Written by Fiona MacRae
Everybody knows that pizza is the best thing since they put the pocket in pitta, but its exact origins are hard to pin down. Putting toppings on a flat piece of bread is a very natural and easy way to prepare food, and so it is found in cultures all over the world. Is it possible that Julius Caesar himself sat down and munched on a pepperoni with a stuffed crust from the Domino’s by the colosseum? Probably not, but the Romans did eat foods similar to what we recognise as pizza today.
In his epic work the Aeneid, Virgil describes this interesting feast:
Aeneas, his chief captains, and fair Iülus lay their limbs to rest under the boughs of a high tree, and spread the feast; they place cakes of meal on the grass beneath the food—Jove himself inspired them—and they crown the wheaten base with fruits of the field. Here, haply, when the rest was consumed, and the scantness of fare drove them to turn their teeth upon the thin cakes—to profane with hand and daring jaw the fateful circles of crust, and spare not the broad loaves.(Aeneid VII.107-115)
These thin, circular cakes with vegetable toppings bear a striking resemblance to a modern-day pizza. They lack only a tomato base and an abundance of cheese to be true examples. Alas, tomatoes only arrived in Italy in the fifteenth century CE as part of Columbian Exchange, and even then were not used on pizza for another 200 years.
The word ‘pizza’ also did not exist in the first century BCE, however, it still has Latin origins. According to a spark of excitement in the media in 2015, food historian Giuseppe Nocca was due to present his research on a manuscript from Gaeta dating to 997 CE. The text contains an agreement for the annual delivery of ‘duodecim pizze’ (twelve pizzas) among other items as annual rent to the bishop. I could not access the manuscript myself, nor find any further research published on the topic by Nocca or other academics.
Despite this, it is agreed that ‘pizza’ most likely stems from the Latin word ‘pinsere’ (to stamp), referring to the process of flattening the dough before baking. Some scholars also argue that it is linguistically related to ‘pitta’, another famous Mediterranean flatbread, however, it most likely comes from a different root.
(2015). Sorpresa: la parola ‘pizza’ è nata a Gaeta. [online] la Repubblica. Available at: https://napoli.repubblica.it/cronaca/2015/02/09/news/sorpresa_la_parola_pizza_nata_a_gaeta-106914635/?ref=twhr&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter [Accessed 20 Mar. 2023].
Berg, J. and De Silva, C. (2003). Pizza. In: S.H. Katz, ed., Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, pp.81–84.
Long-Solís, J. (2003). Colombian Exchange. In: Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, pp.436–439.
Romeo, L. (1962). Pizza, Pinza and Pitta. Romance Philology, 16(1), pp.22–29.
Virgil & H. R. Fairclough (2001). Aeneid: Books 7-12. Appendix Vergiliana. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.