far the most common element in the Roman diet. Distributing grain freely was a way to control and maintain an edgy and nervy population that could revolt anytime.
The transportation of food from these provinces was instrumental in the rise of the Empire. Long-range shipment of goods became a regular feature of the world economy, up to now. Shipping lanes were established, special containers were constructed, and this gave rise to ever-changing innovation as regards boats, docks, lighthouses, and roads. The supply of food greatly transformed this infrastructure. New ways to process food were brought to life. Towns and cities were established, as they were premised on the basis of the settled agricultural way of life.
The Vandal conquest of Africa in the 430s A.D. disrupted the Cura Annonae system, leading to the fast depopulation of Rome. The Vandals also marched through Rome destroying it. It meant North Africa and Egypt no longer had a market for the food produced – its export market was severely shrunk. Other factors including crawling desertification compounded by climate change have led to the diminishing agricultural prowess of North Africa. The exhaustion of fossil water supplies and over-grazing (the Arab Conquest brought in lots of pastoralists in the area) also led to the decline in the agricultural way of life of North Africa.