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What Did the Ancient Romans Eat?

Updated on November 20, 2014
Roman tile mosaic depicting food items from a Tor Marancia villa, c. 2nd century CE.
Roman tile mosaic depicting food items from a Tor Marancia villa, c. 2nd century CE. | Source

Historians (myself included) may gush over the lost works of minor Greek philosophers, and archaeologists may swoon at the discovery of broken pottery fragments, but we love the more thrilling aspects of the past as much as you do. In fact, our favorite historical subjects are sex, fashion, war, and food!

The diet of the ancient Romans is particularly fascinating, and luckily a wealth of information on it is available. Read on for intriguing details about Roman day-to-day staples and delicious delicacies.

How Do We Know What the Romans Ate?

We certainly can't call up an ancient Roman and ask him or her what was on the breakfast menu, but there are several ways we can learn about the types of foods the Romans ate:

  • The Archaeological Record. An excellent way to tell about the diet of the Romans is through archaeological evidence from sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum. In well preserved sites like those, it is possible to find direct evidence of the Roman diet including food shops, kitchens, and even preserved food.
  • Roman Literature. Compelling evidence on day-to-day subjects like food can be gathered from primary literary sources. The Apicius cookbook, the plays of Plautus, and Petronius’s Satyricon are three great sources which frequently mention food (and exclusively discuss food, in the case of Apicius).
  • Frescoes and Mosaics. Many ancient Roman villas and homes were decorated with frescoes and mosaics showing banquet scenes and pictures of food items.

A preserved loaf of bread recovered from the archaeological site of Pompeii.
A preserved loaf of bread recovered from the archaeological site of Pompeii. | Source

Food and Beverages in Roman Archaeology

Wine shops are one example of a Roman culinary tradition discovered through archaeology. Several wine shops have been excavated in the ancient city of Pompeii, and they share many similarities. The shops contained long counters with holes embedded directly in the surfaces where large terra cotta food jars were stored. These jars contained items such as grain, nuts, and dried and smoked fruits and vegetables. The shops also contained sausages and cheese, all of which were meant to be served alongside the wine.1

Carbonized plant remains from private homes in Pompeii and Herculaneum give us an idea of what types of plant foods the Romans were consuming at home. Plant foods discovered include garlic, figs, olives, dates, onions, walnuts, lentils, carob, barley, wheat, oats, millet, almonds, pears, grapes, and others.2

Bakeries and bread stalls have also been excavated in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and they seem to have been abundant. Bread was likely a staple of the Romans, and some private homes even had facilities for baking their own.3

A Roman mosaic of various types of seafood in a basket.
A Roman mosaic of various types of seafood in a basket. | Source

Food and Beverages in Roman Literature

Apicius: The Roman Cookbook

Surprisingly, an actual cookbook is among the surviving manuscripts of Roman literature. The text was written by an unknown author, probably in the 4th or 5th century CE. Many historians believe it was actually intended for use in the kitchen, just like cookbooks today.

Foods frequently mentioned in Apicius include chicken, fish, shrimp, muscles, olives, dates, beans, honey, and figs, among many others.

Food and Beverages in Plautus's Plays

In Plautus’s The Braggart Soldier, the hanger-on Artorogus talks about the food he receives for his services: “I’m crazy for his olive salad!”

In The Pot of Gold, the cook, Anthrax, gives orders for the preparation of a wedding feast: “scale the fish and you, Machaerio, You bone the eel and lamprey quick as possible. I’m going to ask Congrio to lend his bread-pan. Now if you’re wise, you’ll pluck that rooster really clean”

Although his plays are intended for entertainment, the details can provide us with tons of useful information on everyday Roman life. His writings confirm much of what we've already discovered in the archaeological record; that olives and bread were staples. He also indicates the popularity of fish and fowl.

The setup of a traditional Roman dining room. Men reclined to eat and women sat up in straight-backed chairs. From "Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time" by Frederick Litchfield, 1893.
The setup of a traditional Roman dining room. Men reclined to eat and women sat up in straight-backed chairs. From "Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time" by Frederick Litchfield, 1893. | Source

Food and Beverages in The Satyricon

A Roman dinner party is described in Petronius’s Satyricon as well, though the context makes it very clear that this particular dinner is one of indecent extravagance: “On one were welded little bridges, receptacles for cooked dormice that were dipped in honey and sprinkled with sesame seed. On the opposite platter was a toy silver grill, sausages on top and Syrian plums and pomegranate seeds underneath standing for hot coals”

Though the dinner in question was meant to be the Roman equivalent of caviar-topped filet mignon, there is still much we can learn from its description. For example, it is possible to infer what sorts of dishes might have been eaten at a special event or party of very wealthy people (though it is unlikely that all of those fancy, expensive dishes would have been served at the same feast). But even more interestingly, we can learn what types of foods the Romans were aware of, and what they considered delicacies (meat, honey, plums, and pomegranate, for example).

