Ancient Roman Food and Drink
The traditional date for the founding of Rome is 753 BC, and archaeological evidence shows that the earliest inhabitants lived in single room round huts with a hole in the center of the roof to let smoke out. By the time of the fall of the Republic in the first century AD, wealthy Roman citizens lived in lavish villas. So, it should be no surprise that the eating habits of ancient Romans changed over time. In this space, only the eating habits during the republican period will be described, as the late republic is the time period of the Nomenclator series of novels. During the Republic, Rome encountered and often clashed with various cultures, and those encounters changed the types of food that were available and how they were prepared.
In the very early period, the eating habits of all Romans, regardless of social class or status was probably very much the same. Food was simple, and meat was scarce. Roman dining habits followed the work schedule of the laborer, and the varieties of food that were eaten depended largely on what was in season. Because work traditionally started shortly after sunrise, the first meal was eaten at dawn. This early breakfast was called the ientaculum and was generally a simple loaf for working Romans. Te patricians would often have eggs, milk, honey, fruit or cheese with this meal. The prandium, of lunch was eaten in the late morning. This meal often consisted of food that was left over from the day before. This was sometimes augmented with fish or meat and fruit that was in season. The main meal of the day, called the cena, was taken in the late afternoon or early evening at the end of the work day. For working class Romans, the cena often consisted of a bowel of porridge. Richer Romans would also have cheese, eggs, fish, or meat with this meal. Before going to sleep, Romans ate a light second supper called the vesperna. Those belonging to the patrician class were not tied to a strict work schedule, so for them, the cena grew larger and was eventually started later in the day. At some point, the vesperna was eliminated.
During the Republic wealthy Romans adopted the eastern habit of dining on couches. Three couches, which could accommodate two people each, were arranged in a “U” shape around a central table. Because there were three couches, the dining room was called the triclinium. At first only men would recline on the couches to dine, while women and children sat on stools. In the late Republic women were also allowed to use the couches. Of course, for informal meals Romans took their meals sitting on chairs around a table. The poor of Rome had neither the money nor the space to set up a triclinium.
Some items of an ancient Roman's diet would be immediately recognizable to the modern eye, but others would be rarely or never seen. There were many types of vegetables available. Romans ate carrots, celery, cabbage, peas, beans, and beets, to name a few, but potatoes and tomatoes were unknown, as they only arrived in Europe after the discovery of the Americas. Pliny the Elder stated that there were thirty varieties of olives eaten by Romans. Apples, pears, apricots and figs were eaten in ancient Rome, as were berries, melons, plums, dates, and a variety of other fruits. Lemons and oranges were known, but rarely eaten.
Cheese was a regular part of the Roman diet, but meat was not nearly as common in ancient Rome as it is today. It was considered a luxury and not often eaten by the poor. Beef was rarely eaten, except after a sacrifice, but pork, poultry, and seafood was well known.
No description of the ancient Roman diet would be complete without a mention of garum. Garum was a fish sauce that was used in nearly every type of meal. While garum is the common name for Roman fish sauce, there were three additional types, liquamen, muria, and allec. Fish sauce was so popular that there was an entire industry devoted to its manufacture. The basic method for concocting this sauce was to take a large pottery urn and lay a layer of salt on the bottom. On top of that was placed the heads, tails, and guts of fish. This was then topped with another layer of salt followed by more fish parts, until the urn was full. It was then covered and left to ferment. After enough time had passed, the liquid was separated from the waste and sold as a seasoning sauce.
The two main drinks consumed at Roman meals were water and wine, and wine was almost always mixed with water. Flavored wines were also well known, with honey being a common wine sweetener. Beer was considered a barbaric drink by the ancient Romans, and the beer of the time would be quite unfamiliar to the modern palate. Beer is made from fermented grains, but modern beer is flavored with hops and other additives, where the ancient beers was not.
Many Romans, particularly those living in cities, had no means to cook their food. Since most city dwellers lived in large insulae or apartment buildings, and these were always in danger of catching fire, landlords often did not allow cooking in the apartments. Therefore, many Romans either took their meals in tabernae or brought their food to a taberna or bakery to have it cooked and then took it home to be consumed.
Wealthy Romans who lived in domi or villae, had kitchens in their homes, but since there were no chimneys, those kitchens were often outside of the main living area. Some kitchens were even on the outside of the house, in a courtyard.
Many of the foods consumed by the ancient Romans would be very exotic to us, but some are not all that different from what we eat. Popular culture has given us the impression that Romans were gluttonous and addicted to luxury, but this impression is from a few overindulgent emperors of the Imperial period and does not reflect the eating habits of most Romans throughout hundreds of years of history.