Monday, April 4, 2016

Roman Garlic Grinding

Fragment of an ancient Roman mortarium
found in Herfordshire, England.   From the
National Roman Fabric Reference Collection
(Dore & Tomber 1998,Museum of London
Archaeology Service Monograph 2)
In my last post on moretum, the highly garlicked ancient Roman cheese spread, I speculated about whether the Romans used anything like my French garlic plate to pulp the garlic used in making it.

After a surprisingly brief amount of digging, I've learned that the answer to my question is "yes", though the Romans do not appear to have made special garlic plates. Instead, in making mortars, ancient Roman potters would embed sand, sharp pebbles, bits of broken pottery, and the like into the mortar's interior surface, so that the simple act of rubbing the pestle over food stuffs placed in the mortar would result in shredding and pulping.

Wikipedia has a good picture of an ancient Roman mortar, which was called a mortariumhere.  Judging by that picture and others I've found, Roman mortars were wider than many modern examples, and had broader, flatter bowls.  For the truly curious, an on-line atlas containing detailed information about multiple potsherd finds all over the Roman Empire, with good pictures, may be found at  For the edification of readers of this post I've added a picture of a potsherd I found on  This sherd was found in Herfordshire, near what had been Roman Verulamium (now St. Albans) and is believed to be a fragment of a Roman era mortarium.  The picture gives a good idea of the quality of grit and roughness created by Roman potters on the bottom of mortarium bowls.  Click on the picture to view it in a much larger size that better displays the roughness of the surface.

So Symilius, Virgil's cheese-and-garlic-loving farmer, probably did shred his garlic, simply by pounding it in a rough-bottomed Roman mortar. The pragmatic Romans clearly saw no need for a separate plate for garlic grinding when the humble mortar, used for grinding so many things, could serve.  Because it too would have been pounded in a mortar, any celery used would also have been shredded as I speculated, probably improving the moretum's texture.

Now the only question I have is why are modern mortars smooth bottomed?  Wouldn't it be easier to grind herbs in a mortar if the bottom of the mortar contributed to the grinding action?  Or doesn't it matter how mortars are made in the 21st century, when you can simply buy a food processor and have anything you like ground, chopped, or pureed automatically at the touch of a button?

EDIT:  (5/19/2016)  I think I've figured out the answer to my own question.  A rough-bottomed mortar is clearly superior for grinding/shredding/pulping wet items like garlic cloves and celery pieces.  But if you're trying to grind seeds or nuts into a fine powder, the coarseness of the surface could get in the way.  For example, it might trap larger seed bits, making it harder to properly pulverize them.  Thus, I hypothesize that mortars became smooth-bottomed at the point when they were used more to grind seeds and nuts than to grind garlic and wetter herbs.


  1. These rough Roman mortars would definitely be good for grinding celery stalks. Now I'm also wondering why modern mortars are smooth. I'm pretty sure smooth-bottomed mortars predate the invention of the food processor by at least a hundred years or so, so it's something of a mystery.

    1. I'm wondering why modern mortars are smooth-bottomed too. Perhaps because they descend from the mortars used by pharmacists, which were grinding non-herbal substances and did not need a rough bottom? I'll have to look into that sometime.