The expression "you are what you eat" could not have been more true than at
Ancient Rome. While plebeians sustained themselves on cereals and bread, members of
the senatorial class dined on exotic foods from far away lands and enjoyed three course
meals over luxurious dinners. Wine, anyone?
[Food and Drink] [Cooking] [Meals]
Food and Drink
For the majority of persons dining in Ancient Rome, meals were centered around corn
(grain), oil and wine, and, for the wealthy, different types of exotic foods.
Cereals were the staple food, originally in the form of husked wheat (far)
being made into porridge (puls), but later naked wheat (frumentum) was
made into bread. Bread was the single most often eaten food in Ancient Rome, and was
sometimes sweetened with honey or cheese and eaten along with sausage, domestic fowl,
game, eggs, cheese, fish, or shellfish.
Fish and oysters were especially popular; meat, particularly
pork, was in high demand as well. Elsewhere in Rome, delicacies, such as snails or
dormice, were specially bred. A variety of cakes, pastries, and tarts was baked
commercially and at home, often sweetened with honey. Vegetables, such as cabbage,
parsnips, lettuce, asparagus, onion, garlic, marrows, radishes, lentils, beans, and beats
was imported. Fruits and nuts were also available to the consumer, as was a variety
of strongly flavored sauces, spices, and herbs, which became very popular in Roman
Our knowledge of
Romans' dieting habits comes from literary references, archeological evidence, and
paintings. The only true literary source ever devoted to Roman food was a cookbook
attributed to Apicus.
Romans loved wine, but
they drank it watered down, spiced, and heated. Undiluted wine was considered to be
barbaric, and wine concentrate diluted with water was also common.
probably popular among the lower classes. It was a drink made from watering down acetum,
low quality wine similar to vinegar. Beer and mead were most commonly drunk in the
northern provinces. Milk, typically from sheep or goats, was considered to be
barbaric and was therefore reserved for making cheese or medicines.
Bread, cakes, and pastries were cooked commercially and at home in Ancient Rome.
A circular domed oven was used mainly for bread and pastries. Most food was
cooked over an open hearth, either by means of cauldrons suspended from chains or cooking
vessels set on gridirons. Cooking was done in the kitchen, where smoke could escape
out a small hole in the ceiling our through a wall vent. Cooking was also known to
be done outside, and for those living in tenements, communal ovens may have been available.
Food was often
prepared with a mix of fruit, honey, and vinegar, to obtain a sweet-sour flavor, and most
meat was broiled. Preservation of foods was difficult, and so popular foods, such as
fish and shellfish, were probably shipped live to their destination. Some foods,
however, such as meat and fish, could be preserved after a tedious process of pickling,
drying, smoking, and salting. Food poisoning was probably a commonplace affair.
Romans generally ate one large meal daily. Breakfast (ientaculum),
if taken, was a light meal at best, often nothing more than a piece of bread. This
was followed by the main meal of dinner (cena) at midday, and a small supper (vesperna)
in the evening. Later, however, it came to pass that dinner was eaten as a large
meal in the evening, replacing supper and adding a light lunch, or prandium.
For the poor, meals consisted of porridge or bread
with meat and vegetables, if available. For the wealthy, the meal was divided into
three courses (ab ovo usque ad mala - from egg to apples). The 1st
was an appetizer made of simply eggs, fish, shellfish, and raw vegetables known as gustatio
or promulsis. The main course, prima mensa, consisted of cooked
vegetables and meats, based on what the family could afford, and was followed by a desert
(secunda mensa) of fruit and / or sweet pastries.
The Romans sat upright to eat, but the
wealth often reclined on couches at diner parties, or ate outside in gardens, with the
weather permitting. For the poor, tableware probably consisted of coarse pottery,
but for those willing to spend a slightly prettier penny, tablewares could be purchased in
fine pottery, glass, bronze, silver, gold, and pewter.
Food was eaten with the fingers and cut
with knives crafted from anter, wood, or bronze with an iron blade. Bronze, silver,
and bone spoons existed for eggs and liquids. These spoons had pointed handles that
could be used to extract shellfish and snails from their shells.
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