What Did the Romans Eat? Food and Drink in Ancient Times

The Romans weren’t always reclining at a table loaded with roasted ostriches, literally eating until they were sick. The 1,000-year and pan-European extent of Roman history takes in an enormous culinary range. Rome was a hierarchical society too, and the slave ate an enormously different diet from the master he served.

Roman-diet-mosaic-from-Vatican

2nd century mosaic, now in the Vatican.

The Evidence

The most tangible evidence of the Roman diet is food and human waste excavated by archaeologists. The cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii (destroyed in the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius) have left sewers and rubbish heaps packed with digested dietary evidence.

Rome’s rich literary and visual culture can also provide clues. Petronius’ over-the-top Satyricon (late 1st century) is probably the inspiration for our imagined decadent banquet. Poets like Horace (65 – 8 BC) and Juvenal (1st – 2nd century) leave clues. A 10 volume cookbook, Apicius’ De re coquinaria (4th – 5th centuries AD) survives and Pliny the Elder’s great Natural History (c77 AD) is a fine source on edible plants.

The Daily Meals

For the ordinary Roman, ientaculum was breakfast, served at day break. A small lunch, prandium, was eaten at around 11am. The cena was the main meal of the day. They may have eaten a late supper called vesperna.

Richer citizens in time, freed from the rhythms of manual labour, ate a bigger cena from late afternoon, abandoning the final supper.

The cena could be a grand social affair lasting several hours. It would be eaten in the triclinium, the dining room, at low tables with couches on three sides. The fourth side was always left open to allow servants to serve the dishes. Diners were seated to reflect their status. The triclinium would be richly decorated, it was a place to show off wealth and status. Some homes had a second smaller dining room for less important meals and family meals were taken in a plainer oikos.

A Roman dining room or Triclinium

A triclinium, the Roman formal dining room.

What They Ate

The Mediterranean Diet is recognised today as one of the healthiest in the world. Much of the Roman diet, at least the privileged Roman diet, would be familiar to a modern Italian.

They ate meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, cheese, grains (also as bread) and legumes.

Meat included animals like dormice (an expensive delicacy), hare, snails and boar. Smaller birds like thrushes were eaten as well as chickens and pheasants. Beef was not popular with the Romans and any farmed meat was a luxury, game was much more common. Meat was usually boiled or fried, ovens were rare.

A type of clam called telline that is still popular in Italy today was a common part of a rich seafood mix that included oysters (often farmed), octopus and most sea fish.

The Romans grew beans, olives, peas, salads, onions, and brassicas (cabbage was considered particularly healthy, good for digestion and curing hangovers) for the table. Dried peas were a mainstay of poorer diets. As the empire expanded new fruits and vegetables were added to the menu. The Romans had no aubergines, peppers, courgettes, green beans, or tomatoes, staples of modern Italian cooking.

3rd century image of a boy in a kitchen.

3rd century of a boy in a kitchen.

Fruit was also grown or harvested from wild trees and often preserved for out-of-season eating. Apples, pears, grapes, quince and pomegranate were common. Cherries, oranges, dates, lemons and oranges were exotic imports. Honey was the only sweetener.

Eggs seem to have been available to all classes, but larger goose eggs were a luxury.

Bread was made from spelt, corn (sometimes a state dole for citizens) or emmer. The lack of ovens meant it had to be made professionally, which may explain why the poor took their grains in porridges.

The Romans were cheese-making pioneers, producing both hard and soft cheeses. Soldiers’ rations included cheese and it was important enough for Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305 AD) to pass laws fixing its price. Pliny the Elder wrote on its medicinal properties.

Most of these were the foods of the wealthy. The poor and slaves are generally thought to have relied on a staple porridge. Bones analysed in 2013 revealed poor Romans ate large amounts of millet, now largely an animal feed. Barley or emmer (farro) was also used.

This porridge, or puls, would be livened up with what fruit, vegetables or meats that could be afforded.

Dining out was generally for the lower classes, and recent research in Pompeii has shown they did eat meat from restaurants, including giraffe.

Fish Sauce

All classes had access to at least some of Rome’s key ingredients, garum, liquamen and allec, the fermented fish sauces.

The sauces were made from fish guts and small fish, which were salted and left in the sun. The resulting gunk was filtered. Garum was the best quality paste, what passed through the filters was liquamen. The sludge left at the bottom of the sieve was a third variety, allec, destined for the plates of slaves and the really poor.

Herbs would be added to local or even family recipes.

These highly nutritious sauces were used widely and garum production was a big business – Pompeii was a garum town. Soldiers drank it in solution.
The poor poured it into their porridge. The rich used it in almost every recipe – it might be compared to Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce or far-eastern fish sauces today – from the savoury to the sweet.

branded garum jar mosaic from Pompeii mosaic.

A branded garum jar on a Pompeii mosaic.

Colin Ricketts studied history at the University of Birmingham, graduating in 1992. He's a qualified librarian, a former journalist and currently a freelance writer and editor.

  • Hist Ed

    “corn”? corn is native to the Americas. Wasn’t corn then a synonym for grain?

    • JamesCarson

      Here in the UK corn is synonymous with grain

      • Hist Ed

        Makes sense (Corn laws and such). Just curious, what do you can the stuff that you eat off the cob or pop then (if you do such a thing)?

        • John F. MacMichael

          I cannot speak to current British usuage but in older books I have most often seen it referred to as “maize”. This is a word adopted into English from Spanish. The Spanish in turn took the name from the Taino culture of Hispanola, one of their first conquests in the Americas.

          As for the modern American use of “corn” to mean one specific type of grain, remember that when our ancestors first encountered maize they referred to it as “Indian corn” meaning Indian grain. As the generations went past, in a not uncommon process of linguistic erosion, the word “Indian” was dropped, “corn” came to mean one specific kind of grain and “grain” replaced “corn” as the general term.

          • David Malone

            maize generally refers to American indigenous cereals especially “Indian Maize” and its European-bred variants which you might call sweet corn.

        • JamesCarson

          To us it’s sweetcorn. Stuff you pop is popcorn. Both different to corn, which we understand as generally farmed cereals

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