Moretum: The Recipe

Painting from Pompeii depicting a bread pie (aka pizza)

The following recipe is based on a Latin poem entitled ‘Moretum’, composed probably during the reign of Augustus (i.e., around the time of Christ), which describes a lunch being made consisting of flatbread and a cheese spread to go on it.

The word ‘moretum’ in Latin refers only to the cheese spread and appears to be based on a sound play with the Latin word for ‘mortar,’ mortarium; its circular shape and perhaps its speckled color was associated with that of a mortar. The poem from which this comes is entitled ‘Moretum’ in manuscripts but it is doubtful the poet was responsible for that title (to avoid confusion, in what follows I will refer to the spread ‘moretum’ simply as ‘the spread’ and refer to the poem as Moretum).

In addition to what the poem says I have relied on a modern interpretation of its description of the ingredients from a paper by Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger (now married but hereafter referred to as G&G) presented at the 2001 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery (included in The Meal, published by Oxford University Press).

The Ingredients:

Bread: a basic flatbread ((no leavening agent is narrated being used, although before baking it is described as being in the shape of a ball marked into quadrants). Based on the remains of round bread pies from Pompeii it is likely the bread would have been thick (cf. deep dish pizza). It is baked by being placed on the stone floor of the hearth and then covered with tiles.

Cheese: made from goat, sheep or possibly cow’s milk (Moretums farmer plows with oxen so it is reasonable to suppose he had access to cow’s milk); the cheese is described as being in the shape of a ball with a hole in the middle through which a string runs, by which it hangs over a fire. A bunch of dill is hung alongside it.

8 oz of Pecorino Romano has been suggested by G&G as a likely amount and type to work best but any smoked cheese, especially if flavored with dill, would seem to be appropriate depending on personal taste and then mixed with the following herbs:


4 small green garlic bulbs

1 Tablespoon of Olive Oil

1 Teaspoon of White Wine vinegar

1 Handful coriander

1 Head of celery

1 Teaspoon of fresh chopped rue (there is some debate about this because though rue was commonly used in antiquity it is known to cause abortions when used in large amounts and that has scared away many people from using it at all).

Dill: if the cheese used is not flavored with dill consider adding a bit to replicate Moretum’s recipe as closely as possible.

Note: because this recipe derives from a poem that has multiple allegorical meanings, one of which relates to the numbers used in the poem it is likely the ‘4’ of the garlic cloves is symbolic and should not be taken as literally required for an actual pizza. Similarly, it would seem that taken altogether the spread consists of eight ingredients, but that number too is likely to be symbolic.

Cooking Instructions:

Since this comes from a poem it is worth comparing the principles of interpreting poetry to the interpretation of the recipe implied by the poem. Therefore, just as how a poem speaks to us is as important as what it conveys, so it is true that how the pizza is made is as important as what is in the pizza.

First, as much as possible it should be prepared in cooperation with others, i.e., both a man and a woman.

Second, as much as possible it should be done by hand without any modern conveniences. In particular a mortar and pestle should be used for mixing the spread and not, as G&G initially suggest, by using a food processor. An open fire is not a realistic option given modern realities but as much as possible use stone surfaces to place the pizza pie on for baking and perhaps experiment with using stone on top as well (that is what is narrated in the poem).

Third, cook in stages: in the poem the bread is baked separately from the preparation of the cheese spread. Translated into modern practice this suggests that rather than adding ingredients onto the still raw dough before the entire pizza is baked, the pizza pie should be baked for a while, then pulled out and the toppings added (perhaps with the cheese preheated) and then quickly and briefly put back in the oven. A crisper pizza is sure to be produced relative to what is standard practice today.

This is one of four posts I have written related to Moretum. For the others, please follow these links:

E Pluribus Unum & The Unrecognized Black Goddess of Rome

E Pluribus Unum: The Woman From Africa

Why Is Pizza Round? — The Black Goddess of Rome