Food in Ancient Rome

Dining in RomeDining in RomeDining in Rome
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Food and Drink

For people dining in Ancient Rome, meals 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 most often eaten food in Ancient Rome, and was sometimes sweetened with honey or cheese and was eaten with sausage, domestic fowl, game, eggs, fish, or shellfish.

Fish and oysters were especially popular, while meat, especially pork was also popular. Elsewhere in Rome, delicacies such as snails or dormice were specially bred. Varieties of cakes, pastries and tarts were made both commercially and at home, and were often sweetened with honey. Vegetables, such as cabbage and parsnips, lettuce, asparagus, onion, garlic, marrows, radishes, lentils ,beans, and beets were imported. Fruits and nuts were also available, as was a variety of strongly flavored sauces, spices and herbs, which became very popular in Roman cuisine. 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.

Pasca was 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, mostly from sheep and goats, was considered to be barbaric and was therefore used for making cheese and medicine.

Roman Food

Breads, cakes and pastries were cooked both commercially and at home. A circular domed oven was used mainly for bread and pastries. Mostly food was cooked over an open hearth, either by means of a cauldron suspended from chains, or cooking vessels seated on gridirons. Cooking was done in the kitchen where smoke could escape out a small hole in the ceiling, or through a wall vent. Some cooking was also done outside, and for those living in tenements, communal ovens may have been available.
Food was often prepared with a mixture of fruit, honey and vinegar, to obtain a sweet and sour flavor, and most meat was broiled. Food was difficult to preserve , and so popular foods like fish and shellfish was probably shipped live to their destination. Meat and fish could be preserved after a tedious process of pickling, drying, smoking, and salting. Food poisoning was probably common.

Ancient Roman Kitchen
Ancient Roman Kitchen
Roman Baking Oven
Ancient Roman Baking Oven

Romans generally ate one large meal a day. Breakfast (ientaculum), if eaten, was a light meal at best, often consisting of 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 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 first was an appetizer made simple of 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 pastries.

The Romans sat upright to eat, while the wealthy often reclined on couches at dinner parties, or ate outside in gardens, weather permitting. For the poor, tableware probably consisted of coarse pottery, but for those who didn't mind spending some money, tableware consisted of glass, fine pottery, bronze. silver, gold and pewter.

Food was eaten with the fingers and cut with knives crafted from antler, wood, or bronze with an iron blade. Bronze, silver, and bone spoons were used to eat eggs and liquids. These spoons had pointed handles that could be used to extract shellfish and snails from their shells.

Roman Dining
Wealthy Romans dining while reclining on couches.

Roman Spoons
Different styles of Ancient Roman spoons. Note the pointy tips used to eat shellfish and snails.

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