Ancient Roman cuisine

Ancient Roman cuisine

Ancient Roman cuisine changed over the long duration of this ancient civilization. Dietary habits were affected by the influence of Greek culture, the political changes from kingdom to republic to empire, and empire's enormous expansion, which exposed Romans to many new, provincial culinary habits and cooking techniques. In the beginning the differences between social classes were not very great, but disparities developed with the empire's growth.



Apicius: De re coquinaria, frontispiece of 1709

Traditionally in the morning, a breakfast called the ientaculum [1], was served at dawn, at around 11am Romans ate a small lunch, and in the evening, they consumed the cena [2] , the main meal of the day. Due to the influence of the Greeks and the increased importation and consumption of foreign foods, the cena increased in size and diversity and was consumed in the afternoon. The vesperna [3], a light supper in the evening, was abandoned, and a second breakfast was introduced around noon, the prandium.

In the lower strata of society, the old routine was preserved, because it corresponded more closely to the daily rhythms of manual labor.

Originally flat, round loaves made of emmer (a cereal grain closely related to wheat) with a bit of salt were eaten; among the upper classes, eggs, cheese, and honey, along with milk and fruit were also consumed. In the Imperial period, around the beginning of the Christian era, bread made of wheat was introduced; with time, more and more wheaten foods began to replace emmer bread. The bread was sometimes dipped in wine and eaten with olives, cheese, crackers, and grapes. They also ate wild boar, beef, sausages, pork, lamb, duck, goose, chickens, small birds, fish, and shellfish.


Among the members of the upper classes, who did not engage in manual labor, it became customary to schedule all business obligations in the morning. After the prandium, the last responsibilities would be discharged, and a visit would be made to the baths. Around 2:00 pm. [4], the cena would begin. This meal could last until late in the night, especially if guests were invited, and would often be followed by a comissatio (a round of drinks).

In the period of the kings and the early republic, but also in later periods (for the working classes), the cena essentially consisted of a kind of porridge, the puls. The simplest kind would be made from emmer, water, salt and fat. The more sophisticated kind was made with olive oil, with an accompaniment of assorted vegetables when available. The richer classes ate their puls with eggs, cheese, and honey and (only occasionally) with meat or fish.

Over the course of the Republican period, the cena developed into 2 courses: a main course and a dessert with fruit and seafood (e.g. molluscs, shrimp). By the end of the Republic, it was usual for the meal to be served in 3 parts: 1st course (gustatio), main course (primae mensae), and dessert (secundae mensae).

Table culture

From 301 BC, Greek customs started to influence the culture of higher class Romans. Growing wealth led to ever larger and more sophisticated meals. Nutritional value was not regarded as important: on the contrary, the gourmets preferred food with low food energy and nutrients. Easily digestible foods and diuretic stimulants were highly regarded.

The dinner was consumed in a special dining room, which later was to be called triclinium. Here one would lie down on a specially designed couch, the lectus triclinaris. Around the round table, the mensa, three of these lecti were arranged in the shape of a horseshoe, so that slaves could easily serve, and a maximum of three diners would recline at each lectus. During the kingdom and early republic, the only people allowed a place on a lectus were men. By the late republic and imperial times, and especially among the aristocracy, women were permitted to recline during meals. Traditionally, women would dine sitting upright across from their husbands or fathers in chairs. More tables for the beverages stood beside the couches. All heads were oriented towards the central table, with left elbows propped on a cushion and feet at the outside of the dinnercouch. In this fashion at most nine people could dine together at one table. Further guests had to sit on chairs.[citation needed] Slaves normally stood.

Feet and hands were washed before the cena. The food would be taken with the fingertips and two kinds of spoons, the larger ligula and the smaller cochlear with a needle-thin grip, which was used as a prong when eating snails and molluscs, in practice substituting for the modern fork. At the table, larger pieces would be cut up to be served on smaller plates. After each course the fingers were washed again and napkins (mappae) were customary to wipe one's mouth. Guests could also bring their own mappae to take home the leftovers from the meal or small gifts (the apophoreta). Everything that could not be eaten (e.g. bones and shells) was thrown onto the floor, from where it was swept away by a slave.

In summer, it was popular to eat outside. Many houses in Pompeii had stone couches at a particularly beautiful spot in the garden for just that purpose. People lay down to eat only on formal occasions. If the meal was routine, they ate while seated or even standing.


During a dinner for guests, musicians, acrobats, poets or dancers would perform and dinner conversation played an important role. Dances were not usual, as it was considered improper and would not mix well with table manners, although during the comissatio this habit was often disregarded. To leave the table for bodily functions was considered inappropriate and restraining oneself was considered good manners. After the main course, during a pause, an offering was made to the Lares, the spirits of the house. This offering normally consisted of meat, cake and wine. The cake was usually colored with saffron.

