Mark Kurlansky

The Mouse and His Child.

Quick – what's the only rock that we eat? If you answered “salt,” you're 100% correct. Go to the head of the class! However, did you also realize the role that salt has played in world history? It's quite a bit more complicated than just knowing that salt is the only rock people eat. Over the past several thousand years, humans have used salt to preserve food, to ward off evil spirits, to aid in the mummification of the dead, to pledge their loyalty, and sometimes to pay wages (the word salary comes from the Latin word for salt). These days, salt is cheap and available almost everywhere, but, “until about 100 years ago, when modern geology revealed its prevalence, salt was one of the world's most sought-after commodities. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires and inspired revolutions.”

So writes Mark Kurlansky, in his bestselling book, Salt: A World History. This fascinating tale of the compound of sodium and chloride (common table salt) is an extraordinary look at a substance most of us tend to take for granted.

“Most Italian cities were founded proximate to saltworks, starting with Rome in the hills behind the saltworks at the mouth of the Tiber. Those saltworks, along the northern bank, were controlled by the Etruscans. In 640 B.C., the Romans, not wanting to be dependent on Etruscan salt, founded their own saltworks across the river in Ostia. They built a single, shallow pond to hold seawater until the sun evaporated it into salt crystals.

The first of the great Roman roads, the Via Salaria, Salt Road, was built to bring this salt not only to Rome but across the interior of the peninsula. This worked well in the Roman part of the Italian peninsula. But as Rome expanded, transporting salt longer distances by road became too costly. Not only did Rome want salt to be affordable for the people, but, more importantly as the Romans became ambitious empire builders, they needed it to be available for the army. The Roman army required salt for its soldiers and for its horses and livestock. At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression “worth his salt” or “earning his salt.” In fact, the Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word, soldier.”

Whether mined from deep pits, evaporated from sea water, or pumped from brine wells, from ancient China to present day Louisiana, from the shores of the Dead (or Salt) Sea to the coasts of India, the production and distribution of salt has, over the millennia, been a source of wealth, of conflict, and even sometimes a matter of life and death. Consider that the next time you reach for your salt shaker, and don't forget to read all about it.

Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.