Did the Romans Have Corn?


Even today, people still praise the Roman civilization for its power, influence, scientific advances, and more. Movies featuring the Romans portray handsome, chiseled men and beautiful women fighting, loving one another, and having elaborate feasts. But feasts looked a lot different in ancient Rome than they do today, as many of the common foods modern people consume weren’t available to the Romans. 

The Romans didn’t have corn because corn (maize) didn’t make its way to Europe until the 15th century when Christopher Columbus brought it to Spain from the Americas. They did, however, have plenty of other crops to serve at their feasts.

The rest of this article will further discuss the arrival of corn in Europe in more depth. It will also explain why so much Roman literature references a food called “corn” and outline the types of crops that the Romans had.

Also see Did the Romans Have Iron? to learn more.

Roman Empire corn
What crops did the Roman Empire grow? See below

Why Does Roman Literature Refer to “Corn”?

As the introduction mentions, the Romans didn’t have corn, but they frequently mentioned corn in the period’s written works. Did they know about corn from other countries and simply add it into their writing, or was there another reason?

The Romans talked about corn in their literature because “corn” was the name they gave to any cereal-type grain – in this case, wheat, rye, and other similar grains. The word “corn” comes from the Germanic word “korn” or “koren,” which means “grain with the seed still in.”

The above information is found in the Online Etymology Dictionary and is perhaps the easiest way for most people to make sense of why the Romans referred to cereal grains as “corn.” [1]

So, in a sense, the Romans did have corn, or at least a crop that they called corn. However, the corn that modern-day Americans eat – otherwise known as maize – wouldn’t come to Europe until many centuries after the Roman civilization fell.

Also see Did the Romans Have Steel Swords? to learn more.

corn on the cob
How did the Romans harvest and use their grains? See below

What Crops Did the Roman Empire Grow?

The Romans grew a variety of crops, many of which people still consume today. [2]

Some of the most popular Roman-grown crops include the following: 

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Millet
  • Spelt
  • Farro
  • Sorghum
  • Rye
  • Chickpeas
  • Fava beans
  • Lentils
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Onions
  • Parsnips
  • Asparagus
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Celery
  • Leeks
  • Carrots
  • Olives
  • Chard

A typical meal for an ancient Roman depended primarily on his or her wealth. As is true today, the wealthier Romans ate better than those who were poor. 

For example, poor people ate a lot of porridge, called puls, that they made from some type of “cereal” (grain). Most commonly, that grain was either wheat, millet, or spelt. They’d add spices, herbs, and veggies to the puls when they had them, but they didn’t often get meat, bread, or seafood

Wealthier Romans often had bread, cheese, various vegetables, eggs, and some type of protein (usually poultry or seafood). 

Watered-down wine was also standard for those with money. Poorer Romans, soldiers, and slaves often drank posca, vinegar and wine mixture, or sour wine that wasn’t good enough for the Roman elite. [3]

Also see Did the Romans Know About China? to learn more.

Romans yellow corn
When did corn arrive in Europe? See below

How Did the Romans Harvest and Use Their Grains?

Primarily, ancient Romans used slave labor to cultivate and harvest their crops. Slaves worked with rudimentary plows and oxen to plow. When it came time to reap them, the slaves would then use tools such as vallums and tribulums to separate the wheat from its chaff. 

Finally, they’d dry the wheat and grind it using large stones. This process resulted in the flour used in porridge, breads, and other staples of the Roman diet. 

Perhaps the only other foods the Romans spent as much time on were their grapes and olives, which they used to make wine and fruit juices (grapes) and olive oil (olives) for cooking and fuel. Vineyards were famous throughout Europe, but Rome was especially well known for them. 

When Did Corn Arrive in Europe?

Corn, better known as maize, arrived in Europe in the 15th century when Christopher Columbus returned from his voyage to the Americas. During the Columbian Exchange, Columbus brought maize, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and cassava back to Europe from the Americas. 

Those weren’t the only things he brought back with him, either. He also returned with peanuts, chili peppers, cocoa beans, pineapples, and many new diseases and ideas. 

The first illustrations of corn in European art didn’t appear until the 16th century in Oviedeo’s “Sumario de la naturale historia” in 1534. Because it took some time for the Europeans to learn to grow and harvest the plant successfully, it’s no surprise that it didn’t become famous enough for paintings until that time. 

Also see Did the Romans Declare War on Neptune? to learn more.

The Role of Corn – Maize – in Modern-Day Europe

Today, corn makes up a considerable percentage of modern-day Europeans’ everyday diet. According to Statista’s chart on global corn consumption in 2020/2021, Europe is the third-largest consumer of corn, second only to the United States and China. [4]

During that single year, the country consumed 3,130 million bushels. However, when compared against corn consumption in the U.S. (12,025 million) and China (11,299 million), it hardly seems noteworthy. 

Still, Europeans use corn in many different ways, including: 

  • Various types of foods and ingredients (cornmeal, sweet corn, grits, hominy, flour)
  • Transforming it into high-fructose corn syrup
  • Animal feed for pigs, cows, and poultry
  • Converting it into ethanol
  • Using it in the manufacturer of certain types of plastics

Europe also grows a prodigious amount of corn, and Italy is one of the places that produce the most. In terms of percentages, Europe’s corn production looks something like this*: 

  • France – 21%
  • Romania – 13%
  • Italy – 11%
  • Serbia – 11%
  • Hungary – 9%
  • Spain – 6%
  • Germany – 6%
  • Poland – 4%
  • Greece – Less than 4%
  • Austria – Less than 4%

The rest of Europe makes up the final percentages of corn production in smaller and smaller amounts. So while corn may not have been around when the ancient Romans conquered and ruled a large part of the world, it’s certainly made up for that in the last several decades. [5]

*The statistics available are from 2014. 

Conclusion

Romans had many grains they referred to as “corn,” but corn didn’t make its way to Europe until Christopher Columbus brought it there. 

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source

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