At its height the Roman empire stretched from Britain to Babylon, encompassing countless peoples, customs and cultures. All manner of luxury goods flowed back to the city from the empire's furthest reaches. At the beginning, however, Rome was a simple city-state full of farmers and their families. When we talk about Roman food then, do we talk about the bread and salt of the poor, or the extravagance and opulence of imperial banquets? Well, in this case we're going to talk about it all. If we stick to the common folk's food then Pass the Garum will soon become Fifty Shades of Bread, and if we stick to over-the-top banquets then I will most likely run out of money. We'll strike a balance. First thing is first - we need to know a little bit about the Romans' dining habits, so here's a handy introduction.
When did they eat?
Breakfast, or ientaculum, was a simple affair consisting of a bit of bread and cheese or leftovers from the day before. It was a quick meal giving you just enough energy to get out the door and get on with the day's business.The main Roman meal was known as cena (nothing to do with the WWE superstar). For most people this was eaten at around midday, with a light supper (vesperna) in the evening to keep tummy rumbles at bay. This would give people the energy needed to complete their day's work The rich, who might be finished their business quite early in comparison, moved their cena to the late afternoon, and instead ate a small lunch, or prandium at around midday.
Where did they eat?
What did they eat?
The Roman diet, from the earliest days of the kingdom to the last days of the empire, was cereal based - they loved their porridges and bread. For those who could afford them, vegetables (onion, garlic, cabbage), legumes (chick-peas, lentils, beans), and maybe even fruit (grapes, figs, apples) made a nice addition. Olive oil played a prominent role, and was the main source of fat in the diet, with cheese added when available.
You might have noticed the distinct lack of meat in this diet - meat was a luxury unavailable to most. For those who could afford it, the favourite meat by far was pork, with poultry and game also featuring heavily. People made the most of their meat, with kidney, liver, tongue, and brain all being used. Fish was eaten, but because it was expensive it was eaten only rarely. Garum, or fish sauce on the other hand...
It is said that "the Romans disliked the natural tastes of most cooked foods" and loved to over-season their meals with spices and sauces.1 Whether this reputation is deserved, we shall find out.
Beer was for barbarians - in Rome, wine was what mattered. Everybody drank wine, albeit of varying quality - slaves, soldiers, and senators alike. The wine of the slaves and soldiers was more like vinegar than wine, but this was not a massive problem since the Romans tended to drink their wine diluted. Drinking undiluted wine was, like beer drinking, a sign of the barbarian.
Roman food was all a bit fingers and toes, with feet and hands being washed before the meal. Spoons were used for some foods, but typically it was just a case of grabbing it with your fingers and shovelling it into your mouth. Flat breads, not unlike naan bread, were also used to pick up bits and pieces. The slaves would take care of the mess.
Who made it all?
Unlike in Greek society where cooks had some renown, in Rome they were "nameless and without reputation".2 The Romans had this idea of what a respectable man may and may not do, and whilst writing treatises on agriculture and cooking was acceptable, actually getting involved in it was not. The Roman orator Cicero says:
"Those trades which are the servants of physical pleasure are to be thought least proper - the fishmongers, butchers and cooks."3
So, in elite households at least, cooking was done by the slaves. The everyday man, however, having no such luxury, just had to get stuck in and do it himself.
1. 'Food and Drink', in Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition, (Oxford, 2003)
2. Grainger, S., ‘The Myth of Apicius’, Gastronomica (2007), p.72
3. Cicero, de officiis, 1.150
Carcopino, J., Daily Life in Ancient Rome, (London, 1941)
Grainger, S., Cooking Apicius, (Totnes, 2006)
Grainger, S., ‘The Myth of Apicius’, Gastronomica (2007), pp.71-77
'Food and Drink', in Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition, (Oxford, 2003)
'Meals', in Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition, (Oxford, 2003)