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What did the ancient Romans eat?

Food in ancient Rome wasn't as bland as you might think. Still, before the rich and elaborate meals began to appear on the tables the empire needed a basis to build on. Later food began to appear from places as distant as Guinea (pheasants), Persia (cocks), India (turkeys), Hispania (rabbits), Ambracia (toe), Calcedonia (tuna), Tarento (oysters and clams), Attica (mussels) or Dafne (tordos), the Romans knew nothing but the staple foods provided by the land: cereals, legumes, vegetables, milk or eggs. And the poorest Romans knew a very small selection of those.

The Ancient Roman cuisine

In ancient Roman times access to food was extremely difficult for the less favored classes. The staple food was puls for more than 300 years. Puls is a pottage made from farro grains boiled in water until it turns to mush and then flavored with salt and oil or pig fat. This type of wheat flour porridge was consumed by the commoners and legion alike.

The analysis and description of food in the times of ancient Rome must be done according to the social classes since each class had access to different types of food. For the poorest classes, such as campesinos, soldiers in battle and the inhabitants of cities, the basic food was cold and raw, consisting of cereals and vegetables. A fine meal for this population would be represented by a hot dish (such as a stew), even if this occurred rarely. The basic grain pottage, puls, could be expanded on with vegetables, meat, cheese, or herbs to produce dishes similar to polenta or risotto. Never the less, such items like beans, lentils and vegetables were the basis of daily cooking.

Okay, So what did the Romans eat?

We have an image, one based in popular culture, about the Roman meals, this is taken from movies and books and does not always paint an accurate picture of their diets. We imagine them stuffing themselves with greasy, spicy and bizarre foods, and drinking a lot of wine. But that's not the reality.

Not for the majority of the Roman population at least.

Ordinary people fed themselves with mostly bread, oil, cheese, olives and whether they could get some meat from time to time. They would also take fruit (grapes, figs, apples), nuts (almonds and pine nuts) and vegetables (asparagus, lettuce, carrot, onion and garlic) into their diets.

As we have already learned a very common meal was porridge.

If you were a member of the upper class your diet looked much different. And the food eaten on a daily basis was more plentiful and varied.

While it is obvious that the meals eaten by the rich were elaborate compared to those of the commoner and peasants, they still paled when compared to the Roman banquets.

In fact big banquets were something else. There are two ancient Roman books that have been preserved and tell things about the food of the rich. "The Satiricón" (full text) and a cookbook ("Apicius") by an author named Marcus Gavius Apicius. The dishes were very exotic and complicated. For example: nightingale tongues, stuffed slob loins or bristle breasts, roasted pheasant or turkeys with live thrush inside. The presentation of the dishes I consider it impressive.

I remember reading recipe from Apicius which called for rose leaves, pork brains and eggs all cooked slowly.

Maybe they wouldn't be popular today, but at least they were exotic to our palettes.

In the Rome of the Caesars, at the beginning of the Christian era and during the reign of Tiberius, the name of Marcus Gavius Apicius (25 B.C. – 37 A.D.) was cited as a culinary master and competent gourmand, having spent all his fortune in permanent gastronomic toil. He always organized great banquets, and thus dilapidated his heritage. When he found that what was left of him would not give to maintain his standard of living, he committed suicide. He was the founder of the school of Cuisine of the patricians of Rome, where he and his slave cooks taught culinary techniques and recipes to housewives. This may be the first gastronomist to be quoted in texts of well-known writers. Seneca, Herodotus and Isidoro were Romans who quoted Apicius in their writings, with indications that he wrote a manual of culinary techniques and recipes for sauces, called De re coquinaria (Ars Magirica, Apicius Culinaris, or On the Subject of Cooking).

