changed over the long duration (over a thousand years) of their ancient civilization
. These habits
were affected by the influence of Greek
culture, the political changes from kingdom to republic to empire, and the enormous expansion of the empire which brought many new culinary habits and cooking techniques from the provinces. In the beginning the differences between social classes were not very great, but disparity grew with the empire.
Traditionally in the morning a breakfast was served, the ientaculum, at noon a small lunch, and in the evening the main meal of the day, the cena. Due to the influence of Greek habits and also the increased import of and consumption of foreign foods, the cena increased in size and diversity and was consumed in the afternoon. The vesperna, a light supper in the evening, was abandoned, and a second breakfast was introduced around noon, the prandium.
In the lower strata of society the old routine was preserved, because it corresponded more closely with the daily rhythm of manual labor.
Originally flat, round loaves made of emmer (a cereal grain closely related to wheat) with a bit of salt were eaten; in the higher classes also eggs, cheese and honey, along with milk and fruit. In the imperial period, around the beginning of the Common Era, bread made of wheat was introduced and with time more and more baked products began to replace this emmer bread. The bread was sometimes dipped in wine and eaten with olives, cheese, crackers, and grapes.
This lunch was richer and mostly consisted of the leftovers of the previous day's cena.
Among members of the upper classes, who did not engage in manual labor, it became customary to schedule all business obligations in the morning. After the prandium the last responsibilities would be discharged and then a visit would be made to the baths. Around 3 o'clock, the cena would begin. This meal could last until late in the night, especially if guests were invited, and would often be followed by a comissatio (a round of drinks).
Especially in the period of the kings and the early republic, but also in later periods (for the working classes), the cena essentially consisted of a kind of porridge, the puls. The simplest kind would be made from emmer, water, salt and fat. The more sophisticated kind was made with olive oil, with an accompaniment of assorted vegetables whenever possible. The richer classes ate their puls with eggs, cheese and honey, and (only occasionally) meat or fish.
Over the course of the Republican period, the cena developed into two courses, a main course and a dessert with fruit and seafood (e.g. mollusks, shrimp). By the end of the Republic, it was usual for the meal to be served in three parts: first course (gustatio), main course (primae mensae), and dessert (secundae mensae).
During a dinner for guests, musicians, acrobats, poets or dancers would perform and dinner conversation played an important role. Dances were not usual, as it was considered improper and would not mix well with table manners, although during the comissatio
this habit was often disregarded. To leave the table for bodily functions was considered inappropriate and restraining oneself was considered good manners. After the main course, during a pause, an offering was made to the Lares
, the spirits of the house. This offering normally consisted of meat, cake and wine. The cake was usually coloured with saffron
This part of the meal was called gustatio
. It generally consisted of light, appetising dishes. The usual drink was mulsum
, a mixture of wine
. At large feasts several starter dishes were served one after another.
The usual salad and vegetable plants were:
- pulses such as fava beans, chick peas, peas and lupins, although these were only appreciated by peasants, smiths, legionaries and gladiators; only lentils imported from Egypt were liked by the upper class.
- several kinds of cabbage were usually enjoyed with vinegar, kale was cooked in saltpetre, and both the green and the white parts of chard were used.
- the leaves of many shrubs and weeds were cooked to a mush and strongly spiced; examples are elder, mallow, orache, fenugreek, nettles and sorrel.
- pickled fruit and vegetables such as olives, chicory, cardoons, mallows, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, leeks, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, peas, green beans, radishes, cauliflower, lettuces and field greens, onions, cucumbers, fennel, melons, capers and cress were called acetaria and were thought to be appetising. Spinach was not known until the 9th century.
Other starters were:
Often, an intermediate dish was served before the real caput cenae. The decoration of this dish could be more important than the actual ingredients.
The main dish usually consisted of meat. Common dishes were:
- Beef was not very popular as cattle were working animals, used for such tasks as plowing or pulling carts, so their meat was usually very tough and had to be cooked for a long time to make it edible. Even calf meat was unpopular; only a few recipes for it are known.
- Pork was the most usual and best liked meat. All parts of the pig were eaten, and more unusual parts like the breasts and uterus of young sows were considered delicacies.
- Wild boar were also bred and fattened before slaughtering.
- Geese were bred and sometimes fattened. The technique of force-feeding was already known, and the liver of force-fed geese was a special delicacy, as it is today.
- Chicken was more expensive than duck. Other birds like peacocks and swans were eaten on special occasions. Capons and poulards (spayed hens) were considered special delicacies. In 161 BCE, the consul C. Fannius prohibited the consumption of poulards, though the ban was ignored.
- Sausages, farcimen, were made of beef and pork according to an astonishing diversity of recipes and types. Particularly widespread was the botulus, a blood sausage which was sold on the streets. The most popular type of sausage was the lucanica, a short, fat, rustic pork sausage, the recipe for which is still used today. Several sausages made in modern Europe and colonial countries reflect the Latin name, including the Portuguese and Brazilian linguiça, the Greek loukaniko, the Spanish longaniza, and the Italian luganega.
- For special effects, whole pigs were stuffed with sausages and fruit, roasted and then served on their feet. When cut, the sausages would spill from the animal like entrails. Such a pig was called a porcus Troianus ("Trojan pig"), a humorous reference to the Trojan Horse.
- Hares and rabbits were bred, the former with little success, making them as much as four times more expensive than rabbits. Hares therefore were regarded as a luxury; shoulder of hare was especially favoured. Newborn rabbits or rabbit fetuses, known as laurices, were considered a delicacy.
