The food of the ancient Romans

The ancient Romans were a people who developed from a small agricultural village, and so, to begin with, they kept frugal habits. The great change in their cuisine occurred with their first conquests, starting with their contacts with Magna Grecia, as hundreds of unknown ingredients and foods slowly reached their new dominions. To begin with, they mainly ate eggs, milk and cheeses.

Romans preferred the white part of the eggs to the yolk, and cooked them, as we do today, soft-boiled, hard-boiled, fried or scrambled. Eggs, which were a symbol of re-birth and fertility, were always eaten at the beginning of meals. 

Milk (goat’s, cow’s, donkey’s or horse’s) was regarded as a fundamental food, and was drunk both fresh and aromatised. It was used to make soups until it was substituted with meat broth. Milk, with flour, honey and fruit, was also used to prepare cakes. Cheese was made from it, which Romans regarded as a complete dish, if used along with polenta or as a dressing. Butter was rarely used, because the technique needed to preserve it was unknown, and more often than not it was used as a medicine or as a body ointment. Yoghurt did exist, but it wasn’t comparable to the modern one, as it was made with milk, vinegar and onion. 

Meat was introduced with urbanization, pork meat being the most widely used, whilst lamb or kid goat meat were considered the best. Sheep and goat meat were considered to be low grade, whilst the rich preferred peacock and dormouse. Wild ass and large and small-size wild game meat was also consumed (wild boar, hare, goose and duck).
Beef, on the other hand, was not eaten, both because oxen were used for field labour, and because they were considered sacred. As regards birds, in addition to thrushes and pigeons, Romans also cooked a number of species imported from the various regions of the Empire, such as flamingo, stork and cranes, and dishes based on peacock and pheasant were highly sought after. As for chicken, it was considered of low value and was eaten especially by the poor.

Fish was usually served with boiled vegetables, meat or liver. Among the most common varieties were the gilthead sea bream, mullet, sole and pike. Seafood, which was originally eaten during periods of famine, soon came to be regarded as a special dish. Later, fish both from saltwater, freshwater and fish bred in large artificial ponds became a staple food for the Romans, to the extent that as many as 150 different species became known. The most popular were lobster, cuttlefish, squid, crayfish, octopus, date mussels, frogs, prawns and especially oysters, which in fact were bred by the rich in their own fish farms.
Among the most widely consumed vegetables were roots, turnips, beetroots, carrots, radish, bulbs, leeks, but also asparagus, mushrooms, cabbage, lettuce, chicory or endive, artichokes, cucumbers, broad beans, lentils and peas. As for the sins of gluttony, the ancient Romans had very similar tastes to our own: among their favourite foods were truffles, mushrooms, oysters and lobster, but also asparagus, figs and spiced foods.

Bread was served with virtually all Roman meals. The principal grain used to make bread was “farro” (spelt/emmer), which at that time was the most widely grown cereal, whilst wheat was used to make a sort of frumenty. Initially, bread was homemade but in time, specialised cooks and artisans opened their own bakeries, equipped with ovens and mills. The first Roman focaccia bread was topped with cheese, olives, eggs and mushrooms. Essentially, there were three types of bread: black bread, or the poor man’s bread, white bread (slightly better than the former), and white bread of very fine flour or the rich man’s bread.
Bread was made also with honey, wine, milk, oil, candied fruit and pepper. Since it was very hard, it was usually dipped in wine, oil, soups or served with sauces. The wheat used to make bread was of paramount importance, to the extent that laws were promulgated to regulate its proper distribution and special supply services were organized. The wheat was stored in special warehouses and distributed to the people in the form of wheat grains or, later, directly as pre-baked bread. In the beginning, a special mix called “polenta” was used instead of bread. It was prepared in an earthenware container, using spelt/emmer to which water, salt and a little bit of milk were added, and, according to taste, also broad beans, cabbage, onions, cheese and even some pieces of meat or fish. This mixture contained an infinite number of ingredients and was called satura or satira, specifically because it was very filling (from which the terms saturation and satire derive, in the sense of heavy joke).

Wine, the Romans’ favourite beverage, was served at the end of every supper and was considered sacred. Men under thirty, that is, when they came of age, were not allowed to drink it, nor were the women. There was a test, known as the ius osculi (the right to kiss), whereby men would kiss their wives on the mouth in order to check whether they had been drinking. Red wine (called black wine) and white wine were known to the Romans, but not dry wine.
The wine was heavy, sour or bitter, and was served in very wide and almost flat goblets. It was often mixed with hot water or water cooled down with snow in order to lower its alcohol content. It was almost never clear, and was filtered with a strainer.
The most famous wine was the vinum mulsum, which, mixed with honey, was very popular as it enabled women and men under the age of thirty to circumvent the prohibition to drink pure wine. Peppery and spicy wines were also enjoyed with delight: spices like seseli, cane, reed, cinnamon and saffron were usually added.
Wine was kept for as long as 15 years in amphorae with a cork or clay cap, and each amphora used for transport bore a label indicating the place of origin and the date of production to protect the buyer; nevertheless even in those times there were cases of wine alteration. Aged wines (that is, wines that would be used after the first summer after the date of production) considered to be very precious were flaunted by the rich at their banquets. Wine consumption increased during the Imperial Age, especially in the areas where it was produced and in the larger cities.
The average annual consumption was high (140 – 180 litres per capita), due perhaps also to the fact that it provided a high caloric intake to the Romans’ diet, which consisted predominantly of cereals and vegetables. There were also substitute wines such as the “lora”, obtained from the fermentation of grape marc mixed with water immediately after the harvest, and the “posca”, made by mixing sour wine (acetum) with water. Beer, on the other hand, was very popular among the poor and the barbarians.