One of the biggest problems faced by Governments was the maintenance of a food supply system for the people, as the supply was irregular. The nobles fed those who served them, slaves and attendants. But it was the government who distributed to the ommon people, everything from the wheat, the oil, and sometimes the pork, when the difficulties were greater. Because of this red meats could eventually be consumed by the commoner, but domesticated animals could only be slaughtered in religious ceremonies, which hinted about who had access to these foods. One of the habits of the wealthy was to serve roasted whole animals, such as piglets, boars, goats and lambs, which showed their power and wealth.

But the gluttony and waste of food incurred by the Romans of the imperial era was not always the case. When resources were scarce, the staple food was puls, and it remained so for more than 300 years. It was this kind of wheat flour porridge that helped build an empire. And through the consumption of this paupers dish led, in the times of greatest abundance, to the Iulian puls, which contained boiled oysters, brains and spiced wine, a sign that times had improved.

The staple food of Roman society was wheat. In the time of Julius Caesar (49-44 BC), some 230,000 Romans benefited from the distributions of cereal with which the flour was produced and, consequently, the bread.

Another popular food highlighted in the Roman diet was a drink, one that you certainly know, wine, although the science for preserving it was underdeveloped. As it soured easily in the amphorae where it was stored, it was drunk with species, or served hot and watery.

Those who could not afford access to more elaborate food in times of shortage had breakfast soups of bread and wine. These abounded: farro, chickpeas and vegetables, cabbages, elm leaves, mauve, etc.

The Roman that could afford more enjoyed a great consumption of milk, goat or sheep. As well as olives. The most consumed meat was pork, which was eventually joined by beef, lamb, sheep, goat, deer, deer and gazelle. Even the dog meat was highly prized.

The diet of the Roman during the Republic barely reached 3,000 calories (the average daily intake of calories in America is 3,770), of which at least 2,000 came from wheat. The rich became fond of consuming seasoned meat with a number of products that were influential in determining the characteristics of the future great imperial cuisine: pepper, honey, coriander, nettle, mint and sage.

Mealtime in Rome

The Romans ate three or four times a day:

  1. breakfast (ientaculum),
  2. lunch (prandium),
  3. snack and
  4. dinner (dinner)

The latter was the most important. It was done as a family, at the end of the day. One of his greatest pleasures was a good conversation around the table. From the daily dinner with lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, leeks, porridge and beans with bacon was passed to a sophisticated banquet dinner with the meal divided into three parts:

  1. the gustus or appetizer to wet the guest's appetite (melon, tuna, truffles, oysters,…),
  2. the premium table (chicken, chicken, ham, seafood, ….) which was the main course, and
  3. the backtable, the desserts.

In the Imperial era food became much more diverse and luxury foods like fowl began to emerge in the form of parrot and flamingo. The ibis and stork meats were avoided because they devoured snakes, and the swallow, which ate mosquitoes.

In imperial times no one set a stop to the consumption or the waste on the table: chickens and geese were fattened with boiled flour and mead or with bread soaked in sweet wine.

Although there were changes in the history of Rome in general the meals they made daily were three: breakfast or jentaculum, lunch at noon or prandium and dinner.

The jentaculum was taken when they got up, about seven in the morning. They usually took in a few spoonfuls of porridge or bread with cheese or bread smeared with wine, garlic or oil. Breakfast was eaten on one's feet, in other words while on the go.

At the prandium they took the leftovers from the night before, bread and fruit and vegetables. They were standing up for this meal as well. At the time prandium was eaten it was about noon.

When i was at the top, they'd go to the hot and cold baths. Then they'd come home and have dinner. Dinner was taken at the triclinium and it was around 8 o'clock and in summer at about 9. Dinner consisted of appetizers (eggs, cheese, olives, seafood), various dishes (salads, vegetables, meat and fish) and desserts (cakes, fruit or nuts).

The wine was drank mixed with water and sometimes drunk with added honey or spices.

As we have seen the ancient Romans ate in some things not un-similar to our modern diet. In part because they were Mediterranean, and their culinary contributions spread throughout Europe and from that to North America. But in other regards they were very different.

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