Ancient Dairy

The casein and lactose intolerant among us are unable to comfortably consume cows’ milk. This restriction makes some feel that their cow dairy-free diet is strange. Yet, until very recent historic times it was the milk drinkers who were odd.
Humans are the only mammals that continue to drink milk into adult life. After weaning, all other mammals cease to produce lactase, the enzyme in the intestines which digests milk’s lactose. Although lactase-deficiency was originally the natural condition for humans, many people today do maintain sufficient levels of lactase. This is believed to have been an adaptation that occurred sometime in prehistory. “…when there was a shortage of food during winter months those individuals who were able to metabolize milk would be at an advantage.”(Mercer, p. 218) So, those people survived and passed on their lactose-tolerant gene(s). People from north-west Europe, north and east Africa, and Asia (excluding China, and the south-east) have traditional raised cows and now have low incidences of lactose intolerance. People originating from outside of these regions can not easily digest lactose.(Mercer) As for intolerance to casein (the protein in cow’s milk) I have not read a history of this problem unfortunately.
The Roman Period
The population in ancient Britain presumable had low incidences of lactose intolerance, yet: “It can be doubted whether liquid milk formed a regular part of the diet of many in Roman Britain. …The modern levels of liquid milk consumption owe more to deliberate state-sponsored advertising campaigns to cope with over-production than to long-established drinking habits.”(p. 129) In her book Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain, Hilary Cool shows that the modern levels of milk consumption were completely out of place in ancient life. Cow’s milk seems to have been consumed in small quantities, and mostly as a fermented product.Milk quickly spoiled (especially in warm climates) and could spread tuberculosis and undulant fever. “Raw milk is not necessarily either a pleasant or safe drink in societies without refrigeration. It is better to convert it to butter or cheese to ensure long-term storage. In both cases there is an initial ripening to allow bacteria to sour the milk.” (Cool, p. 94) Cheese and butter have been fermented, which eases digestion. The bacteria in well-aged cheese completely digest the milk’s lactose. In addition to their love of cheese, the Romans ate another fermented milk product. The Roman culinary writer, Apicius, wrote of melca, a curdled milk perhaps similar to yogurt. The refrigeration typical in our modern society easily preserves milk. However, I question the wisdom of breaking from the natural historic practice of limited milk consumption. Certainly, no Roman citizen drank the US Government’s suggested 3 cups of cows’ milk every day. And according to the writings of Roman authors, he did not want to.

Hilary Cook has an interesting indirect way of judging the level of milk consumption in Roman Britain. The author compared incidences of tuberculosis among skeletal remains of the Roman period and the 1600s. “Tuberculosis is a disease that is spread from cattle to humans largely by the drinking of infected milk. It is noticeable that in Britain it was a common disease by the 17th century, corresponding with the post-medieval rise of dairy herds… The disease causes changes in the bones, but these are only rarely seen in Roman skeletons.” (Cook, p94)

Roman Discussion of Sheep and Goat’s Milk

While the Romans did enjoy cow’s milk cheese, they held sheep and goat’s milk in much higher regard. Goats give more milk (a yield 5 times in proportion to body weight than a cow), and they do not need to be continuously with-calf to maintain production. In contrast to cows’ milk, sheep and goats’ milk are easily digested by humans. It contains much lower levels of casein when compared to cow’s milk. In her book, Food in Roman Britain, Joan Alcock comments on the opinon of the 1st century AD Roman writer, Pliny: “He also praised goat’s milk for being the sweetest form of milk and more suited to the stomach, which may imply the Romans had some knowledge of bovine lactic intolerance.” (p. 57) She later adds, “Both sheep’s and goat’s milk have a greater concentration of short-chain fatty acids in their fat content, and cheese made from their milk is easier to digest because of it’s smaller milk particles.” (Alcock, p. 59)In the 1st century BC the Roman author Varo published an agricultural book. Varo’s De Re Rustica (On Agriculture) states, “Of all the liquids which we take for sustenance, milk is the most nourishing—first sheep’s milk, and next goat’s milk.” While he does not encourage the drinking of cows’ milk, he does say it makes a nutritious cheese. Yet, even here he comments on the digestive problems that could follow: “Of the cheeses which are made from this milk, those made of cow’s milk have the most nutriment, but when eaten are discharged with most difficulty…” He goes on to say sheep and goat cheese are easily digested. (De Re Rustica 11, xi)

The author Virgil complements the goat’s “abundant and nutritious yield of milk.” (Alcock, p 57) Columella, wrote an influential agricultural manual in the 1st century AD. It shared the same title as Varo’s book. In his De Re Rustica Columella “had much to say on plough oxen, the breeding of cattle, and the production of sheep’s milk cheese, but he made no mention of fresh cows’ milk.”(Mercer, p. 219) Columella’s omission makes sense if cow’s milk did not feature highly in the Roman diet.

