Ancient Rome’s mysterious history has long captivated archaeologists and tourists alike. The Roman Empire, at its pinnacle, was the most wide-ranging political and social structure in western civilization.
Ancient Roman Food was imported from all around the empire to feed the mass population; the diet and eating habits were dictated by social status. Wealthy Roman meals and dining styles were extravagant when likened to those typical of a poor peasant.
The most common Ancient Roman Food habits
Affluent Romans could pay for the highest quality food and wine and enjoyed throwing lavish dinner parties that lasted for hours. These parties required an invitation and invitees were expected to bring their own napkins.
The dining room of well-to-do Romans was called a triclinium and had a three-sided couch arranged around a table. The couch usually accommodated 9 diners – a number that represented the 9 muses. Visitors would lie on their left side while eating and the central seat was considered the most important and desirable.
Less wealthy Romans did not have the luxury of a kitchen at home and lived in apartments with no food preparation facilities, both for reasons of safety and practicality. There was no refrigeration for food, therefore, they utilized ancient fast-food eateries called thermopoliums to obtain hot meals. These ancient holes-in-the-wall were not too dissimilar from modern taverns seen in Rome today.
People could dine in, but most Romans preferred picking up cooked food to transport home (think ancient Roman take-out) or eat on the street. It was not appropriate for a well-off person to dine at these sorts of places – and there are many written accounts of noblemen being ridiculed for spending time mingling with the masses. Over the course of the empire, these eateries evolved into spaces where people could congregate and drink wine, much like modern bars today.
Typical dishes served at these establishments included meatballs, lentils, fish, birds, pigs, goat – and even exotic meats, as proven in recent evacuations of Pompeii such as Giraffe, for example. Bread was relatively uncommon for many centuries – therefore a type of gruel or porridge was usually served as well as vegetable dishes, fritters and other quick-to-make and easy-to-eat foods.
Typical Ancient Roman foods and recipes
Romans ate many different variations of carrots that came in various colors (these variations are extinct today). Vegetables and fruits that we associate with Italian cuisine such as tomatoes, eggplants, capsicum (bell pepper), spinach and lemons were still not part of the Mediterranean diet. Ancient Romans ate a variety of vegetables including, but not limited to: cabbage, celery, kale, broccoli, radishes, asparagus, carrots, turnips, beets, green peas, cured olives, salad and cucumber.
A fun fact: the word ‘salad’ stems from ‘salted vegetables’. Typical fruits found during this time included apples, figs, grapes and pears.
Meat and Fish
Refrigerators did not exist in ancient Rome and preserving meat and fish was no easy task. Food poisoning was common, hence Romans preserved their meat and fish through smoking and salting processes. The salting was initiated by cleaning the flesh through immersing it in vinegar. It was dried and smoked by exposing it to smoke from burning wood – and finally salted.
Fish and seafood were eaten more frequently than meat, and the ancient Romans are said to have developed the fishing and oyster farming industries.
Meat was generally considered a luxury for most Romans and poultry was widely eaten, followed by pork (usually salted), goat and lamb. Wild game such as boar, deer and pheasant were popular, while beef was less common. Wealthy Romans took pleasure in in eating dormice, which were considered a delicacy and a status symbol. Other exotic treats included flamingo, peacock, milk-fed-snails, electric ray, songbirds, cranes and parrots.
Although pasta was not yet invented in ancient Rome, it is said that meatballs were quite a popular dish. Romans were huge fans of eggs and frittatas – and produced many interesting egg-based recipes using honey, pepper and herbs.
The Romans were expert cheese makers and cheese was a staple part of the ancient Roman diet. The practice of drinking milk was also considered barbaric, as milk was only for making cheese!
Roman farmer Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (4 BC-70 AD) tells us about cheese-making in De Re Rustica (Book VII, Chapter VIII):
Cheese should be made of pure milk, which is as fresh as possible, for if it is left to stand or mixed with water, it quickly turns sour. It should usually be curdled with rennet obtained from a lamb or a kid, though it can also be coagulated with the flower of the wild thistle or the seeds of the safflower, and equally well with the liquid which flows from a fig-tree if you make an incision in the bark while it is still green.
