Burnt-off Bakers

by L.L. Neuru

Bread was the principal food in antiquity, and it was food: made of real ingredients it gave the hungry some real satisfaction unlike the item called bread today which tastes like it was prepared of fine paste and air and is best used for repair of running-shoe soles.

Housewives made bread at home. The grinding was done with a simple stone being pushed back and forth over grain on a stone slab. Rotary mills were much more efficient, and a small version appeared just about the time the professional bakers did. Athenian women stopped making bread at home in roughly the 5th century BC when professional bakers began producing it in bakeries. Milling and baking were usually done on the same premises, as they had been earlier in the home. The loaves were sold in the market-place by women who were very crabby and notorious for their abusive language.

Drawing of a mill's base and top; the square hole is for the insertion of a beam to turn the mill on the grinding-stone.

Professional bakers, pistores, appeared in Rome in the early 2nd century BC, according to the very knowledgeable encyclopedist Pliny the Elder. Before that, Roman housewives made their own bread at home as their Greek predecessors had done. The mills got larger in Rome when baking became a retail business, and many of you who have been to Pompeii and seen its bakeries (pistrinae) are familiar with the tall rounded stone covered by a hollow hour-glass shaped stone with holes for wooden beams which would be pushed by labourers, slaves, or sometimes donkeys. This is turned around on the lower stone and the flour was ground.

Bakeries (pistrinae) with flour-mills

Large water-powered mills are known from the first century BC. The largest one found so far is in Barbegal, Provence in southern France and had 16 millwheels in two rows, and water power was aupplied by its very own aqueduct. This was quite the industrial complex! It is, though, very unusual and most operations were very much smaller. Water power replaced the animals in the city of Rome almost completely during the later 4th and 5th centuries. Water diverted from the city's aqueducts was used. In the mid 6th century when Rome was under barbarian siege, and the water supply for the aqueducts was cut off, the bakeries ground to a stand-still. The Roman general, Belisarius, devised the ingenious solution of diverting water from the Tiber to power the mills and the bakers continued to produce their bread.

Early baking was done under a terra cotta-dome cover, which made a stove-top or camp-fire top oven, or it was baked in an open pan, or against the side of a cylindrical bread baking-chimney. Milling and baking were done on the same premises, and at Pompeii mills and ovens stand in close proximity in the same establishment. Here the ovens are large brick affairs of the sort one sees in pizzerias, with doors through which large pans with loaves are pushed with a stick. These bakery loaves were round, about 20 cm in diameter, and a similar-looking loaf is still sold today in the modern Pompeii. Evidence from wall paintings indicate that people bought their bread in small stores, but it may well have been sold in the market-place too.

Loaves of bread made at Pompeii.

Bakers were not exactly high on the social scale. Many were slaves or freedmen, and even the free-born ones had little class. They were grouped together socially with bar-keepers, restaurant-owners and brothel-keepers, all disreputable jobs. They were a very necessary profession, however, as one can easily see, and since they were, they had power as a group. They formed associations called corpora pistorum (corporations of bakers - actually all professions formed associations, often called collegia) and met socially for dinner (and drinking) parties, to help each other with unforeseen calamities (e.g., funeral expenses), and to enhance their profession and themselves as a group.

Baking wasn't a particularly attractive profession. Trajan had to offer privileges to freedmen and other persons to enter the profession: legal privileges for those who operated a goodly sized operation, such as capable of handling 100 modii or more per day of wheat. The Imperial government in time changed the dole from issue of wheat to issues of loaves of bread, and the bakers became even more necessary: they provided the bread to go along with the circuses and on which public order depended. Producing enough bread to feed the residents of any large city was a very serious matter. We have all heard of the bread and circuses program to keep the population happy.

Enough bread had to be produced to feed people, either free or at a low price, to keep them from going hungry. Populations which were hungry rioted and did other awful things which weren't conducive to civil order. Large important cities such as Alexandria, Carthage and Antioch received subsidies of grain from the imperial government; others did not. Besides the free bread given in the dole, the government controlled the price of bread, and the bakers produced many poor persons' loaves which they sold for a single nummus (call it a 'penny-loaf').

Perhaps the bakers received the grain they needed from the government, and perhaps for free: the sources do not tell us. The bakers' associations possessed estates, from which they received rents, and it is this that they used to finance what they needed if they didn't get it from the government. Bakers were responsible for grinding the wheat into flour and baking the bread. Rome had in the early 4th century 274 bakeries - these were official, government registered ones; private bakeries also participated in the scheme but there are no records of how many there were. One can envision a small bakery in every neighbourhood.

By the 4th century bakers were important enough that they were not allowed to leave their profession, and others were enticed or forced or tricked into the profession to keep up the numbers of bakers, and thus the numbers of loaves produced. Anyone who owned property belonging past of present to a baker was required to join a bakers' association, whether he had purchased it, inherited it or acquired it as a gift, or received it as part of a baker's daughter's dowry, and they couldn't even get out of the association if they got divorced. Even if they were members of even worse professions, such as that of charioteers or actors, they still were required to be part of the bakers' association if they acquired in any way bakery property. City bakeries were usually large outfits, with animals to turn mills, and slaves for varieties of other tasks. Supplies of slaves dwindled in the late antique period, so persons convicted of crimes were sentenced to hard labour in the state-licensed bakeries, usually for minor offenses. These sources still did not meet the demand for bakery labour, so the pistores set up brothels and taverns in the street in front of their bakeries and kidnapped their customers.

Bakers were not allowed to take church orders after Christianity was legalized, nor could they serve in the army. They couldn't be ousted from the corporation, even if all members voted them out. And there still weren't enough bakers at Rome, so African governors had to send people to Rome to be bakers every 5 years to augment the dwindling numbers.

There were bakers who went bankrupt, and these were the ones who got booted from the ranks of bakers and out of the association. Others became very rich, and even joined the ranks of the senators. They were still required to meet their baking responsibilities, and had to find relatives or others who would keep on baking in their place. Senators, of course, were not allowed to do anything as disreputable as baking.

Some bakers were wealthy enough to build themselves elaborate funeral monuments, such as this one outside the Porta Maggiore at Rome, built by M. Virilius Eurysaces for himself and his wife Atistia. It is meant to resemble a large industrial bakery oven.

Bakers were the one professional group who often had conflicts with government. One hears of a bakers' protest in Ephesus in the imperial period: apparently striking wasn't illegal unless it was for the purpose of sedition, and bakers usually just wanted more money. Asia was a hotbed of labour unrest from time to time, and we have imperial edicts ordering bakers to cease, desist, and get back to work in the early imperial period.

The author Libanius tells us about the bread crises at Antioch in the 4th century: bread prices were fixed by the city government to guarantee the poor could purchase it. If the price was too low, the bakers refused to bake, and the city officials tried to enforce the work by flogging all the bakers. The bakers got really burnt out over this on at least one occasion and went on strike and simply left town and headed for the hills, so Libanius tells us; he was the negotiator between the bakers' corporation and the city officials. Sometimes the city officials would try to undercut the bakers by releasing more grain from the warehouses, but since the richest city officials were usually the owners of grain in said warehouses, this didn't happen very often. They too were interested in their profits.