It can be difficult to imagine a time before modern refrigeration. Before refrigerators were commonplace, people kept cool by storing blocks of ice or snow. This practice dates back centuries, including to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The Romans had ice. They’d collect snow and store it in pits throughout the year to keep cool in the hot months and as a luxury for the wealthy. However, they didn’t use the ice to store food. They used it to cool themselves down and added it to their drinks.
This article will examine how the Romans collected, stored, and used ice. Ice was a symbol of wealth and power, a luxury that only the elite could afford in large quantities. Keep reading to learn about the Romans and their relationship with ice and refrigeration technology.
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How Did the Romans Store Ice?
Before modern refrigerators, it was nearly impossible to “make” ice. Ice formed naturally in cold, high-altitude regions, and it had to be manually transported to warmer areas.
The Romans stored snow in straw-covered pits. These straw-insulated pits held a much lower temperature than the open air, allowing the ice and snow to remain frozen. Ice from the bottom of a pit of snow was a high-value commodity.
Slaves traveled by foot or on horseback to mountainous areas with fresh snow. They gathered the snow into containers and raced against time back to Rome, trying to bring it back to the ice pits before it melted. Because gathering and storing snow took a lot of time and effort, snow and ice were very expensive.
Roman ice pits ran deep underground, where the temperature stayed cool all year round. They were lined with straw, which functioned as an insulator against the heat. These pits were deep and cold enough to keep ice from melting all summer long.
While the Romans were busy gathering ice by hand and racing it to ice pits for storage, the ancient Persians had perfected a method to create ice using physics. The Persians used beehive-like structures called yakhchals, which kept the temperature low and released hot air through a hole in the top. They stored water in these yakhchals, and cold air trapped inside would turn it into ice.
Yakhchals work similarly to the Roman ice pits, with thick insulation layers and cold internal temperatures. However, the Romans didn’t have a way to eject hot air and trap cold air from their ice pits. While yakhchals doubled as ice makers and storage facilities, Roman ice pits could only store the ice, not make it.
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What Did the Romans Use Ice For?
Ice has many uses, most of which are for keeping oneself cool during the summer months. While modern users often think of ice as useful for food storage, the Romans used it for other purposes.
The Romans used ice in drinks, sweet treats, and as a way to cool off. They added ice to their wine and other drinks as a cool, luxurious treat when it was hot.
Whether or not ice was available to all Romans or just to the wealthy elite is unclear. Some archeological evidence suggests the Romans had shops to buy ice and snow that anyone could frequent with disposable income. Just how expensive ice was is unknown. Perhaps only the upper-class Romans could afford ice, or perhaps ice was more widespread.
According to legend, the emperor Nero drank his wine with ice and honey. Supposedly, he got angry if the slaves transporting ice from the mountains were too slow. However, there’s no way to confirm this story.
Some archeological evidence suggests that the Romans used ice as an early form of ice cream. Ruins at Pompeii suggest that the Romans gathered ice from Mount Vesuvius, crushed it, and served it with honey.
It wasn’t made with dairy, but many people consider it a precursor to modern ice cream. These treats were probably accessible to the common person. It may not have been an everyday expense, but honeyed ice was available for almost all Romans.
Roman commoners also had the opportunity to use ice at snow shops, where they could pay to stand in the cool air around the ice. These shops sold more than just an experience. They also sold ice and snow to those who could afford it. Ice from the bottom of the pit was more expensive, as it was packed tightly by the weight of all the snow above it.
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Did the Romans Store Food Cold?
While the Romans used ice to cool down their food, there’s no evidence that they used ice to store their food. Not enough Romans had large enough quantities of ice or snow for refrigeration. Ice was a luxury only used in small amounts, and Romans didn’t have personal ice houses for storing food.
The Romans may have stored their food cold, but not with ice. They used cellars and insulated, buried pots or jars to store their food at lower temperatures. They also used methods such as pickling to make their food last longer.
The Romans used the same methods to store food and keep ice from melting in the ice pits. The most common method of storing food in ancient Rome was barrels and clay pots.
Clay pots could be kept at a lower temperature, especially when buried in a cellar. Insulated grain silos also contributed to long-lasting food storage. Silos with thick clay walls kept the heat out and trapped in cool air.
The Romans didn’t just use cold to store their food. They had several other methods for preserving food. They dried some of their fruits, like figs and grapes. They soaked fruits and vegetables in vinegar to make pickles or wine or honey to make a sweet, preserved treat.
The Romans didn’t eat as much meat as modern-day consumers, but they preserved it by salting, drying, smoking, or pickling it when they did have excess meat. They smoked and pickled fish as an alternative source of protein. They also stored their meat in honey for preservation.
The Romans had ice that they used in drinks and desserts. Unlike modern users, the Romans didn’t use ice to store food.
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