Typical dishes

The starter

This part of the meal was called gustatio or promulsis. It generally consisted of light, appetizing dishes. The usual drink was mulsum (a mixture of wine and honey). At large feasts several starter dishes were served one after another.

The usual salad and vegetable plants were:

  • Mushrooms, such as boletus, field mushroom and truffles.
  • Stewed and salted snails, raw or cooked clams, sea urchins and small fish.
  • After the Republican period, light meat dishes were also served as starters. One example is dormice, which were bred in special enclosures before being fattened-up in clay pots called gliraria. Small birds like thrushes were also served.

Main course

Often, an intermediate dish was served before the real caput cenae which was the dinner. The decoration of this dish could be more important than the actual ingredients.

The main dish usually consisted of meat.[citation needed] The most common dishes were:

Pork was the most usually eaten and best liked meat. All parts of the pig were eaten, and more unusual parts like the breasts and uteruses of young sows were considered specialties. Pigs' ears were also a delicacy.

Beef was not very popular. Cattle were working animals, used for such tasks as ploughing or pulling carts, so their meat was usually very tough and had to be cooked for a long time to make it edible. Even calf meat was unpopular, with only a few recipes for it being known.

Geese were bred and sometimes fattened. The technique of force-feeding was already known, and the liver of force-fed geese was a special delicacy, as it is today. Chicken was more expensive than duck. Other birds like Pavonem- (Peacock) and swans were eaten on special occasions. Capons and poulards (spayed hens) were considered specialties. In 161 BCE the consul C. Fannius prohibited the consumption of poulards, though the ban was ignored. Sausages, farcimen, were made of beef and pork according to an astonishing diversity of recipes and types. Particularly widespread was the botulus, a blood sausage somewhat like black pudding, and which was sold on the streets. The most popular type of sausage was the lucanica, a short, fat, rustic pork sausage, the recipe for which is still used today.

For special effects, whole pigs were stuffed with sausages and fruit, roasted and then served on their feet. When cut, the sausages would spill from the animal like entrails. Such a pig was called a porcus Troianus ("Trojan pig"), a humorous reference to the Trojan Horse.

Hares and rabbits were bred, the former with little success, making them as much as four times more expensive than rabbits. Hares therefore were regarded as a luxury; shoulder of hare was especially favoured. Newborn rabbits or rabbit fetuses, known as laurices, were considered a delicacy.

Buying bread, on a wall painting from Pompeii

Fish was served only in earlier periods, and it remained more expensive than simpler meat types. Breeding was attempted in freshwater and saltwater ponds, but some kinds of fish could not be fattened in captivity. Among these was the most popular, mullus, the goatfish. At a certain time this fish was considered the epitome of luxury, above all because its scales exhibit a bright red color when it dies out of water. For this reason these fish were occasionally allowed to die slowly at the table. There even was a recipe where this would take place in garo, in the sauce. At the beginning of the Imperial era, however, this custom suddenly came to an end, which is why mullus in the feast of Trimalchio (see the Satyricon) could be shown as a characteristic of the parvenu, who bores his guests with an unfashionable display of dying fish.

There were no side dishes or accompaniments in today's sense, although bread was consumed by all classes following the introduction of wheat. Thereafter only the poorest, with no access to an oven, had to continue eating puls. Bread, which existed in a large number of different varieties, quickly became exceptionally popular and public bakeries were established in Rome from 270 AD.[dubious ]

Garum, also known as liquamen, was the universal sauce added to everything. It was prepared by subjecting salted fish, in particular mackerel intestines, to a very slow thermal process. Over the course of two to three months, in an enzymatic process stimulated by heating, usually by exposure to the sun, the protein-laden fish parts decomposed almost entirely. The resulting mass was then filtered and the liquid traded as garum, the remaining solids as alec - a kind of savoury spread. Because of the smell it produced, the production of garum within the city was banned. Garum, supplied in small sealed amphorae, was used throughout the Empire and totally replaced salt as a condiment. Today similar sauces are produced in Southeast Asia, usually sold abroad under the description "fish sauce", or nam pla.

