You’re very arrogant, that’s all. You think you can buy Servilia’s friendship with stud slaves and tortoises? -- Octavia

And don’t forget the six barrels of ice -- Atia

In the seventh episode of the HBO series, Rome, Atia, a member of the Roman patrician class and niece to Julius Caesar, tries to curry favor with another noblewoman, Servilia, by sending her three gifts: (1) an exceptionally well-endowed male slave; (2) several exotic tortoises; and (3) six barrels of ice. Now, it turns out that Atia's daughter, Octavia, was right. None of Atia's gifts was ultimately successful in putting her in Servilia’s good graces. The blood feud between them was just too strong.

But if the circumstances had been different, and Servilia had been willing to change her mind about Atia, it poses an interesting question. Which of the three gifts would most likely have worked? In other words, which of the three gifts was the best?

What's Behind Door Number Three?

Well, the tortoises are out of the running almost immediately. No matter how exotic they may have been, they would have been just one more strange animal in a capital city awash with newly discovered species. Exotic birds, lizards, giraffes, and other great animals -- sent back to Rome by conquering armies in the Middle East and Gaul -- were commonplace among the nobility, so it is highly unlikely that Servilia would have been swayed by a gift as mundane as a few tortoises.

The “stud slave” is a more likely choice. I mean, Atia is correct when she points out to her daughter, Octavia, that “a large penis is always welcome.” And the actor they used to play the part of the stud slave in Rome really fit the part. In fact, he looked like he could have been John Holmes’ brother, or son, or something. The thing was hanging practically down to his knees.

But, as with the tortoises, a glut of oversupply in the Roman slave market would probably have reduced the value of Atia’s gift. If Servilia had really wanted a Roman equivalent to Long Dong Silver as a sex toy, she could have found him on her own without too much trouble.

Which leaves us with the third gift, ice. Six barrels worth. Nowadays, such a gift would be practically worthless. With electricity and modern refrigeration, ice is easily made, and just as easily stored. You can pick up a 20-pound bag of it on a moment’s notice, say, for the evening dinner party you completely forgot about, and it will only cost you a couple of dollars.

But what about when ice isn't so easy to come by? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that ice's value –- both in terms of the benefit it can provide the consumer and the price people are willing to pay to get their hands on it -- can skyrocket depending on the prevailing circumstances.

Woodstock '99

Yes, I was one of the lucky couple of hundred thousand or so who attended this event. Being an old man, even back then, I traveled with an ex-girlfriend, who happened to be 21 at the time. As a result, I managed to blend in well, and my four days there were extraordinary. But you may be legitimately asking yourself at this point, “What the hell does Woodstock have to do with the price of ice in China, or anywhere else for that matter?” A lot, it turns out.

You see, Woodstock '99 took place over some of the hottest days of the Summer of 1999. I think the temperature easily topped a hundred degrees Fahrenheit every single day we were there, and with the lack of shade and the press of bodies, a lot of people passed out from the heat. My ex and I did the best we could to stay cool. We found an old flatbed truck trailer on the left side of the main stage, and camped out underneath it along with maybe 30 other people. We must have refilled our water bottles, and taken impromptu showers in the process, at least a dozen times each day.

But the best thing we did to stay cool was to buy a big bag of ice on Friday, and again on Saturday, and keep it next to us in a plastic bucket. We shared the bag with everyone else under the truck. Contrary to some of the press reports, Woodstock was, at least for us, a very warm and friendly communal environment. We dunked our shirts and used them as cooling wraps for our neck or head. By Saturday, the third day of the killer heat, all the women were taking off their shirts and dunking them, too. There wasn’t much of a sense of modesty in the crowd, anyway.

And how much did that bag of ice cost me each day? Thirty dollars. For a sixteen-pound bag of ice. Now, some people who weren’t there think that was just crazy. They tell me after-the-fact that there is no way I should have paid that much. But I’m here to tell you that the two-days’ worth of ice I bought was easily worth the 60 dollars I ended up paying for it. Hell, I would’ve paid more, if the vendor had asked me to.

Which just goes to show you that in Ancient Rome, with its generally hot climate and lack of modern refrigeration technologies, Atia’s gift of six barrels of ice would have been damn near priceless.

But just how did Atia get the six barrels of ice in the first place? With no freezers or refrigerators in Ancient Rome, and none due to be invented for a couple of thousand years, where could the ice have come from?

Ice Management

The primary means by which the Romans made use of ice actually had nothing to do with manufacturing it, but everything to do with gathering and storing it. And there were generally two ways to go about it.

  • Get It From Somewhere Cold: Yeah, I know it sounds like a smart-ass answer, but this was often the simplest way to get ice before electric refrigeration. The idea would be for the Romans to travel to someplace cold –- say, the Alps –- in the middle of summer. Then, they could “harvest” all the ice they could carry, usually by sawing it off in large blocks that could be loaded onto wagons for the return trip to Rome. The ice was often consumed immediately, but could be stored in icehouses if they were available.

  • Get It From Somewhen Cold: Another way to gather ice -- one not involving traveling to a possibly remote, ice-covered location -- is to harvest all the ice you can during the winter months, and then store it in an icehouse. These structures were generally large, insulated, and underground, the idea being that by storing a large quantity of ice in a single, cool location, the chilling effect of the ice itself would help to keep it from melting until it could be enjoyed in the summer months.
  • Starting From Scratch

    If you’re like me, you’ve come to expect ingenious, at times spectacular, solutions from the Romans. You know, the kind of thing that wouldn’t be seen on this planet for a thousand years after Rome fell. Like hot and cold running water in the city. Or the retractable roof on top of the Colosseum. Or brain surgery.

    So you can imagine my disappointment when the first two methods used by the Romans for gathering ice turned out to be so uncreative. I mean, carving it out, moving it by wagon, and storing it to use later? Seems pretty basic to me. But I was overjoyed when I found that the Romans had, indeed, come up with a third way to handle ice –- and this one involved actually making the ice from scratch, with no refrigeration necessary.

    Here’s how it works. The Romans’ ice-making method required that you be in the desert, or at the very least in an area with low humidity, to facilitate heat loss and lower temperatures at night. The method described below was used a lot in North Africa and Palestine, for example.

    The Romans would put water into a pit that was well-insulated with straw. The pit would be covered with highly polished shields during the day, to reflect the heat of the sun, while at night the pit would be uncovered so that the water within could lose the maximum thermal energy. Ice often began forming in the evening, and would typically be ready for harvesting by 3 or 4 a.m. Once harvested, the ice would be taken to the nearest icehouse for storage.

    And that’s it. Nothing too fancy. Unfortunately, this method of manufacturing ice is fairly limited in terms of the amount of ice that can be harvested. The more water placed in the pit, the more resistant it is to freezing overnight. But this method does work, without refrigeration, and without electricity, and was used by the Romans to augment their seasonal ice harvests.

    So when you think about it, it’s a quick method of manufacturing a fairly small amount of ice when no other source of ice is available. So it’s kind of like running over to the store to grab that extra bag of ice for the dinner party, after all.


    • Reay Tannahill, Food in History, Three Rivers Press, New York, New York, 1988

  • Dan Berger, How can you make ice without electricity or without a fridge?,
  • ”The Ice House” (
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