Knowing the Color of One's Bread: How Forms and Types of Bread Reflected and Created Ancient Social Structures

In Juvenal’s Satires (5.74-5) a diner in a socially-mixed gathering is chided by a server for choosing from the wrong bread platter; the offender should have known to pick an inferior bread to pick from its colour, relative to his modest status. While bread was a staple throughout the ancient Mediterranean, its forms and substances varied, and its significance as a marker of status likewise, according to three factors in particular: the species of the grain used; the fineness of the grind and the amount of sifting applied; and the presence or absence of leaven. The first and last are somewhat familiar from biblical texts; the juxtaposition of wheat and barley is an ancient commonplace, and a negative concern about leaven is familiar. The issue of leaven however is potentially misleading, since leaven was generally desirable, and the rising process time-consuming and hence expensive. Each of these three factors will be discussed here, in relation to a set of ancient Jewish, NT and early Christian texts.