Condiments and Herbs
Garum was a condiment that the ancient Romans used on everything. Similar to modern-day Oyster sauce, this was a fish sauce made from the entrails of anchovies that had been left in the sun to ferment. The ancient Romans put it in everything including their deserts.
Although garlic is a protagonist in modern day Italian cooking, it was not used for Ancient Roman food making and strictly for medicinal use.
An array of popular spices were predominant in Ancient Roman cuisine including: ginger, cloves, saffron, mustard, cardamom, poppy seeds, fennel, cumin, anise, celery, sesame, myrtle berries, bay leaves, juniper, mint, savory, oregano, parsley, lovage, chervil, dill, coriander and lavender. The most prized of herbs was the now extinct Silphium – an herb cultivated on the island of Cyreanica, off the coast of Libya. It tasted very similar to another spice that is still common in Middle Eastern cooking today: Asafetida.
Grains and Bread
Grains were very important to the Ancient Roman diet. Barley, durum wheat (emmer or spelt), rye, oats, millet and panic were widely cultivated. Barley was the staple food of the soldiers, besides being the most widely used grain in the Republican period. The gladiators were served sprouted barley as a gruel – they became known as hordearii which meant eaters of barley.
Spelt was crushed and cooked in porridge. Oats were generally only used as animal feed. Thanks to archeological digs and written sources, we now know that the poorest citizens of Rome ate a diet heavily based on millet, another grain looked down upon by the wealthy as fit only for livestock. They ate it in the form of Puls – a type of porridge.
Millet was also the grain most widely eaten by the poor population during the Middle Ages.
Grains were originally served as gruels or porridges – but around 300 BC Romans discovered the perks of baking grains and other flours over serving them as a paste. The bread eaten in ancient Rome was probably coarse and dense, as the flour was stone ground. Bread often contained lots of dust and pieces of dirt and poorly crushed grain. Finer specialist breads were available- but could only be afforded by rich citizens. It was during the Roman era that bread production attained new heights, moving from coarse flatbreads to a staple food consumed by all social classes.
Beverages: wine and beer
The ancient Romans were well known for their wine production expertise, and their high consumption of the esteemed beverage. The Romans were the first to discover the aging potential of wine, storing it in barrels for 25 years. Barrels replaced old clay amphorae that the Etruscans used.
Wine was so important to Roman culture that there was even a god dedicated to it: the god Bacchus. Bacchus was the god of wine and harvest, was distinguished among the Roman gods and often portrayed by a man in perfect health holding a cup of wine.
The Romans considered the drinking of wine as a daily necessity, and its consumption was part of every common meal. Everyone could drink wine, starting with the emperor and extending all the way down to the humble slave. Naturally the quality of the wine consumed varied according to social class levels, but wine was a privilege that was offered to everyone, nevertheless.
The Romans spread wine through the empire, which was larger than the original reach of the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks. The spread of the wine making culture throughout Europe was one of the Romans greatest legacies with the foundation of vineyards in some of the most world-renowned regions in modern day Italy.
Ancient Roman’s frowned upon drinking to excess and usually drank their wine mixed with water, and it was considered barbaric to drink wine that was not watered-down. The Romans also added various spices and honey to their wine which was often served hot (similar to a modern day mulled wine) – they also clarified wine with unpleasant ingredients such as lead, charcoal and seawater.
Beer was not so common in the Roman Empire and was considered barbaric by many because it was often associated with barbarians.
Ancient Roman cuisine vs. modern day Romans
As Rome progressed, the differences in eating habits between social classes became more pronounced and although Ancient Roman cuisine became more sophisticated over time, it is seen as a quite humble and simple cuisine in modern day Italy.
The cuisine modern day Romans eat has evolved tremendously and is enjoyed by not just Romans, but all Italians. The simple and seasonal ingredients are what have people coming back for more.
Coming to Rome? Walk with us through the bustling streets—learning about the cuisine, La Dolce Vita and discovering one of the most intriguing and oldest neighborhoods of Rome while tasting some of the most popular dishes of the Eternal City. Then you tell us whether or not you think the cuisine of modern day Rome has any similarities to that of Ancient Rome.