Celts, Germans, and Dairy
The Iron Age European people living outside the borders of the Roman empire did not keep written records. The Romans made some mention of “barbarian” agriculture, and archaeology can tell us something of their milk consumption. Pliny wrote that the butter most prized by the barbarians was made from sheep’s milk, rather than cow’s. Columella said many barbarian tribes in Europe kept no cow herds, but drank sheep’s milk instead. In his Natural History, Pliny wrote that the Gauls (Celtic people of modern-day France) produced cheese (probably cow), which the Romans liked to import. He was especially keen on Gaulish goat cheese.

Britain was abundant with cattle, but it seems they were not raised primarily as dairy animals. Iron Age and Romano-British cows’ main value was in their meat, hides, and traction (pulling carts, plows, etc.). The intensive effort required to keep these ancient breeds as dairy cattle would have been prohibitive. Compared to today’s “improved” dairy cows, Iron Age cattle were smaller and gave milk for only a short time after giving birth. Milk cows need to drink a tremendous amount of water, limiting where they could be raised. While it seems some settlements in Iron Age Britain were indeed raising cows for milk, the evidence for this practice is not widespread. Cattle raising in Gaul seems to have been similar. Roman writer Tacitus and Caesar say the ancient Germans were great cattle herders, keeping them for milk, cheese, and meat. (Green)

The Roman writer Strabo says the Gauls kept enormous flocks of sheep. Sheep were also very widespread in Iron Age Britain. Most sheep skeletal remains are that of older adults, indicating that they were not raised primarily raised for their meat, but were instead valued for their wool production. In the spring they offered the side benefit of milk. Sheep aren’t the best milk producers. Again, the skeletal remains show that newborn sheep were not being slaughtered, meaning most of the ewe’s milk went to their own young. If newborn lambs did not survive, then the ewe’s milk could be used for people. (Green)

Goats were not as common as sheep in the Iron Age Britain. Goats aren’t comfortable in cold damp climates, while thriving in the warmer drier Mediterranean. Each Celtic farm probably kept a few goats to eat weeds and provide milk. There numbers increased with the coming of the Romans. In Anglo-Saxon period Britain it was acknowledged that goats gave more milk, and that it was thought to cure illnesses. Through Saxon times cows became more and more popular as dairy animals, making goat’s milk less popular by the Medieval period. The Saxons did have dairy cow farms. The cow’s milk appear to have been preferred more for cheese and butter making, rather than drinking. (Hagen, p102)

I would love to comment on the dairy practices in ancient North Africa and MiddleEast, but at this point I have only studied Europe. (I have read that the “milk” in the Bible’s description of “the land of milk and honey” most likely refers to the milk of sheep and goats, not cows). Ancient Europeans did milk cows, but it seems liquid milk was consumed in very limited amounts and only by people on the farm. Cheese and butter—both fermented food products— were the main use for milk. While cow milk was certainly used, it was the more easily digested goat milk that was favored by the Romans and Celts. By the end of the Dark Ages dairy from cows was well on its way to becoming the most popular milk.
1. Alcock, Joan P. Food in Roman Britain
2. Cool, H.E.M. Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain.
3. Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth.
4. Hagen, Ann. Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink.
5. Mercer, Roger. Farming Practice in British Prehistory. Edinburgh University Press.


  1. says

    Very interesting article.
    I am Vegan but before even becoming Vegan, it never made sense to me why humans drink animal milk. After all, no other species on the planet continues to drink its mothers milk after it is weaned from its mother except humans and it isn’t even our own.

  2. says

    Yeah, we’re definitely going to be friends. I love doing research on topics of nutrition, and by this post (and your previous postings) I see you are really into doing that as well. If only we can get more people to do the same thing, so they can take control of their own health!

    I purchase raw goat milk from a certfied grade A raw dairy farm I live near, when I can (college student on a budget–donations, anyone? ;)). I find goat’s milk to be so much easier to digest, even if it is pasteurized (however the pasteurized version costs more than the raw kind I can get).

  3. says

    I’m glad you’re liking this series. (I’m also glad that the people of my favorite time period ate like I do). My next food archaeology article will be about the beekeeping of Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Rome, Germany, and Anglo-Saxon Britain.

  4. says

    LOVED this post. I am so interested in the history of dairy consumption. I was talking to my husband today about searching and searching for good references to the history of dairy and have been having trouble finding any. Do you mind if I repost this on my blog (about recovering my son with autism)? I am working on a dairy post. I will credit you and hyperlink as well.
    Thank you!!

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