Spices, especially pepper, but hundreds of other kinds too, were imported on a large scale and used copiously. One very popular spice was silphium; however, as it could not be cultivated it finally became extinct through overcropping of the wild plant. The inherent flavours of vegetables and meat were completely masked by the heavy use of garum and other seasonings. It was considered an indication of the highest achievement in culinary art if a gourmet could tell neither by sight, nor smell, nor taste what the ingredients of a dish were.[citation needed]


Still life with fruit basket and vases (Pompeii, ca. A.D. 70)

Among fruits, grapes were the most preferred. The Romans distinguished between grapes for wine-making and grapes as food. Raisins were also produced. After grapes, figs and dates played a major part and pomegranates were eaten in many varieties. Quinces, figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, various types of apples, apricots, peaches, cherries, pears, plums, currants, strawberries, blackberries, medlars, elderberries, mulberries, azaroles, citron, raspberries, and melons were grown. Lemons were known from the 1st century AD, but not cultivated extensively. The Romans ate walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts and pine nuts. Roman bakers were famous for the many varieties of breads, rolls, fruit tarts, sweet buns and cakes.

Cold clams and oysters (bred on a large scale), which were originally dessert dishes, later became starters.

Cakes, made of wheat and usually soaked in honey, played a big part. Certain kinds of nuts were also available, and they were thrown at festivals much as sweets are today.

Alcoholic drinks

A modern re-creation of Conditum Paradoxum
A re-creation of the Moretum recipe

Wine was normally mixed with water immediately before drinking, since the fermentation was not controlled and the alcohol grade was high. Wine was sometimes adjusted and "improved" by its makers: instructions survive for making white wine from red and vice versa, as well as for rescuing wine that is turning to vinegar. Wine was also variously flavored. For example, there was passum, a strong and sweet raisin wine, for which the earliest known recipe is of Carthaginian origin; mulsum, a freshly made mixture of wine and honey; and conditum, a mixture of wine, honey and spices made in advance and matured. One specific recipe, Conditum Paradoxum, is for a mixture of wine, honey, pepper, laurel, dates, mastic, and saffron, cooked and stored for later use. Another recipe called for the addition of seawater, pitch and rosin to the wine. A Greek traveler reported that the beverage was apparently an acquired taste.[5] Beer (cervesa) was known but considered vulgar. Sour wine mixed with water and herbs (posca) was a popular drink for the lower classes and a staple part of the Roman soldier's ration.

Sources for recipes and menus

Early texts

  • Apicius, a Roman cookery book
  • Athenaeus of Naucratis, [Deipnosophistae] (The Deipnosophists=The Banquet of the Philosophers). Written in Rome in the early 3rd century AD.
  • Cato: De Agri Cultura ("On Farming") with recipes for farm products
  • Columella: De Agricultura book 12, with recipes for conserves
  • Moretum, poem containing a recipe
  • Petronius: "Cena Trimalchionis" (The feast of Trimalchio), a section of the Satyricon: satirical sketch of a feast at the home of a rich former slave in the early imperial period
  • Vinidarius: brief late Roman recipe collection

Modern recipe collections

  • Dalby, Andrew; Grainger, Sally (1995), The Classical Cookbook, London: British Museum Press, ISBN 0714122084 
  • Patrick Faas, Around the Roman Table. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; paperback, Chicago: Univesty of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-23347-5.
  • Mark Grant, Roman cookery: ancient recipes for modern kitchens. London: Serif, 1999.
  • Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-226-29032-4.
  • Sally Grainger, Cooking Apicius: Roman recipes for today. Totnes: Prospect Books, 2006.
  • Grocock, Christopher; Grainger, Sally (2006), Apicius. A critical edition with an introduction and an English translation, Totnes: Prospect Books, ISBN 1903018137  [includes Vinidarius]
  • Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti, Dining as a Roman emperor: how to cook ancient Roman recipes today. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 1995.


  • Jacques André, L'alimentation et la cuisine à Rome. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1981.
  • N. Blanc, A. Nercessian, La cuisine romaine antique. Grenoble: Glénat, 1992.
  • Dalby, Andrew (2003), Food in the ancient world from A to Z, London, New York: Routledge, ISBN 0415232597 
  • Dalby, Andrew (2000), Empire of Pleasures, London, New York: Routledge, ISBN 0415186242 
  • Antonietta Dosi, François Schnell, A tavola con i Romani antichi. Rome: Quasar, 1984.
  • L. Hannestad, Mad og drikke i det antikke Rom. Copenhagen, 1979.
  • Nico Valerio, La tavola degli antichi. Milan: Mondadori, 1989.


  1. ^ Artman,John:"Ancient Rome- Independent Learning Unit",page 26, Good Apple, 1991.
  2. ^ Artman,John:"Ancient Rome- Independent Learning Unit",page 26, Good Apple,1991.
  3. ^ Artman,John::"Ancient Rome- Independent Learning Unit",page 26, Good Apple,1991.
  4. ^ Guy,John:"Roman Life",page 8, Ticktock Publishing LTD,1998.
  5. ^ Erdoes, Richard. 1000 Remarkable Facts about Booze. New York: The Rutledge Press, 1981, p. 88.

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