It has long been surmised that the Italian peasant in the Roman period could not have subsisted entirely upon his heredium, even when it was considerably more than two iugera. Juvenal was speaking for many of those before him, as well as for his own contemporaries, when he said of the traditional allocation:
‘Nunc modus hic agri nostro non sufficit horto’.
(Satires XIV, 172)
Yet amid much speculation upon this point one aspect of the countryman's livelihood seems to have attracted little attention. In addition to any other resources he had the use of the wild plants of the extensive forests, the mountains, pastures and fallow fields. In general, food obtained from wild plants did not in Roman times, any more than it does in Italy today, take the place of grain, the staple article of diet. This may account for Pliny's statement in the Natural History XXI, 50 (86) where, after mentioning the large number of ‘herbae sponte nascentes’ used for food by other peoples, he writes: ‘In Italia paucissimas novimus, fraga, tamnum (wild vine), ruscum (butcher's broom), batim marinam (samphire), batim hortensiam, quam aliqui asparagum Gallicum vocant. …’ Such a remark seems astonishing in view of the numerous other examples Pliny himself has previously given, but its interpretation depends on the meaning to be assigned to the word cibus, as well as on the limiting effect of the phrase ‘herbae sponte nascentes’, which may not include all the plants we call ‘wild’. It is clear from the conclusion of the paragraph cited above, where ‘oblectamenta’ are compared with ‘cibos’, that cibi is being used here to mean ‘staple foods’.