A Roman fresco depicting fruit from the House of the Deer in Herculaneum.
A Roman fresco depicting fruit from the House of the Deer in Herculaneum. | Source

Food and Beverages in Roman Mosaics and Frescoes

Frescoes and mosaics are another great way to learn about the Roman diet. The most commonly depicted foods include various types of seafood (predominantly but not exclusively fish), fruits and vegetables, fowl, and bread. It is likely that the Romans did indeed consume large quantities of fish, crustaceans, and shellfish, since they lived so close to the Mediterranean Sea (many mosaics also depict marine scenes and men fishing).

A Roman fresco of a bread shop from the House of the Baker in Pompeii.
A Roman fresco of a bread shop from the House of the Baker in Pompeii. | Source

Would you ever try ancient Roman food?

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References

  1. Prinz, Martin. "Fiery Vesuvius." Natural History Vol. 88. April, 1979.
  2. Deiss, Joseph J. Herculaneum: Italy's Buried Treasure. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. New York. 1985
  3. Meyer, Frederick G. "Carbonized food plants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa at Torre Annunziata." Economic Botany Vol. 34 Issue 4. October, 1980.
  4. Apicius. Author Unknown. circa 4th-5th c. CE.
  5. The Braggart Soldier and The Pot of Gold. Titus Maccius Plautus. circa 2nd c. BCE
  6. Satyricon. Gaius Petronius Arbiter. circa 1st c. CE

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    • savvydating profile image

      Yves 11 months ago

      Interesting hub. It sounds to me like the Roman's ate well prepared, mostly healthy food. However, my understanding is that Roman banquets were not healthy affairs. Apparently, the ancients could be quite gluttonous, going so far as to throw up their food so that they could eat and drink again.

      In my book, a delicious, fragrant plate of mussels and a fig for dessert sounds pretty much like a taste of heaven.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting facts about ancient Roman food and beverages. It is really exciting to know things about our ancient history and culture. Thanks for sharing it. Voted up and interesting.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      you know, they sure eat lots of healthy food, good thing there wasn't any fast food

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      No real surprises here for this old history teacher, but a great job of research and presentation. Nice job, Christy, and Happy New Year to you.

    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

      Sanjay Sharma 3 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Very informative hub.

    • Easy Exercise profile image

      Kelly A Burnett 3 years ago from United States

      Fish is so important and so many of us neglect this important source of Omega 3. I just started taking a vitamin supplement of Omega 3 and am amazed at how much better my joints feel and within 10 days I had a noticeable difference in my hair.

      I find it fascinating how our eating habits have changed. Great information - thank you so much for sharing. Voted up!

    • alison monroe profile image

      Alison Monroe 3 years ago

      There are some Roman recipes in the book "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines" by Jeff Smith. As I remember, the recipes used a lot of leeks and vinegar and he didn't really like the results.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      Interesting to know what ancient Romans ate. I wonder how spaghetti and Pizza evolved? Italians are very passionate food lovers and it would be nice to know the evolution of their cuisine. I also wonder how the ancient Romans prepared their food?

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 3 years ago from California Gold Country

      It is interesting to see the foods depicted in literature and art. Can you imagine, today, having a mosaic on your wall showing a Big Mac and fries?

    • marion langley profile image

      marion langley 4 years ago from The Study

      Sounds good to me. I've never tried lamprey. Plating was obviously "in" then as it is now an important element in fine dining - loved the note on pomegrate seeds as a stand in for fake coals! Stunning description - I saw it in my mind's eye and whistfully regretted I didn't have materials on hand to re-create it right here. Also...very interesting what they served in the wine shops...veggies....really?

    • point2make profile image

      point2make 4 years ago

      A very informative and enjoyable hub. Your research is excellent and the way you share a window into the Roman world is very interesting. Thanks for sharing and giving me a few "feast" ideas.

    • Christy Kirwan profile image
      Author

      Christy Kirwan 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Hi livewithrichard,

      I'm not offended at all. I'm flattered! I'll have to check out that page myself-- it sounds interesting.

    • Christy Kirwan profile image
      Author

      Christy Kirwan 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Hi CMHypno,

      I'm glad you enjoyed it! Some of the delicacies are things I certainly wouldn't want to try myself, but I think this kind of trivia is really interesting. :D

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Fascinating hub on what the Romans ate Christy. The dormice dipped in honey certainly sound like a very unusual treat, but then again I wonder what your average Roman citizen would make of our takeaway hamburger joints.

      Learned lots, thanks for the great information

    • livewithrichard profile image

      Richard Bivins 4 years ago from Charleston, SC

      Very interesting read... I have a BA in History and just love this kind of stuff. I shared it on a Facebook Fanpage I'm a member of called 'I F***ing Love History' without the stars of course... hope you don't find it offensive but it is a really cool Fanpage.

      Romans were very good record keepers and the wealthier family kept really good books, some of which have survived, and detail monthly budget expenses. I had a primary source on this but for the life of me I cannot find it. But from those books it was easy to discern what that household was eating, how much, and how often. No point in studying history unless you study the culture as well. Sharing...