Fish was served only in later periods, and it remained more expensive than simpler meat types. Breeding was attempted in freshwater and saltwater ponds, but some kinds of fish could not be fattened in captivity. Among these was the most popular, mullus, the goatfish. At a certain time this fish was considered the epitome of luxury, above all because its scales exhibit a bright red colour when it dies out of water. For this reason these fish were occasionally allowed to die slowly at the table. There even was a recipe where this would take place in garo, in the sauce. At the beginning of the imperial era, however, this custom suddenly came to an end, which is why mullus in the feast of Trimalchio (see the Satyricon) could be shown as a characteristic of the parvenu, who bores his guests with an unfashionable display of dying fish.
There were no side dishes or accompaniments in today's sense, although bread was consumed by all classes following the introduction of wheat. Thereafter only the poorest, with no access to an oven, had to continue eating puls. Bread, which existed in a large number of different varieties, quickly became exceptionally popular and public bakeries were established in Rome from 270 AD.
Garum, also known as liquamen, was the universal sauce added to everything. It was prepared by subjecting salted fish, in particular mackerel intestines, to a very slow thermal process. Over the course of two to three months, in an enzymatic process stimulated by heating, usually by exposure to the sun, the protein-laden fish parts decomposed almost entirely. The resulting mass was then filtered and the liquid traded as garum, the remaining solids as alec - a kind of savoury spread. Because of the smell it produced, the production of garum within the city was banned. Garum, supplied in small sealed amphorae, was used throughout the Empire and totally replaced salt as a condiment. Today similar sauces are produced in Southeast Asia, usually sold abroad under the description "fish sauce", or nam pla.
Spices, especially pepper, but hundreds of other kinds too, were imported on a large scale and used copiously. One very popular spice was silphium; however, as it could not be cultivated it finally became extinct through overcropping of the wild plant. The inherent flavours of vegetables and meat were completely masked by the heavy use of garum and other seasonings. It was considered an indication of the highest achievement in culinary art if a gourmet could tell neither by sight, nor smell, nor taste what the ingredients of a dish were.
Among fruits, grapes
were the most preferred. The Romans distinguished between grapes for wine-making and grapes as food. Raisins were also produced. After grapes, figs
played a major part and pomegranates
were eaten in many varieties. Quinces
, various types of apples
, peaches, cherries, pears, plums, currants
, strawberries, blackberries, medlars
and melons were grown. The Romans ate walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts and pine nuts. Roman bakers were famous for the many varieties of breads, rolls, fruit tarts, sweet buns and cakes. Unfortunately we have almost none of the recipes.
Cold clams and oysters (bred on a large scale), which were originally dessert dishes, later became starters.
Cakes, made of wheat and usually soaked in honey, played a big part. Certain kinds of nuts were also available, and they were thrown at festivals much as sweets are today.
Wine was normally mixed with water immediately before drinking, since the fermentation was not controlled and the alcohol grade was high. Wine was sometimes adjusted and "improved" by its makers: instructions survive for making white wine from red and vice versa, as well as for rescuing wine that is turning to vinegar. Wine was also variously flavoured. For example, there was passum, a strong and sweet raisin wine, for which the earliest known recipe is of Carthaginian origin; mulsum, a freshly made mixture of wine and honey; and conditum, a mixture of wine, honey and spices made in advance and matured. One specific recipe, conditum paradoxum, is for a mixture of wine, honey, pepper, laurel, dates, mastic, and saffron, cooked and stored for later use. Another recipe called for the addition of seawater, pitch and rosin to the wine. A Greek traveler reported that the beverage was apparently an acquired taste.
Beer was known but considered vulgar.
The guests wore wreaths whose various aromas were intended to contribute to the health of diners and to the atmosphere of the banquet. These wreaths were made of many different flowers and perfumes. The type of wreath a person wore represented the position they held within the upper-class.
A popular misconception is that the Romans made use of a room called a vomitorium
for the express purpose of vomiting
between meals to make room for more food. Only a very few indulged in the practice of deliberately vomiting. A vomitorium
is actually an entirely unrelated architectural feature a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre
, an exit through which the crowds could "spew out" at the end of a show.
Sources for recipes and menus
- Apicius, a Roman cookery book
- Cato: De Agri Cultura ("On Farming") with recipes for farm products
- Columella: De Agricultura book 12, with recipes for conserves
- Moretum, poem containing a recipe
- Petronius: "Cena Trimalchionis" (The feast of Trimalchio), a section of the Satyricon: satirical sketch of a feast at the home of a rich former slave in the early imperial period
- Vinidarius: brief late Roman recipe collection
- Deipnosophistae, with a long rhapsodic enumeration of kinds of cheesecakes and the poets who have praised them (Book XIV, ch. 54).
Modern recipe collections
- Patrick Faas, Around the Roman table. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
- Mark Grant, Roman cookery: ancient recipes for modern kitchens. London: Serif, 1999.
- Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
- Sally Grainger, Cooking Apicius: Roman recipes for today. Totnes: Prospect Books, 2006.
- [includes Vinidarius]
- Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti, Dining as a Roman emperor: how to cook ancient Roman recipes today. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 1995.
- Jacques André, L'alimentation et la cuisine à Rome. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1981.
- N. Blanc, A. Nercessian, La cuisine romaine antique. Grenoble: Glénat, 1992.
- Antonietta Dosi, François Schnell, A tavola con i Romani antichi. Rome: Quasar, 1984.
- L. Hannestad, Mad og drikke i det antikke Rom. Copenhagen, 1979.
- Nico Valerio, La tavola degli antichi. Milan: Mondadori, 1989.