Just as their legends and great rulers go down in history for their wonder so does the food of the Romans. We often read in history books about the lavish banquets the Roman patricians held and of all the exotic dishes, they served at these banquets. Dishes like ostrich heads and rats smothered in honey inspire wonder among modern people of the regality of the upper class Romans. As we look closer at the total society of the Roman populus we notice that things weren't all what they were cracked up to be.
The Roman Diet
The principal diet of the Roman plebeians, the peasant class, is radically different from the diet of the upper class. Their staple foods consisted mainly of wheat or barley, olive oil, some fish and homegrown vegetables. If they were lucky enough and could afford a cow or a chicken they sometimes had milk cheese and eggs. An interesting fact about this simple food is that the emperor Augusts usually preferred these simple meals to the high class delicacies that the upper-class usually favored.
The grain was the staple food of all Romans. Grain was so important to the Romans that it was exported from all over the empire (Namely Egypt which was considered the bread basket of the empire). It was ground into flower and baked into bread or sometimes boiled into a kind of porridge. The bread mould used by the Romans is of a circular shape which was, and still is, popular in the Mediterranean area.
Also, wine was the main drink of the ancient Romans and everyone in all classes drank it. Since it was usually quite strong, wine was usually diluted with water, milk or honey. As with all wines the principal ingredient in Roman wines was a grape. There were many vineyards on the Italian countryside so grapes were plentiful on the peninsula. The remains of any grapes used in the production of wine were usually used as food preservatives.
From the time of Augusts onward, meat and fish ,which was very expensive, were prized luxuries that only the rich and Nobel could afford. Likewise, the aristocracy ate these goods in great amounts.
The Roman Meal
The eating routine of the Romans is quite similar to that of today. The Romans ate three meals per day. Breakfast (or ientaculum as the Romans called it) for the Romans was usually small and consisted of bread being dipped in watered down wine and sometimes would include dates and olives.
Lunch (or prandium) was not regularly eaten by most Romans, but if it was it would usually consist of bread, fruit, cheese and leftovers from the previous nights meal.
Supper(or cena) was the main meal of the Roman's day and was generally served in the late afternoon. What was eaten for supper varied among classes. The poor might only eat a simple meal of vegetables and olive oil whereas the rich could enjoy such luxuries as several course meals and exotic food and wine. However, the general Roman supper consisted of three courses.
The first course(or gustus) was the appetizer course. This course consisted of such things as salads, eggs and mushrooms among other appetizers.
The second course(or lena) of a roman supper was when most of the meat dishes like pork , poultry or fish was served. For the final course(the secundae mensae or second table) the entire table was removed from the banquet area and a new one was put in it's place. This course was the dessert course and offered fruits, nuts, honey cakes and wine.