What Did the Ancient Romans Eat?
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.
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
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.
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).
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).
Ancient Roman Recipes for Modern Cooks
- Ancient Roman Recipes
Feeling daring? Check out these free recreations of ancient Roman recipes, updated for the modern kitchen.
Would you ever try ancient Roman food?
- Prinz, Martin. "Fiery Vesuvius." Natural History Vol. 88. April, 1979.
- Deiss, Joseph J. Herculaneum: Italy's Buried Treasure. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. New York. 1985
- Meyer, Frederick G. "Carbonized food plants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa at Torre Annunziata." Economic Botany Vol. 34 Issue 4. October, 1980.
- Apicius. Author Unknown. circa 4th-5th c. CE.
- The Braggart Soldier and The Pot of Gold. Titus Maccius Plautus. circa 2nd c. BCE
- Satyricon. Gaius Petronius Arbiter. circa 1st c. CE